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  • Namanjeet Bhatia

Welcome to the Simulation: Baudrillard's Hyperreality in Contemporary Times

Updated: Feb 3

By Namanjeet Bhatia

Decades ago, Baudrillard made a haunting claim. He claimed that the proliferation of mass media and consumerism had made us enter a state of hyperreality, a state where everything is based on abstractions and social constructions, and nothing is based on objective truth or reality. He claimed that in this state our lives and society were nothing more than a mere simulation that is being controlled by the media. In this piece, I aim to analyze to what extent this hyperreality and simulation exist, if at all, in our contemporary lives. To do this I will be analyzing three things: the extent to which our daily lives mirror hyperreality, the extent to which our knowledge of the outside world is based on media representations, and lastly, the extent to which such media representations pollute our experiences.

Mirroring Hyperreality

Hyperreality, according to Baudrillard is a fabricated reality based on simulacra. It is a simulation of a simulation with no connection to reality. Hyperreality is characterized by an “inability to distinguish between the simulated and the real” (Smith, 2010). This hyperreality comes into being through the widespread acceptance, appropriation and distribution of simulacra, which can be defined as a sign with no link to reality.

In my opinion, I and even most people of my generation are an almost perfect image of Baudrillard’s vision of hyperreality, and this has been further exaggerated because of the prevailing pandemic. Almost all of the time I spend awake is spent on media consumption, the majority of which is useless, and the sole reason I consume this useless media is for stimulation. Because of the pandemic, I may be physically restricted to the confines of my own home, but it would be slightly wrong of me to say that I spend my days at home, because all my time is spent in the hyperreal, simulated world of the internet and social media, where I browse through a simulation of the outside world, and interact with a simulation of my friends and the people I look up to (actors, musicians, artists). I spend all of my time bumping into and interacting with simulacra instead of with reality.

Throughout Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard dedicates whole chapters to analyzing pop culture to illustrate his points, and I will be following in his footsteps in this post. To highlight the existence of hyperreality in contemporary times, I will be using the clichéd but accurate example of The Matrix. The Matrix is set in a world where humans live inside an actual, coded simulation. The reason this simulation exists is so that the mind of the humans can be kept alive, while their Artificially Intelligent overlords can harvest their body to generate power and keep their world running. Most humans live and die inside this coded simulation and because of the distractions inside the simulation are never able to realize the actual nature of their existence, that is of course until someone like Morpheus wakes them up and shows them the desert of reality. While, of course, the situation in real life is not as extreme, as far as we can empirically tell we do not live inside a computer program, but still parallels can be drawn. We may not have a simulation projected inside our brains through a cable connected to our spine, but we do have a simulation that is projected onto us from the outside world, that too from all directions. We spend our days traversing through and interacting with empty simulacra of the online world while we stay disconnected from reality. We are kept prisoners of this simulation through the combination of a careful designing of these online applications which make them highly addictive, and social appropriation of these addictive applications which makes it completely acceptable to spend all our time awake on these applications because everyone else does it too. While there are no AI overlords harvesting our body, there are these big companies that have every incentive to keep us inside this simulation, because every second more we spend inside, we give them not only more money but also our data which teaches them how to exploit users even more. In The Matrix, there was a very clear distinction between the hyper and the real, unfortunately, though, that is not the case in real life where the line between simulation and reality has become very hard to draw, because at some level the online world is no longer a representation of the real world, but the real world is a representation of the online one. Plato’s allegory of the cave does not apply to our world anymore for it is impossible to distinguish between the cave and the surface level where the actual sun shines. There are just layers of caves upon caves, and it is now impossible to know if the surface level is even attainable. While we may not have arrived, we are surely en route to a world where reality becomes deserted and the map replaces the actual territory.

Media representations and the outside world

As a result of the recent COVID-19 spike, and the resulting lockdown, I have not set foot outside my house for over a month now. I haven’t had a face to face human interaction apart from that with my family for longer than that. Because of this discord with the outside world, my world as far as I can empirically examine it is limited to the confines of my own residential area, and if you’re feeling generous, maybe also all the area I can see from my terrace. Apart from these areas, all of my knowledge is sourced through either what the media I consume tells me, or the representation which my friends and relatives from other areas present to me (which notably, is also shaped by the media that they consume). But for the sake of argument, let’s even look at the situation before the pandemic. My reach, my ability to experience the world first-hand was still limited to my own city and occasionally to the places I could travel to. Apart from this small fraction which I could take in first-hand (this first-hand experience also has scope to be polluted by media representations, by the way), my knowledge of the rest of the country and the world, and the image I have of it is single-handedly shaped by the media I and the people I talk to consume. This power of the media for obvious reason renders the world very relative and subjective. Couple this power with widespread internet and social media, where every individual is now a journalist to some extent, and you get relativism on steroids. You are no longer looking at the same tree from different angles, but you are now looking at two completely different trees. The world is no longer a standalone tree on an empty field, it is now a forest.

In the movie American Psycho (adapted from the novel of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis), the protagonist Patrick Bateman narrates the following quote about himself:

“...there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”

While the above quote is a commentary on how the commodification of empty signs can lead to the dehumanization of an individual, I believe in today’s world (even before the pandemic) it can also apply to the outside world. I believe I will not be wrong to contend that there is no objective outside world, but merely subjective relativist abstractions which we arrive at because of the media we consume. And though you can travel and get first-hand experiences of parts of this outside world, your experience of it is undeniably polluted by preconceptions etched into you by the media you consume. A person can see skyscrapers and feel proud about the development and the prosperity of his country or city, while another person can be disgusted by that same skyscraper as a monument of crony capitalism, all depending on the media which they have consumed. An objective outside world is simply not there anymore.

Let’s expand on this point through another thought experiment. Imagine a person A. A belongs to a minority within his country and as a result, most of his family is of an anti-establishment bend. A has grown up listening to his role models and most of the people around him saying certain things about the establishment, which undoubtedly shapes his ideological bend too. Now, of course, this ideological bend is also reflected in the type of media he consumes: the books he reads, the movies he watches, the social media pages and Twitter handles he follows (the echo chamber effect of social media is well known). As a result, he views the outside world with a tint of scepticism and disdain towards authority. He likely sees his country’s citizens as oppressed and the establishment as the oppressor. Now let’s flip the coin and look at B, who comes from a conservative family that looks at the establishment as a trustworthy protector and frowns upon dissenting against it. B, empirically speaking, sees the same world as A, but because of his different media consumption, he sees a completely different world where the establishment is not an exploitative oppressor but a guardian angel. Both A and B live inside the same objective world, but both of them live in very different simulations propagated by the representations they see in the media they consume. The whole point of this illustration was to demonstrate the power which the media has in creating a completely different world for each individual. This in itself is not a terrible thing, we need individuals with diverse perspectives, but with the proliferation and appropriation of social media and the internet, these hyperreal outside worlds become even more distant if not completely disconnected from an objective image, and also more fragmented, which means that every individual’s world becomes more radically different, which is obviously problematic.

Experience through Representations

What Baudrillard meant by representations replacing experience (Baudrillard & Poster, 2001) is not to be taken literally. ‘Experience’ here means the real or the reality, an authentic, natural and human experience of it. So when he said that representations replace experience he did not mean that experience (in its literal sense) has become obsolete, that is impossible, he meant that authentic and natural experiences which are strongly connected to and based in reality are now replaced by artificial and modular experiences based on empty signs and simulacra. What he meant by representations replace experience is that the real no longer precedes the representation, but the representation precedes the real. Representations are no longer based on reality, rather the so-called reality of our times is based on representations. The map is no longer modelled on the territory, but the territory is modelled after the map.

Let’s take the TV show Friends, for example. The show is about six friends who are traversing through life and adulthood in New York. The show is immensely popular and almost everyone in my generation who consumes media in the English language has seen it. As a result, because most people have grown up seeing the show, what friendship means to them is shaped and determined in a major part by the show. People model their friendships and relationships based on what the show represents friendship to be. People want what the six characters on the show have. But, what we don’t realize is that the goal of the show’s creators was not to depict an actual, realistic replica of human friendships. Their goal was to portray friendship in such a way that maximizes entertainment and stimulation. So the basic human emotion, relationship and “experience” as Baudrillard calls it, of friendship for an entire generation is modelled after, and preceded by a simulated, artificial and disconnected representation of it. While in older times, children learnt about friendship from actual human interaction which they saw taking place between actual real-world adults, now in a postmodern society infiltrated by media, children learn about these basic human emotions and relationships through a simulated representation which is greatly disconnected from the real thing, and the sole reason for whose existence is stimulation, entertainment and profit. Basic human experiences are preceded by simulated representations of it, and while we do experience through these representations, the real and natural experiences get buried in the “desert of the real”.

Conclusion

Subjective realities are a core element of postmodernism. No all encompassing metanarratives, no grand theories, just different worlds arising out of the human condition. Decades ago, Baudrillard presented his world, and it was a dark, pessimistic, and hopeless one. It was one where humanity had fallen so far down the rabbit hole, there was no way out. Because of these claims, nothing would delight me more than to say that Baudrillard was wrong, that his perspective of the world was a distorted one and that his jargon of ‘simulacras’ and ‘hyperrealities’ was nothing more than mere abstract academic play. But as social media profiles replace friends, and the media conditions humans ever so more about what to want, and how to live, it becomes harder and harder to deny Baudrillard’s claims. Even if you contend then we as a society are not completely there yet, you have to agree that we can the entry gate is moving closer and closer, and the message on the greeting board becomes clearer and clearer: Welcome to the simulation.

Namanjeet is a second-year student at the Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Raipur.

References

  1. Allan, K. (2011). Contemporary social and sociological theory (2nd ed.). SAGE.

  2. Baudrillard, J., & Poster, M. (2001). Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford University Press.

  3. Smith, R. (2010). The Baudrillard dictionary. Edinburgh University Press.

  4. Then & Now. (2019, July 25). An Introduction to Baudrillard [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Yxg2_6_YLs

  5. Jonas Čeika - CCK Philosophy. (2019, September 11). What did Baudrillard think about The Matrix? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bf9J35yzM3E