First shared: October 8th 2013
Updated: November 21st 2016
Jean Baudrillard was a French Philosopher, he believed that we in the West have moved from a society of production to one of consumption.
For example, an object can have:
•A use value: A car is useful for going to work in.
•An exchange value: You can buy it from me for a tidy sum, and take yourself to work.
•Or, in post-modern society-A sign exchange value: An object which is a sign of distinction, taste, and social status. They signify social distinction. As you drive your BMW you’re saying to the unwashed masses “I’m no longer one of you – I’m distinct, a member of the wealthy and discriminating classes.” It’s the BMW’s symbolic value, it’s cachet, that makes it so irresistible.
For Baudrillard- this story illustrates where it all started:
“Once upon a time Jorge Luis Borges made a map so large and detailed that it covered the whole of his empire, existing in a one-to-one relationship with the territory it was made to cover. It was a perfectly scaled replica of the empire. After a while the map begins to fray and tatter, the citizens of the empire mourned its loss! They had long taken the map (which Baudrillard calls the simulacrum) of the empire – for the real empire itself. Under the map the real territory had turned into a desert, a “desert of the real.” In its place, a simulacrum of reality – the frayed lifesize-map – left behind”
Media, Facebook and Hyper-reality
Baudrillard was fascinated by how the media alters our perception of reality. He concluded that in the postmodern media mad world we experience something called “the death of the real”. The death of the real means that we may live our lives increasingly in the realm of hyperreality (bootleg reality) connecting more easily to unreal things like TV, Games or Facebook (things that merely simulate reality).
Baudrillard was a huge influence for the film The Matrix. I love that film!
Baudrillards work also suggested that the media stands not only to mask real life but to alter our understanding of real life events. For example, he controversially claimed that although the US lost the Vietnam war in the physical real world, they won it in the bootleg reality realm through films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon.
This leads to one of Baudrillards most notorious suggestions: If you have seen it on the TV (nowadays we would say YouTube, right?) – it hasn’t necessarily happened in reality. If it is solely presented as an image and more commonly a digital image, how are you to be any the wiser as to the veracity of the message?
The Ecstasy of Communication
He later wrote a book called The Ecstasy of Communication in which he suggests that while we may suspect at a un/conscious level that the messages we are being offered by the media are mere simulacrum, we surrender ourselves in an “ecstasy of communication” to the seductive power of the mass media. (Television, ads, films, magazines, and newspapers).
All those lovely ideas and images are like like sweets and chocolates; we know they may be synthetic but we just can’t resist.
The word simulacrum is also another word to describe a false copy of something. Baudrillard suggests that just like the story of Jorge Luis Borges, we each move through life using our own maps of reality and use television, media, and the internet as guides. These bootleg life maps are called simulacra, the plural of simulacrum.
Baudrillard argues that the post-modern media culture we live in may have corrupted our idea of what reality is. A prime example might be found in the observation that the genre of reality television contains the word reality.
Another example can be found on Facebook. I read several articles lately which resonated with me (here, and here ) and pointed to the rise in false news on Facebook, and other channels for that matter. When they say false news I assume what they are referring to are the articles and things you see on Facebook that friends share, which may or may not be accurate despite being presented as the truth.
This trend reminds me of Baudrillard and his suggestion that the false copy of reality (digital media) may, in subtle ways, begin to undermine our accurate understanding of the truth of things.
I see a lot of news and articles pop up online—especially around critical election days or large world affairs. I find it quite hard to decipher what is true and what isn’t. Maybe this is due in part to the adversarial nature of UK politics; most often we are presented with contrary information with each party proclaiming a different truth to the other.
I don’t quite know what to do about this, but I do find that being aware and present while seeing the information presented to me online helps me to feel as though I am developing a better understanding of things. I would love to know how you navigate this terrain in your life, please do leave a comment.
Baudrillard suggests that the western digital culture we currently live in is just a simulation of reality. He hypothesized that one of these days our bootleg lives would begin to proceed out real lives until we would be unable to clearly see what our reality is. Perhaps then our television friends: The Kardashians, Friends and Jeremy Clarkson would seem more real to us than our own physical neighbors.
I can relate to his thinking here, after all, we communicate digitally (email, video games, Skype) and at times we may relate to our twitter followers better than our own family. Get nervous if you’re away from your computer too long? And now the real terrain (our real lives), the one we based our map on (our twitter bio on), lays in tatters; the bootleg map still firmly in place.
How to Manage Our Media
As we become more tech savvy it might be worthwhile to remember that this bootleg media map can at times lose all emotional connection to the real things it was built to represent. And so, with our wellbeing in mind, and Baudrillard probably turning in his grave somewhere in Europe, here are five routes to digital discernment on social media.
1. Be mindful of drawing your self-concept from the false reality.
Comparing and copying are inherent in human development. That’s how we learn how to dance or do the downward dog. It’s human nature. Learning from others is important but if it is used to reinforce an unrealistic or negative self-image it can be an unhealthy habit to get caught up in. Even more so if the people with whom you are comparing yourself are digital concepts that may well not even exist. If it’s impossible to keep up with the jones’, It’s unlikely you’ll keep up with their virtual counterpart.
2. Keep Perspective
If you are clear about who you are and what you enjoy doing it won’t matter what everyone else and their followers are doing. For example, if one of your goals is to make partner in your company then it may be that dating isn’t as much of a priority for you and it would be a shame to spend time letting others dating updates worry you, or even knock you off your path.
3. Get Inspired By The Free Flow Of Info
Digital media opens so many doors with its free flow of information and who is to say it will stay that way forever- so we best make use of it!
You can learn everything and meet anyone, you can trade freely and look up tutorials for near enough anything. Just as baby goslings will imprint on a human if the mother goose is absent after birth, we too can model (learn by observing) all kinds of other humans around the world as we are no longer limited to our immediate peer group, village or community.
It can be healthy to use digital media for inspiration to generate ideas of how we can explore different sides to our personality and expand on who we are.
For example, if you have always wanted to know what it’d be like to be a musician, you can create a Sound Cloud or Vine profile and you can start updating straight away. If you get bored or feel that it wasn’t what you wanted after all, you can delete your profile and no one is any the wiser. It can be your identity fancy dress box!
If you notice others updates and find yourself intrigued and longing for their experiences you can use their updates as inspiration for parts of life you want to explore next. Use it as inspiration but never as a reference point for your own self worth. You are on your own journey, your own life path. Inspiration or no inspiration- you’ve got to do what’s right by you.
4. Get Muddy
How is your terrain looking? How connected are you with your actual physical life? Do you draw a distinction? If you spend lots of time on the internet as part of your profession, for leisure or both then why not take a social media detox after a heavy day in the simulacrum.
Bring yourself out of the virtual realm by doing things like walking outdoors, cooling off at a café, chatting to people or speaking to a colleague in person (or on the phone?) rather than sending another email.
Time is our scarcest commodity and as a busy lady myself I’m not suggesting we return to pigeon mail or communal baths, however taking a moment to keep yourself rooted in the real terrain can do wonders for your emotional health and personal confidence.
5. Ask What's True
Last but not least keep your mindful ears open. When you see a news piece online or even an advert or a documentary on tv don’t be afraid to ask yourself:
Q. What messages am I being offered here? ( for example)
Q. What tacit truth is being implied as the basis for this message? For example, some movies imply that it’s normal for women to want commitment more than men. Others imply that it’s normal to find your mother in law to be a pain in the back side.
Q. Finally, we can ask: does this seem true in my experience?
So there we have it.
It seems a lot to take in at first, at least it does for me; the realisation of the hyperreality in which we may each operate. But how useful it is to remind ourselves daily to be confident, to remember that we are enough, to stay grounded, to enjoy our lives, our loved ones and our lessons (she says, pecking at her computer keys) in the terrain, and not always in the map.
I hope this article gave you some food for thought and sparked your interest to find out more about Jean Baudrillard, cognitive science, mindfulness & wellbeing.
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