Each and every morning, many of us wake up and immediately check on what’s happening in the world. Sometimes these events stir emotions within us, and occasionally we act on those emotions, which raise in us a desire to affect the world ourselves. But does this entire ritual involve anything real? While performing it we don’t experience the world, but only media; when we respond, we respond not with action in the world, but only with action in media. We have directly interacted, to put it bluntly, with nothing more than pixels on a screen. This condition has pitilessly intensified in our era of smartphones and social media, and though philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard died three months before the introduction of the iPhone, nothing about it would surprise him.
Assembled in an ominous, vintage stock footage-heavy style reminiscent of Adam Curtis (he of The Century of the Self and HyperNormalisation), the half-hour Then & Now video essay above provides an introduction to Baudrillard’s ideas, especially those that predicted the world in which we live today, a “hyperreal postmodern” one filled with signs referencing little that actually exists. “In the run-up to the 2008 crash,” the narrator reminds us, “the real value of mortgages was hidden under layers of sign value, under deceitful insurance policies and financial ratings based on nothing.” On the news, “it doesn’t matter what’s real. What matters is how it’s said, who says it — the perspective, whether it will be provocative enough, whether it will entertain.” We live, in sum, in a “postmodern carnival” where “things like reality TV, Disneyland, and Facebook define our lives.”
Baudrillard saw this happening nearly 40 years ago: “People no longer look at each other, but there are institutes for that,” he writes in Simulacra and Simulation. “They no longer touch each other, but there is contactotherapy. They no longer walk, but they go jogging, etc. Everywhere one recycles lost faculties, or lost bodies, or lost sociality, or the lost taste for food.” He credited Marshall McLuhan, fellow gnomic observer of late 20th-century society, with “one of the defining axioms of postmodern life.” When McLuhan declared that “the medium is the message,” says the narrator, he saw that “what mattered in this new world was not what was real and material, but what was represented as signs: in short, television, and now the computer screen, has come to dominate social life. Sign production has replaced material production as the organizing principle of political economy.”
What would Baudrillard make of a production like HBO’s Chernobyl, whose painstaking reconstruction of historical events we previously featured here on Open Culture? What made that show a spectacle, says the narrator, was that “the depiction was more real than the event itself: costumes, props, special effects, and the perfect angle, the Geiger counter mapped onto the score already overdetermined by signs.” And so, “in twenty years’ time we think of Chernobyl, will we think of the real event, or images conjured by TV studios?” But we need hardly look that far into the future. The very things our screens insist to us are happening in the world right now, far beyond the walls of the homes fewer and fewer of us leave these days — what do we truly know of their existence apart from this digital blizzard of signs? If Baudrillard were alive to hear our speculation about the possibility that we live in another being’s simulation, he’d surely point out that we’ve already created the simulation ourselves.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.