Simulation Confusion
and the Construction of "Reality"

by Ken Sanes

Simulations are used to trick us with their realism, so we will believe they are what they appear to be. The first "excerpt" is the text of one of the essays. It describes how those in power use simulations to give us a false view of situations and life, and to induce emotions in us that are a response to the artifice of the fiction rather than to the actual people, places or situations we believe we are observing. In effect, they draw us into the ultimate virtual reality in which our perception of the world is falsified.

The first excerpt and second are earlier renditions of the theory. Both focus on sensory and physical simulations that induce a state of simulation confusion in which we mistake them for what they appear to be. But a kind of simulation confusion can be induced by stories and rhetoric conveyed to us in words, as well, because, like sensory simulations, they can psychologically immerse us in a particular view of things. All can draw us into an "invented world" not merely by creating a fabrication with stage sets, performances or images, but also by shaping our world-view. Society is made up of people and groups that use these tools in an effort to get us to see life in terms of their own story.

The excerpts that come after the first two focus more on how deceptive simulations manipulate our psychodynamics and how they are involved in what is often referred to as the social construction of reality, which is  a disguised form of ideology. 

From Culture of Deception:

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 War of the Worlds broadcast, which used sound effects, voice-acting and a script,  was an early example of how audiences can confuse a story line for genuine events. The columnist Dorothy Thompson saw its implications -- that those in power could use simulations to draw people into an invented "world."

From Orson Welles and The Invasion from Mars:

The ability to confuse audiences en masse may have first become obvious as a result of one of the most infamous mistakes in history. It happened on Halloween, Oct. 30, 1938, when millions of Americans tuned in to a popular radio program that featured plays directed by, and often starring, Orson Welles. The performance that evening was an adaptation of the science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of the earth. But in adapting the book for a radio play, Welles made an important change: under his direction the play was written and performed so it would sound like a news broadcast about an invasion from Mars, a technique that, presumably, was intended to heighten the dramatic effect.

As the play unfolded, dance music was interrupted a number of times by fake news bulletins reporting that a "huge flaming object" had dropped on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. As members of the audience sat on the edge of their collective seat, actors playing news announcers, officials and other roles one would expect to hear in a news report, described the landing of an invasion force from Mars and the destruction of the United States. The broadcast also contained a number of explanations that it was all a radio play, but if members of the audience missed a brief explanation at the beginning, the next one didn't arrive until 40 minutes into the program.

At one point in the broadcast, an actor in a studio, playing a newscaster in the field, described the emergence of one of the aliens from its spacecraft. "Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake," he said, in an appropriately dramatic tone of voice. "Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face.'s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate....The thing is raising up. The crowd falls back. They've seen enough. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can't find words. I'm pulling this microphone with me as I talk. I'll have to stop the description until I've taken a new position. Hold on, will you please, I'll be back in a minute."

As it listened to this simulation of a news broadcast, created with voice acting and sound effects, a portion of the audience concluded that it was hearing an actual news account of an invasion from Mars. People packed the roads, hid in cellars, loaded guns, even wrapped their heads in wet towels as protection from Martian poison gas, in an attempt to defend themselves against aliens, oblivious to the fact that they were acting out the role of the panic-stricken public that actually belonged in a radio play. Not unlike Stanislaw Lem's deluded populace, people were stuck in a kind of virtual world in which fiction was confused for fact.

News of the panic (which was conveyed via genuine news reports) quickly generated a national scandal. There were calls, which never went anywhere, for government regulations of broadcasting to ensure that a similar incident wouldn't happen again. The victims were also subjected to ridicule, a reaction that can commonly be found, today, when people are taken in by simulations. A cartoon in the New York World-Telegram, for example, portrayed a character who confuses the simulations of the entertainment industry with reality. In one box, the character is shown trying to stick his hand into the radio to shake hands with Amos n' Andy. In another, he reports to a police officer that there is "Black magic!!! There's a little wooden man -- Charlie McCarthy -- and he's actually talking!"

In a prescient column, in the New York Tribune, Dorothy Thompson foresaw that the broadcast revealed the way politicians could use the power of mass communications to create theatrical illusions, to manipulate the public.

"All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time," she wrote. "They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.

"They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery....

"Hitler managed to scare all of Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words.

"But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all."

In the 1950s, America had another taste of the power that simulations have, to draw people into a world of delusional fantasy, when paired with mass communications. This time it was revealed that a number of television game shows were simulations, in which contestants who knew the answers ahead of time were pretending to guess at their responses. But unlike the invasion from Mars, here the fakery was unambiguously intentional; it was the work of producers who had concluded they could create fictional game shows that would be more exciting than the real thing.

Once again, there was a shocked reaction from the public. Once again, those involved became objects of public anger. And, as happened with the Orson Welles broadcast, an effort was made to ensure that such manipulations wouldn't recur.

But in 1990, it happened again. Audiences around the world discovered that they were taken in by the ultimate Hollywood illusion in which two performers faked their own talent, lip-syncing, to create the impression they were singing. What millions of fans had believed were two talented singers was actually a composite, another seamless interweaving of sensory simulations in which two people provided the visuals, while vocalists provided the audio.

As in the previous two instances, there was a stunned response. But unlike the experience of 1938 or even the 1950s, the social context was different because simulations had become commonplace, and attempts to use them to trick the public were the rule rather than the exception. Also by this time, a global culture had developed, which meant that tens of millions of people around the world were drawn into the same illusion.

One might say that War of the Worlds and the game show scandal foreshadowed the age of simulation that was still to come. Allowing for a little poetic overstatement, the Milli Vanilli scandal served as a rite of passage or symbolic marker, making clear that we now live in an age of simulation confusion in which our tendency to mistake fakes for what they imitate has become one of the characteristic problems of the age.

More to the point, we live in a time in which the ability to create deceptive simulations, especially for television, has become essential to the exercise of power. And the inability to see through these deceptions has become a form of powerlessness. Those who let themselves be taken in by the multiple deceptions of politics, news, advertising and public relations, are doomed, like the more gullible members of the radio audience in 1938, to play a role in other people's dramas, while mistakenly believing that they are reacting to something genuine.

* * * * * * * * 

Here's a quick summation of the ideas discussed above.

From the Polemical Introduction to Image and Action:

In effect, then, today, much of power is media. It is about the effort to mesmerize people into believing your own version of "unreality." The media manipulators are not themselves taken in by these charades, at least often they are not. Like the inventors of simulated worlds that entrap people in illusions, which are so often depicted in science fiction, they remain outside the illusion, while they work to draw as many people inside it as they can.

The excerpts that follow expand on the ideas expressed above, and provide a more theoretically nuanced account of simulation and deception. They revolve around the idea that those in power manipulate words and appearances to construct a version of "reality" for us that plays to our psychodynamics and that is really a form of ideology. These ideas are also dealt with in the first excerpt in the section titled "Progress and Regress; Engulfment and Escape" . "Progress and Regress; Engulfment and Escape" .

From The Real Self in a Virtual World:

The story-based simulations of popular culture (and all culture) are based on two kinds of illusion. First, they trick our senses and minds with their realism so we will suspend disbelief and react as if the events they depict are really happening. This is the realm of believable scripts and dialogue, lifelike computer images, ultra-realistic stage sets, and all the other tricks of storytelling that make movies, novels, and video games, et al, seem to come to life. Second, the stories and fabricated worlds of popular culture offer us forbidden ideas that are disguised as something socially acceptable, so we can safely enjoy these ideas and the experiences they evoke in us, while denying to ourselves that we are doing so. These two forms of illusion or disguise are what makes it possible for the fictions of popular culture to draw us into invented landscapes that embody the landscape of the conscious and unconscious mind.

* * * * *

But the two kinds of illusion described above aren't used only to create pleasant fictions. They are also used by those who would have us mistake fiction for fact. The politicians playing fake characters as part of scripted pseudo-events; the TV journalists reinventing a more exciting version of events with staging, clever editing and storytelling; and the advertisers giving their products a luster that is as phony as the television news media's version of events -- all of them create fictions that are disguised as something authentic or as a trustworthy account of something authentic. And all of their illusions seek to evoke taboo ideas and feelings, in disguised form, in audiences, about indulging aggressive and sexual desires, overthrowing internalized parents, regressing into infantile dependence, shamelessly indulging in narcissistic display and, at the other extreme, becoming whole and assertive selves.

Thus the creators of avowed fictions and fake facts all do the same thing -- they invent various kinds of unreality that play to the hidden realities of the human mind. Somewhat like the governing classes described by Marx, they create illusions intended to shape our perceptions of our own self-interest. But the illusions they create are simulations that play to the illusions of the mind. In effect, they create ideologies that masquerade as kinds of people, objects, places, situations and events -- ideologies embedded in characters, props, settings, and plots, that play to our fantasies, and our fears and desires.

All of their creations, from movies and television and theme parks to advertising, television news and political pseudo-events, embody forms of ideology, embedded in those characters and plots, whether or not we are supposed to mistake the characters and plots for something authentic. All draw us into invented "worlds" that make things look good or bad, and try to move us emotionally and psychologically toward their point of view. And all are forms of action that seek to exert power over us, and help or hurt various people and causes by playing on our psychodynamics and emotions. .

From Logan's Run

(All of us) influence each other through various means. We do so by manipulating the physical settings in which our lives are played out, which inevitably effects how we and others define what is going on. We create something much like stage sets, costumes, and props that express and support our view of things, from the layout of furniture in a room to the clothes we wear. We similarly enact physical behaviors, from tone of voice to body language, that have much in common with acting.

In addition, we use all of these forms of expression, along with words, to express meanings which tend to be organized into stories, full of plots and characterizations, that organize our view of the world. These meanings and stories, in turn, contain within them claims about whether things are good or bad, beautiful or ugly, desirable or undesirable, and whether they are permissible or impermissible, safe or dangerous. And they include communications about what we must and can be done.

In essence, we use all of these elements of interaction to construct a world for ourselves and draw others into it. As some theorists would put it, we engage in the social and psychological construction of "reality", trying to get ourselves and others to experience things a certain way, and see a particular story as the meaning of life.

All of this is one of the most important forms of action we engage in: it is one way we dominate and submit, cooperate and engage in conflict, help and hurt. Most importantly, it is our way of holding and exerting power. The power to create meanings and stories, and have listeners believe that those stories describe the world, rather than seeing them as motivated constructions, is essential if we want to have the power to influence others and shape situations. And we use those stories and meanings, in turn, to maintain our power. When much of the communication is in disguise or falsifies our view of things, then what we are looking at is the relationship not merely between power and meaning, but between power and illusion.

But, based on the psychodynamic characteristics of upbringing referred to earlier, it is obvious that much of the reality we construct for ourselves and each other is none other than the essential script or fantasy or model that governs our thoughts and motives. Parents convey this essential fantasy to children by constructing their world and world view. They create the physical stage on which a child's early life is played out, and they fill it with body language. They tell and enact stories that define who the children are, and what their children are doing. They make claims about what is positive and negative, and proscribe what is expected and allowed, all as a form of action and interaction.

Later in life, we all do the same: we construct a reality for ourselves and each other, based on our unacknowledged fantasies about ourselves and our relationship to parents. That means much of the reality we construct is in hiding; it is under the surface. It also means that transference, or the tendency to draw ourselves and others into our own fantasy world, and the construction of reality, are essential to each other. What we transfer onto each situation is precisely our constructed view of the world, and all the feelings that go along with it. And we believe the fantasies presented to ourselves, by ourselves and others, because of the power of the transference. Putting these ideas together, one can say that the ability to construct a world for someone that evokes and plays on their transference is one of the most essential tools of power.

When we look at the governing groups that control much of the public life of nations such as America, including the news and entertainment media, corporations, advertisers and politicians, we find that they do all these same things. They seek to weave a spell around us, to define our reality. They use these techniques to evoke transference and play on it. Just as our parents caused us to enter their unconscious fantasy world -- their representational world -- through covert communication, so do those in power in society invite us to enter their fantasy world, a world of deceptions and disguises. Politicians become benevolent parents; while journalists invite us to identify with them and vicariously play the role of children who will unseat those who unworthily hold power, and take power for themselves, while denying they are doing so.

Here too, all these groups create physical settings and engage in body language; they tell us stories; make claims and proscribe what is required and allowed; all to influence our perception of things. But, here, the construction of reality and the effort to instrumentally evoke the transference have been vastly enhanced with science and technology, and turned into a science of marketing and entertainment, in which polls and computers play an essential role in shaping rhetoric, image and propaganda. These governing groups don't merely manipulate physical settings: they construct elaborate sets and simulations, often full of spectacle; they give shape to complex visual and auditory images; make use of costumes and props, and rely on professional-quality acting, to draw us into their invented realities. They similarly hire expert story-tellers who analyze each sequence for its role in the larger effort.

Some of their creations, such as the fabricated fantasy environments of theme parks or the images we see in movies such as Logan's Run, are avowedly forms of fiction. In other instances, such as in the forms of theater engaged in by politicians and the phony identities of celebrities, an effort is made to make us believe that these invented realities are something genuine. But all draw us into fantasy worlds in which they make claims about the nature of life, society and self, and about what is good and bad, that they intend for us to take as true. Fiction, like "fact" tries to construct our view of the word, whether it is Disney's fabricated environments telling us that corporate America is a font of progress or Logan's Run giving us messages about the dangers of technology and power.

They do all this by playing to our fears and desires, even though, like the hypothetical salesman, they may not understand many of the psychological processes they are tapping in to, or don't care about them. Even when they offer us obvious lies and manipulations -- "5.8 percent interest"; "free!!!": "balanced budget" -- they are playing to deeper fantasies -- parental love, security, escape from guilt.

In doing this, they re-create the more negative aspects of the role of parent, and they confirm our often unacknowledged fears about the world. They seek to infantilize the public, to keep it in a state of unknowing and in a state of symbiosis. They offer us a culture in which power is used for manipulation and deception, and is by nature corrupt. And as they increasingly bring up society's children, with their control of the invented realities of television, movies, the Internet, and the rest of the entertainment industry, they become corrupt surrogate parents in a more immediate sense, who implant a map of the world in children in which power is used to violate, in which it is a form of hate rather than love.

Some try to draw us into their fantasy world in an effort, as Marcuse believed, to maintain the capitalist system as a whole, and the class interests of the rich. But Marcuse's description in which the capitalist system as a whole maintains itself by inculcating propaganda into the mind, seems overstated, and better suited to totalitarian dictatorships in which media and institutions are all supposed to support the supposedly benevolent parent-regime by drawing entire nations into a lie. There are certainly plenty of instances of that. But in America and similar nations, what one finds instead are many centers of power, all trying to manipulate our perception of reality and evoke transference out of more limited form of rational self-interest, to sell product, attain status and so on. In fact, these techniques are now used by virtually everyone seeking power and money, whatever the specifics of their agenda.

Everyone who makes use of these techniques gives us the same message: we should accept their construction of things as real. Don't question. Internalize what you are told, so it becomes your perception of the world and shapes what you do in life.

As we find in families, so in society at large we discover that many people allow their view of things to be shaped by this process. But they also resist and refuse and, ultimately, they take what they are given and transform it in ways that fit into their lives. And, always in the back of their minds, they are on the lookout for those who will use power in a noncorrupt way, more as a form of love than hate, which is why truth sells, or would sell if more leaders would tell some.

When we look at culture in its totality, say in America, we see the same thing. Here, culture will be defined as the ultimate representational world, the construction of reality that is negotiated and perpetuated collectively by all actors, including individuals in daily life, large blocks of people, institutions, and governing groups, with their ability to influence the public, en masse. This culture, in turn, contains subcultures -- representational worlds within the larger representational world, from the subcultures of large ethnic groups down to the mental map of each individual.

This culture and its subcultures are maintained by all these same processes in which players (people, institutions, media -- in essence, everyone) shape settings, tell stories, make claims about what is positive and negative and, in so doing, act, in order to shape their own and each other's view of the world.

Once again, this relationship is imbued with transference. We exist in a symbiotic relationship with culture; it is the milk we drink and the amniotic fluid in which we live. Like the parents, who give us our first paradigms of culture, it defines much of our view of the world and our selves. And a part of its message is the same message we see everywhere -- don't challenge; accept this construction of the world; don't try to see it as it is. As with everything described here, we are kept inside culture by a boundary of fear and anxiety -- to push beyond is to get an electro-shock of anxiety, a warning that we are putting ourselves in danger and, if we continue, there will be worse to come. That danger is the fear of retaliation -- ultimately fear of retaliation from parents.

As noted, it isn't just sensory appearances that are used to falsify our view of situations and life. Stories and rhetoric, which may be embodied in invented worlds or performances or merely in spoken or written words,  are also used as a tool of power to psychologically immerse us in a particular view of things.

From Narrative and Action, part of the introduction to Image and Action:

In essence, than, we can view the communications produced by any individual or group and see the narratives and efforts to shape image and the actions they embody. Political ideologies, corporate and political marketing strategies, cultural world views, professional ideals, individual books and movies, news stories and the face-to-face communications of individuals, can all be viewed as narratives that would draw us into a particular view of things, which shapes images and carries out certain kinds of actions. They would place us in invented "worlds" by trying to get their own story to sink into our minds so that it structures the way we see things.

Thus, Newt Gingrich would have you see a world in which good people have to try to help stop an outdated and totalitarian left, so a new conservatism, based on the knowledge and independence, made possible by information technologies can advance human progress. Intel wants you to see a world in which ever-more-powerful computers are the wave of the future. The movie The Electric Horseman would have you see a world in which humanity must resist the new oppression of an economy of images, in which even human beings are turned into simplified forms of entertainment. The news media wants you to see a world in which truthtelling journalists fight with corrupt politicians to reveal the machinations of power. And I want you to see a world in which I am exposing hidden truths about image and power, in the service of creating a more ethical society.

All of us vie for the power to impress our myths on you and draw you into our own versions of life. We all want you to submit to our view of things, and we all have built into our communications ways to manipulate your values, emotions and psychodynamics, to achieve our ends. We all typically express part of our world-view in statements but we almost always, also, embed it in performances and/or narratives, all of which are forms of action.

These narratives or world-views almost always deal with our fallen state. They depict it, give us fantasies about how we can escape it, and offer us practical solutions for doing so. Whether it is a more powerful computer that will be your dream machine or dreams of a prosperous, crime-free nation, we are forever being offered ways to escape the imperfect state of our lives.

In the end, most (most in the "West", anyway) are bits and pieces of the same story that sees the life of humanity as an effort to achieve progress -- toward rationality, psychological and spiritual health, ethical government, prosperity, and control of nature by science and technology. Our deepest yearning for better selves and a better world is the well from which they all draw. What they fail to reveal is that the water of life that many of them (not all) offer us is a mirage, used to lure us in. Only by examining the actions they are really engaged in, and their reasons, can we begin to understand and judge them.

Thus, analyzing the connection between these various stories and world views, and understanding how they motivate action, are supported by action, and are forms of action, is one of the essential tasks of social science. But whether we want to do social science or political analysis, we have to resist being drawn in to any of these world-views. In essence, we have to refuse to submit to them, but, instead, examine all with an eye for performance, myth and story construction, and for the way these are vehicles for forms of action, which are usually hidden under layers of disguise. At the same time, we have to make an effort to see the personal, cultural and professional world-views and stories that define our own perspective, and the actions embodied in our own communications.

* * * * * * * * * 

Many of those who seek to impress their myths on us do so by controlling and influencing what others write and create. This all too brief excerpt describes the way the news media fails to challenge the manipulations of the giant media companies, which want to shape the way we see them and the world.

MSNBC Criticizes Bill Gates -- Sort Of

Today, it is the wealthy and the multi-billion dollar corporations that own most of the important media organizations, such as MSNBC. And they use their ownership, directly and indirectly, to control the words and images that audiences use to understand the larger world.

The result is that the news that people get is even more censored than it might be otherwise. Journalists, who are already inclined to censor out criticism of themselves and each other, now also censor out and soften much of the criticism of the wealthy and the massive conglomerates that pay their salaries. And they are careful not to challenge the system, which has placed us all inside a virtual world in which the media is shaped by those with money and power, for their personal, financial and political ends.

This excerpt describes the way stories and story-based simulations can help us see through the illusions and the social construction of our own world, even as they try to get us to accept their own view of the world.

From Logan's Run

In offering us (its) alternative vision, Logan's Run is doing what all good stories do. It is, after all, one of the essential functions of stories to let us see -- and see through -- other ways of looking at the world, other constructed "realities". In effect, it is the role of better forms of fiction to construct fictional versions of the world, which everyone knows are fiction, in order to expose the ways we mistake fiction for reality. They invent worlds to challenge our invented worlds. They do so both by showing us other worlds that make clear ours is only one possible world. And they do so by showing us characters who mistake the fictions of their world and their own minds for reality, until they recognize a higher truth that leads to the conclusion of the story.

We become a part of these stories by identifying and empathizing with, and by hating, desiring and judging the heroes, victims, villains, and other assorted characters, all of whom are types taken from contemporary society, which also represent parts of our selves and our significant others. We become psychologically absorbed in the conflicts and alliances between the characters. Everything in the story -- the sensory manipulations, the meanings and plot, the claims of good and bad -- are actions designed to carry us to a resolution, and affect our view of things.

In other words, works of fiction, like other products of culture, draw us into a constructed world that is also a disguised version of the world of childhood fantasy. Their authors instrumentally manipulate fantasy and transference, calling up the stories in themselves that they believe their audiences will respond to.

To the degree the stories they create try to get us to accept some visions of the world and reject others, they may, as noted above, be forms of propaganda that are embodied in something that looks like reality. Logan's Run is just such a form of propaganda, pushing a particular vision of society and the self, which convinces us, at least while we watch the movie, of its definition of true and false forms of freedom. In the invented world it shows us, we are encouraged to see through self-oriented lifestyles and dependence on technology, and the rationales that maintain these. But we are also encouraged to accept, and not question, the movie's implicit contention that a stoic life of marriage and work are the true forms of human freedom. In effect, like many other stories, it creates a kind of symbiosis with us; it seeks to play the parent to our accepting child, feeding us a vision of reality we are to accept.

This last excerpt describes the ultimate form of alienation in which we lose the ability to know what is real, at least as depicted in science fiction. Stories that depict these forms of "total confusion" provide a good metaphor that not only expresses basic metaphysical questions we have about whether physical reality is a simulation but that also expresses our growing awareness that we inevitably live inside a humanly-constructed world.

From Narcissus and Necessity: Why Are We Creating Virtual Realities?

As we develop the ability to move between an accurate perception of our environment and lifelike imitation environments, there have been a number of predictable reactions. For example, there are increasing references in science fiction and popular culture to the idea that we may lose the ability, not merely to distinguish simulations from actual objects, but that we may not be certain whether the entire world we find ourselves in is real or a simulation. Thus, science fiction frequently portrays characters in a state of total confusion, not only lost in worlds of simulation, trying to get back out again, but also trying to figure out if their world is real.

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