Culture of Deception: 
Simulation Confusion

On February 6, 1992, the police station in Oxford, Pennsylvania, received a telephone call, reporting that an armed intruder had been seen on the second floor of a local apartment building. In response, two officers rushed to the scene, prepared to make an arrest. As they stood outside the building, one peered through a crack in the door and spotted what looked like the intruder, lurking in the dark hallway at the top of the stairs, holding a gun. Twice, the officer ordered the apparent intruder to drop the firearm. Twice, the command was ignored.

Moments later, as the officer continued to look into the hallway, he noticed that the "intruder" bore a striking resemblance to a well-known actor. In an instant, he realized that he and his partner were in a tense standoff with a cardboard cutout of Eddie Murphy holding a gun, that had been taken out of a video store, where it was used to advertise a movie. Both the person who called the police, and the officer, had mistaken a semi-realistic imitation, created by mounting a life-size photograph on cardboard, for the object it imitated.

The two officers were the butt of some department humor after this incident, which was reported by the local press and a few national news organizations. But their experience was only an exaggerated version of something that happens to millions of people every day now that simulations are a pervasive element of our surroundings. Like them, most of us routinely suffer from simulation confusion in which we mistake realistic fakes for what they imitate.

In some instances, such as the one described above, we are tricked by accident, by simulations that were never intended to be deceptive. Realistic toy guns, for example, are frequently mistaken for genuine firearms, an error that has led to numerous shootings. Similarly, Polaroid's photographic replicas of famous paintings are often mistaken for actual paintings although they are primarily intended to let buyers enjoy the pleasures of famous works of art, in facsimile.

But, more often, we are being deliberately tricked, by people who have something to gain by manipulating us with misleading appearances. Indeed, much of America's economy is based on providing consumers with deceptive simulations, from knockoffs and fake IDs to padded shoulders and tinted contact lenses. As a result, we find ourselves in a new kind of surroundings, in which we can no longer always rely on the evidence of our senses to tell us what is real.

The growing role of deceptive simulations is particularly evident in fields that use props and disguises as part of larger strategies to outwit opponents, including the military, crime, security and police work. Thus, we find that military strategy is now based on inducing confusion in opponents with such visual deceptions as missile decoys, stealth aircraft and camouflage. Perhaps the most impressive example was the creation of a dummy invasion force -- including inflatable rubber tanks and canvas airplanes designed by a movie studio -- that was used to mislead the Nazis about where the Allied invasion would take place. Less noble are the con artists who placed a counterfeit ATM machine in a Connecticut mall, to trick customers into feeding in their bank cards, and revealing their account numbers and personal identification numbers.

These fields provide a good model of contemporary society, which has become a Hobbesian world of simulators and dupes, con artists and the conned, in which people routinely manipulate appearances to get what they want. When we look behind these invented appearances, what we often find are advanced forms of art and technology that make it possible for people to present an image of themselves, and of products, situations and ideas, that tells a story.

Indeed, society is now governed by various groups that use deceptive simulations to gain and hold on to money and power. The most important of these groups can be found in business, entertainment, politics and news. And their most important tool of deception is our society's primary simulation machine -- television -- which allows them to create complex simulations that can trick people, en masse. Americans, glued to their television sets, are exposed to (although not always fooled by) hundreds of these deceptive simulations in an average day, which are fabricated in an effort to falsify their view of the world and control their behavior.

Among these deceptions, advertising presents a utopian world of human perfection and endless celebration, to sell products. Politicians give scripted performances for the cameras, with adoring crowds as the extras, to create an identity for television that will embody the desires of voters. The public relations-driven world of celebrities portrays an invented world of glamour and mystery. And the national news media which claims to provide a window onto events, is itself increasingly in the business of producing entertaining dramas about danger and villainy, that has a lot in common with the fictions of the movies.

All use some combination of the same techniques, relying on scripts, staged performances, "creative" narration, video editing and electronic image manipulation. And all end up telling stories that include the same elements described on other pages: the mastery of danger, the satisfaction of desires and the ultimate restoration of morality. But here, an effort is made to lead people to believe that the story accurately depicts people and events. As a result, all end up profoundly falsifying what they portray, once again mixing faithful and manipulated images, and fact and fiction in seamless ways so that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

An example can be seen in local television news. These programs are well known for reciting the daily litany of crimes, and personal and community disasters, with all the potential that has for evoking sympathy, fear and anger in audiences. But this trail of mishaps and mayhem is always framed by a larger message of safety, which is conveyed by the staged expression of helpfulness and friendliness on the part of the newscasters, and by all the stories about public ceremonies and community efforts to deal with problems. The overall effect is to create another kind of symbolic arena, which gives viewers the sense that they are members of a community that is competent to contain danger and suffering.

What is particularly telling is just how similar this symbolic arena is to those found in many of the forms of fiction. Both evoke anger, fear and sympathy in an audience and then convert these emotions into reassurance and hope. Fiction accomplishes this primarily with a happy ending. Local news does it by placing stories about danger and suffering in a program that overflows with benevolence and camaraderie -- and by throwing in a good measure of stories with happy endings. Each, in a different way, is designed to provide a satisfying emotional experience to audiences.

In fact, local television news is a lot like Back to the Future...The Ride. Its daily collection of news stories also uses images to take audiences on a kind of journey to other times and places, so they can escape the limits of physical reality. At the end, after (vicariously) facing various adversities, they are deposited where they were picked up, feeling reassured that the world is safe. It even throws in computer-generated special effects, to make the journey more exciting. The difference, of course, is that with the news, people are misled into believing that the experience provides them with direct information about the world.

Fortunately, as simulations increase in number and influence, a learning process is taking place in which we are developing new ways to unmask illusions. One might say that humanity is involved in a game of catch up: every year simulations are becoming more convincing and every year, we are getting better at not being fooled.

As part of this learning process, society is finding ways to protect itself. Among them, it is passing laws, such as a federal law regulating the appearance of toy guns, and it has developed new techniques and technologies for exposing fakes. It has also developed new professions for exposing fakery and fraud, such as the career the stage magician, James Randi created for himself, investigating fake psychics and faith healers who use the tricks of stage magic to bring about their effects.

As these trends become more pronounced, we will need more people who take a principled stand against these deceptions. We also need educational institutions that teach children to see through simulations.

Unfortunately, a great many of the new "simulation-busters" who expose misleading appearances for a living are, themselves, also fabricators of simulations. This is most obvious when it comes to television news, which exposes the deceptions of politics and business even as it turns those exposes into its own complex story-based simulations. Television news is increasingly concerned with creating the appearance that is is exposing deception, whether or not it is actually doing so. This reaches a point of absurdity with all those pseudo-exposes that create the appearance the government is involved in a great UFO cover-up. Here, simulation-busting itself  becomes the ultimate con: a fraud that creates the fraudulent appearance of fraud.

The Age of Simulation