1. Society as a Simulation Machine
The first two excerpts describe the role of fakes and illusions in human history and the emergence of the age of advanced high-tech simulations we live in, today.
Over the past two decades, human ingenuity has made it possible to create all kinds of fakes and simulations that are so realistic it is getting hard to distinguish many of them from what they imitate. The process is already so far advanced that, today, a substantial part of our surroundings is made up of objects and images and people that appear to be something other than what they are. There are sugar substitutes and Elvis look-alikes; Sy Sperling hairpieces and replicas of great art; soy burgers and false teeth; female impersonators and artificially colored food; lip-sync artists who pretend to be vocalists and television commercials that are disguised to look like talk shows.
In addition to all the things that now simulate the appearance of other things, there are even a few products of human ingenuity that are intended to simulate the appearance of nothing at all, such as contact lenses and Stealth bombers. These stealth-like objects are hidden in their environment, creating the illusion they aren't there.
The sheer number of simulations that now exist and their realism is inevitably changing not only our surroundings, but our psychology and behavior. One of the most important changes can be found in the fact that we now routinely experience simulation confusion, in which we mistake realism for reality and think some of these fakes and simulations really are what they imitate. We experience simulation confusion when we receive an advertisement in the mail that is disguised as an official notice, and, at first, fall for it and assume it is an official notice. And we experience simulation confusion by accident, rather than by other people's design, when we make a telephone call and speak to a voice on the other end of the line, only to realize a moment later that we are talking to a recording on an answering machine that reproduces the qualities of a live voice.
There is no question how so many simulations came to fill our surroundings. They are made possible by technology as well as by human ingenuity, and they are being brought into existence to fill a multitude of needs and desires. In many instances, simulation has become the great substitute: Almost anything we can't get, or cant get conveniently, from the world as it is, we now seek from fakes and imitations, whether replacing missing talent or missing hair, and the more realistic technology can make the fakes and imitations, the more they satisfy our desires.
Simulations provide the military with new and more effective forms of camouflage. Simulations make it possible for children to collect their own imitation children, in the form of lifelike dolls that imitate an increasing number of human behaviors. And simulations provide all kinds of opportunities for consumers to enjoy the taste of sugar without the calories, to enhance attractiveness through cosmetics, to own replicas of works of art and to experience the fictional characters and situations provided by the imitation realities of television and film. In the kind of economic and personal calculations that go on today, the simulation is often more appealing than the original. For example, homeowners who would like the benefits of a watchdog without the bother now have the option of buying Radar Watchdog, a home-security device that plays barking sounds whenever someone approaches the house. In place of a dog, they get bark masquerading as bite.
As a result of these ingredients - technology, human ingenuity and our own needs and desires - we have created a society in which much of the culture and politics, as well as the economy, is geared toward mass producing, and consuming, simulations. It is a society in which many simulations are intended to be mistaken for the real thing. But it is also a society in which simulations that were never meant to be misleading often end up being mistaken for what they resemble, by accident, thus making simulation confusion, like pollution and traffic jams, another unintended, and toxic, byproduct of technology.
Fortunately, as simulations extend their reach, we are developing new survival skills that help us to unmask illusions.
...As culture evolved, we can safely surmise that humanity began to create a new set of physical simulations and forms of acting, with conscious intention, to trick both animals and other people. Hunters and soldiers created sophisticated forms of camouflage, so they would blend in with their surroundings. Farmers put up scarecrows which, while not very convincing to human eyes, were effective enough to fool less discerning animal audiences. Shamans and magicians developed sleight of hand tricks to simulate magical powers, as a way of advancing their positions in their own societies, thus creating early forms of fakery modeled after fictions of the mind, rather than after actual objects or events in the world.
Most of the evidence for these creations has been lost with the passage of time, but enough survives to give us glimpses into the world of early simulations. There are duck decoys made of reeds, for example, found in Lovelock Cave, Nevada, that were assembled sometime after 1500 B.C. The creators had already mastered many of the elements of verisimilitude, imitating the shape, size and posture of the animal they were trying to portray. One decoy has feathers tucked under the reeds, to enhance the effect.
At some point in the evolution of culture, these simulations were also created for purposes other than deception. Cosmetics were used not only to create a deceptive appearance, but to provide aesthetic pleasure. And humanity began to create forms of representational art and stories, perhaps originally tied to rituals, (such as those described in the next essay), involving animal paintings, carved statues, and costumes. With the evolution of drama, humanity began to simulate not merely discrete things or actions, but situations, people and chains of events, creating the imitation "realities" of the theater, a trend that found its first flowering, so far as we know, in ancient Greece. In effect, humanity evolved its own, symbolically rich, forms of play, creating representations based on both the world and imagination, and creating misrepresentations that appeared to be what they imitated, but only to heighten the aesthetic experience.
Looking back across history, we can trace humanity's growing ability to simulate appearances, in the discovery of perspective, for example, that allowed painters and drawers to create the illusion of three-dimensional space; or the creations of wigs and make-up. We can also surmise that the creation of simulations and of the invented scenes and situations found in fiction is inborn. We do it spontaneously, in day and night dreams, and in the play of conversation and interaction, as well as in the arts.
But, until relatively recently, our ability to create these simulations was limited by shortcomings in both technique and technology, despite the magnificent creations of art and culture. Somewhere along the way, however, we began to emerge from this period of more limited simulations. Perhaps, we should mark the beginnings of this phase around the turn of the century, when clever inventors and entrepreneurs began to discover that it was possible to use electronic images to simulate the physical environment, creating a dynamic, two-dimensional, rendering of the three-dimensional space in movies.
Whenever it happened, today, we have entered a period in history that can truly be referred to as an age of simulation, in which advanced forms of fakery and illusion are now dominant elements of culture and society.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that we now have an economy in which millions of people owe their livelihood to designing, manufacturing and selling fakes, imitations, counterfeits, replicas, faux products and cons. Much of our culture is made up of imitations and illusions, used for fantasy and entertainment, and our politics consist mostly of candidates who use the techniques of theater and cinema - of acting, staging, scripting, and image manipulation - to produce false identities for public consumption. We live in a world of Sy Sperling hairpieces that look like hair; lip-syncers who pretend they are vocalists; home security devices that bark like overexcited watchdogs; Elvis impersonators; fake ATM machines, created by con artists; and television infomercials, selling everything from psychic readings to electric juicers, that pretend they are television talk shows. We consume food, re-created with imitation flavors, sugars and fats; we live in homes, stocked with art replicas, fake fireplaces and faux marble bathroom fixtures; and we ourselves are gradually being turned into imitations of a more idealized version of ourselves, as we are reduced, expanded, reshaped and reconditioned with cosmetic surgery.
This new age of simulations has a number of essential characteristics. Among them, the number of simulations is increasing rapidly, giving us surroundings made up of manipulated appearances; the kinds of simulation are increasing, and the simulations are becoming so lifelike that it is getting more difficult to distinguish them from what they imitate, inducing a state of mind that can be referred to as simulation confusion, in which fakes are confused for something authentic. In addition, we are witnessing the emergence of a global culture based on simulation. As rapid forms of transportation and mass communications have carried American culture into the rest of the world, they have carried our world of illusion with it, such that, today, children in China and America may play with the same lifelike dolls, and audiences in Buenos Aires and Amsterdam may be simultaneously fooled by the same lip-sync con artists.
Like more traditional stories that are told with written or spoken words, these simulations offer us opportunities to vicariously or directly act out our fantasies, and our fears and desires. They manipulate our psychodynamics and emotions, whether it is movies that manipulate us to entertain us or advertising that manipulates us to sell us something. As a result of this quality, story-based simulations are used by those in power to influence us in our role as audiences, consumers and voters with false ideas and false appearances, in order to entertain us and sell us candidates, products and ideas.
Some of these excerpts describe a number of the early social critics of simulation who foresaw all this -- Daniel Boorstin, Umberto Eco and Stanislaw Lem. Along with Jean Baudrillard, Guy Debord, and Gene Roddenberry, among others, they saw that simulations are drawing us into something that is much like an invented world.
The first essay describes Daniel Boorstin, who is important because he recognized early on that the culture of fabrications was becoming a pervasive presence. Like others, he feared that the more there was of this culture, the less there would be of what is authentic. *
Even as society has been developing new and more elaborate simulations, there have been a growing number of efforts by social critics to understand what has been taking place. Most have the same message: society, they say, is in danger, from the growing role of illusion in our material and cultural environment.
It was the historian Daniel Boorstin who may have been the first to suggest this idea in a book, published in 1961, titled The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. In it, Boorstin recognized that simulation is a distinct social category, linking together many apparently disparate phenomena.
He claimed that America was living in an "age of contrivance," in which illusions and fabrications had become a dominant force in society. Public life, he said, was filled with "pseudo-events" -- staged and scripted events that were a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings. Just as there were now counterfeit events, so, he said, there were also counterfeit people - celebrities - whose identities were being staged and scripted, to create illusions that often had no relationship to any underlying reality. Even the tourism industry, which had once offered adventure seekers a passport to reality, now insulated travelers from the places they were visiting, and, instead, provided "artificial products," in which "picturesque natives fashion(ed) papier-mache images of themselves," for tourists who expected to see scenes out of the movies.
Boorstin's criticism came from the political right. It is in a long tradition of works that warn against the vulgarization of high culture by mass society. In addition, his metaphor was blatantly McCarthyite in inspiration. America, according to Boorstin, was threatened by "the menace of unreality," which was infiltrating society, and replacing the authentic with the contrived.
As a result, he believed, America was losing contact, not merely with reality, but with the ideals that had given the nation strength throughout its history. In the age of contrivance, American ideals were being replaced by superficial images.
When Boorstin published The Image in 1961, it was early in the emergence of these trends. Nevertheless, he saw what was taking place with a remarkable clarity. His criticism of the packaging of politicians, politics and celebrities, is by now one of the most significant truths of American society.
But this culture war isn't the deadening conflict between the left and right that has been going on for the last two decades. The people who claim to have morality on their side aren't the Robert Borks and Pat Robertsons. Nor do they want to return America to the kind of family-centered society we had in the 1950s.
This is another political conflict, one that could end up occupying center stage in the next few years. On one side are many of those who control television, politics, news and the most of the rest of public culture. It includes not merely Hollywood producers and other favorite targets of the right, but also many leaders of both the major political parties, the corporations and the burgeoning computer industry.
On the other side, pointing the accusing finger, are critics who say that those who control America have sold us out. Although they may phrase it in different ways, all complain that America's power elites have given us a new kind of culture that turns much of what it touches into a form of fiction. It specializes in converting reality into "unreality" and producing simplified and exaggerated images that it can sell to us or use as marketing ploys to sell virtually everything else.
The critics who are making this complaint have been around for some time, as has the culture of unreality they oppose. But this fight is only now beginning to break out into the larger society as this culture becomes so pervasive, it is eclipsing virtually every other element of public life.
Lets look at some of its products to understand why it is provoking so much opposition:
* In the realm of "nonfiction" television, this culture is now giving us a new kind of virtual news program that has many of the qualities of science fiction, with computer-generated images and newsrooms that have become futuristic stage sets. A growing number of the news stories that are part of these programs are designed to keep us from reaching for our remote controls, with absorbing plots and characterizations that look suspiciously like what one might see in television's dramatic series.
* In politics, this culture is giving us candidates who falsify their identities with scripted performances and television commercials designed to evoke a quick emotional response. Last year, it gave us the politics of special effects, with conventions that were turned into a fictional realm of bright colors and luminescent lighting that had no discernible relationship to anything in the actual world. No longer satisfied merely falsifying reality, the politicians took the next logical step and invented their own.
* In zoos and museums, it now offers us a growing number of "educational" displays modeled after theme parks. One of its specialties is walk-through rain forest exhibits that look like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
* In advertising, it has long since given us an endless number of 20-second mini-comedies full of instant happy endings, in which people seem to be perpetually emerging from swimming pools with perfect bodies and perfect lives. These ads play shamelessly on whatever will sell, going so far as to offer us faux religious epiphanies with heavenly choirs that suggest some products can lift us into a more spiritual plane of existence.
* In our cities, this culture threatens to turn some urban and suburban areas into immersive forms of fiction. It has already done so in Las Vegas where many of the hotels are giant material images that look like they were lifted out of the movies.
If we examine the roots of this culture, we find that they go back to the beginning of the modern age, with mass communications, marketing and advertising, and theme parks. Perhaps the first social critic who understood the implications of what was taking place was the historian Daniel Boorstin, who described it in a book appropriately titled The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. In the book, Boorstin hit on many of the central dynamics of this culture. One of his many insights is that as images become more important, they replace values. What we see, today, is just that -- a culture of contrivance that specializes in creating the appearance of values in place of their substance.
In particular, this culture offers us one value over and over: it promises to give us an escape route from the limits of life. From the consumer utopias depicted in advertising to the false promises of the politicians, we are forever being told that we can lift off into another realm if we buy or watch or vote the way others want us to.
In effect, what this culture offers us is phony transcendence -- the hope of a better, more interesting, world, shrink-wrapped in plastic. Like your typical con artist, it promises us everything for nothing, while it picks our pockets.
But its excesses are now inspiring a growing number of people to speak out. Their ranks can be seen in the emerging industry of media critics such as James Fallows; in intellectuals on the left who have begun to see something oddly sinister in Disney's realm of manufactured joy; in the criticism of junk entertainment that has come from Ralph Nader and William Bennett, and in the widespread resentment over the rhetorical manipulations of politicians.
Although not all these critics would agree with this assessment, they certainly look like they are part of a single movement that spans many of the traditional differences between the left and right. Most subscribe to the same set of ideas, based on the belief that we need to create a system that relies less on deception and manipulation, and more on full disclosure and responsibility to the public. Whether they are critiquing fiction or nonfiction, they seek fewer exaggerated and simplified images, and a greater willingness to challenge audiences with detail and nuance.
Beyond that, there is also another, more profound, complaint behind this movement. It is based in the belief that this culture doesn't merely convey a false impression of people and situations. It also tries to give us a false image of life, encouraging us to adopt a set of standards based on entertainment values and a vision that is shaped by television. Ultimately, it tries to draw us into a virtual world in which stories and political theater and spectacular images replace spontaneous and authentic experiences.
Unfortunately, those who control the levers of communication in this country have a great deal to lose if opposition to this culture begins to catch on. That means this culture war, like the other one, will involve a struggle for power. Like every political issue, today, it will end up as a battle of images and ideas that will be played out on television.
However things evolve, those of us who oppose the excesses of this culture will have an additional burden placed on us. We will have to be civil in the way we make our case, of course. But we will also have to find ways to influence public opinion that don't rely on the forms of manipulation we are trying to stop. We owe it to ourselves and to those growing up with these influences to make our voices heard.
In the past few decades, we have begun to perfect the art and science of creating what are often referred to as virtual worlds. Most notably, we have enhanced the special effects in movies and television, invented realistic computer games, and created new kinds of immersive media with movie-rides, virtual realities and elaborate theme parks. As a result, we can now take the realm of imagination and make it seem to come to life.
But many people are beginning to recognize that, along with these developments, another change is taking place, as many of the nonfiction elements of our media and culture also begin to look like invented worlds. In place of the routine and mundane events of everyday life, they are drawing us into a simplified realm of exaggeration and spectacle, full of characters and situations that bear more than a passing resemblance to what we find in fiction.
We can see this change in the fabrications of TV news, which now mass produces extreme stories about danger, conflict, power, and suffering that have very little in common with the events they are supposed to depict. We can see it in the scripted publicity events of the politician-performers and the efforts by advertisers to create 20-second fake paradises in which life seems to be an endless celebration. And we can see it in the global theatricalization of suffering, in which cameras in the courtroom have turned personal tragedies into made-for-TV specials.
In essence, these changes are giving us a culture in which fiction can now be made to look like fact, and facts are converted into believable fictions. It is a culture that tries to immerse us in a world of imagination that masquerades as something objective. As the historian Daniel Boorstin described it at the beginning of the 1960s, using a word that has since become a clich�, it is surrounding us with a realm of "unreality" that is replacing the more traditional culture that was here before.
Where does this culture of "unreality" come from. Part of the answer is that it is created and controlled by a governing class made up of the media, corporations and political groups. The members of this class exercise much of their power by inventing news, advertising, and entertainment that is sold to us and used to sell us other things, from products and candidates to ideas. All compete with each other to determine who will craft the stories and images that shape our perceptions.
In 1971, the science fiction writer 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 Lem based his novel 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.
The next essay describes Umberto Eco whose early description of re-creations and themed environments is applicable to other forms of simulation. Eco saw that we create realistic fabrications in an effort to come up with something that is better than real -- a description that is true of virtually all fiction and culture, which gives us things that are more exciting, more beautiful, more inspiring, more terrifying, and generally more interesting than what we encounter in everyday life. In his description of Disney, he also saw that behind the facades lurks a sales pitch. Put these two ideas together and you have a succinct characterization of the age, which, as noted earlier, is forever offering us something that seems better than real in order to sell us something.
(One) of the early theorists of simulation was the Italian writer and literary critic Umberto Eco, who went on a tour of America, to get a firsthand look at the imitations and replicas that were on display in the nation's museums and tourist attractions. The essay that he subsequently wrote describing his trip, bore the odd title "Travels in Hyperreality," which made it sound more like science fiction than the brilliant work of culture criticism it turned out to be. The essay, which is dated 1975, also had an anomalous quality to it. Looking at it, today, it reads like a strange combination of Postmodern philosophy and something out of the Sunday travel section, full of sardonic descriptions and exaggerated denunciations that focus on the cultural shortcomings of America.
In the essay, Eco plays the role of both social critic and tour guide, taking the reader across an American landscape that he says is being re-created in the image of fake history, fake art, fake nature and fake cities. Along the way, he examines a reproduction of former President Lyndon Johnson's Oval Office, and goes through a reconstruction of a Medieval witch's laboratory, in which the recorded screams of what sound like witches at the stake can be heard in the background. He travels to wax museums, where artistic masterpieces are re-created and, often, reinvented in unexpected ways, resulting in such cultural mutations as a wax statue of the Mona Lisa and a "restored" copy of the Venus de Milo, with arms. He also enters what he refers to as "toy cities," including Western theme towns, where the buildings are stage sets, and actors in costume, engage in mock gunfights, for the benefit of visitors.
As Eco explains it, his trip is a pilgrimage in search of "hyperreality," or the world of "the Absolute Fake," in which imitations don't merely reproduce reality, but try improve on it.
Not unexpectedly, it leads him to the "absolutely fake cities," Disneyland and Disney World, with their re-created main streets, imitation castles and lifelike, animatronic robots. Here, he takes a boat ride through artificial caves, where he sees scenes of pirates sacking a city, in the attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, and he travels through a ghost story that appears to have come to life, with transparent, dancing spirits, and skeletal hands lifting gravestones, in the attraction, the Haunted Mansion.
It is in the two Disneys, where he finds the ultimate expression of hyperreality, in which everything is brighter, larger and more entertaining than in everyday life. In comparison to Disney, he implies, reality can be disappointing. When he travels the artificial river in Disneyland, for example, he sees animatronic imitations of animals. But, on a trip down the real Mississippi, the river fails to reveal its alligators. "...You risk feeling homesick for Disneyland," he concludes, "where the wild animals don't have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can."
He also discovers something else in Disney: a place that no longer even pretends it is imitating reality, but is straightforward about the fact that "within its magic enclosure it is fantasy that is absolutely reproduced."
But, perhaps his most interesting perception occurs when he discovers, behind all the spectacle in Disneyland, the same old tricks of capitalism, with a new twist: "The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing," he writes. He similarly finds in Disney, "An allegory of the consumer society, a place of absolute iconism, Disneyland is also as place of total passivity. Its visitors must agree to behave like robots."
But what is most remarkable about Eco's essay is that, in the two decades since it was published, many of its more extreme observations, if not all its attacks on America, have been confirmed, and, in some instances, surpassed. America, today, is in the midst of a building boom in fantasy environments far more elaborate than anything Eco described, which are giving us a fictionalized landscape and a culture, that has many of the qualities of theme parks.
It seems that wherever one looks in this new landscape, one sees exaggerated variations on Eco's fake nature, fake art, fake history and fake cities. There are now replicas of rain forests, for example, which have been re-created on a massive scale, throughout the nation, along with future cities, and Jurassic parks, with animatronic dinosaurs. Los Angeles, the city, now includes Los Angeles, the themed mall, with facades that re-create the city's famous neighborhoods. Even the movies, where America's love affair with illusion started, are beginning to surround audiences with electronic images and stage sets, in a new generation of special effects theaters, creating another kind of fantasy environment that is starting to look a lot like fake reality.
The two capitals of this new culture of illusion are Las Vegas and a vastly enlarged Disney World. In just the last few years, Las Vegas, with its Egyptian pyramid-hotel, reproduction of the Empire State building, and fantasy version of the Grand Canyon, has become the city of imitations, that is turning itself into the world's first urban theme park. Meanwhile, Disney World has expanded, in typically orderly fashion, one module of imaginary worlds, at a time, becoming not a city that is a theme park, but a theme park that has become a city. Disney World has even developed its own suburbs of fantasy, that are filling central Florida with theme park sprawl, as miniature and not-so-miniature attractions, featuring Medieval knights, re-created Chinese buildings, and an animatronic King Kong, spring up around its outskirts.
In the last few decades, we have seen the emergence of a new kind of culture in America based on manipulated images, marketing, themed entertainments and hyped up television news stories. In effect, we have seen the rise of the image and, as the historian Daniel Boorstin predicted at the beginning of the 1960s, as image has come to dominate, values have fallen away.
But in this same period of time we have also witnessed another development -- novels, movies, television programs and social critiques now routinely portray this new culture and try to understand it. As we will see throughout this site, these works convey the same set of messages over and over, making clear that they are expressions of a deep and, very likely, universal response we have to a world full of image and simulation. Whether it is the 1970s science fiction story The Futurological Congress...or a host of other works that will be examined, we are forever being shown characters who are trapped in worlds of falsehood and illusion. We follow their travails as they escape from their tinsel paradises and find a more authentic life.
A good example of these works is the 1979 movie The Electric Horseman, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Unlike many similar works, it doesn't warn us about the danger of this new culture of images by portraying the future as it might evolve from our present-day excesses. Instead, it depicts the role of the image in contemporary America and manages to capture many of the trends that now dominate our very real world of illusion.
The movie takes place in the West, where the new image-based culture, epitomized by Las Vegas, coexists with an older economy of ranches and towns that still maintains some sense of connection to the still older economy of the Old West. Inside this setting, it shows us four kinds of players that now characterize this culture, as they interact and play out roles that represent trends in contemporary society.
One player it shows is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate known as Ampco, epitomized by an amoral corporate executive, Hunt Sears. Ampco is very much a part of the new West and the new world of manipulated appearances that characterizes the late twentieth century. Its modus operandi is to convert reality into fantasy, turning whatever it touches into a form of entertainment, to lure consumers into buying its products. For Ampco, the world is the raw material for the creation of images that are, themselves, either commodities or sales pitches that can be used to sell commodities.
Through the wonders of marketing and advertising, Ampco has created a false public image of itself in which it is identified with one of its many properties -- the $12 million thoroughbred, Rising Star. To sell its cereal, "Ranch Breakfast," it has similarly turned a rodeo champion, "Sonny" Steele, into a comic book version of a cowboy, pasting his face (or a version of his face altered by the art department) on cereal boxes. Steele often appears in public in garish, multi-colored cowboy costumes that seem to have purple as their default mode, usually atop a horse, as both he and the horse are bedecked by flashing lights.
Second, it shows us Steele, a five-time rodeo champion who, like many other people, has found a niche for himself in the new economy as a human image. Once, he performed in rodeos, which offered audiences a theatrical and ritual reenactment of the substance of the Old West that still had some connection to the social reality it depicted. Like gladiator games, they weren't merely "shows" but life-and-death contests in which the subduing of nature that was once the essence of the West, was depicted by a genuine struggle. But now, like much else around him, Steele has become a themed (which is to say, falsified) version of himself, a character in Ampco's universe of reinvented reality.
Unfortunately, it seems that he also suffers from a kind of alienation that is common in a culture of simulation -- everything in him resists being turned into the walking embodiment of hype. He has no idea how to project an image of himself or the product or the company, nor does he have any interest in doing so, preferring to escape his sense of disquiet over what he has become by losing himself in a different kind of illusion, dispensed from a bottle. At one of many events in which he rides before the public in flashing lights, he shows up intoxicated and falls off, a cardboard cutout of a cowboy who keeps falling down on the job.
Third, the movie shows us a celebrity television reporter, played by Jane Fonda, who has made a name for herself acting as a simulation-buster or exposer of just the kind of manipulations Ampco specializes in. But (like the actual TV reporters we are all familiar with), she has, herself, made a fortune packaging reality into hyped-up stories, as a form of entertainment, and distorting it in the process.
...The information savagery of the news media is itself only a part of the larger corruption of media that is now a pervasive characteristic of many nations. This larger realm of corruption is based on the fact that we now live in an age, not merely of information, but of manipulated information, in which images, and words and stories play a growing role as tools of power. It is an age in which the media takes the perception of events and converts it into narratives that are much like fiction, narratives that focus on many of the themes of all storytelling -- danger, evil, suffering, conflict, power, adversity, and victory in order to evoke strong emotions in audiences. Instead of showing us the unruly world, it gives us a view of things transformed by the techniques of theater, advertising, cinematography, public relations, rhetoric, and fiction, in which staging and packaging profoundly change both events and our view of events.
This contriving of information is now an essential characteristic of our time. Behind it, we find the great manipulators of the age -- the corporations, news and entertainment companies, politicians and publicists -- constructing appearances in an effort to influence what people think. Their manipulations serve a number of essential purposes: they are a form of marketing used to attract audiences and buyers; they are used to create propaganda and used by television journalists and others to achieve personal goals, such as self-aggrandizement.
The savaging of public figures plays an essential role in this larger culture of contrivance because it offers the public hypocrites, villains, and fools who can play a role in exciting stories that will attract an audience. In addition, it is a way to destroy those who are perceived as political and economic opponents. And it makes it possible for many journalists and other public figures to look good on television, since it allows them to be in the dominant position as they go on the offensive against their targets, while they justify their actions by claiming to defend the moral order of society.
Thus, we see tabloid news shows that exaggerate wrongdoing and personal problems to make those they cover look like villains and pathetic characters, in order to give audiences someone to ridicule and hate. We see politicians doing the same thing to their opponents, once again mobilizing public hatred and ridicule, and directing it at specific targets, as a way of winning elections. In so doing, they seek to manipulate the psychodynamics of their audiences, evoking identification and admiration for those depicted as heroes and saints; empathy for those depicted as victims; and anger at wrongdoers. It seems that values, and love and hate have themselves become highly rationalized marketing tools in our new, media-saturated societies.
* Footnote - To my knowledge, Boorstin first published his ideas in an article in 1960. That was the same year as the Kennedy-Nixon debate in which images of the debate on television affected people's perceptions of who won.