In the first month, 2013 has proven to be a year of endless possibilities. From people posing as entirely different people on MTV’s hit show “Catfish” to Beyonce lip-syncing at the inauguration, it seems that our technology has advanced to the point where one can be as real or fabricated as they want. In a world with nearly unlimited freedom to augment one’s persona, it’s hard to keep up with what’s real and what isn’t; and with technology catching up to the trend, it’s more difficult to distinguish between the two.
According to Associate Professor Emilie Zaslow, there are a few factors contributing to this bonding of reality and fabrication. “Part of it has to do with an increase in technology and part of it has to do with a growing consumerism,” said Zaslow.
It is only fitting that Google, one of the most visited search engines on the internet, is about to add to the confusion of our already augmented reality.
Google’s Project Glass is a research program that is currently developing Augmented Reality Head Mounted Displays, otherwise known as HMDs. These HMDs—very advanced glasses—display information on the panels in an Android smart-phone interface style. The glasses are hands free and can perform tasks on the Internet through voice and touch-scroll commands.
The glasses promise to able to alter the way we see the world around us; giving us less of a concrete perspective and more of a technologically advanced/”human-computer” perspective.
Communications Professor Barry Morris doesn’t think this perspective is necessary or quite possible yet. “[The Google Glass] is transitional technology,” said he said. “It’s got that ‘oh wow’ factor, but most of what the glass can do we don’t need, but it’s cool.” Google’s Project Glass isn’t the only platform for drastic alteration of one’s perception. Social media has been warping our sense of reality for the last few years and online users now face yet another online danger – Catfishing. This act is when a fake social media account is created for the purpose of creating relationships with real users online. The most recent controversial Catfishing incident, including Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Te’o, is proof that one can really be whoever they want. As first reported on Jan.16 by Deadspin.com, Te’o engaged in an online relationship with a Facebook user he believed to be a woman named Lennay Kekua for two years. When “Kekua” “passed away due to cancer” the reality of Te’o’s relationship surfaced and it was discovered that a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had posed as Lennay Kekua throughout their entire relationship.
Tuiasosopo easily built an artificial world around him using images he found on Google, disguising his voice when talking to Te’o on the phone and creating a few fake social media accounts. The ease of this hoax is the most surprising element of it all and it leaves many questioning how much online material we can really trust.
Prof. Zaslow doesn’t think one can truly calculate this.
“I don’t think we can quantify it,” said Prof. Zaslow. “The most important questions, for me, are what we do with our new sense of the real and how we control what technology does to us.”
Prof Morris thinks that it is the medium rather than the people that we cannot trust.
“If you break it down into what users put on social media and then the platform itself I’d imagine you could trust people on social media just as well as anywhere else,” said Prof. Morris. “However, we all trust the platforms a lot more than we should; I don’t think you can trust the platforms but people are people.”
In relation to the platform, Zaslow believes we are becoming more aware of the possibilities they have to shift ones perception. “I think we’re also becoming aware more of the nature of the medium and how it can shift reality so quickly,” said Prof. Zaslow. Te’o, however, is not the only person to be “Catfished.” MTV’s newest Reality Show, Catfish – a spinoff of Nev Schulman’s indie documentary – follows social media users who are adamant upon finding out if their virtual significant other is real. The show gained much media attention alongside the Manti Te’o situation, making Catfishing a sad new trend.
Despite the deceit behind it, Prof. Zaslow believes that these relationships are in fact real relationships.
“The relationship is real, said Prof. Zaslow. “On one side of the screen, person A was acting but on the other side of the relationship there was a sense of reality because person B believed and had a real emotional bond to this character.”
According to Prof. Morris, however, this cyber deception relationship cannot be real.
“I don’t think there really is a relationship,” said Prof Morris. “Its’ kind of like someone obsessing over a movie star because of their movies, you don’t really know that person; it’s a simulation but it’s a very powerful simulation.”
Prof. Zaslow does, however, feel that we shouldn’t let our face to face relationships die, just because we’ve found a new mode of relationships.
“I don’t think one is real and one is not, it’s just a different reality,” said Prof. Zaslow. “One is face to face and one is online. I think that we shouldn’t allow face to face relationships to deteriorate and we have to control that.”
The questioning of what’s real, however, isn’t new. False/shifty advertising, photo shopping photographs, impersonation, plastic surgery and allegations of scripted reality television shows have been around way before Catfishing and Project Glass. Not to mention that, Postmodernist French social Theorist Jean Baudrillard proposed the idea of simulacra, where the artificial or fabricated ideas and things in our world become so widely accepted that they become “real.” While the definition of a “real” experience is very subjective, Prof. Morris has a few guidelines.
“A real experience has to have real life ‘ripples’,” said Prof Morris. “It has to affect your actual life, like playing World of Warcraft is not a real life experience and I’m not actually growing anything on Farmville.”
Prof. Zaslow realizes the subjective nature of defining what is real but also that our overall perception of what is real is changing. “Our perception of reality has changed,” said Prof Zaslow. “I think its continuously changing as new technologies come about.” With new technologies come new methods of fabrication, ones that Prof. Morris believes we can definitely live without. “No, it’s okay, but it’s a diversion,” said Prof Morris. “We definitely don’t need this fabrication in our lives. We definitely don’t need to trade real experience for simulation. Its transitional, we do it because we can and eventually we’ll stop doing it because we can.”