The Denial of the Real
Life lived on computers and televisions is indirect life, mediated, as if you were watching life through the camera on your phone instead of experiencing it with your physical senses. When you post on your Facebook wall, you are digitizing a small part of your life, telling a story about it, making it smaller. However, you and your Facebook audience proceed as though that reduced copy of that bit of your life, that story, is real. Mediated reality is moderated by someone else (in this example, Facebook), leaving you less free. Nothing in a Rectangle Is True, which challenges this constructed reality, is a gift of freedom from philosophical Boomers to our Millennial children.
In our postmodern culture, mediations of life range from stories about life and people on TV or the web, to the compulsion to enjoy a concert by recording it on your phone, to eating processed food, to thinking about real people as metaphors for fictional characters.
For more than ten years, Don Starnes has been noting trends and filming segments for the movie that show the seductive, even insidious, effects of living, as the contemporary French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote, “sheltered by signs, in the denial of the real” [i]. We are losing the ability to relate to the world and to each other except through a secondhand cultural life dispensed to us by the media. We organize this subset around ourselves (my music, politics, celebrities, shows), confusing choice with freedom and further shrinking our world.
The architect and mathematician Christopher Alexander believes people see reality in terms of Cartesian mechanics, assuming everything is a machine. “With the onset of the 20th-century mechanistic world-picture, clear understanding about value went out of the world,” he writes [ii]. In this world, we see each other’s significance as objects, not the shining reality of each other. In this world, as Alexander says, “nothing matters.”
Reality is disappearing
According to Nielsen’s 2011 report [iii], the average American watches approximately 5 hours of TV at home daily, 98% of it on a traditional television. In addition, according to the 2009 report [iv], 131 million of them watch about 3 hours of video online and 13.4 million watch about 3 1⁄2 hours of mobile video.
Cultivation theory research in 2005 by George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania [v] shows that those who spend more time watching television are more likely to perceive the real world in ways that reflect the most common and recurrent messages of the television world.
In a 2009 study, Erika Pontius, Missouri Western State University [vi], concludes that “because television is so common among Americans, it is nearly impossible to judge the impact that it has on viewers. Both the participants and the experimenters are usually pre-exposed to so much television that it is hard to establish a base of comparison for an unaltered perceived reality. More often than not, the representations of social reality on television are not true to objective reality.”
Is reality possible?
Jean Baudrillard believed that postmodernism has led us to a disassociation from reality that he called hyperreality (post reality; an inability to distinguish reality from a constructed world).
Baudrillard describes a “precession of simulacra” [vii], or succession of the types of copies of things; these are stages that society has gone through in recent years, as technology and culture feed back on each other and culture remodels itself through the latest technology. Each new type of copy leads us further away from real experience. The simulacra that Baudrillard refers to are the significations of culture that construct perceived reality.
In our current, media-saturated, hyperreal stage of this precession, the elements of our lives tend to be copies of copies, with no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Baudrillard suggests that we consume reality through signs of signs, with events, meaning and history no longer being produced from shifting, contradictory real experience, but produced as artifacts of media. “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it.”
Reality, he suggests, is not possible in this mediated culture.
One thing is obvious: unmediated life is real. Less mediated life is more real. The self-evident world beneath the signs and symbols of digital culture is still there. A ground of being exists, one more luminous, magical and powerful than any indirect experience of it.
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick [viii]
The Boomers questioned reality. Generation X achieved freedom from reality by, for example, abstracting people into avatars on personal digital devices and turning the Harvard online yearbook into Facebook, a foundation of everyone’s social life today.
However, as Boomer icon and radio personality Scoop Nisker says in our film, “In the Sixties the thing was to turn on, tune in and drop out. Nowadays what’s needed is to turn off, tune out and drop in.”
We are seeing people’s hunger for value, and the real ground beneath us in many different places: from the provenance movement in which people want to know exactly where their food is coming from and how it was handled, to the popularity of bluegrass music people make themselves, to the Occupy movement in which people are trying to bring the economy back to human scale and find new relations to each other.
Millennials, as the generation born after 1980 are called, are questioning unreality; they seem to have a need for authenticity. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials admire their elders’ work ethic, moral values and respect for others; the study suggests that Millennials view older people has having a more authentic life [ix]. Perhaps they are trying to catch up: the 2011 Millennial Donor Survey revealed that 85 percent of Millennials are motivated to donate by a compelling mission or cause [x].
Most data on Millennials appears to be from marketers, who have proclaimed authenticity to be a chief way to sell things to Millennials. Barkley, a marketing agency, polled 62% of Millennials as saying that “being true to yourself” was most inherently influential in life [xi]. Barkley’s study finds that Millennials rely on social interaction to determine what is authentic, and prefer to buy products that support causes they believe in or have an authentic quality.
People yearn for reality because they don’t feel free. Those who experience reality directly are free. If we discover reality to be more than a playground of objects made expressly for us, then we are free to move in a world of objects unencumbered by meanings and references provided to us by digital culture. We are able to see the simple beauty of the real world.
i: Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (SAGE Publications Ltd., 1998) (Amazon)
ii: Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life (CES Publishing, 2001) (Amazon)
iii: The Cross Platform Report – Q4 2011. Rep. The Nielsen Company, 2011. Web.
iv: TV Internet and Mobile Usage In US Keeps Increasing Says Nielsen. Rep. The Nielsen Company, 2009. Web.
v: Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (2002). “Growing up with television: The cultivation perspective” in M. Morgan (Ed.), Against the mainstream: The selected works of George Gerbner (pp.193-213). New York: Peter Lang.
vi: Pontius, Erika S. “The Impact of Reality Television on Viewers’ Perception of Reality.” National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse. Missouri Western State University, 2009. Web.
vii: Dr. Lutzker, Emily. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Diss. Columbia University, 2008. Web.
viii: Philip K. Dick, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (Doubleday, 1985) (Amazon)
ix: “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” Pew Social Demographic Trends RSS. Pew Research Center, 24 Feb. 2010. Web.
x: Feldmann, Derrick, and Ted Grossnickle, eds. Millennial Donors Report 2011. Rep. The Millennial Impact, 2011. Web.
xi: Jeff Fromm, Celeste Lindell, and Lainie Decker. American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation. Rep. Barkley, 2011. Web.