“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” Philip K. Dick said, when asked to define what reality is. Dick was a Science Fiction writer and that seems appropriate enough we are living in a Science Fiction world where there is no reality anymore, because the real goes away, but the unreal does not.
As we watch the news covering a story, what we are actually watching is the media making up a story and then telling that story incessantly and embedding it in every nook and cranny of their coverage. This blurring of the lines between the real and the fake is not happening thanks to the magic of technology, but the prosaic methods of complete insincerity.
The fake is being overlaid on the real, like men fighting on top of a board with a movie of a train passing by in the background to give the impression that they are fighting on top of it. Such cheap trickery defines our media environment where reporters barge into events and badger the participants into playing along with their movie. Or they just play the clip of actual events and frame them so that everyone hears their version of what is going on.
There's Godzilla and we know he's real because we can see Tokyo in the background. There's the latest media narrative and we know it's real, because we can see Tampa in the background as some blow-dried buffoon does breathing exercises before commencing to tell us that the Republican Party, which supports things that would have made Ike and Ron have coronaries, has gone so far to the right that it might as well be a Godzilla of reactionary running dog capitalism.
This is our shoddy virtual reality with a CNN or MSNBC logo planted on top. There is you still sitting on your same old couch, watching Chris Matthews yelling himself hoarse about racism, because racism is our virtual reality. It is the world that we are supposed to live in and Chris' job, for which he receives some 5 million a year, is to convince us that we are living in it.
"Racism," Chris yells at the screen, like the idiot shaman of some stone age tribe, and those dull-witted enough to believe him nod knowingly, because it makes them feel as if they know something. And in a world where nothing is real, knowing something makes them feel a little less confused. They don't understand why the prices are suddenly so high and the bank won't give them a loan-- but they can understand that Republicans are bad people and somehow responsible for it.
Some 70 percent of Barack Obama's Twitter followers may be fake, but why quibble at such numbers. The people who decided to make Obama popular did so through constant repetition that translated into the peer pressure of the trend. Obama became a trending topic and everyone followed along because in an unreal world, you follow the unreal leader.
Obama is fake, his popularity is fake, but it's also real, because fake is now the ultimate reality. The purveyors of fakeness have demonstrated their ability to transform the unreal into the real through manufactured consensus. By insisting that something unpopular was popular often enough, they made it popular. And by insisting that something popular is really unpopular, they did the opposite.
The Solomon Asch study showed that people will change their correct
answers to conform with the wrong answers that are being given by
others. The false consensus has operated on that same paradigm,
convincing people of two lies; that the wrong answer is
the right answer and that everyone else has already
agreed that the wrong answer is correct.
Doing all that is impossible unless people lose touch with the real. The wraparound nature of the media has made it so that the unreal never goes away. The unreal is so pervasive because it has so many outlets and we are all wired into one or more of them. If the unreal doesn't get into your head one way, it will do it another way. The viral virus adapts because its designers are intelligent. And most of all they are persistent. They aren't just malicious or in it for the money, though both those things are also true, they believe. They are missionaries and their goal is to convert you into fodder for their malicious money machine.
It's a lie, but knowing a lie for what it is requires either being able to do the math or have the common sense to know it for what it is. And common sense is derived from rough and tumble contact with reality. And reality has gotten harder to find these days. It requires unplugging all the belief channels, stepping out into the fresh air and trying to see what still remains when all the things that the belief trends told you to believe in have gone away.
There is a very specific category of people who are uncomfortable with the way things are and for the most part these are the people who have ongoing forcible contact with realities that don't go away when the talking head begins jabbering, the memes begin spewing and the trending topics trend. These are the people who work for a living outside the bubble, who know that external safety nets are unreliable and that they are always on the edge of something... even if they don't always know what.
It isn't wealth that is the determinant. Many of the wealthy occupy a wholly unreal world. A world where things happen because they want them to. It's what makes the technocracy of the last three administrations so seductive to powerful men and women who begin to think that they truly can move the world. It's the edge that matters, the sharp sense of pain that reminds you that there is a sharp reality here that isn't going away.
In a world where the fake seems real, the real seems fake. Obama seems more real than Romney and Ryan because he has mastered the art of the unreal. Television reality is not the same thing as reality, but it can seem more real, that is until you see how fake television makeup appears in real life. But there is no more real life in that sense. Not anymore.
Television is no longer a thing into which people step into and then step out of again. It no longer has that sense of being a passing moment where an appearance is insubstantial because it is temporary. Now television is permanent. It doesn't turn off late at night, the eagle doesn't fly above a painted backdrop while the anthem plays. It is everywhere because video is everywhere. Everything is being captured on video through the eyes of surveillance cameras, teenagers pointing cell phones at each other and men sitting in their room and declaiming at a webcam. The real and the fake have merged to spawn something that is real enough to be properly fake and fake enough to pass for real. It is a collective creative act, our final artform whose title is simply, "Life", as envisioned by those who no longer know what life is.
Obama feels real because he has that same unreal quality, that sense of always being onstage, of an actor who is never out of character because he is always performing. It is an artificial reality that seems super-real, because like video it has that intensity and immediacy that exists to satiate the attention deficit disorder with a surfeit of stimulation. It seems real, only because we no longer know what real is.
When a disaster happens, people reach for an instant baseline of comparison in a movie. Real tragedy seems unreal because it seems cinematic. The story of Obama is equally cinematic, it is real because it is like a movie. Except it isn't a movie, and yet it is, because we experience it in two ways, through the real connection with the economic consequences of his policies, and through the unreal display of his teleprompter fed blatherings, the easy grin that he practices in a mirror and the eyes that never quite look at anything because they are their own reflection.
When all the bubbles of rhetoric pop, there are still the hard unpleasant realities to deal with. Bailouts and money pits can only bury them for so long. Governments sending money to banks and swapping worthless commodities that only exist in the theory of a theory only work for as long as people believe in them.
Even an unreal economy reported on by an unreal media cheering on an unreal leader can only run for so long until reality punches through the illusion, the curtain falls, the magicians scramble off the stage with rabbits and doves tucked into their pants, and everyone wakes up to realize that the dream is over and we realize that we are entering a world where the stories no longer matter and history is about to begin.