In 1971, the author Stanlislaw Lem published a short novel titled The Futurological Congress in which he offered an intriguing diagnosis for what has gone wrong with contemporary society. In the novel, the main character, Ijon Tichy, wakes up from suspended animation in the future and finds that people now routinely partake of "psycho-chemical" drugs that can induce realistic hallucinations or waking dreams. Instead of merely watching television, they live out the fantasies of television as if it is happening to them.
Not surprisingly, Tichy discovers that this world of artificial experience has generated more than its share of problems. Many people, for example, have become permanently lost to reality, preferring to spend their lives in a realm of alluring fictions. And it seems that everyone indulges fantasies of profound and unmitigated evil, popping pills so they can hallucinate the act of torture, sexual assault and murder.
The novel follows Tichy's experiences as he slowly acclimates himself to this strange new existence. We see his bewilderment, his doubts, and his growing panic as he comes to the realization that he is trapped in a world in which the worst in humanity has been brought out by the power to simulate the look and feel of reality.
At the end, in a vision worthy of Swift, Tichy learns that nothing in this society is what it appears to be. It turns out that a pharmacological dictatorship has been secretly subjecting the population to another set of psycho-chemical drugs to induce a collective hallucination. As a result, everyone sees a utopia of luxury, well-tended nature and advanced technology when the economy, the environment and the physical integrity of the people themselves are actually in a state of collapse.*
Here, in a passage toward the end of the novel, a character named Symington, who turns out to be the dictator behind this faux paradise, rationalizes the greatest cover-up in history: the immersion of humanity in an illusion to conceal the end of the world.
"'We keep this civilization narcotized, for otherwise it could not endure itself. That is why its sleep must not be disturbed...' " Symington tells Tichy.
" 'The year is 2098...with 69 billion inhabitants legally registered and approximately another 26 billion in hiding. The average annual temperature has fallen four degrees. In fifteen or twenty years there will be glaciers here. We have no way of averting or halting their advance -- we can only keep them secret.' "
"'I always thought there would be ice in hell,'..." Tichy responds. "'And so you paint the gates with pretty pictures?'"**
Anyone over the age of 40, give or take a few years, will recognize that Stanislaw Lem based The Futurological Congress on what was already taking place in the world's more affluent society's in the decade of the 1960s. As noted, his "psycho-chemical" drugs are a futuristic version of television, which has escaped its confinement on the screen and is portrayed as being able to simulate the experience of life itself.
But what is particularly interesting about Lem's novel is how far we have moved in the direction he described since the book was written. Today, we have the ability to interact with -- and place ourselves inside -- our own simulations of reality. We live in a culture of video and computer games; virtual realities and simulator rides; 3D movies and themed attractions, which can make it seem as if the world of imagination has come to life. In addition, television and movies have advanced considerably in their ability to invent believable scenes and situations, with the aid of new techniques and technologies, especially computers.
The result is a society with pathologies that bear more than a passing resemblance to those portrayed by Lem. We too now have a great many people who are addicted to simulation-based forms of entertainment, including simulations of violence and evil. And we have a growing sense that television is something more than a form of entertainment; it also has the capacity to trick us into believing that some of its fictions are real, allowing those who control the images to falsify our view of the world.
The collection of essays that follows takes readers through this new realm of high-tech illusions and fabrications in which manipulated appearances are both an invitation to fantasy and a tool of deception. It goes into the comic book world of Las Vegas theme parks, where everything from ancient Rome to the Grand Canyon has been re-created as a tourist attraction, and looks at the way virtual realities make it seem we are in a place where the rules of physical reality no longer apply. It examines the meaning of battle simulation games such as paintball, and of computer games that invite participants to discover what it is like to engage in acts of unbridled evil.
This collection of essays also takes a cue from Stanislaw Lem's portrayal of a society lost in illusion, and describes the way "nonfiction" television creates a counterfeit version of reality that masquerades as something authentic. Here, it examines TV news programs that claim to show us history as it is taking place, when they really give us stories about power and danger that have a lot in common with what we see in fiction. It looks at the way candidates play scripted roles we are supposed to mistake for their true identity, and at the way TV advertising weaves phony images of its products into 20-second depictions of consumer paradises in which life is portrayed as an endless celebration.
These essays try to understand this new society in the way Lem's hero in The Futurological Congress tried to understand the society he found himself in -- by making it as transparent as possible. To accomplish that, it provides a kind of x-ray of many of our simulations, examining the various components that go into them. It reveals the way they trick the senses with their realism and the way they draw us into stories that include characters and plots. It also describes them as arenas of symbolic action that make it possible for us to play out our fears and desires in disguised form.
Not surprisingly, what it discovers is that all of these images and invented worlds are our way of thinking out loud about the issues we are most concerned with -- including the issue of simulation itself. Whether we look at the scripted performances of politicians or at computer games or themed attractions, we find that they embody our perceptions of our selves and our surroundings. By interpreting them, we gain insight into the forces that are reshaping society.
But, in addition to interpreting simulations, these essays suggest that we also need to find out how these changes are affecting young people. We need to know what it is like growing up in a popular culture in which the characters and situations of fiction are made to seem real, while the real people and events of public life are increasingly fictionalized. What is the effect on new generations when they are invited to become part of an environment of fantasy and fraud, particularly when much of that environment is fashioned in the image of Hollywood?
One answer these essays will give is that it isn't only outward appearances that end up being counterfeited. These changes are also giving many people a false view of life, which is making its way from our entertainment-based popular culture to the deeper culture embodied in our values and character.