Reading 2.2 — Simulacra and Simulation (Jean Baudrillard)

Visual depiction of Baudrillard’s thesis. Source: author.

It’s easy to dismiss postmodernist philosophy as an esoteric topic only for academia and one that has no practical application in any field. The second short reading in our current block, Simulacra and Simulation quickly shows the often-untapped applicability of these ideas. Though many of us would not agree with postmodernist objectives (in this case, some less-than-veiled attacks on modern capitalism), the usefulness of the ideas — if you can make it through the minefield of philosophical jargon and often-stilted prose — is profound. This usefulness is only compounded by the fact that very few people engaged in a practical discipline are aware of the benefits that these ideas offer. This reading attempts to make us aware of how many of the signs, symbols, and presentations we take for granted in our professional lives not only fail to accurately portray reality, but might even mask or distract from the reality.

Take the average PowerPoint presentation. Certainly a useful tool in many setting, a PowerPoint briefing (and the graphics used therein) usually attempts to represent a real operational problem or challenge in an efficient and effective manner. A well-intentioned briefer, however, might build slides that don’t accurately reflect reality due to oversimplification or accidentally introducing cognitive biases (to name just a couple). This troubled briefing might grow over time from misrepresentation to actually mask the real problem (see visual depiction above). In the final stage, a system that demands such briefings on a recurring basis may result in the creation of briefings simply to feed the expectation to have a briefing without actually conveying relevant information.

This regressive process of an image transitioning from a useful tool eventually to a baseless representation that exists only to serve itself is at the heart of Baudrillard’s description of simulacra and a system of simulation. Simulacra are the baseless images/signs/symbols/products that then propagate a system that demands its own worthless reproduction. Awareness of this degenerative process helps to inoculate us from being part of a simulation problem and to be good stewards of organizational processes. I challenge you to trudge through the author’s argument (laden with many practical geopolitical examples) and to draw application in your own discipline.