Throughout the 20th Century, the creators of popular fiction have told stories about characters who are imprisoned in false paradises of technology and simulation, and other environments of illusion. In the book, The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clark and the movie, Logan's Run, for example, entire societies are shown trapped inside enclosed cities of high technology and self-indulgence, separated from the world of nature and from human nature. Inside these gilded cages, the inhabitants live a charmed and inconsequential life.
In the book, The Futurological Congress, we see another variation on this theme, with a depiction of a society that is trapped in a shared, drug-induced, illusion. The inhabitants believe they live in a world of futuristic conveniences when everything is in a state of decay and collapse. Beyond their false perception of the world is the terrible truth concealed from humanity -- nature itself is on the verge of a catastrophe that will destroy civilization.
These works generally tell the same story, which is only barely concealed by variations in the characters and settings, suggesting that we are looking not only at a popular plot idea that has been borrowed by various authors, but also at a primal fantasy or an archetype that reveals something essential about the mind. Many begin by showing us characters who are happy in their falsified worlds. The story is then set in motion as things begin to happen that challenge the characters' acceptance of their surroundings. It may be that the characters have an inner urge to find out what is beyond their limited lives or there may be flaws in the seamlessness of the illusion that cause it to begin to break down.
As a result, a process of recognition sets in, in which the characters begin to realize they are prisoners. What they thought was the world begins to look like a cage. What they thought was a life begins to look like a lie.
In the next phase in the story, the characters try to make their escape. But it turns out there is a malevolent simulator who is responsible for trapping them inside this fraud, and he, she -- or it -- tries to make it impossible for them to leave. Generally, the character must overcome both fears in themselves and the external obstacles put in their way by these futuristic prison keepers to finally be free.
In the end, they escape and discover the world they had been isolated from. Their new home has at least three essential characteristics: it isn't controlled by others; it allows them to see things as they are, and it allows them to become their true selves.
Thus, these works show us characters who go from a life that is controlled, inauthentic, regressive and full of illusion to one that is free, authentic, and progressive and that allows them to see beyond sensory simulations and psychological illusions. As recounted on another page, these manifest stories all tell another set of hidden stories, which are disguised but easy to discern once one knows what to look for. They recount stories about societies and individuals being freed from dictators; babies being born; children growing up and leaving controlling families; and minds being freed from neurosis. They also re-create myths about people being freed from malevolent supernatural beings.
In telling these stories, they generally rely on the following dichotomies, with the element on the right depicted as the desirable one. Even the nonfiction essays on themed environments and simulation, found in other parts of Transparency (the domain where this site is located), and in essays and books found elsewhere, make use of these dichotomies.
"unreality" versus reality
Of course, not all the stories referred to above offer precisely this plot sequence or set of elements. They mix things up, creating variations on this story. In "The Cage", for example, the character is trapped by malevolent simulators who have the ability to immerse him in lifelike virtual realities of heaven and hell, through mind control. He doesn't start off satisfied in this realm of regressive illusions. Instead, the malevolent simulators who hold him prisoner try to tempt him into becoming content with it, and addicted to it, after he has known the actual world. But the rest of the plot sequence is the same -- the character refuses to be addicted and sees through the illusion, so he can be free and return to an authentic, uncontrolled existence in which he sees things as they really are.
In Toys, a movie with Robin Williams, there is another variation, which isn't based on the distinction between regressive addiction to illusions versus growing up. Instead, the distinction is between the military use of an environment of simulation and technology for power, deception and killing, versus its constructive use for an anarchic life of delight and play. The movie transposes the 1960s battle between the military and counterculture onto 1990s themes about simulation and technology. Here, a life of endless pleasure and fantasy is positively valued. It is what the main characters seek.
The existence of so many similar works suggests that humanity has been using these stories to warn itself of the dangers posed by technology and media. Only now, it seems, with the attention being given to The Truman Show, are we finally starting to hear the message.
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