The Return To Real: When Everything Becomes Artificial, We’ll Demand Authentic
There’s a scene in the Sci-Fi action thriller “Upgrade” where strung out digital addicts are hooked up to virtual reality equipment and intravenous nourishment simultaneously. It’s a stark warning to us all, that in the not-to-distant future we may be lured into virtual environments that enable us to escape the dimness of our realities in the real world and become totally dependent on it at the expense of our mental, physical and emotional health and possibly our lives. It’s a thought-provoking and visceral vision of the future, but as the saying goes—the future is now.
Fake Is Today’s Currency
People like myself who have been both early adopters/observers in tech and culture like to muse on the virtues of keeping a lower-calorie tech diet because we understand the risks, but the reality is that culture at large hasn’t caught up yet. We’re living at a time where YouTube and Instagram stars set the tone for culture and have the means and the motivation to create elaborate productions that show the world what they want the world to see. While the media obsesses on “Fake News” the reality is that there’s a significant percentage of the world’s population that’s creating and trading in the currency of “fake culture”. And some of that currency is very real when you look at some of the deals that “creators” and “influencers” strike with those willing to sponsor their performance. And performance is a key word here because when we’re all performing—how do we know what’s real and what’s performance? The line becomes blurred—themes explored in the excellent Netflix documentary titled “The American Meme”.
We’re Already Living An Artificial Reality
As a parent of two teen boys, I find myself in constant conversation about their artificial realities. This is how we need to start thinking about the alternate universes we have created and maintain online. I recently told my younger son about the social phenomena that most adults have been dealing with for decades known as “keeping up with the Joneses”. I found myself talking about it in the traditional sense—that one day you walk out your front yard and see that your neighbor has a new lawnmower and so you find yourself wanting an even better one. Then it’s a car and so-on.
A recent study found that everyday people who suddenly came into money such as winning a lottery had a ripple effect on their neighbors. Neighborhoods with such people coming into sudden wealth started to experience higher rates of bankruptcy in a radius of close proximity to the individual. Today’s ripple effect is poised to be the bankruptcy of true and authentic connection to the real world and real people. Turns out that virtual existence is creating very real issues.
But today’s artificial realities in the form of [insert social media here] have replaced the outdated notion. Instead of lawnmowers, cars or new patio furniture—we covet attention. It’s modeled to us by the performers that I listed above, but it’s in surround sound via our peers. We look over and see our “friends” living their best lives (and likes) and wonder why we aren’t. This isn’t new—it’s been debated for years but there seem to be no signs of stopping or slowing it down. Our artificial realities are only poised to become a more integral part of our lives as GenZ will not remember life before artificial life.
A Return To Real? It Will Come, But Slowly
We didn’t get here overnight and the counter-trend won’t become mainstream overnight either, but it’s coming. A recent study confirmed something that many parents already knew. Screens are changing our children’s brains—literally. We don’t know the long-term impact or whether that’s a good or bad thing, but the short-term symptoms, parents know all too well whether it be increased anxiousness, trouble sleeping or disconnect from the physical world. But here’s the thing, it’s not just our kids…
I recently checked my mobile analytics using Apple’s Screentime function and I was mortified by the results. To be fair, most of my productivity happens on laptops and a good deal of my social networking is spent reinforcing relationships but there’s just too much time spent on that little screen and too much time scrolling through social feeds as a matter of habit. The only bright light I found in my personal analytics was in Spotify use which means I was likely exercising and not glued to my screen. Other than that, I have work to do on my own personal journey of “returning to real”.
This is a topic I’ll be continuing to explore both at the personal level and as a professional observer as well. The dynamics captured above are not disconnected from the increasing skepticism that Big Tech companies are beginning to experience. We seem to be collectively waking up to the reality of how valuable our data is and the responsibility that comes with the companies who act as stewards of it. It’s all connected. Fake news, fake culture, fake lives, and fake living. We’re approaching a tipping point between what’s real and what’s fake, right at a time when the tech industry is promising a future made better by artificial intelligence and algorithms. But we’ve got a few years of our own artificial realities in the rear-view mirror to reflect on and contend with today—and this will color how we look at “progress” moving forward.