40. The decay of reality: on our hyper-tolerance for fake

This essay explains how we normalized living in a material and social environment that almost constantly lies to us and deceives us, and reflects on what it means to have a societal model that requires so many things to be fake.

Romantic authors have complained for centuries that society became ruled by the ‘tyranny of science and facts’. While I sympathize with their sentiments, sociologically it is doubtful if this still applies. Recent experiences with ecological destruction and pandemics would strongly question the strict adherence of both citizens and leaders to science. More generally, I will explain how our direct environment or everyday social functioning is rather fake than factual. We are so overloaded with fake, from political simulations to social media filters, that we must stop and wonder where this is taking us.

Let us start with some of the classic lies and manipulations from our ordinary material environment that we have gotten so used to. The shampoo bottle in your shower that says ‘20% free’, as if you did not pay for the whole content. The electronic device you bought for ‘under a thousand’ at 999$. The potato chips bag that is half full on a good day. Note that any of these deceptions fall apart under even the lightest of scrutiny or even just conscious attention, yet represent decades old, standardized business practices. Objects try to fool us in the most blunt, basic ways. Take for example soft drinks, such as Joya, which has both a picture of an apple and the promise of apple taste, but does not have apple nor something that tastes like it inside. Sometimes we get double deception, like banana-shaped banana ice-cream that has no banana in it.

    The amount of fake thrown your way depends of course on the environment, with the build environment in the United States (or at least Texas) being fake to an absurd degree. Not only is the average commercial building (bank, restaurant, etc.) not what it pretends to be (barn, temple, castle, etc.), the materials themselves (wood, brick, stone tiles, etc.) are consistently fake. What these everyday manipulations lack in sophistication, they make up for in volume, comprising a large part, and in some towns the majority of our material environment.

    We must add to this the up to 10.000 advertisements North Americans get to digest per day, of which many are highly deceptive. Please raise your hand if you have ever eaten a hamburger from a burger restaurant that looks like the one on the sign? Even advertisements that are not explicitly deceptive, are usually still manipulative in one way or the other, by portraying properties (‘these sunglass will change your life’) and social benefits totally unrelated to the product. Why must water coolers play on my insecurities?

    I started this discussion with objects because they are the lowest step on the ladder of manipulation (next to media, explicit lies of others, political simulation, etc.), but already overwhelming in their volume. This only gets worse if we trade our ‘outside’ reality for social media. From clickbait titles and fake news, to the existence of bots that make up more than half of the ‘supporters’ of certain media personalities. Probably the most scrutinized part of this are social media filters for pictures, which explains why that girl you are envious off always looks so good and that other guy doesn’t seem to age. While this practice does attract some criticism in the era of identity politics, we must remember it is one of the lightest manipulations: unlike fake chicken nuggets, it alters something real.

Note that nothing of what I said is a conspiracy theory or implies an omniscient actor pulling the strings. On the contrary: You are not being manipulated by a Jewish banker, but by a shampoo bottle! I claim that Joya ‘Apple’ falsely pretends to be more than carbonated sugar water, not that it contains microchips. As I wrote in a previous essay, conspiracy theories are themselves a distraction to not see the much harder realities that are right in front of us. In this case: the ordinary functioning of our socio-economic model is built on permanent, generalized deception. It is curious that this wonderful capitalism, in which economy textbooks tell us rational actors are making informed choices, creates a largely fake landscape wherever it is most fully applied. We apparently need mass consumer manipulation (and credit) to keep the machine going.

But if it is so normal, why make a problem out of this? First, on the most basic philosophical level being lied to is unhelpful and unethical. Besides the ethical intuition – think of the biblical devil –  that manipulation is evil, our intelligence is insulted hundreds of times per day, even before we hear another person’s fake greetings. The Irish poet Oscar Wilde defended the artificial in his essay ‘the decay of lying’ (1891) by saying that after all it is real life that imitates art. However, there is little artful about our deceptions. Our consciousness is worn down by the sheer volume of the thousands of attempts to deceive our perception with the most vulgar tricks. They swarm around us like annoying flies we can wave at but never dispose: we know very well that they are fake, but that doesn’t save us from having to defend our reality all day long. Notice that so far I have not even assumed the possibility of people falling for any of these lies, which of course happens. Imagine we would believe at face value what comes at us through advertisements, our mailbox or from people we interact with. We would be broke, in debt and missing a kidney within the same day, with only some obscure crypto coins, a blender and the contact of a foreign prince to show for it.

        A second problem of the normalization of fakeness, not just as an exception but as the basic building block of society, is that it distorts our view of reality: if fake is the norm, real is the freak. This is most discussed in the case of social media photo filters, which allegedly distort the body image of young people. In such an environment, whether we are talking about bodies, food or lifestyles, the real can appear shocking and even inappropriate. Lies and truth are increasingly treated similar, or worse: the inability to lie is seen as inappropriate, and the lie is polite. Similarly, truth and lie can become indistinguishable. In the case of fake news, the lie does collateral damage to the credibility of real news.

    Third, we have to understand that rather than this being a top down conspiracy, the fakeness of our society is built from the ground up: first your shampoo bottle, then social and traditional media, and only then political narratives. If we normalize lying in completely normal and unnecessary scenario’s, why would we be amazed when large groups of people are deceived by larger, actually artful lies. The Mexican history of simulation in politics goes back a long time, but at this point we have normalized that politicians project a perfectly produced yet demonstrably false image.

What does it mean to live in a society where deception and faking it until you make it is the norm? It might be that society can’t face its own reality. From consumption patterns and personal relationships, to misleading advertising and portrayed lifestyles, the reality is not good enough. But instead of either accepting or changing it, we fake it – and need to deal with other people’s fakes. In such a situation, one of two things is true: or late capitalist society requires mass manipulation to function, or it doesn’t and we could try to alter it.

    We will start from the less radical assumption that this mass manipulation is more of a deranged consequence than a requirement. Why do we need this never ending assault on our mental energy in the first place? We still eat hamburgers even after learning that the sign is fake. Why can’t advertisements just show the product and price? Given most of these illusions don’t stick, the world could as well be what it is… or not? Possibly it is competition that keeps this pointless war on intelligence going, with one producer having to match the fake properties of the other. Yet that doesn’t mean it could not be different. Note that my argument is not against esthetics or fantasy, I don’t believe things should be bare or simple (this is a taste of the rich), but rather undeceiving.

    The first thing we should do is thus state the objective of having a more real reality as a legitimate cause. It is a legitimate goal to not want to have to check if cheese actually contains cheese. It is a legitimate goal to know how many followers of personalities or causes on social media are real. It is a legitimate goal not to have to battle basic optical illusions over and over again. From this follows, that reconquering reality is a legitimate political issues that warrants government intervention or regulation. In recent years much was done to make food more transparent, but regulation could be far more aggressive in other domains. My old proposal to criminalize the use of bots on social media comes to mind, as well as a ban on the silliest of manipulations, such as ‘free’ parts of singly packaged products.

    Lastly, there is a large cultural element to this. There is an inconsistency in our liberal culture, in so far that we formally want strong, responsible and informed individuals, yet try to trick these same people every minute and condone, instruct and even admire such trickery. Keeping it real is hard. The promotion of real food, architecture, materials, people, etc. is  useful if only to remind people what real even is, but it can only go so far. Plus it runs the constant risk of backfiring as classist, since in many fields we dubbed ‘real’ for ‘exclusive’ and doomed the masses to the consumption of images. My problem is not with the consumption of fake products in itself (I like Joya!), but with the act of misleading and the resulting confusion. The promotion of authenticity, both in objects and people, should go hand in hand with the relentless calling out of manipulation. Our tolerance for the unethical art of manipulation should be reduced, together with an increase of our critical awareness of the tricks played on us. Critical media and consumer literacy should be basic parts of education.

We end with a fun/sad paradox regarding the virtual and augmented (information added to reality) reality technologies that silicon valley is promoting to further complicate the issue. The irony of Oscar Wilde’s earlier insight on art is that augmented reality assumes reality is real, why in practice it is already augmented. What should our augmented reality goggle identify a fake wall as: wood or plastic? In other words: do you want the fake real or the real fake?