Perceiving reality: It gets worse in the digital age

“I think, therefore I am (Cogito ergo sum),” said René Descartes.
“You think that you are, you fool,” replied the Tibetan monk.
“I am that (Tat tvam asi),” said the Hindu sage.
“There is no this or that,” replied the Zen master.

The views on reality have been colliding over centuries. It’s time for a reality check. (Actually no, but that cheesy line was too good to be left out. And that is also an example how language impinges on our thoughts, but we will come to that later.)

In the Hindu philosophy, there is the concept of Maya, or grand illusion. The Buddhists too subscribe to it, and have worried about it greatly. But Maya is not unreal, it is not an absence of reality. It is a distortion of reality, it is in fact reality in a limited sense. In the story of Blind men of Hindustan (who touched parts of an elephant and made up their mind on what it could be), we get an approximate explanation of the concept.

The idea that reality is totally non-existent, a mirage, is an extreme view – Hollywood made a very intelligent movie Matrix on the concept (but later ruined the logic in the sequel).

However here we not go into the question of whether reality exists at all. What we will discuss is – how reality is distorted by our perception of it.

For people addicted to Television, getting a distorted view of the world is an everyday phenomenon. Actually, in many ways our entire upbringing, our language and our culture also act as filter and give color and shape to our perceptions – they too act live television. Our parents and teachers tell us how to think, our language and its limitations and its historical baggage directs our attention and influences our thinking in ways that we are not even aware. The influences are so powerful that a philosopher, who we will be discussing from here on, believes that there is little reality left by the time our conditioned mind filters the stimulus from the world.

I have read bits and pieces of Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard. This is an astounding piece of thinking – and merits detailed attention, even if as a warning to all of us who are always too sure of our ideas.

Baudrillard claims that what humans experience is a simulation of reality. He speaks of four stages of distortion –

  • The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct that, a sign or symbol is a reflection of reality.
  • The second stage is perversion of reality; this is where we believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which masks reality.
  • The third stage masks the absence of a reality, where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original.
  • The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever.

   Baudrillard gives some examples to explain the working of simulacra in modern society:

  • Contemporary media including television, print, film and the Internet, which are responsible for blurring the line between goods that are needed and goods for which a need is created by commercial images.
  • Language and ideology, in which language is used to obscure rather than reveal reality when used by dominant, politically powerful groups.

We have everyday examples of manipulation of images of celebrities by magazines, using photoshop – these are copies and distortions of a real person. But in social media sites (as of course in all advertisements related to beauty products), sometimes profile images are posted by people that has no resemblance to them at all – it is a manipulation that seeks to replace reality. Computers and the social media has created a fertile field for such manipulations – or, to put it in another way, the tools of distorting reality are now in the hands of a wider population.

 So, does reality matter?

Baudrillard said that the first Gulf War was not a war at all. The events were totally different from anything approximating what is understood as ‘war’. It was a series of pictures and reports by CNN, which gave the world the impression that a war was on. In this instance the distortion of reality mattered to the world, or at least to the Iraqis. Some liked this distortion, others did not.

However, an increasing number of people do not mind being manipulated. “As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, we’ve become so removed from reality that we’re starting to prefer artificiality,” said Adam Leith Gollner. We are like the children who love the fantasy world of the cartoons.

A word of caution though. Accepting manipulated reality is not in the interest of ‘people’ for a number of reasons.

  • There is a great possibility of doing psychological damage to yourself by believing a false reality. The size-zero teenagers, the depressed housewives, the angst ridden male…
  • It gives great power to the manipulators and restricts our freedom of choice. In political democracy, or free economy, we choose on basis of available information. If the media distorts reality, blatantly and continuously, we are in fact led to choose – the question of free will does not arise, even without our knowing it.

But there is hope. There will always be individuals who would always question given reality. These misfits would not take the word of their parents, or of their teachers, or of their leaders, or of television or of the newspapers as final and true. They would argue, they would question – they would be a nuisance, they would be called rouges, non-conformists. They are the ones who will have the power to do reality checks on the world.

As Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.”



About Abhishek

I will let the blog speak for itself...or, at times, for me. View all posts by Abhishek

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