Long before Keanu Reeves was shooting Russian gangsters in the head and using pencils to kill people to avenge the murder of his dog as John Wick, he starred as the socially reclusive Neo in The Matrix, a film which popularised the concept of ‘simulation’. The Matrix presented a world that wasn’t real. It was a world that was fake but looked, felt and responded as if it were more than real - a hyper-real as it were.
The more I think about it, the more I realise we might just be living in The Matrix. By this, of course, I don’t mean that we’re living in a simulation. Rather, as this year has shown, the engulfing world of social media continues to become more restrictive and increasingly real.
You’re not real
There’s a scene in The Matrix that perhaps epitomises our predicament better than all others. Neo heads to the door to provide an individual with a contraband hard-disk. He picks up a copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation within which he has hidden the hard-disks. The first-page of the book actually describes the vignette by Jorge Luis Borges On Exactitude in Science, where an empire creates a map so large and exactly to scale that it covers the entirety of the territory. As the empire starts to fade, so does the map.
However, in our current world, as society starts to crumble under the weight of its various contradictions, the map, this simulacra that has taken the form of social media is not fading away - rather, it is expanding. It exaggerates reality, and our love of the simulation expands beyond the love of our real society.
Consider for a moment posting celebratory pictures on Facebook and what this actually represents. Many of us post in order to share the things which we think are meaningful with others. The problem with this is when these simulacra, these posts, stop merely imitating reality and actively work to create a new reality that has a dichotomous relationship with the real world. Social media now creates a virtual reality where what you share on it becomes intertwined with what you do in real life, and assumes a position of equal importance.
Consider the backlash comedians get for their old social media posts, or the hounding of individuals on social media for posting certain things. I would argue that more so than ever before in human history, we regulate our behaviour in order to remain socially acceptable. However, the social acceptance we seek is on a virtual level. Being shunned on social media or being unable to use it has now become akin to actually being a social recluse, much like Neo. In the past we used social media as an accessory to real life; we now seem to have arrived at an absurd situation whereby we use real life as an accessory to social media. What matters now isn’t real experiences, but rather, how these moments are reacted to in the virtual world.
The invasion of the influencers
I think perhaps the most startling example of the blurring of the line between reality and the simulacra is found on Instagram. Instagram, in my opinion, acts as the perfect means for making an accessory of real life. Through the medium of images, we can accurately demonstrate the weird and wonderful things that happen in our lives. That trip to Reykjavik is definitely instagram worthy, that tiger you saw on a holiday to India is also to be prized. However, what is worrying and indicates that the simulacra are becoming stronger is when we take actions purely to generate content for Instagram. A lot of the time, this thought process exists on the sidelines. We don’t actively decide to go on holiday to Bali just in order to post on Instagram. But deep-down, on the fringes of our consciousness, we may see additional value to the holiday because of the instagram posts it can generate.
The most pernicious example of this simulacra is the invasion of Instagram influencers. These are the kind of people that the Matrix would literally create. Gone is any connection to the real world, instead with the aid of the simulacra all these individuals do is imitate reality and promote products and lifestyles that are simulations in the first place. Influencers are effectively simulations of simulations promoting more simulations. Yet we buy into their posts and imagine a world where we get to buy and do the things that they do.
Real life has now become a canvas upon which social media makes a stronger mark. Gone is spontaneity and the joy of being in the moment; what has surpassed it is a world that is influenced by things which just are not real. The reflection we provide of our real lives is no longer grounded in truth - it is merely a reflection of other symbols and simulations that populate or world.
Can anything be done to save ourselves from the proliferation of social-media? Probably not. Baudrillard magnificently proclaimed that the victory of the simulacra will occur when we no longer realise that the world we are living in and the world we have created is actually merely a simulation of reality. Isn’t that the point we are at right now? I genuinely believe we are at risk of losing real life experience to social media artifices.
Having said that, guess how I’ll be sharing this article? On Facebook and Twitter, of course. Guess whether I’ll be posting pictures on Instagram from my holidays in 2020? You're right, it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t. Guess whether I’ll be posting cringe inducing LinkedIn posts simulating my love for my career? Recruiters use LinkedIn so naturally I will. The dark truth is, we are probably beyond the point of no return. Social media has well and truly become an integral part of our real lives. The simulacra abound with increasing ferocity, as more and more things that we once came across become simulacra in and of themselves. Think of how totally new imitations of real life have appeared over the past decade: cryptocurrencies (which hilariously are simulations of a simulation that is money), dating apps such as Tinder and now the comically odd TikTok which as far as I can see literally serves no purpose other than splitting life up into virtual simulations of ten sharable seconds.
At least in The Matrix, Neo had a way out. In our world, ever complicated and perpetually under metaphorical assault by the simulacra, there is literally no way out. While this may not be apparent right now, as long as social media remains merely a tool, its ascension to hyper-reality will take nothing but a lack of vigilance to occur.
Mihir Joshi is the Podcast Editor at Backbench