Life in Hyperreality
Western civilization is imperiled by powerful, addictive, immediate media.
The nature of modern media is immediately gratifying and self-obsessed. You push a button and the world is yours. Everywhere is now in our front yard. As Marshall McLuhan put it, “the world is a global village.” In contrast to all of our technologies, we used to have only one medium: a book. No film. No TV. No radios. No computers. No iphones. We lived, loved, and died by the book. Reading requires you to sit still for long periods of time and scan line after line. The author’s ideas come to you slowly, you are alone, and have time to take it all in.
Accessing most our information from the TV or internet means that we no longer take in information the same way. Where once we had time to process, these days we only have time for knee-jerk reactions. With a snap we are on to the next twitter bulletin or news headline. Information is moving at a faster pace. What does this mean for the quality of the information we receive, how we understand the information, and how this impacts our daily lives and interactions with other people? How does this affect our relationship with the natural world?
AUTOMATED INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
Our ability to know in detail the state of politics, the happenings around the world, and to be able to connect with people thousands of miles away is great - when used to the right degree. We now live in a world of over-stimulation and information overload. It is an avalanche that lacks form, order, and category.
The terrifying thing about the onslaught of information, is that there isn’t checks and balances within the system. False information tends to float to the surface like scum, and misinterpretation is a very real, and ugly beast. We have shifted into a disjointed reality where we get our “news” from Facebook. When was the last time you read the newspaper? Or, spent more than two seconds on an actual news site? How long do we spend scrolling through Instagram versus actually reading journalism? A lot of people do not actually read anymore. It is challenging to give an essay twenty or thirty minutes of our time. Why is this? What has changed the way our brains are firing off and receiving messages?
The electronic era is accelerating at an extraordinary rate. In our man-made environment, we have in a sense abolished nature. Nature has ceased to exist in the context of our daily lives as something visible. Now we are the programmers and the programmed. The terror of all of this is that we cannot visibly see this electronic environment that we have created. That is the point. It is a wireless world wide connection. Nature is now put in the rearview mirror as a sort of nostalgic thing of the past.
We are living in an electronic envelope, but some of us cannot, nor want to face it. How can we hesitate and think about the implications of these technologies if as a people we are encouraged to multi-task and move faster. Type faster. Talk faster. Read faster. Drive faster. Process faster. Buy faster. There is not time enough in our day to sit down and think about what is going on. Where are we in the midst of it all?
MODERN PSYCHEDELIC TRIP
The media changes the way we see, touch, feel, and process information. Since the advent of television and the internet we want differently, we appreciate differently, and think differently. The modes and methods by which men instruct themselves, and are instructed, have shifted. When we accelerate to this pace, we experience a kind of psychedelic thrill. A thrill of an inner trip. Our society now has a kaleidoscopic way of seeing things.
The book used to be our first and only teaching machine. We had to see the world and each other through the printed page. Now, as we move out of print culture, we mostly see the world and each other through Facebook, Instagram, online news, and television. Where things happen one at a time in the book, forty or fifty operations can happen within the internet. Events no longer take place one at a time. We are now in an age where we receive information all at once and from every direction.
What is our human response? We become passive. In a truly democratic society, we gain knowledge directly through our own experience with the world around us, not through a filter or mediated experience. When television and trolling the internet rules the way we accept information, it means we are accepting another’s mediated version of the world as opposed to discovering the world for ourselves. We relinquish our ability to come to our own conclusions based on our own real experiences. We become pacified and our consciousness goes into sleep mode. When we spend time in front of a television, computer, or any kind of screen, we are not doing other things. We are not interacting with people, talking, conversing, arguing, listening, touching, going places, doing things, or relating to people. It keeps us from our own thoughts and senses.
Screens are a dream come true for an authoritarian society. When televisions are put in jails inmates are calm and quiet. When a mother puts an ipad in front of their screaming toddler the toddler forgets why she was upset. This effect is isolating. People no longer have interactions, which means we are no longer relating. If we do not relate physically, emotionally, and cognitively, on a frequent basis, we become isolated from each other. Therefore, distrust and fear become the cornerstones of how we function. We see this if we take a look at Donald Trump. All of the negative rhetoric surrounding muslims creates a deep-seeded fear in the public. Now, when you walk into the mall and a muslim woman holds the door open for you, you say, “thank you,” and you might have the thought, “I wonder if she is going to bomb the building?” A thought you wouldn’t have had prior to this xenophobia that Trump is purporting. This is just one of many examples of how the media can influence our thoughts whether we realize it or not.
When we want to be entertained or feel less alone, we rely on Instagram to obsess over others’ experiences. This is all spectacle.
A person can update anyone on what they are doing at that very moment as if they are the star of their own reality show. They can upload pictures of the events in their life. It’s shameless promotion of this product we call “myself”. Who is this “self”? Are we too busy distracting ourselves to find out?
This is the paradox of modern life: we are all harassed by self-inflicted technology. Our lives are made up of constant interruptions. A phone call, a text message, an e-mail or forty. No longer are we aware if we are using technology or if technology is using us.
Now younger generations obsess over Facebook and Instagram. Neil Postman, in his prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, calls out the damaging effects of electronic media on our politics, journalism, education, and religion. In this 20th century book, we can glean how social media turns us into spectacles of ourselves today in our 21st century. How does the spectacle make it difficult for us to stay in touch with what is actually going on in the present moment?
Postman makes the distinction between technology, which is “merely a machine,” and media, which is “the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.”
Facebook and Instagram allows us to show the world who we are and what we think. It is also a compulsion. We tend to feel anxiety when we haven’t checked our Facebook notifications in a while. A “while” could mean as short of a time as an hour. It is so woven into our lives that we take pictures while living our daily lives, or while out exploring, and immediately upload it to Instagram with a clever hashtag or “deep” quote as a caption.
THE WORLD IS NOT BLACK AND WHITE, NEITHER GOOD NOR BAD
Technology is not completely bad or wrong, and sure, people can connect intimately through the internet. However, we must take note of the implications of social media and media in general. There are plenty of positive things that have come of Facebook and Instagram. I have used them to promote this online publication you are reading right now. However, we cannot deny their power over our consciousness and so we must question, think and analyze what this does to our cultural consciousness and individual consciousness.
What does Facebook and Instagram do to our experiences? To some extent we are in control of the internet. To some degree what we search, what we watch, what we listen to is under the command of our fingertips. So, too we have the unceasing opportunity to entertain ourselves. Our repetitive habit of revisiting Instagram and our Facebook newsfeed to get updated on who’s posted what, sends us into a rabbit hole of images that leave us sitting dazed and blurred in a hyperreality. A hyperreality which emphasizes spectacle over substance.
In the age of smartphones and the internet it seems we have reinforced Postman’s theory that we are all amusing ourselves to death. In the past entertainment has been used to quell lower classes and distract them from larger issues. If we are so oversaturated with image after image of what our favorite celebrity had for breakfast, when do we have time to inquire into what is going on in the world? When do we have time to continue studies in philosophy, art, and science? The news these days likes to showcase stories about hoverboard accidents, the royal family, gossip in the NFL, and how Obama spent his time on Martha’s vineyard. We have become so spectacle driven that presidential debates have become sources of entertainment. It seems the masses are too distracted by the ridiculous things Trump says to be actively protesting. We feed the media and the media feeds us.
THE MEDIA IS THE METAPHOR: SWIMMING IN THE SEA OF IRRELEVANCE
It is important to note our conversations and the manner in which we conduct them. Increasingly public discourse takes the form of entertainment. As Aldous Huxley said, we are a culture that has an “infinite appetite for distractions.” Postman offers Las Vegas, Nevada up for our American culture’s mascot. Vegas is completely devoted to entertainment and it seems that overnight, our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have become “congenial adjuncts of show business.” As I write, one of the candidates for the future presidency of the United States of America is a former television reality star.
Public discourse these days has diminished to texting. What can be said inside of a text? Short, quick, convenient, abbreviated thoughts. Neil Postman “postulates that how we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express.” What is convenient becomes priority. We are a culture that upholds efficiency and convenience. The media is a metaphor for how our culture communicates. It is a reflection of our culture. So, if we are a culture that uses Facebook and Instagram as our most coveted and precious means of communication and access to information, then we are a culture that thinks and feels in quick, knee-jerk, short, bite-sized pieces. Our ideas cut off somewhere between 50 and 100 characters.
The content and form must complement each other. You cannot discuss philosophy in smoke signals, so Native Americans were largely an oral culture. In our age we cannot discuss philosophy via text, tweet, or Facebook. So, where do we have philosophical conversation? Does our culture encourage us to have them?
We cannot glean truth and depth from Instagram or Facebook. The form works against this. The “news of the day” is a figment of our imagination as Postman points out. “The news of the day” is a figment because it was invented by the telegraph. Going about our day we did not have the means, or the media, to include “daily news” in the context of our lives. So, what was important? What did we talk about when running into each other on the streets, at the market? It is not to say that fires, murders, protests, tornadoes and bombings weren’t happening prior to the telegraph, they have indeed been happening, however this kind of information did not exist in the content of our culture. What is the content of our culture today and how does this affect the way we view ourselves? How does this affect the way we view ourselves in this world? How does this affect the way we view our role as an individual in the world?
Much like how “the news of the day” is a figment of our imagination, Instagram and Facebook are figments of our hyperreal imaginations. Instagram and Facebook are not inherently frightening. It is their effect on our cultural consciousness and psyche that can be overwhelmingly sinister. The meaning of our content and public discourse has shifted. Our sensibilities have been reshaped much like they were when we first became a print culture. Before print Western people saw experience as individual segments. When print came along, Renaissance minds were influenced to see life as they saw print - as a continuity. Now, with Instagram and Facebook we are entering an age of hyperreality. Our processes have become dismembered. Do we give ourselves time to reflect and quiet our internal dialogue? Do we give ourselves time to process the day? Can we sit in silence?
Hyperreality means that we have found ourselves in the midst of a vast simulation of reality. Hyperreality is becoming more familiar to us than the physical world. With Instagram and Facebook we receive decontextualized information at alarming speed. Much like the news consists of fragmented pieces spliced together into one media event, Facebook and Instagram are constant streams of images and decontextualized thoughts. It’s also a place where people can mount their latest selfie in sepia tones, which conveys their mood of heavy “contemplation.”
Jean Baudrillard talked about simulation and simulacra. Facebook and Instagram prove that representation changes into what we perceive as reality. In this new perceived reality, we are completely disconnected from the original element by which it was first represented.
Instagram and Facebook allows us to create a persona. This persona is often taken as truth. The images and messages we share with our followers have morphed and blended into hyperreality. We can no longer distinguish reality from fiction. When we go on Instagram and Facebook we are literally interacting with our computers or phones. In this case, interaction is being simulated, but it is not really happening. We are simulating reality. Our society has replaced reality with symbols and signs (simulacra), and now we no can no longer discern the representation of the thing from the thing itself. These days simulacrum precedes the original, so there is only simulation. Our lives are so saturated by constructs of perceived reality that originality has disappeared. Meaning is rendered meaningless. How do we stop ourselves from becoming a population subdued by sentient machines?
MEDIATED EXPERIENCE, CULTURAL CONSCIENCE, AND GETTING THE HELL OUTSIDE
Can we genuinely experience something without a lens? An experience that is not mediated versus an experience that is mediated? If we are always hyper-aware of what we are doing, meaning we are already thinking about the moment as if it had passed, already trying to capture and frame it, already planning our next post to Facebook, or plotting our next Instagram caption, how does this affect our experience? Are we truly experiencing it? Are we no longer fully immersed in our activity?
The wilderness is a guide for this blurry, wireless world that we live in. Getting outside, climbing a vertical cliff, or summiting a snowy peak always brings the mind and body back to center. However, as social media ramps up, outdoor businesses and brands are taking advantage of our wandering. Their Instagram accounts tug at our nature-loving heart strings with epic photos that make us salivate, and whimsical quotes that they probably found on wikiquote. I once found myself reassessing my outdoor experiences after glancing through Prana’s Instagram. How dare I compare my real experiences with a carefully curated brand’s Instagram? Those pictures are meaningless. I let myself question the value of my real, lived experiences due to thumbing through a brand’s marketing campaign. It gives me the chills.
CONTEMPLATION NOT CRITICISM
What are we getting from looking at these pictures? How does Instagram’s format of disconnected images affect our world view?
On one side of the coin, social media can be the birthplace of breakthroughs, art, and progressive activism. Here’s a list of people doing great things on the internet: Gaby Cepeda, Shawne Michaelain Holloway, Danielle Dean E. Jane, and May Waver, to name a few. However, it seems that Facebook and Instagram can be vaults of distractions that we often fall prey to, or get lost in. It cannot be stressed enough that we must be aware of how this kind of media effects our conversations, ideals, wants, needs, and emotions.
We must be constantly in conversation about the media and constantly questioning it. We must be a collective of people who knows what influences us to make our choices: why do we talk about the things we talk about? What motivates us to buy what we buy? Why do we go to the places we go? Let’s not ignore it, but talk about it. In order to transcend we must step outside of ourselves frequently. Knowledge and face-to-face communication needs to be king.
HOW DO WE STEP OUTSIDE OF OURSELVES? BY STEPPING OUTSIDE.
What should worry us most are the complete contradictions surfacing with Facebook and Instagram. For example, someone posts a picture of a Buddha and captions it with, “positive mind, positive vibes, positive life.” This is exactly what Jean Baudrillard was talking about. This is not Buddhism, but a simulation of Buddhist ideals and therefore, meaningless. How do we create meaning in our lives in a world full of fragments and disconnected images? Where do we go to find truth?
We go outside to the desert, the ocean, the forests, the mountains, to seek truth. However instead of using wilderness as an escape from our computers and phones, we need to view nature as a guide to confronting ourselves and our roles in the midst of everything. Technology’s impact is our responsibility. We can help this world and the people who live in it with us by transforming the truth we find in the outdoors into a truth that can be experienced in our everyday life. We do not want to rely on the outdoors as an escape from our constructs, from what we have created, but as a reminder of what truth really looks like. This way we can keep, and hold on to the physical world and what it means to be living. Our physical, lived, day-to-day experiences need not be compromised from self-inflicted technology disease (SIT disease).
Step step outside yourself as frequently as possible. Move your legs, run your fingers along a rock, touch a tree, kiss a cloud, whisper "hello" to the space holding it all together. You are the space, and the space is you.