The Matrix

(The following post is purely opinion/commentary and should not be deemed as my academic view on post-modernism, post-structuralism, social studies or media theory.)

So these two influential figures walk into a bar… Having looked around and not spotted Steve Jobs anywhere in this fictional bar, Jean Baudrillard went up to Zuckerberg: “Facebook is the hall of mirrors, the simulacra.”  Zuckerberg, naturally, was intrigued, as he had no idea who Baudrillard was, but somewhere in the Harvard halls someone had once said “simulacrum”, so he kept listening.

Naturally, I wish this dialogue had taken place while Baudrillard was still alive, and it hasn’t, and I almost attempted to turn this post into Socratic dialogue but it would have turned into a Platonic monologue instead, since I am biased to make the elder of the two look better.  Once social networking (i.e.: meeting others to gain social, cultural or professional status in “real life”) became social media, and personal updates became content, this digital data became its own system of sign-values, with cultural arms and legs that stand on their own, marking “the end of transcendence”- (a phrase borrowed from Marcuse) where individuals can neither perceive their own true needs or another way of life. (1998 [1970], The Consumer Society, Paris: Gallimard.) The evolution of the meaning of words such as “content”, a word which used to hold a symbolic meaning which is completely different than what it has come to signify, is evidence that the framework of communication and symbolic exchange we used to base our social beliefs on has dissolved. Social networking and social media are interchangeable terms, as are communication and media. For example, instead of a letter, e-mail or a phone call (one-on-one communication), a twitter message is broadcast to a mass of recipients that may or may not read it. The expectation of feedback is obsolete.

Social media profiles create a pastiche of images that are “published” for their own sake, multiple narratives, many of them contradictory, all of them incomplete, with no referent to reality. Notice the word “publish” has changed meaning as well.  This is an example of what one may witness on a Facebook news feed, a series of disjointed narratives mislabeled as “stories”:  A teenage girl fully covered in tattoos; random inspirational quotes (taken out of context, never containing a reference to their original source); song lyrics; photos of carved pumpkins; babies; live accounts from the Burning Man festival; someone broke up; someone just got married; turtles being rescued; a celebrity having coffee down the street from the neighbor’s daughter’s cousin’s new place; someone tagged a person in a photo (the tagged person is no longer alive but they still have a profile). It is the post-modern equivalent of a time capsule where random objects were taken from various people and thrown into a box as their entire civilization was being burned to the ground.

With the constant changes in Facebook settings and style, the home page displays arbitrary stories by relevant people.  The definition of what is top-of-the-page-relevant is entirely based on a mysterious algorithm.  One person’s inner social circle is perceived as true (to the user or to their friends) when the real user – the last link to the real – doesn’t interact or intersect with any of those narratives in the material world. These “recent stories” become available as they are still happening and become obsolete quickly. The sheer force of new data occupying the top of the feed is rendering cultural memory shorter and shorter with every interaction between content creator and hall of mirrors.  The content creator (that’s you) loses power over the system of signs and meanings that can be attributed to those signs.  A new hierarchy of rules, codes, and logics takes over, entertaining the authors and erasing the previous (ten-minutes old) systems of codes at the same time.  Post-modernism critics’ most radical Blade-Runner-like fears have come to life. Our acts of re-posting of other people’s content (text, photo or video form), perpetuate this hyperreality, making it harder to discern the real from the hyperreal than discerning dreams of electric sheep from actual sheep.

Post-modern art exposes the falsehood of meaning. Thus the “hall of mirrors” becomes an essential metaphor for postmodernism. One imagines the image of art continually bouncing from surface to surface, the original meaning or location impossible to discern.

Finally, Social Media has done for personal relationships what Google did for knowledge.  It made relationships “on-demand”, available for download, and therefore diminished any effort required on the part of the user.  The impact of social media on interpersonal communications is a seed for another posting.

In the meanwhile, if you are interested in human communication and art, please leave the simulacra, go outside and take a photo of someone or something and then write about it, with ink on paper (the kind of paper that comes from wood).  My advice is that you also watch a play or a fiction film, a story about human behavior with a beginning, middle and an end, imbued with values and references to historical context or art.  The hyperreal that one can extrapolate from the chaos of social media (especially if you also believe that the “medium is the message”) is a frightening cacophony of ideas that could have been made into art.  So much potential, so little effort in organizing it… Neil Postman has said, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, that the act of watching cultural junk on television was not detrimental to one’s perception of reality, so long as they read such content as pure entertainment, not to be considered information (or something along those lines, it has been a while since I read Postman, so I suggest you read that book for his theories).  The same can be said about this hyperreality.

A narrative that can help one’s intellectual pursuits or experiments in gaining status through networking can only be found in cultural products whose meanings can still be argued in an actual dialogue between users who retain control of that discourse.  Art, on the other hand, can have a liberal vehicle of distribution to the masses through Facebook or twitter, so long as that artwork has a referent in the real world, and is not the mere reflection of the perversion of the pretence of reality- or the simulacra.


Posted by Kaz, filed under

. Date: October 23, 2011, 7:24 am | No Comments »