“I think therefore I am,” wrote René Descartes in 1637, exploring the strange relationship between reality and the human mind. He belonged to the long line of philosophers seeking to understand existence itself, find its proofs, and separate it from the multitude of subjective perceptions. They produced numerous ontological theories, but none managed to provide a definite answer. Being has proven to be quite an elusive concept, as we do not only depend on our senses to give us a picture of reality but also experience it differently from one another. To complicate matters, we use language to communicate those experiences, a tool both fickle and prone to be misunderstood. And if all that was not enough, there are things that provoke a tangible physical reaction without ever leaving the realm of our thoughts; at times, these perceived but incorporeal images become more real—and much more captivating—than the objects surrounding us.
There is a joke that sometimes resurfaces on the vast plains of the internet: “Books are weird. You stare into a piece of wood with some squiggles on it and experience hallucinations.” Reading, however, is far from the exclusive method of escaping reality. Ancient Greeks gathered in amphitheatres to enjoy Aeschylus’ plays, Norse skalds sang of Odin and Thor, Botticelli’s brush depicted a vision of the birth of Venus, and Wagner’s music invoked the magic of old legends. Grand Gothic cathedrals and Baroque palaces were erected in pursuit of a fantasy. The human mind has always longed for more colours than everyday life can provide and has achieved remarkable heights due to this longing—or, at the very least, has enjoyed the entertainment. As George R. R. Martin, the famed author of the Song of Ice and Fire series, once said,
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines.
The development of modern technologies brought humanity’s daydreams to a new level. The invention and popularisation of cinema created a unique experience, less dependent on an individual’s imagination than literature, more realistic than theatre, and deeply appealing due to the combination of music and visuals. With time, we have been able to enjoy breathtaking views of battlefields, exotic landscapes, and mythical creatures, all without leaving our bedrooms. In the last three decades, computer games, another contender for people’s attention, have appeared on the stage.
“The global gaming market was valued at USD 173.7 billion in 2020, and it is expected to reach a value of USD 314.4 billion by 2026,” reported Yahoo Finance in 2021. The industry offers a great variety of games, from the simplest mobile arcades to works of art with an outstanding plot, soundtrack, and visual effects. They appeal to their players not only through aesthetics but also through immersion, giving them agency, a sense of accomplishment, and making them a part of their story in a way no other media can.
Tech has affected daily routine in other, more minor, ways as well. We listen to music from our headphones while shopping or commuting, browse the web, and scroll through Facebook. We constantly interact with pictures and concepts detached from the material world; ultimately, for our brains, a 3D gryphon is just as real as a cat in a video.
It is fashionable nowadays to warn of the dangers of technology and of letting life pass by. Modern moralists look around and see in dismay that everyone is occupied with their phones and laptops:reading, texting, listening, playing, and taking photos. It horrifies them. Live connections are no longer forged, they complain, and relationships are no longer maintained. The incorporeal images become more appealing than overtime work and the prospect of bringing up children.
However, it is fair to note that these choices have less to do with technology than with man’s natural preference for pleasure over hardships. Today, more and more young people are asking themselves a simple question: Why? Why do they have to toil and struggle, compete for employment, spend a sleepless night over a cradle, and waste resources they do not have when they can enjoy a quiet evening in front of a computer with a box of takeaway Chinese food? The truth is, the 21st-century world can offer little to refute this opinion. Growing competition makes it increasingly difficult to earn a comfortable living. There is no longer a clear distribution of duties between men and women, which puts additional pressure on both partners, while society fails to encourage lasting loyalty. There is no certainty in the future, no promises made, and no prospects of change. And so the younger generations do the only sensible thing left to them: they withdraw into their shells and enjoy their free time, blurring the boundaries between real and imagined. There, in the clouds, they build the dreams they cannot build on the ground.
This state of things is not necessarily bad. If managed properly, it can heal many Western challenges. According to Statista, the European population (including non-EU countries) was estimated to be 747.8 million back in 2021, and its growth has slowed significantly since the 1960s. Meanwhile, in 1900, during a period of expansion and prosperity, it was just 300 million. Therefore, the current fall of birth rate looks less like extinction and more like natural self-regulation—that is, if flows of foreigners do not replace Europeans. As of the 1st January 2021, Eurostat reported 23.7 million migrants living in the EU, while actual figures may be much higher. The governments must balance the number of immigrants according to their nations’ capacity to integrate them without harming the population. That and strengthening a nuclear family in the face of birth-rate decline may reduce competition enough to make life agreeable for the future generations.
Pragmatic arguments aside, escapism can be not only a vital source of pleasure, helping to combat stress, but also a source of inspiration for artists, scientists, and politicians. It is a way of transferring knowledge through entertainment, a path of least resistance. It is a testing ground for ideas and, for many, an essential aspect of socialisation.
Stories are powerful tools capable of changing lives. They help us develop abstract thinking and form a set of guiding moral principles. Because they are based in reality, every legend, every fairy tale, and every work of fiction speaks volumes of the world we live in. The archetypes we employ are millennia old and are used to pass on the historical knowledge of our ancestors; they truly are the link between the dead and the yet unborn, the cement of the social contract Edmund Burke spoke of.
So should we venture beyond the veil of Faerie? It may well happen that those who explore those strange and treacherous lands will never discover a way back, while those who do may find themselves no longer able to enjoy the simple delights of ordinary life. Every man has to decide for himself whether this danger is enough to stop him. But more and more are deciding in favour of the journey.
Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.