It was Jean Baudrillard who first argued that electronic mass media would ultimately swallow reality, with electronic simulations generated in one place instantly appearing in another, influencing faraway events and shaping the whole world in the media’s image.
A worldwide flow of instant visual and audio representations of distant events generated in PR departments and newsrooms would distort our concept of time, space and truth itself, generating a whirlpool of digital illusions reacting together like chemicals to take on a life of their own.
The fact that faraway happenings were immediately available to our consciousness in the form of video and audio made it all seem real and present in our lives, reflected in such phrases as ‘real-time’ information, ‘live news’ or ‘reality TV.’
Yet reality is distorted by its transformation into digestible images and sounds tailored for consumption by certain audiences, stripped of context by speed of transmission, airbrushed for TV or filtered and ‘spun’ to favour hidden agendas. Digital media meant that reality was lost in its representation.
The centre of this multi-media illusion was the fact that what appeared to be an image of a real or ‘live event’ was in reality, as Blue Peter used to say, ‘one we prepared earlier’.
Even wars are sanitised for TV and filtered through the lens of one side through ‘embedded journalists’ reporting only what their military hosts want the world to see. And warfare has just become a form of theatre as exemplified by France’s made-for-TV airstrikes on Syria in response to terrorist attacks on Paris which caused military experts to observe that “the types of targets they strike right now really are symbolic…it’s all for internal consumption within France.”
Meanwhile events that appear to be spontaneous-from politicians’ gaffes to ‘candid camera’ moments–have often been scripted or organised in PR departments and newsrooms to generate a headline or soundbite serving a particular agenda.
In this blizzard of artificially-generated, de-contextualised, airbrushed electronic information, the truth often lies on the cutting-room floor. Yet when these visual and audio representations seem so real they can begin to influence us and shape our lives until there is no longer any distinction between reality and illusion.
Thus it is that sophisticated jihadist recruitment videos inspire thousands of Westerner teenagers to join ISIS, violent films inspire ‘copycat’ attacks, Pokemon Go users call the police to report a ‘stolen Pokemon’, and one-sided media dramatisations of faraway conflicts inspire public support for real military interventions in countries we barely understand.
And recently we witnessed the latest moves to complete the digital illusion rapidly colonising and controlling our lives.
The manufacturers of a new mind-reading wristband claim it can ‘read’ your emotions at any given time, displaying your feelings on a companion app, and ‘nudging’ you towards activities to restore your emotional equilibrium. And Amazon announced plans for the first ever personalised video adverts created on the fly in response to your innermost desires, fears and movements. Powerful algorithms can analyse users’ interests and generate instant ads in response by superimposing images and text onto graphics templates. It sounds like a giant Truman Show, an ever-changing personalised illusion created for each of us that shapes our thoughts and actions.
Personalised ads and mind-reading wristbands take the modern multi-media illusion one step further; not only do we think that what we see and hear is spontaneously generated in real-time, we now believe that our adverts and wristbands really ‘know’ us and are created to cater to our individual needs. Thus we come to depend on electronic media to take constant screenshots of our souls and reflect them back at us to reveal what we are feeling or thinking and what we want at any moment.
Yet this is an illusion; adverts are created not to reflect an understanding of our needs but to influence our thoughts in the desired direction of the advertiser. The purpose of the smartphone and the wristband is to ‘monetise’ its user. Technologies that claim to understand our innermost needs will therefore exert enormous influence over our choices so that their claim to know our needs becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They take our patterns of thought and behaviour and fit them into prefabricated categories of enticing adverts, essentially tethering our thoughts to a series of production lines. It transforms electronic media into a giant magic mirror that is not really reflecting anything but generating an image so pervasive that it becomes reality.
‘Mind-reading’ electronic media aims to become a corporate intermediary between our own self-awareness, replacing our self-image with a marketing-defined mirage and a ‘prompt’ to go and buy something.
Unable to understand ourselves without an electronic display screen, we could become like a Narcissus of the digital age, drowning in an illusory image of ourselves.
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