Art and Technology Masquerading as Life
If you look at the characteristics of fiction and the representational arts, you will find that they can be described in terms of a handful of elements. First, and most fundamentally, art and fiction, like everything else, is embodied in various kinds of physical and sensory objects. Its basic stuff is material; it is made up of actors, costumes, props and stage sets; of the rich palette of colors produced by paint on canvas; and the pattern of words on paper.
The second element can be found in the fact that these physical and sensory objects are often organized into stories, with characters, settings and plots, which are fictionalized versions of people and places and situations we know from the nonfiction world. Although these stories are most obvious in drama and written and spoken forms of fiction, they can also be seen in more realistic forms of painting, which show us settings and characters, and convey a sense that we are seeing a moment in time that is part of a larger unfolding of events.
The third element can be found in the fact that all of these stories convey ideas and fantasies that embody many of our deepest fears and desires. As the literary theorist Northrop Frye put it, art and fiction show us life as we both hope it will be and fear it might be: they contain a wish-fulfillment dream and an anxiety dream. The landscapes they reveal are always the landscape of our inner life.
Fourth, these stories also evoke basic emotional reactions in us, which are often tied to the fantasies they play to. They get us outraged, sympathizing, desiring, rooting for the heroes, and hating the villains, and through their happy endings, they take us from a state of anxiety to one of renewed hope about ourselves and the world.
Fifth, they make claims, that certain things are good or bad, both in their fictional realm and in life. They idealize, demonize, and hold up to ridicule; they make things seem exciting or dull, desirable or undesirable, not merely in what they say but in the way things are portrayed.
And finally, all are forms of action that evoke various responses from us. In addition to evoking thoughts and emotions, they may try to evoke practical actions in us, as well — to get us to buy the video, vote for the candidate or believe the ideology that is hidden in their depictions.
As alluded to above, fiction and representational art — as well as other story-based representations — weave all of this together in ways that are intended to create a sense of believability. To accomplish this, the costumes and characters will have to seem lifelike; the unfolding of events that is depicted will need a certain degree of believability; and the fantasies that are evoked will have to be relevant enough to lure us into the fiction and make us care about what happens next.
But in addition to creating something realistic, representational art and fiction also tries to give us invented worlds that are better (and worse) than something real. They create a simulation of the recognizable world, but one that is more miraculous and happier or more suspenseful or more dangerous or malevolent than anything we know from life.
When we put these qualities together, it becomes obvious that the representational arts offer us the illusion of an objective reality in which everything exists to expand our inner life. In the nonfiction world, we find ourselves in circumstances that are governed by physical laws or other people’s desires or chance. However much we may like to think otherwise, most of our efforts to re-create this world so it takes note of our values and desires are unsuccessful. But the enchanted realm of the arts temporarily place us in fictional substitutes that are crafted ahead of time to revolve around us, in which sense and meaning are combined in ways that satisfy our hunger for new and pleasurable experiences, and give our inner life an intensity that is only rarely evoked by the nonfiction world.
Everything that is said here is generally true of every form of art and fiction that seeks to depict a recognizable world, from some of the early cave paintings of ancient Europe to the popular fiction of contemporary culture. But, today, each of these attributes is going through a transformation, giving us sensory objects, stories and fantasies, emotional reactions, claims and forms of action that draw from the techniques and ideas of the past, but transform them to reflect the radically altered circumstances we now find ourselves in, during a time when we have a heightened awareness of the limits of personality and the unlimited potential of science and technology — and when we are very aware that science and technology can do enormous damage when they are controlled by our very fallible selves.
Of these elements, it is the realm of sensory objects that has gone through the most notable transformation. This process started with movies and television, which are able to create more lifelike fictions than other forms of storytelling by adding a layer of simulation to the illusions of the theater. Like the theater, movies and television tell stories through dramatic productions, with actors who perform scripted roles. But those performances are then captured in images that can be edited into a fictional sequence of events and made to unfold on a screen. It is as if the performances of the theater had been transferred to the simulated space of a lifelike and dynamic painting, where the artist can modify the images to enhance the story. Sitting in a dark theater (to use the more impressive of the two media), “bathed” in what are often theatrical, painterly, images, and carried away by the story they tell, we probably still come as close as we can to experiencing what it is like to be drawn into another time and place.
Alongside movies and television, another way of drawing people into invented worlds has also developed, that relies on “themed”, fabricated, environments in which people look at, and find themselves surrounded by, material images of fantasy. Long before Disney, and at roughly the same time that movies were being developed for commercial use, at the turn of the century, for example, Carl Hagenback developed an early theme park in Germany, with rides, costumed “natives” from other places, and lushly romantic nature exhibits full of fabricated rocks and artificial moats.
Today, these trends and other related trends are coming into their own, with the creation of new forms of art and entertainment that offer audiences greater realism and a range of sensory effects that is unlike anything seen before in history. Many use new forms of simulation to offer us a sensory or physical immersion in the fictional setting so it seems we really are in an alternate world. And many allow us to directly participate in the story by playing roles. Instead of looking in on a fictional realm from the outside and identifying with the characters, the audience steps into a simulation of life, which is a more alluring version of the world it has apparently left behind.
In the Lied Jungle, at the Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Nebraska, visitors go through one of these invented worlds, which builds on what Hagenback developed but employs recent advances in the techniques and technology of simulation. They find themselves in a cavernous room with an 80-foot-high ceiling, surrounded by an imitation of a rain forest, with giant fabricated trees, artificial rock formations and waterfalls driven by technology, all of it seamlessly interwoven with genuine plants and animals. As visitors make their way through the exhibit, they push away fake vines that hang over their path and cross a swaying suspension bridge as if they are on a safari.
Although it may not seem like it on first inspection, the Lied Jungle is a form of fiction, in a direct line of descent from literature, theater and the movies. But instead of portraying a lost world in the jungle in a book or on a screen, it seems to place visitors inside one. What, in the theater is usually referred to with such terms as scenery and stage-set has, in the Lied Jungle, been turned into an immersive environment that resembles the world of nature it is intended to represent.
Like traditional drama and literature, the Lied Jungle also tells a story, at least in a rudimentary form. Unlike them, it makes it possible for visitors to become characters in the story, in which (as we will see on another page) they go on a fictional journey, on a quest to learn how to save the rain forest.
The attraction has all the qualities we know from the arts — it brings a world to life; it tells a story and it gives us opportunities to play out desires for heroism, adventure and altruism. The overall effect is, not of a rain forest, but of a rain forest transformed by the demands of fantasy, re-created so it will more closely conform to the landscape of our inner life. It also makes all kinds of claims about what and who is good and bad, and in making those claims, it becomes a form of action intended to draw visitors into the realm of beliefs it espouses, and move them to political action, in this case, pro-environmental action.
Other invented worlds go a step beyond the Lied Jungle and put audiences in a simulation of physical reality, by surrounding them with images so they seem to move through the simulated space of the screen. In the world’s only Imax Magic Carpet theater, in Poitiers, France, for example, audiences look at a giant movie screen in the front of the theater and a second screen below a transparent floor. As they look down at the floor screen, they see images of land in the distance, as it might appear from an airplane, and experience the illusion they are flying. In a 3D theater in Manhattan, a somewhat different effect is created. Here, images of the ocean (to use one film shown there as an example) appear to leap off the screen and partially surround the audience, which experiences the illusion that it is in an aquatic environment, swimming passed a kelp forest and schools of fish.
Still other invented worlds being produced today are less realistic and less immersive than those described above, but they still manage to turn audiences into participants in lifelike fictions. In video and computer games, for example, players “incarnate” in a simulated realm by manipulating the images of characters that represent them in the fantasies portrayed on the screen. In combat simulation games such as paintball and laser tag, players run around mock battlefields firing imitation guns at their opponents. And in the growing number of telephone 900 numbers and the “text-worlds” that are appearing on the Internet, people engage in fictional dialogues by typing or speaking their parts, once again playing the role of actors in participatory dramas in a collaborative effort to bring fictions to life.
Virtual realities, children’s toys, interactive movies, elaborate theme parks in places such as Disney and Las Vegas, zoo and aquarium exhibits, the horror theme parks that open around the country every Halloween, a few story-based Internet sites, and most of what appears on television, similarly qualify as complex simulations that are designed to draw us into invented scenes and situations.
These and other forms of simulation now increasingly make it seem that fiction has come to life. Where traditional forms of fiction let us act out our desires vicariously, through the characters, many of these new forms of fiction let us become the characters, who “act in” the simulation. Instead of reading about heroes, they make it possible for us to pretend to exercise courage ourselves as we run around those imitation battlefields; or to play the pursued object in steamy telephone dramas. Instead of merely reading or watching characters who can escape the limits of the physical world, they make it seem that we really can escape those limits, creating the illusion we are taking flight or traveling to the past or seeing distant worlds. In the symbolic arenas of contemporary culture, art doesn’t merely pretend it is life and pretend to surpass life; it pretends it is our life, letting us seem to do things that might, otherwise, compromise our safety or our moral identity or that are impossible in the nonfiction world.
These new forms of fiction all draw from the same limited set of materials, ideas and techniques, to achieve their effects. They employ stage sets, costumes and props, to which they may add elaborate fabricated environments. They use 3D and computer-generated images: animatronic figures that seem to manifest body language and personality; and rides and stationary pseudo-rides that create the illusion of motion, along with a few other forms of simulation. Put in more general terms, most of the simulations they rely on can be classed as images, physical objects and forms of acting or behavior. Many are created and/or orchestrated with the use of computers.
Some, such as situation comedies on television, rely more on story and nuance. Others, such as movie rides, rely more on the sensory experience. And others, such as many contemporary science fiction movies, rely on both.
All give us various ways to “incarnate” in the simulation. Among these, they may offer some combination of:
* psychological immersion in the story;
* physical immersion, in which we are actually inside the simulation;
* sensory immersion in which we have the illusion we are inside the simulation;
* another form of sensory immersion, in which a number of senses are played to at the same time;
* the ability to affect the response of the simulation, in ways which may be predetermined or open, to create a sense of interaction, participation or control.
In addition, they usually use stealth simulations consisting of cover-ups, disguise, distraction and various degrees of invisibility, to conceal things that might interfere with the illusion, such as when equipment is hidden or noises from the outside are blocked out or masked.
Most of what has been described, so far, has to do with the sensory simulations. When we examine the stories these new forms of fiction tell and the fantasies they play to, we once again find a continuity and a break. On the one hand, they recycle all the archetypes and plot lines that have been fixtures in stories and in everyday life, in the past. They give us pastoral paradises, dark underworlds, power-hungry and sadistic villains, reluctant heroes, and unrequited lovers who come together at the end. They give us science fiction stories that (as Frye notes) are re-creations of ancient myths, and situation comedies that are in a direct line of descent from Greek comedies.
Many of these new forms of fiction also perform the same basic functions as stories throughout the ages, and give us the same, universal, story line. This story line (which is examined in another essay) lets us follow the heroes (or play the heroes) as they go from danger and suffering to victory, thereby taking us from anxiety to hope, and enhancing our sense that we can survive danger and create something better than what exists. In doing this, they help us symbolically transcend the basic unfairness of life, if only temporarily, and give us a corrective emotional experience that partly undoes the traumas of life.
But all of this is being transformed and adapted, to draw audiences and players into stories that are relevant to our unique circumstances, today. In particular, we seem to excel at a number of kinds of stories, including science fiction spectacles and fantasies; comedies, especially situation comedies; and psychodramas of sex and violence. We also do very well, as Frye noted, depicting the corruptions and limitations of society and human behavior with darker, more ironic works.
A good example of the way we re-create traditional fantasy can be seen in the Lied Jungle, which is your basic mythic garden, peaceable kingdom, and Never-Never Land of adventure and innocence. It is one of innumerable images (in this case, it is a material image) of unfallen nature that is tamed, offering abundant riches, and answering the call of our inner life. The basic story line is one in which Mother Nature, in the guise of a Never-Never Land, is threatened by a rapacious (masculine) humanity and must be saved.
In telling this story, the Lied Jungle embodies an idea that can be found in many science fiction stories and fantasies, in which some aspect of “reality” is threatened, and has to be rescued. Thus, we can see how an archetype and traditional theme has been turned into a kind of living, immersive fiction, and made to tell a very contemporary story that expresses our concerns over the stability of the order of nature and the survival of the world. Similarly, in post-apocalyptic movies such as Escape from New York, dark images of urban ruins are our mythic underworlds. But here, they are underworlds that once again express our fear that we will destroy the world by amplifying our own craziness.
Another example can be seen in Back To The Future…The Ride, an attraction at Universal Studios in Hollywood and Central Florida. The attraction, like many others, begins incorporating audiences into its story before the ride begins. It shows audiences a depiction on a television screen of the villain of the story, Bif Tannin, stealing a time-traveling device. It then shows a second depiction in which one of the heroes, (the archetypal — and clichéd — eccentric and wise scientist) Doc Brown, implores the audience to chase the villain across time, to stop him from misusing time travel and changing the natural unfolding of events to his own advantage. With this in mind, audiences are then lifted into giant domes, where they are bounced around on motion platforms disguised to look like time machines, as oversized images on wrap-around movie screens create the illusion they are flying into the future, and back into the ice age and the age of dinosaurs, until they make contact with the villain’s time machine and transport him back to the present. The synchronization of the motion of the platform and the images creates the illusion they are moving through the simulated space depicted on the screen.
Like many simulations modeled after science fiction, Back To The Future…The Ride takes audiences on an updated version of a mythic journey in which they can fulfill their wildest dreams and defy the limits of time and gravity. It lets them act out, in fictionalized form, a hope which characterizes the age, that we can escape the limits of the physical world with the wonders of technology. At the same time, it invites them to act out a common fear that we may somehow ruin physical reality by misusing this same technology. It reveals the three faces of technology: as a form of freedom; a danger, and a tool for problem- solving that can be used to undo its own ill effects. As Frye and psychoanalytic theory would put it, the ride includes both a wish fulfillment dream and an anxiety dream, except that, here, the anxiety is mastered with a happy ending in which present-day reality is saved from the villain’s evil machinations.
To use another human activity as a model and metaphor, the ride is a kind of ritual in which we master danger. Not unlike the cave painters of ancient Europe who presumably were using the images of animals inside cave walls (seen by flickering lamplight) for some kind of ritual to succeed in the hunt or in life or in a journey after death, we withdraw into our high-tech caves, with our own flickering images painted on the walls, to symbolically reenact what is on our minds, individually and collectively.
We can thus see in Back to the Future…The Ride, universal elements of art and psychology, transformed by the desires and fears evoked by the modern world. As noted earlier, this same kind of story line, in which some essential element of reality (the physical world, the natural order, the unfolding of time) is in danger, can be found in many of our invented worlds. It seems that in an age when we can simulate the appearance of the world and manipulate the world with technology, reality has itself become a problem for us. We are dealing with that fact, in part, by using simulation technology to tell ourselves stories about technology.
The comedies of the past have evolved, as well, becoming a vast culture-domain of sitcoms and movies, giving us the same stunted characters, interfering authorities, schemes and petty deceptions, and unrequited loves that comedy always makes use of. But now sitcoms lovingly dissect the contemporary narcissistic personality of the age, with, (what I would hazard to guess is) a heightened awareness of the theatricality and psychodynamics of everyday life, and a more blatantly politicized opposition to traditional society.
Perhaps the strangest transmutation has occurred to the archetypes of evil — of sadism and sexual violence, degradation, the lust for power, craziness and regressive desires. These still play their traditional role as obstacles the heroes has to overcome and as something that scares and angers us, on the way to the happy ending. But, here, there have been a number of changes. Among them, we have a growing fascination with, and a growing ability to depict, forms of radical evil, in movies such as The Silence of the Lambs and in horror theme parks in which we become immersed in a world of nightmares, and enjoy the pleasure of surviving to tell the story.
In addition, images of evil have started to migrate from being a source of danger to something that is celebrated, and a source of identification. Thus, contemporary fiction, in explicit and not only disguised, ways, offers us the illusion we are escaping the limits, not of physical reality, but of morality, allowing us to transgress social taboos and indulge in extreme forms of sex and violence, creating human worlds modeled after the darkest elements of our humanity. A good example, (although it didn’t succeed in the marketplace), was the interactive movie Mr. Payback, in which children were invited to press buttons to determine the revenge-tortures that would be meted out to characters. With this fascination with everything outside of traditional society — the perverse, the mad, the bizarre — we seem to be using fiction to symbolically transcend the limits of society and everyday life.
So far, everything described has been a form of fiction. Some like Back to the Future…the Ride are pure fantasy. Others, such as The Lied Jungle, claim to offer a fiction that accurately represents a kind of place. But when we look at what are described as forms of nonfiction, especially on television, we see the same characteristics.
Television news, for example, is becoming a genre with telling similarities to fantasy and science fiction. Tom Brokaw plays Captain Kirk, in the science fiction stage set of an elaborate, futuristic, studio, standing in front of the giant window screen that lets us look in on one troubled realm after another, before we beam down for a closer look. (And like the crew of the Enterprise, television news only pretends to conform to a prime directive and not interfere with what it observes.)
Like science fiction, television news satisfies our desire to escape time and place. It takes us on a ride in which we experience vicarious flight, travel to exotic locales, and see awe-inspiring sights, which are a mix of actual scenes and special effects. It thus draws us into its own version of a “postmodern” world in which the physical world has been enhanced and turned into a realm of fantasy that offers us various kinds of windows into virtual spaces.
When we look at the stories offered by television news, we see that they too are infused with a growing degree of fictionalization, with characters and plots that allow audiences to vicariously experience issues that matter to them, both as individuals and, collectively, as a society. Like the forms of fiction that have been described, these news stories often offer simple and exaggerated narratives about danger, conflict, suffering, villainy, and progress, and about people who overcome obstacles, in order to evoke the essential emotions of fear, sympathy, hate, admiration, and hope. Also like some of the fictions referred to earlier, these stories are constructed with a tool kit of creative narration, staging, story selection, editing techniques and electronic image manipulation, with people (characters) who often pose for the cameras. Inevitably, its central plot and theme is the same as that found in much of popular fiction — humanity’s desire to undo its fallen state, in the face of obstacles created by ignorance, power-seeking villains, and nature.
Television news also has something else in common with complex simulations like the Lied Jungle: it makes claims about what is good and bad in an effort not only to tell a good or true story but also to affect the behavior and beliefs of audiences. In other words, much of what we see is a form of ideology, that is a compromise reflecting what is desired by various groups. But it is ideology that masquerades as a depiction of events.
Thus, television news is a complex mix of three things: marketing-driven efforts to draw visitors into a virtual world; propaganda; and more factually-based reports on events. Like the Lied Jungle, it only pretends to give us an accurate depiction of something in the world.
Local news even finds a way to do what all good fiction does — it transforms anxiety into hope, mixing in all those stories about crime and suffering and accidents with stories about rescues and heroes and communities coming together to help those in need, all told by empathetic anchors who symbolize a community that cares and is capable of containing danger. In place of a happy ending, it gives us a happy-talk broadcast as a secure frame that lets us view the exciting and disturbing horrors of the day, while maintaining our sense of optimism and safety.
When we look at commercial advertising, which claims to provide at least some true information about its products (if only that the product exists), we see another kind of invented world that is used to tell stories. Here, we are in a realm of 20-second mini-comedies, full of special effects and instant happy endings which, once again, are intended to evoke a sense of hope for a better life. False claims and idealized visual images of the products are seamlessly woven into portrayals of virtual worlds in which the limits of space and natural law no longer apply. The same images of consumer paradises and of life as an endless celebration turn up in so many other places, from Disney World to malls, it is obvious we are looking at a basic cultural form.
Virtually wherever we look on television — at scripted politicians, rehearsed talk shows, documentaries — we see the same fictional forms and the same growing dominance of fabrications designed to look like something authentic. In the invented worlds of nonfiction television, we see what happens when art really does pretend it is life or, at least, pretends it is a window onto life. All shamelessly play on themes we know from literature and the arts — redemption, the journey, escape from danger, guilt and innocence, the happy ending — in an effort to trick us into playing a role in their dramas, as viewers, voters and consumers. Like the audiences at Back to the Future…The Ride, that experience a simulated journey through time and space as they are bounced around on motion platforms, we end up being taken for a ride. Unlike them, we are supposed to believe the journey is real.
Much of what is described here is temporary, of course. The growing power of computers, including the sensory immersion of virtual realities and the interactivity of the Internet, will soon take much of this to another level. We can see a hint of things to come in the graphic interface of computers, where the frozen simulated space of painting that got more realistic and began to depict motion with movies and television, now becomes a space we can navigate, work in and in use as a stage for interaction. Windows 95 creates a simple simulation of space and turns it into a work space. Instead of typing commands with strings of symbols, we seem to navigate around and into the virtual space displayed on the screen, and manipulate virtual objects or images. With the Internet, this becomes a common simulated space. Once these computer work spaces become immersive, with headsets or eyeglasses or immersive rooms, we will truly have a sense that we are navigating inside both our computers and the Internet, manipulating an illusory environment (and speaking commands to it) to manipulate our surroundings. At that point, we will move inside Tom Brokaw’s giant screen. It will become possible to live (or seem to live) inside simulation rather than nature, in a landscape that truly resembles the landscape of our fantasies and desires, traveling via the virtual wormhole of links to web sites that really seem to be places.
As more and more of everyday life unfolds in these simulated settings, the distinction between fiction and the nonfiction realm of everyday life will become harder to see. These simulated surroundings, after all, will be drenched in stories, invented settings and situations, and sensory metaphors, even more than our culturally-saturated surroundings in physical space are, today. For better and worse, we will have created the first truly human world.
The invention of fictional places and situations, in which we can play out the essence of who we are in disguised form, doesn’t exhaust the uses that contemporary society has found for simulation. Lifelike representations or, to put it more colloquially, things that appear to be other things, play other roles, as well, although only a quick overview will be offered, here.
For example, simulations have become an essential tool of work and education, where they provide models which can be used to teach skills that are needed in life. Medical students now develop their techniques with this approach by working on lifelike plastic models of people, which come with simulated wounds, irregular heartbeats and other features that are the stock and trade of doctoring. American soldiers practice navigation and shooting skills in virtual realities, which offer lifelike models of combat situations. Many of these simulations are similar to the forms of entertainment described earlier: they are participatory fictions in which dangers have to be surmounted and obstacles overcome. But their avowed purpose is to provide instruction on practical ways to deal with obstacles in the nonfiction world.
In addition, consumer culture now mass produces simulations that are used as substitutes for desired goods we can’t have or can’t have without paying some price. It provides us with manufactured foods created out of imitation flavors, sugars and fats that have some of the taste and “mouth feel” of natural products, but claim they won’t expand our waist or clog our arteries. It includes all that not-very-precious faux jewelry that always looks so impressive on cable television; plastic plants; knockoffs; museum replicas of famous paintings; faux marble bathroom fixtures, and on and on, through much of our material culture.
Like the simulations of the entertainment industry, these consumer simulations express what might be referred to as the bargain basement mindset of the age, in which we are forever being offered something for nothing. One sells us Bud Lite, the other reality lite, with the promise that we can eliminate calories and consequences by relying on facsimiles instead of originals.
Finally, in addition to everything described above, simulations are also used as a form of deception. Here, they appear as fakes, counterfeits, disguises and frauds that are intended to trick us with their realism and induce a state of “simulation confusion” in which we believe that the representation is the thing it represents.
Like the other kinds of simulation described in the book, forms of fakery and disguise are increasing in number and kind, and in the realism of their effects. Many are everyday objects that are also a part of consumer culture: Sy Sperling hairpieces that look like hair; fake IDs; mailed advertisements that are disguised as official notices to get our attention; home security devices that bark when someone approaches the house. Others, once again, simulate more complex situations or pretend to be accurate depictions of situations, such as the television news programs referred to earlier. A particularly interesting class relies, once again, on stealth, using partial invisibility and other techniques of concealment to imitate the appearance of nothing at all, such as contact lenses, teleprompters and the stealth bomber, which disappears on radar.
We expand our vision further when we recognize that our material culture and economy isn’t only defined by the mass creation and consumption of all of these forms of lifelike representation. In addition, we are seeing a second trend — societies, today, are using computers and automation, mass communications, genetic engineering, rapid forms of transportation and other advances in technology to attain an unprecedented degree of control over our surroundings and a new freedom from its constraints. We modify life forms; clone animals; send robotic devices to impossible-to-get-to terrains; look out into the heavens; and create vast interior spaces in office buildings and malls, where the climate and everything else is as carefully controlled by technology as it is in the Lied Jungle. In short, we are finding ways to transcend the limits of time and distance, and manipulate the physical world.
Once we factor in this additional element, we are in a position to describe the two trends that define this culture: with the aid of science and technology, we are gaining power over physical reality, and we are creating substitute realities (and other substitutes) of pure fiction, in which we can enjoy the illusion that we have achieved the freedom and power we still can’t get from the nonfiction world. In essence, we are trying to control and transcend the actual world, and we are trying to pretend we are doing so in invented worlds.
When you put these two trends together, it becomes obvious that contemporary society is trying to create a perfect world: to portray one, promise us one and put us inside one. This material and symbolic culture represents a daring attempt to escape the limits and imperfections of life; to undo the fall, if you will, and bring about a paradise centered around our selves. As it advances, it is surrounding us with a slave technology that works for us, thinks for us, provides what we desire in the form of authentic objects and realistic facsimiles, even daydreams for us with lifelike illusions.
This culture is obviously an expression of deep yearnings and a fulfillment of deep fantasies inside us. Each of us has, as part of our mental make-up, what might be termed a simulation complex and a reality complex, expressing our desire to control fictional worlds and the actual world, to create a realm of constant satisfaction and humane values, organized around ourselves. We have expressed these desires in all the invented worlds of fiction — stories, dramas, games — and we have expressed them in all the practical efforts to refashion our surroundings into a home. Perhaps we also express it in the way we project our philosophies onto the world, turning the world, in our imaginations, into a realm of mythic creatures or seeing it as embodying our morality. These desires are expressions of our narcissism, as well as our practical recognition that the world as it is doesn’t live up to what it can and should be.
Our conscious and unconscious thoughts about controlling real and virtual worlds are only a part of what is inside us that is relevant to these changes. Our minds also include an acute awareness of the various possibilities for good and bad as they relate to ourselves, society and nature. They include an awareness that we are fallen selves, trapped in our own psychodynamics and narcissism; that we live in fallen societies, permeated by the misuse of power and by deception, which is a product of our fallen nature as it is caught up in the world of scarcity and necessity we find in nature. And our minds include the awareness that we live amid a fallen world of nature that limits us at every turn, and that we have turned into a product of our own fallen selves. Of course, we are also aware of the good we have achieved — our fallen selves and societies have still managed to build civilization; we live lives with considerable fulfillment; we bring up new generations; and have turned nature into a source of material riches, for many.
In addition to being aware of our fallen state, and of our accomplishments, we are also aware of what we and the world could be. We know intrinsically that we have the ability to create an unfallen world: to re-create ourselves so we move beyond our primitive psychodynamics, and are strong enough to speak and hear the truth, so we are compassionate and able to enjoy the riches of the world, and so that we have an aesthetic, inherent, revulsion to evil and degradation. We know that we can re-create society and nature in the image of our humane values, now more than ever, as technology expands our power.
All of this is very much on our minds. It is what we express in fiction and nonfiction, both of which tell endless tales of our fallen state and our desire to undo the fall. In our traditional fictions and the new fictions based on complex simulations; and in our actions on the world around us, we express our desire to re-create ourselves, society and nature as we know and believe they should be.
Unfortunately, as many writers have made a good living reminding us, efforts to create a heaven on earth often end up being turned into something very different, by devils that are a part of our own personalities. And that is exactly what we are seeing, today — the potential that simulation and technology have to free us is being used by those who see it as a way to succeed in the various markets of the economy, politics and culture. In particular, we are now being offered the greatest of all products and sales pitches — the illusion of an unfallen self, an unfallen society and unfallen nature. In advertising, malls, theme parks, political speeches, and endless products, we are being invited to live a life of fantasy, full of instant paradises, painless solutions, happy endings, and heroic quests.
These creations take the story lines of traditional myth and fiction and use them to create simplified, exaggerated images, based on spectacle, that often emotionally dumb down what they portray. They tend to filter their subjects through the lens of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, so that everything from rain forests to election campaigns gets turned into a kind of movie adventure. Ultimately, they offer us not only fake realities that take us beyond the mundane, but false opportunities for freedom in which we are encouraged to escape the truths of the self and society.
With every advance in technique and technology, this culture looks more like a simulation machine that would draw us into a virtual world, in which we are addicted to fantasy or routinely confuse representation for reality. It is certainly no coincidence that science fiction gives us so many depictions of a future humanity as a race of shut-ins, who have lost touch with nature and human nature. It shows us one possible future, which is already, to some degree, our present — a future of authentiphobia in which humanity is afraid of the real thing, and in which simulation and technology are used to help the self in its age-old quest to protect itself from the possibility of an authentic life.
Contemplating how quickly the present is catching up with these depictions, one has to wonder what kind of people we will be once machines wait on us, construct our imitation realities and offer us whatever we desire, in genuine or simulated form, without delay in gratification? We will be very comfortable, of that there is no doubt. But, as science fiction also tells us, who we become, in response to these challenges will depend on the kind of moral beings we are. It will depend on whether our wisdom keeps pace with our power.
Simulation and technology offer us, individually and collectively, both new opportunities for freedom and traps we can use to refashion our neuroses with more interesting symptoms. How we handle these alternatives is a matter of choice. No machine and no sales pitch should be allowed to make the choice for us.
* The idea that art and fiction are emotionally invested stories embodied in sensory objects, can be traced back at least to Aristotle. The poetics, which are generally ascribed to him, describe dramas as stories with characterization, plot and setting; that take place amid stage sets, and evoke and cast out pity and fear in audiences.
* Humanity has also created various kinds of immersive and interactive fiction, before the age of high-technology. In board games, players “incarnated” in the form of the piece on the board, as they now incarnate in a video game screen. In tournaments and competitions, they became participants in events that may have had fictional qualities to them. In fencing, for example, the participants are engaged in a fiction. Children have also created elaborate worlds of play and fantasy. And so on.
* Footnotes on Frye to be added. The idea that our invented worlds depict something that is better (and worse) than what we get in the rest of life is partly inspired by Umberto Eco’s idea that themed exhibits seek to be better than real. Footnotes to be added on Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Guy Debord, Daniel Boorstin,, Sorkin.
* The way that stories take us from anxiety to hope is described in “Contemporary Storytelling: Tales of Life Way After the Fall.” The way we act out fantasies in virtual realms is described in “A Culture Based on Fantasy and Acting Out.”
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