Volume 8, Number 2 (July 2011)
From Second Life and Ski Dubai to the Embracing of Hyperreality and Pseudo
Events – Reflections on Baudrillard Eco, Boorstin and Borgmann
(Doctoral Student, Sofia University, Bulgaria)
Hyperreality is a concept that deserves to be better known outside of philosophical circles as it has tended to be confined to semiotics and postmodern philosophy where it is used to understand the theoretical incapacity of consciousness to differentiate between what is real and what is not. Hyperreality is predominantly present in technologically advanced postmodern societies where both technology and media are used extensively in a manner which combines the ‘real’ with the ‘unreal’. As a consequence certain objects or events are made to appear real when in fact they are not.
Hyperreality has been discussed by a number of well-known philosophers. Among these Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Daniel Boorstin, and Albert Borgmann have shed light on this important concept. Taken together, the work of these thinkers, has helped to introduce the concept of hyperreality to a wider audience. These four thinkers contribute to our understanding of hyperreality while taking a critical position on postmodernity. What we know of hyperreality today is largely due to the work of these theorists within the context of technological innovations which cry out for new readings.
II. Jean Baudrillard
Hyperreality has remained a key concept in Baudrillard’s philosophy since the publication ( 1994) of Simulacra and Simulation where he writes:‘Take your desires for reality!' can be understood as the ultimate slogan of power since in a nonreferential world, even the confusion of the reality principle and the principle of desire is less dangerous than contagious hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1994: 22).
1. A page from Second Life
At the time of writing this essay, the population of the virtual world Second Life stands at 20 million (real time statistics are available at: www.secondlife.com/xmlhttp/secondlife.php). Users of Second Life wander around the virtual world with the primary of making their desires become ‘reality’. To understand how much this is indeed the case one only needs to examine the profiles of two ‘Second Life’ users named ‘Dave’ and ‘Amy’ (see: www.cheatcatcher.com/love-virtual-reality-avatar). The real ‘Dave’ is 40 years old, over-weight and with balding grey hair, but in ‘Second Life’ he is still in his mid-20’s, slim and with long hair. On the other hand ‘Amy’ has chosen an entirely different name in ‘Second Life’ and in her virtual life she is certainly much slimmer than in her real life. This is indeed a desire (that of being young and beautiful) which many aspire for, after watching how present-day TV and glossy magazines portray the ‘perfect’ hyperreal models. Moreover, the desires do not limit themselves to the personal image but as expected also extend to the material possessions. Hence one can notice that whereas in real life ‘Dave’ and ‘Amy’ live in single-bed apartments, in their virtual world they have chosen to ‘live’ in very lavish houses. This is similar to the hyperreal TV show ‘Big Brother’ where participants always live in a large house or in a villa, which is furnished with everything that one can desire! Consequently, the thousands of “real” ‘Daves’ and ‘Amys’, who on a daily basis have to struggle to pay the rent of their small one bedroom apartment, can immerse themselves in the virtual world of ‘Second Life’ and there fulfil their real life unattainable desires!
What is real and what is not are often intertwined. Consequently the user’s manual of ‘Second Life’ is eager to tell us: “You have the ability to do almost anything here, but there are basic rules set by Linden Lab. Those rules are described in the Community Standards. Real life laws still apply in a virtual world. Linden Lab is based in California, USA, so their local laws apply to it, and your local laws apply to you” (see: www.wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/User's_Manual). This statement, apart from reminding us that in cyber-space rules and laws do also exist, also illustrate the extent by which ‘real world’ space is stretched into cyber-space. At the same time one problem certainly exists: how many out of those 20 million global ‘Second Life’ users know the laws which govern California, and consequently know the laws which apply to their virtual world? What happens in those cases where the laws which govern the virtual world are in direct conflict with the local laws which govern the ‘real world’ societies that the 20 million users of ‘Second Life’ still live in? It is indeed in these kind of situations that we will be able to observe the inability of the user’s consciousness to discern reality from virtuality!
The same extract from the user’s manual of ‘Second Life’ also intersects with one of the most quoted passages from ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ which states that “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory ...” (Baudrillard, 1994:1). In fact in a virtual world like that of ‘Second Life’ what is being simulated is not a real territory (even though the laws of a real territory govern it). What is instead being simulated is indeed something which in the ‘real world’ does not even exist. Hence, ‘Second Life’ and other virtual worlds are not based on a ‘real world’ territory which exists in the first place and which acts as a reference! Consequently, one can indeed assert that in virtual worlds, it is the map (the virtual world itself) that precedes the territory!
Also, in the irreal world of ‘Second Life’, "The real is produced from miniaturised cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these ... It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere" (Baudrillard, 1994: 2). In this regard, the reproducibility of virtual worlds can be easily attested through ‘World of Warcraft’, an immensely popular online computer game which is also based in a virtual world. In this case one can find that both a US version and a European version of the virtual world exist, but definitely both of them have been generated from the same miniaturised cells and from the same memory banks!
2. Ski Dubai
Importantly, hyperreality is found not only in cyber-space, but it has also been fully absorbed within the ‘real world’. Both Baudrillard and Eco refer to Disneyland as a case in point, but lately more persuasive structures are indeed being built. A good example is the resort ‘Ski Dubai’ which is located in the United Arab Emirates (well known for its hot arid climate). In Dubai, despite extremely hot summers the hyperreal world of ‘Ski Dubai’ has a temperature always below zero! The owners of 'Ski Dubai' also emphasize the fact that the area of the resort (equivalent to 3 football fields) is covered with real snow all year round, that the temperature is maintained at a comfortable -1º to -2º degrees Celsius and that guests can even visit a snow park which also includes a snow cavern. The middle-eastern theme is nevertheless not neglected because guests can be transported up to the snowy mountains on 'flying carpets' and of course one can also find the essential and at the same time exclusive retail shop (see: http://www.skidxb.com/home/about-ski-dubai/factsheet.aspx). To all intents and purposes, everything, from the snow to the ‘flying carpets’ is so ‘real’, that it becomes a hyperreal – the more real than real. In actual fact, everything is indeed an imitation of something that in this part of the world never actually existed, and this representation is even more perfect than the thing it ought to represent, because unlike is sometimes the case in the real snowy mountains, in Ski Dubai an avalanche is of course never simulated!
Our present age represents what Baudrillard has defined as the third order of Simulacra and this can be identified in a myriad of present-day artefacts, from the most small to the most grandiose, and if we turn our attention once again to the captivating world of cyber-space we can also identify Baudrillard’s fourth stage in the sign-order. A case in point occurred to me quite recently: after browsing the website of a company which sells software on the Internet I decided to close the web browser without purchasing any of their products, but then the face of a virtual female appeared in a new browser window and started to ask me if I needed assistance! This virtual woman even claimed to be from the customer care department of the software company which owns the website that I had been browsing. Now, was she real or was she the replica of a real customer care representative, and did this really matter after all? Most probably it did not because in the realm of hyperreality this kind of question is indeed no longer relevant! Rather, what is perhaps relevant is that Mark Gaydos on Bloomberg’s Business Week asserts that “Leaders are moving to virtual agents, and although we will no doubt continue to have human assistance available via live chat or a phone call, it will soon turn into the exception, not the rule.” Moreover he also boldly proclaims that “The real reason behind the trend is that customers prefer virtual agents” (Gaydos, 2010).
One of the most subtle ways through which hyperreality penetrates the ‘real-world’ is via the computer screen. The other screen through which hyperreality manages to obfuscate human consciousness is television. So called “reality TV” shows and “reality thematic channels” have managed to accentuate the penetration level of hyperreality in the daily life of millions of people. For instance the website of ‘Zone Reality UK’ declares to be “... the only TV channel dedicated to showing reality programming 24 hours a day, 7 days a week ...” and furthermore adds that it “... is inspired by real life drama, crime, the bizarre and the unexplained. Bringing you sensational unscripted programmes to stir your emotions and provide incredible insight that will keep you hooked. From fast paced, sensational series to heartfelt, emotional documentaries. Zone Reality offers only real life programming ....” (see: http://www.uk.zonereality.tv). Many people believe that reality TV is a recent phenomenon. However, Baudrillard was already aware of its format and about its effects in 1985 (14 years before the first series of the popular ‘Big Brother’ was broadcast in the Netherlands on Veronica TV). In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard discusses the Loud Family who in 1971 had to ‘endure’ “... seven months of uninterrupted shooting, three hundred hours of nonstop broadcasting, without a script or a screenplay, the odyssey of a family, its dramas, its joys, its unexpected events, nonstop – in short, a ‘raw’ historical document, and the ‘greatest television performance, comparable, on the scale of our day-to-day life, to the footage of our landing on the moon’” (Baudrillard, 1994: 27). Baudrillard also recounts how during the filming a crisis erupted and the Louds separated (Baudrillard, 1994: 28). This particular passage indeed reminds me of the 2005 edition of ‘Big Brother Bulgaria’ during which Elena Georgieva entered the house with her husband Miroslav Atanasov and then proceeded to amuse the captivated viewers with her romance with Marian Zahariev, another participant from the same edition of the show! Many viewers were indeed totally absorbed by the unfolding drama and yet only a few could realise that this event was more or less a replica of a similar one which happened in a similar show 34 years earlier! As Michael Rennett has put it: “Reality TV viewers and critics, as well as television and media scholars, have debated the reality of these programs ...” and further adds that “A VH1 expose, ‘Reality TV Secrets Revealed,’ divulges many of the techniques used by the producers of these shows to get the story they want including recreating actions that were not originally caught on tape, combining audio and video from separate times together, and acting out pre-planned storylines” (Rennett, 2009). Little wonder that Baudrillard asked if we prefer the exile of the virtual to the catastrophe of the real (1995:28).
III. Umberto Eco
In Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality he critiques contemporary American culture for its distinctive hyperreality. Eco’s travels in America (not unlike Baudrillard’s in the 1970s and 1980s – see Baudrillard, 1988), lead him to reflect on the country’s advanced inauthenticity. He argues that “... Las Vegas is still a ‘real’ city, and in a recent essay on Las Vegas, Giovanni Brino showed how, though born as a place for gambling, it is gradually being transformed into a residential city, a place of business, industry, conventions. The theme of our trip – on the contrary – is the Absolute Fake; and therefore we are interested only in absolutely fake cities. Disneyland (California) and Disney World (Florida) are primary examples, but if they existed alone they would represent a negligible exception. In the United States we find many cities that imitate a city, just as wax museums imitate painting and the Venetian palazzos or Pompeian villas imitate architecture. In particular there are the ‘ghost towns,’ the Western cities of a century and more ago. Some are reasonably authentic, and the restoration or preservation has been carried out on an extant, ‘archaeological’ urban complex; but more interesting are those born from nothing, out of pure imitative determination. They are ‘the real thing’ (Eco, 1986: 40). Eco serves to increase our awareness of how much simulacra are part and parcel of the American experience. While on one hand he does not ignore the fact that in some instances restoration and preservation has taken place, vis-à-vis places of authentic historical value, he is mostly attentive to the fact that the Americans are keen to fabricate the absolute fake: an artefact which no longer tries to simply imitate a historical period but which is essentially a invention that aims to create something which is better than the real! Eco says “This is the reason for this journey into hyperreality, in search of instances where the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake ...” (Eco, 1986: 8).
Eco also observes that this kind of hyperreality, with its desire for unconstrained improvement, also extends to nature. Consequently, he rightly observes that “The number-one hit movie, Jaws, was about a fierce and insatiable monster animal that devours adults and children after having torn them apart. The shark in Jaws is a hyperrealistic model in plastic, ‘real’ and controllable like the au-dioanimatronic robots of Disneyland.” (Eco, 1986: 57) Indeed, many shark experts consider the possibility of an unprovoked shark attack on humans as extremely rare but in 1975, Hollywood needed to fabricate a hyperrealistic model which was not as unexciting as the real fish, and this hyperrealistic image still prevails in our information age. In fact the vast majority of shark documentaries still portray sharks as violent man-eating machines. Consequently Eco defines this as a hyperrealistic reproduction.
Eco begins the last paragraph of his essay on hyperreality by stating that “The ideology of this America wants to establish reassurance through imitation” (Eco, 1986: 57). However, this ideology is no longer confined to America since similarly, hyperrealitic landscapes and hyperrealistic nature have in recent decades been introduced in other parts of the world. Indeed, Disneyland Paris and Ski Dubai only serve to confirm what could be dimly perceived as early as 1975.
IV. Daniel J. Boorstin
In his book The Image: A guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Boorstin is credited with having coined the term ‘Pseudo Event’ and while this term predates the term hyperreality, it dovetails with the latter concept. William Safire defined the term ‘Pseudo-Event’ as "... an occasion planned for coverage, like an interview or a 'photo opportunity'. A media event does not 'break' spontaneously, like a news event; instead, it is an occasion planned to make news or to 'hype' an unimportant story ... Hype, as used above, also media hype, means 'investigating a minor occurrence with spurious importance' ..." (Safire, 2008: 584).
In the 1960s the USA was already an ‘Information Society’ (Karvalics, 2008: 40). Boorstin described the American society of that time as: “‘When we pick up the newspaper at breakfast, we expect – we even demand – that it bring us momentous events since the night before ... We have used our wealth, our literacy our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life” (Boorstin, 1971: 3).
Now, 50 years later the ‘Information Society’ is still not entirely global but it has been expanded to many other regions. Consequently Boorstin’s remark can now be also observed in not just the most advanced post-industrial societies, but also in those societies which are still aspiring to become so. We also now live in an era where most television stations transmit for 24 hours a day, and where every morning the typical citizen of the ‘Information Society’ does not only have one newspaper, as it was the case for the typical American citizen in the 1960’s. Rather, the typical citizen of today’s ‘Information Society’ is awakened by a radio alarm which is usually tuned to a station transmitting the morning news. While having breakfast, he or she is able to afford the luxury of tuning to various news stations. On the way to work the next dose of information is infused via the car radio. At work he or she is online with access to any media website.
Consequently, we nowadays find that the media-sphere has become so heavily congested, that various broadcasters need to either repeat the same news or else be ‘original’ and transmit news items that no other broadcaster knows about! The problem is that in this scenario, the options are usually few, so the contemporary journalist needs to come up with something which is either really exclusive or which is basically pseudo-news!
Earlier in this section we have seen a formal definition of the term pseudo-event (Safire, 2008: 584). Nevertheless, the following extract from 'Media’s Creating Reality: Construction as a Social Process’ (Scherer, Arnold, and Schlütz, 2005) and which is based on ‘The second Reality: A field experiment to carry an election campaign event by participants and viewers’ (Donsbach, Brosius and Mattenklott, 1993) portrays a more unequivocal interpretation of the term:
Subject of our studies are pseudo events or staged events that actually happen only to induce media coverage. They happen live, but are always media products which are altered by technical or dramaturgical means to create a difference between what happens on site and what is shown on television. Press conferences are a typical event of that kind.
As can be inferred from the title of Donsbach, Brosius and Mattenklott (original in German), pseudo-events are frequently used by the political parties which operate in contemporary information societies. Peake and Hooper observe that President “Bush’s public relations strategies have also relied upon pseudo-events designed to generate widespread and uncritical news coverage across the nation. Examples of presidential pseudo-events include nationally televised speeches (including the State of the Union address), press conferences, and trips abroad. Perhaps the most infamous such event put on by the Bush administration was the address from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003. The address was preceded by a dramatic carrier landing by the President, dressed in full-flight gear, and generated glowing coverage in the press, despite its obvious manufactured qualities and dubious relationship to reality. Other notable examples include Bush’s surprise visits to Baghdad on Thanksgiving 2003 and again in June of 2006 ... In Boorstin’s view, manufactured events provide the landscape of American politics. Their success, however, hinges on media coverage” (Peake and Hooper, 2007). Coverage of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq prior to the war (indeed the certainty of their presence was given as the reason for the US-led invasion in 2003), also retrospectively became coverage of a pseudo event as no WMDs were actually found in Iraq.
The example given by Peake and Hooper of the USS Lincoln clearly shows the convergence that takes place in contemporary information societies between politics and the media. Consequently, we can indeed affirm that political parties and politicians also depend on the media to enforce their ideology, whereas the media is always in a desperate need for more pseudo-events to fill their 24 hours a day broadcasting. The end result is nothing else but a conglomerate which fabricates hyperreality.
V. Albert Borgmann
Albert Borgmann also contributes to our understanding of hyperreality. In Crossing the Postmodern Divide, he examines hyperreality extensively and for instance we find that his thought is in line with Eco vis-à-vis the fact that hyperreality aims to generate something which is even better than the real thing! This can be for instance observed in the following passage: "... hyperreality is rich. In the running simulator, the scenes of western Montana will have more wildlife, more thunder and lightning, more sunshine, deeper and drier snow ... The ideal limit of hyperreality is encyclopaedic completeness." (Borgmann, 1993: 88)
Borgmann also observes that hyperreality has another feature which the ‘real-world’ does not possess: its replaceability! This characteristic can be clearly understood via the following passage from Borgmann’s book: "The hyperreal sunlit winter landscape is at the runner's disposal. She can call it up at any time, summer or winter, day or night. Once it is up, she can dispose of it as she likes - stop it, replay it, or exchange it for an autumnal setting in Hawaii." (Borgmann, 1993: 96)
However, Borgmann also warns us that "... we must sooner or later step out of it into the real world ...” and that this “... is typically a resentful and defeated return, resentful because reality compares so poorly with hyperreal glamour, defeated because reality with all its poverty inescapably asserts its claims on us ..." (Borgmann, 1993: 96) Indeed, this is the feeling of those fans who after watching James Cameron's completely immersive spectacle ‘Avatar’, claim to have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts, and this happens “... because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.” (Piazza, 2010)
Borgmann also examines the difference between 'reality' and hyperreality and in this regard states that "Traditional theories of reality, what philosophers call ontologies, are as powerless to explicate the difference between the real and the hyperreal ... Hyperreality is ontologically inert, one might say. After all, hyperreality is physically as real as is reality ... Yet there is a clear difference in the experiential force of hyperreality and reality. To grasp that force we must think of experience not as the sum total of sensory stimulation over a certain time but as an eminent encounter of a person with the world. The former notion of experience is indifferent to its context while the latter is oriented within the world. Hyperreality and reality may result in the same experience indifferently understood, but when the experience of hyperreality is oriented within its context, its force turns out to be disposable and discontinuous, that is, it turns out to have no real force at all." (Borgmann, 1993: 95-96)
According to Borgmann, even though hyperreality might in fact present us with the same sensory experiences as the ones experienced in the ‘real-world’, the sensory experiences experienced in hyperreality will be very similar when applied to totally different environments. Consequently, if in a virtual environment the delight derived from experiencing a winter landscape is replaced with that obtained from an autumnal setting, the feeling will more or less be the same. On the other hand, in the ‘real-world’, experience is indeed adjusted according to the physical and natural surroundings of the ‘real-world’. This observation is undeniably difficult to describe and indeed it has to be experienced to be understood! However, having personally experienced both realities, the first time by experiencing scuba diving in a 3D simulator, and then by experiencing it in the ‘real-world’, I can confirm that Borgmann’s observation is indeed totally compelling!
Baudrillard, Eco, Boorstin and Borgmann help us to further understand hyperreality in contemporary society. The core ideas behind the concept have been utilised by more than one of these philosophers in their quest to depict hyperreality. For instance Disneyland has been used by Baudrillard, Eco and Borgmann, whereas Baudrillard, Eco and Boorstin have critically analysed hyperreal aspects of contemporary American culture. Moreover, one can indeed summarize the thought of these four thinkers with the definition given by Nobuyoshi Terashima in ‘HyperReality: Paradigm for the Third Millennium’ where he states that “hyperreality ... is nothing more than the technological capability to intermix virtual reality (VR) with physical reality (PR), and artificial intelligence (AI) with human intelligence (HI), in a way that appears seamless and allows interaction" (Terashima, 2001).
The four theorists that have been discussed in this essay have each, in some way, observed how this technologically induced amalgamation of realities and intelligence is both highly interactive and only apparently flawless. At the same time, all four take a critical stance towards post-modern culture and as we have seen, even though the concept of hyperreality is not entirely new, it is also due to these four thinkers and the advances in contemporary technology, that the subject matter can once again be found in the forefront of contemporary cultural analysis.
Godwin Darmanin has an MA in Philosophy from Sofia University, Bulgaria, a BSc (Hons) in Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London, England) and a BSc (Hons) in Computing and Information Systems from Goldsmiths College (University of London, England). Currently he is a PhD student in Philosophy at Sofia University [St. Kliment Ohridski] Sofia, Bulgaria and is presently working on his PhD Dissertation which focuses on Philosophy of Information and Philosophy of Technology.
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