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IRL - When Social Media Replaces the Real

08/01/2016 14:53 GMT | Updated 06/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Recently a friend of mine, Pascal, discovered that he was caught in Keanu Reeves' infamous selfie which made the rounds on Facebook earlier last month.  Despite the uncertainty as to whether or not the Facebook pages is actually that of Keanu Reeves, Pascal definitely identified himself in the background with Reeve's face in the foreground looking squarely into the camera.  And indeed that is Pascal just above Reeve's left shoulder in black with backpack staring down at his mobile device, oblivious to the world around him. Upon seeing this image in his Facebook feed, Pascal reposted the photo with the entry beginning: "This is it ....I am throwing my phone away !!!"

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But let's all be honest--this could have happened to any of us.  Really.  I am quite diligent in keeping my mobile on silent when working or socialising and am extremely critical of the overuse of these devices and the obscuring of live discussion by the compulsive glancing down for signs of an "important message."  Yet in recent months with various urgencies, home  repairs, scheduling of appointments, and meetings, I find myself looking at and actively using my mobile phone far more than I would like.  I have been so busy these past months that I have not had time to see or speak with my closest friends and more often than not, I learn of what is happening in the others' lives through social media. Oddly, I find myself resembling the masses who rely on these social media forum as a matter of practicality. Thus, when Pascal posted his comment over his "missing" Keanu Reeve's presence, I realised that this was a moment for me to take pause regarding my own absence from the present. In my reflections I came to understand how "social" media is anything but social.

For while one might question if my friend really "missed" Reeve's presence any more than if he had been, say, eating a pretzel waiting for a colleague in the very same spot. I mean, we are always missing something else by simply living.  Still, what is pointedly clear is that for every millisecond we spend on our mobile devices looking down, no matter the reason, we are missing out on the "in real life" part of life that might take us away from a pretzel, a glance from a stranger, or even Keanu Reeves.  And this realisation brings to question if there is a real. Is there not?

Well the answer to this question is somewhat oblique and is often dependent upon one's philosophical bent. For instance, Jean Baudrillard in an essay in Simulacra and Simulation (1981) writes of the space of the real in America stating:

Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle (12-13).

Baudrillard's forecasting of the absence of the real evidences that the real is relational, such that we allow our notion of the real to expand and shift as social and technological changes force us to. Just as the telephone introduced a more virtual world than those communities had theretofore experienced in the early twentieth century as party lines "invaded" the once very private home, the mobile phone was, for better or worse, a late twentieth century extension of this technological arm which forced many to accept that you can have a serious discussion about politics with a complete stranger and that you could (and should) work from anywhere and everywhere, to include from the toilet. Alas, the advances of technology began to encroach upon our every moment, ripping asunder the notion of the private and blurring the line between work and play.  And all the while we called such innovations progress.

Where Baudrillard defines the simulacra as a copy without an original, he also attempts to understand how cultural materialism, inherent within the significations of culture and media, constructs perceived reality and the collective understanding of our shared existence.  Baudrillard's critique of Disneyland is part of a far greater evaluation of our society as he believed that our lives had become so incredibly penetrated with these simulacra that all meaning of life was being rendered meaningless.

And certainly we have lived to see the transformation from when meeting a friend used to mean meeting someone we loved and respected. Today a "friend" might encompass such emotions; but this term might also mean a total stranger who might be a complete psychopath.  When meeting someone twenty years ago used to necessitate the physical transport of the body by tube or bus, today "meeting someone" either means liking a post on their wall or exchanging a few virtual texts. And having a boyfriend or girlfriend means, more and more frequently, that the individual has merely undertaken a series of online discussions with this individual.  Or, as a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist in upstate New York told me several years ago: "Today when I meet with patients and they tell me about their latest boyfriend or girlfriend, I actually have to stop them and interject with this question: 'Have you ever met this person?'"

As Baudrillard concludes from his above essay, "The Precession of Simulacra,"  the only "real" of Disneyland is the car park. The deathly still and un-animated car park. Similarly, I would argue that the only real of the mobile telephone, is the off button.