The real world is riddled with portals, each of which leads to an alternate reality. But from the roiling surface of the world the portals just look like texture, like the skin of an orange.
Reading the morning’s headlines, I see stories about airport security, alleged racism of a US senator, the results of a football game, the possible political candidacy of a Hollywood star, and so on. In combination, these stories give me a quick glimpse of the current status of our world. By later today half of these stories will have been bumped from the “front page;” by tomorrow they’ll all be gone. This is a study in what Paul Virilio calls “dromology”: the science and logic of speed. The headlines convey the impression of a fast-moving world always rushing headlong into the future.
Taken one at a time, though, each news story is a portal to an alternate reality. Realities aren’t planets or alternate dimensions in the space-time continuum; they’re meaning systems, ways of making sense of whole complexes of events. The story of the senator’s possible racism addresses several larger topics: racism generally, the character and career of this particular public figure, the ways in which public allegation can and should influence public opinion, and so on. Instead of jumping to the next story, you can allow this one news article to stimulate your interest in plunging into one of the larger topics. You allow the story to serve as a portal to an alternate reality, in which many different events spread across space and time are linked together by a single strand of meaning.
The blogosphere likewise is a clearinghouse of portals. Scanning today’s posts across multiple blogs is like reading the front page of the paper. You can skim the surface and feel up to date. But by following the links embedded in any one post, or by reading the archived posts and pages of any one blog, you allow the ephemeral post to serve as a portal to an alternate reality.
It’s possible to engage the “real world” as it’s presented: a rapidly-changing yet consistent, diverse yet all-encompassing reality in which attention is directed by what’s new/hot/controversial. There are opportunities to create in the forward-and-across motion of this real world – commenting on current events, reviewing movies/books/music, spreading memes, making fashion statements, networking.
It’s also possible to allow yourself to be drawn into one of the innumerable portals that riddle the ever-expanding, ever-advancing surface of the real world. Your momentum changes: instead of moving forward in time and across the surface, you find yourself moving through time and into the layers beneath the surface. There are portalic opportunities to create: writing books and articles, making movies, doing research projects, inventing artifacts.
If you go into a portal you might stay immersed inside an alternate reality for days, weeks, years, before you come back out with something. Then your creation pops to the surface of the real world, where it tries to capture a little bit of attention for a week or so before it’s covered over by the next layer of “content.”