Our Fractured Reality

Our Fractured Reality

Imagine building an alternative reality in 20th century. It demanded massive financial and social political directed towards media production with precise planning. Even then, the credible established institutions claiming to be in search of truth, to represent truth with wide trust of citizens loomed larger, constraining the project. It was a challenging endeavor and one which only the nation-state had the might to actualize. Colluding with traditional reputable  media outlets (mainly print, television, radio at the time) to push one clean narrative, to offer on a platter the plausible explanations and predictions about the events that occurred. These were the only entities that could reach enough people to build a consensus reality, and they also controlled the means by which those people reached one another at scale, to confirm that reality and its implications. The people having no alternative means to fact-check the details and having an unshakeable blind trust believed. The reality was unadorned, coherent, simple.

That has significantly changed, for obvious reasons.  The mechanisms and the entire ecosystem which was responsible for creation and projection of public narratives has been fractured into different planes  to be used for construction of efficacious alternatives to replace the once singular “mainstream” narrative; which now happens to be accessible to everyone with an internet connection. Any of these realities can now perform the dual function of (a) explaining the world to individuals in ways that allow the individual to keep living, positing a future they see as worth living for, and (b) confirming that reality with the testimony of peers, establishing a collective that one wants to belong to and fears being excluded from.

Donald Trump is routinely accused of inconsistent narratives. Image Credit: Vox

Social media giants stand to benefit from burgeoning of realities that necessitates ceaseless communication to thrive and sustain themselves in the face of dominance of any one reality. This is the reason behind radicalized groups believing and sharing one reality reinforce it by constant reminders. They must continuously manifest their allegiance and deep commitment to this reality by demonstrating cherry picked facts, data, theories in the face of alternatives. Examples may include from something as obscure as flat-earthers to the belief that BJP is doing good for the country.  

If this isn’t already depressing, oppressive nation-states stand to gain immensely from this fracturing of reality in sustaining and furthering themselves. They gain advantage not by imposing a single specific reality on a critical mass of the population, but by orchestrating or perpetuating a chaotic plurality of realities. Instead of furthering one structure of truths based on ideological foundation, the regime becomes an avenue birthing multiple conspiracies. Luc Boltanski, a French sociologist, in Mysteries and Conspiracies, describes how a oppressive regime can be organized around media effects in and of themselves rather than ideology. In the midst of an analysis of Orwell’s 1984 and its account of “reality control” as the “principal instrument of power,” he writes:

It is useless and self-destructive to pretend that one can reach a world situated beyond reality understood as constructed reality. It is on this belief, or on this absolute absence of belief, that the possibility of survival depends. The most restrictive order can thus be maintained without a structured and coherent organization, and even without a leader endowed with omnipotence who embodies power. Similar effects can be achieved by a mechanical aggregation of actions, each determined with reference to the others according to the principle of seriality, and each coordinated with the others on the model of contagion. The same thing holds true for conspiracies, whose reality is indistinguishable from their dramatization.

Our main underlying postulation of “reality” as an admissible representation of experience is tethered not to “accuracy” or even an ideologically inflected, loaded version of accuracy, but to “seriality” and “coordination” and “contagion.” Boltanski is extrapolating from Orwell’s idea that a totalitarian regime would expend a lot of energy doctoring archives of the past to control the perception of reality in a perpetual present. But making the present perpetual doesn’t rely on a coherent or compelling fictionalized past so much as it depends on new details continually compelling the people to attend to the present in a way that makes them distrust the past and see it as holding no determinable sway over the future.

Album cover of Remain in Light, by Talking Heads

What Boltanski essentially theorizes is that “reality control” does not engender enforcing a particular reality on the masses.  The erasure of persons from photographs (à la Stalin regime) or rewriting history literally and figuratively, customising history according to convenience and purpose are side acts supporting the real objective. Boltanski suggests, “construction of reality” isn’t conditional on fabrication of believable proofs, it’s more a matter of permeating political fabric with a cynicism which dismisses all accounts of truth, a pervasive feeling that there is nothing to believe beyond the construction. It is evident then that the possibility of having an inhabitable “reality” is conditional on social belonging, which elicits moment-by-moment conformity at all costs. Otherwise, it leads to collective societal shunning.

Boltanski’s conjecture on how that skepticism might be generalized-“mechanically aggregated actions coordinated serially on the model of contagion” sounds like a description of social media without using the term. Regimes model their implicit behaviour after these platforms in an effort to destabilize broadly shared realities in favor of smaller contested realities requiring loud proofs of loyalty to them. So the political purpose of making things viral is not to persuade people of the content of any particular article but to prove that reality itself is coordinated through these kinds of viral sharing campaigns.

This is a generalization of the principle behind the Asch conformity experiments in which the test subject is convinced by the other participants’ answers about a set of lines on a chart to say that the short line is actually longer. Whether or not they actually believe it is irrelevant to the dominant need to be part of the apparent consensus reality.

Social media has the same sort of effect; it divorces beliefs and values from the assenting public behavior required to belong to a consensus, to be participating in what appears to be an agreed-upon reality. Nothing about that reality, as it is manifested in a quasi-conspiratorial manner from incident to incident, needs to be consistent. The reality of conspiracy is in its dramatization, as Boltanski claims. In other words, conspiracies are ultimately only about assembling a group of people who collectively suspend disbelief — and what they are suspending disbelief about only matters insofar as it adds emotional energy to the group’s bond. Whether or not that material can be proved accurate or can help explain other things doesn’t matter.

“Fake news” doesn’t need to be rational, make sense of the world, add up anything, because the “reality” it sustains isn’t built on ever explaining the world. It is premised on re-orchestrating a sense of consensus, one shared article at a time.