The Unbearable Not-Quiteness of Being
Oh god nothing's real, AI is a hallucination factory, etc.
<opens door just a crack to see who’s outside>
Oh it’s you! Hello! How are you?
Me, yes, I’m wonderful, I was just in the back.
<gestures toward some enigmatic back room>
Yes, the back room of the internet. Strange place. Very damp. Very dark.
So look, yes, come on in.
A few bits of housekeeping.
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The Unbearable Not-Quiteness of Being
I wanted to share something with you.
About 20 years ago, an NYU professor named Thomas De Zengotitawrote a kinda/sorta post-McLuhan, structuralism-lite essay for Harper’s called “The Numbing of the American Mind”.
I read it when I was 25 while drinking a domestic beer and sitting in an uncomfortable high-backed stool, riding the pine at a bar on Main Street in Richmond, VA.
This was like six months after 9/11.
“It was supposed to have been the end of irony, remember?” is how the essay began, before making an argument that now, twenty years and 38 models of iPhones later, will sound, perhaps, quite obvious:
Everything happens so much
We get de-sensitized to that so much very quickly
Accordingly, we’ve stopped distinguishing what’s real from what’s fake
We just don’t care. Not that we can’t distinguish fact from fiction. Not that we can’t tell the difference between a docudrama and what actually happened. It’s that we’re lazy or overwhelmed or ignorant and simply, well: we choose not to.
A great time to make that argument, btw.
Survivor had just debuted, what, the year before? The Matrix in ‘99. The Truman Show around then, too. The iPod was a new thing. A thousand songs in your pocket. Napster. Not to mention cable news and satellite radio and things were accelerating, man. For the first time, you could begin to be truly ensconced in media. A bubble wrap of stimulation.
Hence TdZ’s argument: Ya just. Start. To feel. Numb.
And that was the aughts!
Maybe you’ve noticed: things haven’t slowed down. And now there’s a lot of stuff out there, on the internet, that consensual hallucination where we all spend our time, that isn’t quite real. What is real? is probably the great anxious, high-voiced oh-no’ism of our time.
Some people refuse to believe that reality has become indistinguishable from fabrication. But beliefs are crude reflections of the psychological processes that actually determine how we function. Fat people believe they are on the stocky side. Abject drunks believe they are poetical free spirits. Malicious prudes believe they are selfless do-gooders, And a lot of people still believe that, with some obvious exceptions involving hoaxes and errors, we know what's real and what's not. We can tell the difference between the Kursk and the Titanic (meaning the movie, of course), for example. And maybe we can-when specifically focused on the issue. It might take a while, of course, because there are so many gradations when you stop to think about it.
And then he wrote out a list.
That list started with examples of “real”, and ended with examples of “unreal”. In between were all the gradations we experience everyday.
We’re now living in a world where neural nets can make art and write essays and pass the bar, where TikTok filters make you look young again, and commercials are written entirely by robots.
So I thought I’d update that list.
Just to see, y’know, if I could tell the differences anymore. Because there are so many gradations when you stop to think about it.
Real Real: you get in a car wreck
Observed Real: you see somebody else get in a car wreck
Edited Real Real: dash cam videos of car wrecks, down-pat schtick you use everyday, Gen Z kids affecting British accents, candid videos on social like when somebody’s dog gets scared by lightning and runs into a wall
Edited Observed Real: other people’s down-pat schtick, documentaries where people are accommodating the camera, in fact any video on social where people know they’re being filmed and accordingly change in subtle and unsubtle ways how they act
Staged Real: formal events like weddings, retail-clerk patter, restaurant menus organized around titkok virality, Tinder bios, that genre of videos where people try to complete an asinine action like throwing a playing card into a bowl from across the room
Edited Staged Real: pictures and videos of weddings, tweets, tiktoks and instagram reels from politicians where they’re trying to relate to you, those social videos where somebody pretends to be on podcast but actually they’re just in an empty room, the naturally occurring artifice of being an influencer
Edited Staged Realistic: Mad Men, Narcos, the Italian affectations of Alec Baldwin’s wife, bombastic arguments by politicians in public e.g. Jamaal Bowman yells at Marjorie Taylor Greene on the steps of Congress in front of the press
Staged Hyperreal: MILF Island, Oliver Stone movies if anybody still watches those, Trump’s tweets, most of what Tucker Carlson says, exquisite corpse tiktoks, Sam Altman urging Congress to regulate AI, that new AI service that fakes photos of you hanging out with your friends, the documentary Hyperrealism
Overtly Unreal Realistic: that time Tupac was a hologram, de-aging celebrities for a movie and being upfront about it like in the new Indiana Jones flick, generative AI art that is credited as such, SlackGPT, Charlie Engman’s AI horses, influencers charging followers $1 per minute to interact with an AI version of themselves, photorealistic 3D maps of the world
Covertly Unreal Realistic: de-aging celebrities and not telling anyone about it, deepfakes, when photos taken on iPhones remove your skin blemishes but everybody forgets that happens, other types of undetectable AI photo editing, work product uncredited to chatGPT, “verified” twitter accounts sharing “real” photos of an explosion at the Pentagon
Overtly Unreal Hyperrealistic: fashion prosthetics, the bold glamour filter, your iPhone speaking in your own voice, the metaverse I guess, live action South Park, Pepperoni Hug Spot, Lil Jon but make it Frank Sinatra
Covertly Unreal Hyperrealistic: Social media psyops, AI songs on Spotify, AI songs in general, bot-on-bot conversations on Twitter
Real Unreal: vegetables made with CRISPR gene-splicing techniques, AI drug discovery
Unreal Real: General AI
“See, no problem,” TdZ wrote. “The differences are perfectly clear.”
The medium is the mess.
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I recommend his book Mediated, and he published another one recently, Postmodern Theory and Progressive Politics, which sounds dry as hell but I’ll probably check out anyway just so I can feel smart and then be reminded, ten pages in, that I very much am not.
TdZ wasn’t the first to make this argument. Jean Baurillard’s probably the pappy. Maybe my fave version of how the speed of technology causes us to disassociate is from futurist Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), who argued that the ever-increasing speed of tech and communications would give people cultural shock (but in a temporal sense).
It occurs to me that it would be helpful to provide some definitions here:
Real: a real thing IRL
Observed: You see that real thing happening
Edited: a real thing happened, but it was manipulated
Staged: a real thing happened, but it was created as a presentation to be observed
Realistic: a thing that looks real, but is rather a simulacrum
Hyperreal: a thing that seems real but is some blend of reality and fiction
Overt: you intend for people to understand the reality of a thing
Covert: you intend for the reality of the thing to be unknown
Unreal: does not exist