“‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said The Lady of Shalott.”

“We’ve turned into a nation of TV watchers, video-game players, and virtual sex addicts,” observed the cheerful old cynic.

“How is that so different,” asked the resentful 30-something adolescent, “from earlier generations that spent all their time reading poetry and fiction or going to the theater?  Even now, all you seem to do is read books, most of them not even in English.  Talk about a fantasy world!”

If America’s perpetual adolescents were able to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, they would have some insight into their world.  Bradbury depicts a society devoted to a bovine contentedness they call happiness.  To render such happiness universal, the government has found it necessary to incinerate all the books that stimulate the mind and irritate the imagination.  When Montag, one of the book-burning firemen, begins to wonder if he has missed out on something, his superior reassures him,

If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.  Better yet, give him none . . . If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it . . . Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year.  Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of “facts” they feel stuffed, but absolutely “brilliant” with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.  And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.  Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with.  That way lies melancholy.

Thank goodness for David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, for CNN and FOX, and all the other simulated intellectuals who reassure us that there are only perhaps one and a quarter sides to every question.

In burning books for the public good, Montag makes a decent living, enough to have turned three out of four parlor walls into television screens that play soaps and sitcoms all day long.  His wife, Mildred, longs for a fourth parlor wall that will someday enclose her permanently in a virtual reality whose characters Montag has dubbed “the relatives.”  When, sick in bed with a fever, the fireman asks his wife to “turn the parlour off,” she responds, “That’s my family.”

Fahrenheit 451 is often called a dystopian novel, but already in 1953, when the book was published, Bradbury regarded it as a real-world critique of a generation that had jettisoned literacy and the imagination and embraced the virtual reality of television.  Most people with their eyes open and wits about them will admit that screen-watching has been a problem since the first generation of television-watchers (the Baby Boomers) became more engrossed in the lives of the Andersons and the Nelsons than in the families living on their block.  Since then, it has become easy to identify each generation with the virtual households that absorb their attention: the Cleavers and the McCoys, the Bunkers and the Cunninghams, the Huxtables and the Bundys, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, and, of course, the “Friends.”

When members of my generation—the first devotees of manufactured reality—entered their teens, they quite naturally turned, by the time they entered college, from their small-screen addiction to stuff they smoked, snorted, or popped, and they have been escaping from reality at a faster pace ever since.  “Between the idea and the reality . . . falls the shadow,” and, in these Shadowlands where my generation lives, names have displaced things, and illusions taken the place of reality.

To most social critics, the moral and spiritual threat posed by the marriage of television and computers does not seem terribly grave in the broader context of a society that accepts drone attacks on wedding parties and children, violent outbursts on American city streets that make Chicago seem more like Johannesburg, the normalization of drug use, infanticide, and sodomite marriage, the demonization of all things white, male, civilized, and normal, though perhaps nothing is so terrifying as the ignorance and idiocy of public discourse.  From presidents to professors, from TV anchormen to Catholic bishops, Americans who make policy and communicate opinion are less articulate than a smoked-up Rastafarian cabdriver blasting Bob Marley from his scavenged eight-track tape player.

If there is a common thread to our mental dumbness and moral numbness it is that a pervasive cancer of the mind has closed us to the demands of normal living.  One explanation, surely, is the virtualization of reality through television, computers, the internet, social networking, and Heaven only knows what infernal engine is being concocted by the next Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs, or whoever now has taken a lease on the laboratory of Victor Frankenstein.

The “relatives” making up Mildred Montag’s “family” might have been friends of the Kardashians or inmates in Big Brother’s house, but they are less like relatives than like neighbors on whose lives the viewers can snoop through the transparent fourth wall of their television screen.  The world of television, however, can only occupy a small part of the virtual-reality universe: Even postmodern men and women have to work, eat, and, if they are to reproduce, engage in activities more intimate than sexting—though a significant percentage are willing to tell pollsters that they are logged onto Twitter and Facebook even during their least virtual (to say nothing of least virtuous) moments.  Luckily, then, virtual humans can fill in the rest of the time—those hideous gaps in delusion that used to be called “life”—with social media, internet pornography, and text messaging.

I do not recall, exactly, the year when the word virtual, which used to mean something like “having the power or effect of something without having the formal title,” was applied to electronically generated images that have absolutely none of the power and effect of the realities they imitate.  In the old sense of the word, a “virtual ruler” was the man who held real power without possessing the title, while in today’s sense a virtual ruler would be a fantasy king in a video game based on Game of Thrones.  A virtual neighbor might have been used to refer to someone who, although he lived a mile or two away, was as helpful as a neighbor, while today it means one of the thousands of people who have “friended” us on Facebook or follow our tweets to see iPhone shots of what we had for lunch (Like!) or provide cartoon balloon responses to the big events of our time: OMG! LOL! WTF! IMHO, brilliant #sarcasm!

It is a good thing we have so many virtual friends and neighbors, because the genuine articles are in short supply.  This is a pity, because neighbors, even in these postmodern times, have their uses.  Who but the nosy neighbors will call the police if they observe strangers trying to enter your home when you are away?  Who but a neighbor is at hand to lend you the ax or cup of sugar you need?

It is difficult for people who move every five years (the American average) to put down roots in a community, and even if they stay in one house for 30 years, as my wife and I shall have done by next year, they will learn not to go out of their way to get to know neighbors who come and go.  These days, we know only a little bit about three families living within a block of us.  The one we know best is a young couple with three small children, whom we got to know quite by accident: The wife’s mother once mistook me for a high-school friend and has been apologizing ever since for the mistake.  There is a very kind old man who lives down the street, and we watch in admiration as he mows the lawns of people he regards as elderly and helps them clean up their yards.

We lived only ten years in a close-knit village in South Carolina where we had few connections, but even some people who may not have particularly liked us outsiders were good neighbors, ready to help in an emergency.  Our closest neighbor, a shrimper turned carpenter, was always ready to help tape off a burst pipe (few houses were insulated or even sealed up underneath) or lend us a tool.  Of course, he was as good a borrower as a lender and once asked to use my electric drill, as I thought, for some domestic project.  Two years and several houses built later, he gave back the battered and burned-out piece of junk, remarking that I really ought to get a reversible model with higher power.

In simpler times, the role of neighbors has taken on far greater importance.  When a debt-ridden widow, afraid that her sons would be enslaved, appealed to Elisha for help, the prophet instructed her to “borrow . . . vessels abroad of all thy neighbors,” and he had them filled miraculously with enough oil to pay off her debts.  Neighbors, says the Greek Hesiod, writing in a pastoral community, may be more valuable than kinfolk, because they are close at hand.  In Our Lord’s parables of the lost sheep and the woman who lost the penny, both friends and neighbors are called upon.

To have good neighbors, one must be a good neighbor.  The practical advantages are obvious, but there is a moral basis to the relationship even in a very “backward” society.

Neighborliness—like kinship—implies some degree of friendliness (if not exactly friendship), but it is not simply a feeling but a set of reciprocal obligations.  In a community in the south of Spain that Julian Pitt-Rivers studied not long after World War II,

Neighbors are thought to have particular rights and obligations towards one another.  Borrowing and lending, passing embers, help in situations of emergency, discretion regarding what they may have chanced to discover, compose the obligations in which neighbors are forced by their proximity . . .

Neighbors everywhere are expected to do favors for each other.  The English favor, like the Latin gratia (and derivatives in Italian, French, and Spanish), implies both a feeling of gratitude and the actions that inspire such a feeling.  Though reciprocity is taken for granted as the basis of such relationships, one of Pitt-Rivers’ Spanish villagers is not supposed to do a favor to a friend or neighbor in the expectation of receiving a future reward.  Similarly, Jesus tells us not to invite rich people to dinner in the hope of a return invitation.

The moral understanding of neighborliness is not limited to Greeks, Jews, and Christians.  Confucius ranked the moral duties of neighborliness and filial piety just after self-possession and a sense of shame and before sincerity of speech.  I do not know if this is the best order of moral duties, but no one who is not a good son or good neighbor is likely to be a man of good moral character.

We do not learn morality by reading ethics textbooks or listening to sermons.  Our moral life begins with the love we have for our mother and the respect we have for our father, and it begins to radiate genetically outward to brothers and sisters and cousins, while at the same time escaping the household and kinship by reaching out to neighbors and eventually to comrades, teammates, and coworkers.  English is often a fuzzy and imprecise language, but in the case of kinfolk, neighbors, comrades, and friends, our set of verbal distinctions makes it more difficult to see that underlying all these words is a common notion: that of moral obligation.  Naturally, our obligations to parents and siblings are different from our obligations to neighbors or members of the football team or sales force, but all these relations are different from the rather weak and negative sense of duty that most people feel toward strangers and aliens, whom we are not to rob, kill, or cheat (unless we are sure we can get away with it!).

This quality of moral obligation, beginning at our mother’s breast, is sometimes termed “attachment” by psychologists, and it is by no means an exclusively Western phenomenon.  Takeo Doi, an important Japanese psychiatrist, says that all Japanese moral and social life is rooted in amae, the sense of helpless dependency a child feels at his mother’s breast.  In the West (as opposed to Japan), growing up may require an eventual sharp break with parents, but the development and extension of attachment is at the heart of our development into morally responsible human beings.  John Bowlby and his disciples spent their careers studying the unfortunate cases of people who never properly experienced that attachment.

Everyone, probably, remembers Harry Harlow’s studies of baby monkeys (macaques) raised on surrogate mothers made of cloth or wire.  Babies who were fed on wire-mother monkeys, nonetheless, preferred the comfort of the cloth surrogate, but even they pined for true maternal contact.  There is more to motherhood than tactile pleasures.  Harlow’s later studies on juvenile monkeys subjected to the torture of social isolation anticipate the isolation of American juveniles and young adults who spend their lives surfing and texting.  One cannot become attached even to the softest of surrogates or breed children from internet pornography or learn how to be a morally and socially responsible person (much less how to find a suitable mate) by watching How I Met Your Mother.  We need real neighbors to become real humans.

Neighborliness is an almost universal human necessity: Even monks retired from the world have fellow monks as neighbors.  Hermits are, obviously, another story: It is in the nature of the hermit to transcend the obligations of everyday life.  In this these spiritual athletes are a bit like epic heroes, who, even if they happen to live next door to ordinary people, would not make good neighbors.  Imagine asking Achilles to relight your lamp or help pull the cow out of the well!  If you comb Greek literature (as I have been doing), you will not find many uses in epic or tragedy of the word geiton (neighbor), except as a geographical term, whereas in the comedies of Aristophanes and in the speeches of Lysias we meet with helpful neighbors, nosy neighbors, and even malevolent neighbors.  When they are in dire straits, comic characters call on kinsmen, neighbors, and demesmen (an Athenian deme is a defined part of town or countryside) to assist them.

Tragic heroes are too important to worry about neighbors.  Our only equivalent today would be celebrities like Justin Bieber, James Franco, and Will Smith, who appear to have no regard for the lives of noncelebrities and the comfort of their neighbors.  There is a poll purporting to say which celebrities would be the best and worst neighbors, but the opinions expressed are based only on virtual reality.  Beyoncé Knowles makes the top-ten list of desirable celebrity neighbors, while one of her real neighbors complained the “singer,” in filming a video, had “shattered his privacy.”  What if the poor fellow were a music lover and had to endure that sex-crazed caterwauling all night long!

Contempt for people around them is one thing (and only one) that celebrities share with the egomaniacal heroes like Achilles and Hercules.  The rest of us poor fools have to put up with the thoughtless jerks who want to act as if they were celebrities, and, when things get really bad, we may even have to call in the forces of public order.

That is where virtual reality is so accommodating.  As we watch Game of Thrones, we forget our stultifying job and social failures and enter a life filled with risks and adventures, and no matter how dangerous the situation becomes, we might just take control and become, at least in fantasy, the self-important jerks we have always dreamed of being.  Or, if we have a communitarian bent, we can play one of the versions of The Sims and populate an entire town with our fantasy projections.  Why take the trouble to make friends or help neighbors, when we can create an entire universe in our own image?  Be seeing you.

Join Thomas Fleming’s virtual neighborhood on Facebook and “like” this article.