Are We Distracting Ourselves to Death?

How technology-driven "hyperreality" hijacks our attention and makes us numb to real-life dangers.
Are We Distracting Ourselves to Death?

Not long ago, my community lost a beloved young member because of his repeated trespassing onto a dangerous train trestle to take selfies. He posted them with the hashtag #liveauthentic. His last time there, he died while trying to outrun the train. (People take such extraordinary measures to get selfies that so-called “selfie-related deaths” are a global phenomenon. Wikipedia now keeps a tally.) For him and for many others, capturing an experience with a photo, video, tweet, or blog post can hold more importance than the actual experience and reflects a phenomenon that the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the hyperreal.

In his 1986 book, America, Baudrillard cited the election of a Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan, to the presidency as evidence of the hyperreal. Hyperreality describes a postmodern, highly technological society in which the lines between the real and simulations of the real become hopelessly (although often purposely) blurred to the point that we can no longer distinguish between reality and imitations of reality. When someone believes that reality TV actually represents real life, or when Coca-Cola—which was originally a simulation of cocaine—gets labeled as “the real thing,” or when we really feel liked by the number of “likes” on Facebook, we’re dealing with the hyperreal.

For example, this month’s release of the mobile app Pokémon Go—a video game using “augmented reality” (blending virtual reality with our actual surroundings)— has police cautioning players to be more mindful of the real world. One girl was hit by a car while walking into traffic and two men fell off an ocean bluff while playing. More generally, cell phone use plays a factor in one in four car accidents. Texting by pedestrians has grown into such a significant public safety concern that cities, campuses, and companies are taking measures to curb emergency room visits and even deaths from those “distracted while walking.” (Full disclosure: I once sprained my ankle walking down a grassy bank while reading email on my Blackberry. I know of what I write.)

Surely, distractions have been around since shepherds have been taking their eyes off sheep to chase butterflies, but such accidents point to the way technology can help us lose our sense of reality and its inherent dangers. When a reality that exists only inside our head—or our handheld devices—collides with the material, tangible world, we are entering the hyperreal.

In his 1985 polemical book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman predicted that television, by replacing a word-based culture with an image-based culture, would bring the end of modern (literate) society as we know it. Media has gotten more complicated since Postman was writing, of course. The Internet combines the power of words and images in ways Postman couldn’t have imagined. Now the ubiquitous forms of media that saturate our lives go far beyond the effects of television. Even so, Postman’s concern about technology’s role in “amusing ourselves to death” was prophetic.

As Postman predicted, today’s technology has the ability to change the way we interact with the world and even how we process far below our conscious awareness. As the simulation of reality seems to become more real than reality itself, it increases our innate sense that the rules don’t apply to me;that caution sign is for other people. It diminishes our ability to accept reality on its own terms and the dangers built into it: for example, the consequences that often come with trespassing on railroad trestles, venturing off the marked trail, defacing national historic sites, and being close to wild and dangerous animals. Hyperreality offers a kingdom so magical that one could think its lakes are merely part of the grand illusion and couldn’t possibly have live alligators capable of snatching up a small child for real (as one family tragically learned this summer).

The Disney parks, in fact, are one of the examples Baudrillard uses to explain the hyperreal. Umberto Eco expands on that example in Travels in Hyperreality. For Eco, Disneyland epitomizes the postmodern belief that “technology can give us more reality than nature can.” Places like Disneyland cultivate our admiration for the fake until we start to prefer the imitation to the original. When the pleasure of imitation that is “innate in the human spirit” reaches the point of the hyperreal, we come to see reality as inferior to its imitation. Reality, Eco says, “no longer stirs the imagination.”

Eco’s analysis helps explain why the simulation of sex offered by pornography is increasingly replacing real relationships. Porn begins as an imitation of the real, its viewers then imitate the porn, and the porn reinvents itself based on those imitations, and so on. This has brought what Baudrillard calls the “death of sex”: Real sex can’t compete with its unreal representations in porn. Moreover, sexual (life) energy is sapped by games, technology, and other forms of virtual reality. All this, Baudrillard argues, leads to “the death of the real.”

If the election of a Hollywood actor ushered us into the foyer of the hyperreal, this year’s election places us squarely in the living room easy chair. In other words, we’re now at ease with it. On the one hand we have Hillary Clinton, whose essential message can be summed up as “I’m whoever you want me to be” and who signs the tweets she really sends (like, really?) “—H.” On the other we have Donald Trump who, his ghostwriter recently reports, actually has no ideology, only ego. (I should note that ghostwriters are yet another aspect of hyperreality.) With his undisclosed background and his vague policies (all as ethereal as his hair), Trump is disconnected from reality. And his disconnectedness allows supporters to attach to him endless simulations of meaning. The more we insist that simulations are real—as in “@realDonaldTrump”—and the more we affirm things so clearly lacking in substance, the deeper we recess into the hyperreal.

Imitation, of course, has its place. After all, we are made in the likeness of God, and our ability to imitate is an expression of his image in us. But confusing reality with the imitation of reality robs us of the gifts each has to offer. In contrast to the hyperreal, God’s gift of imagination—which inspires the technology that fosters hyperreality—helps us to see not only what is real but what can and should be. Imagination helps us to improve reality, not to flee it. And the power we have to imitate and imagine is given by God not to escape his goodness and the world he created, but rather to live delighted in the world and the one who really made it.

September
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