Resist the seductive ease of virtual bearings


Although the Internet era is only a few decades old, it has already profoundly and irrevocably changed our lives, behavior patterns and communication. Social media is definitely not the real world, but you’re naive if you believe it doesn’t influence our thoughts and actions – and therefore our reality. When it comes to the virtual world and the real world, it is important to distinguish between is and influence to distinguish.

The comments on social media are by no means an accurate sample of what most people generally think and feel. However, there are valuable and useful insights to be found in studying it.

Over the past few years, a growing group of Afrikaners have started to make their active participation in the virtual discourse a large part of their daily activities. Many Afrikaners have seemingly (albeit unconsciously) fled to virtual spaces to escape the horrors, challenges and frustrations of 21st century South Africa.

One must have understanding for that. Here, people congregate in virtual warehouses within which they consume stacks of content from around the world, right across the globe. What is unfortunately clearly happening is that these virtual lairs are increasingly interpreting the real world through a distorted, caricature-like lens. Thus grows the gulf between the virtual discourse on the one hand and the opinions and actions on the other that you generally encounter in the real world.

Whole “movements” are emerging online these days, sometimes consisting of thousands of supporters. Time and time again, when these movements attempt to convert their online momentum into real world action, one often sees only a handful of people show up. An example of this is the growing list of political parties that have emerged and died out in this social media ecosystem. Hundreds of thousands of online fans passionately express their desire to vote for these parties. However, when election day comes, to many people’s surprise, those parties do not win even one seat.

Many Africans have grown accustomed to the comfort and safety of their comfortable virtual fish tank, while others swim outside in the rough seas of the real world. Although online opinions and debates certainly sometimes spill over into the real world, I experience that the gulf between these two worlds continues to grow. Among our people, I have come across numerous online movements with thousands of passionate fans of which I have never come across a representative or even a supporter.

Online discourse is largely characterized by conversations and debates about the best solutions to the problems we are grappling with. However, the pursuit of concrete practical solutions that work is an activity that is merciless compared to idealistic perfectionism with theoretical solutions. Perfection is the enemy of good, but also of reality. It is as useless to chase perfect, yet simple quick fixes to the complex problems of our time as it is to run headlong for the mirage of an oasis in the Kalahari desert.

It is a noble and necessary activity – and one that should be encouraged – to participate in the open discussion and battle of ideas about solutions to our challenges. In our highly commercialized world, however, even the battle of ideas has become a consumer product. Too many people spend hours of their lives constantly debating solutions online, only to later get caught up in this battle of ideas in the paralyzing web of overanalysis.

Unfortunately, it’s also often the most chronic online analysts among us who are the quickest and most eager to shoot down and tear apart others’ efforts to turn ideas into reality. Before our ideas become action, it is wise to hone them through debate and constructive criticism. However, this battle for ideas must serve as a means to an end and not degenerate into the end itself. The goal should always be to influence reality by building. It is by no means sufficient to simply “wake up” through exposure to the right ideas. We have to get out of bed too!

We may – and must – of course make full use of the enabling technology at our disposal. However, we must be careful not to start living in it. A good example is the political discourse about new statues in the Western world. While our opponents fill public spaces with unattractive statues representing their ideological values, most conservatives in turn fill virtual spaces with videos of and social media posts about how unattractive these statues are.

A central question of our time is: Which new technology should we embrace and which should we reject? I don’t have a definite answer yet, but my contribution to the pursuit of that elusive answer would be: Let’s use the technology that enables us to escape back to reality and make a positive difference; and let’s avoid the technology that traps us in the unreal.

So take a break from the virtual world – from “likes”, videos and commentaries – and come and build a little with us on our future in the real world of sheet shaking, concrete and action. Discomfort, failure and imperfection are inextricably part of this harsh reality, but a fear of sunburn should not stop you from getting out of the air-conditioned house. CJ Langenhoven summed up this thought nicely:

The World Turns:

For the heavy winter time to sow our fields –

Or to lazily let the plow rust,

And then to harvest our fruit or weeds.