Hyperreality and the Illusion of Objective Truth

A friend of mine recently shared an io9 article about the 1997 movie, Contact, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite films. As a young atheist (born and raised), it represented everything I believed. It was a depiction of the struggle that we non-believers were up against when trying to convince the indoctrinated that their beliefs were foolish and unfounded.

Having since moved away from my atheist views, I see the other side of the coin: it represents the foolishness of believing that science has all the answers and that rational thought alone can reveal truth. It’s a testament to the true genius of Carl Sagan’s ability to frame the debate between religion and science so well.

In the io9 article (which I suggest you check out), the author cleverly points out the way in which Zemeckis used monitors and other multimedia devices as filters for the most important plot elements. It’s something I hadn’t really noticed in all my watchings of the film, and that keen observation caused me to re-evaluate what its underlying themes are. The author writes:

Once Ellie and her team discover the signal from Vega, seemingly every scene in the film features a monitor or some kind of television-related paraphernalia. Whether that’s unpacking a TV to unveil the Olympic footage, people watching news reports on CNN, a terrorist videotaping himself, or multiple scenes in the screen-filled Mission Control, Contact is filled with monitors, forcing both the characters and the audience to watch them. Full scenes of the film are made up of fuzzy TV footage. There are numerous press conferences on TV. The selection of the Machine representative unfolds via the news. Ellie’s interactions with Hadden are almost entirely done over a monitor. Even in scenes where the camera is in a room with the characters, Zemeckis often films them watching TV, or simply puts TV monitors in the frame to constantly remind us they’re there.
But that’s not it. People video chat regularly, which was not common in 1997. The terrorist attack on the Machine is first discovered on a TV monitor and subsequently played out there too. Then, finally, what’s the smoking gun of Ellie’s whole trip at the end of the movie? Eighteen hours of video footage. I could go on and on with examples where Contact uses television and monitors, but once you start seeing the film’s obsession with video, it’s almost comical how often it’s used. Which poses the obvious question, “Why?”

His answer to this question is that Zemeckis was attempting to “[teach] us about perspective and living in the moment.” It’s an interpretation I somewhat agree with, but I feel doesn’t go deep enough. I see it as being a commentary on a concept called hyperreality—something we’re waist deep in today, and likely to be consumed by at an ever increasing rate.

Rationalism depends on the ability to observe, measure, and confirm the phenomena we see in the world. It has worked superbly well as a tool for discovering truth and is responsible for all the technological innovations we enjoy today. However, the more complex technology becomes, and the more esoteric the phenomena we observe is, the more difficult it is for us to personally measure, understand, interact with all that we encounter.

Take global warming for instance. We hear about its growing threat on a near daily basis (“97% of scientists agree!”), yet our day-to-day lives seem no different today than they were when we were kids. We don’t interact with any technology that was made possible by the scientific findings of climate change research, nor is it really possible for any of us to reproduce the experiments run by climate scientists. Yet there it is, in the newspaper and on TV, beating us over the head, raising our blood pressure—shaming us into turning the A/C down or cajoling us to ride our bicycles to work. We are so far removed from the science of global warming that wehave no choice but to trust the experts and in a sense, to take it on faith. Is it any different than Ellie’s insistence that she traveled through the cosmos?

“They should have sent a poet”

The fallout from the election of Donald Trump and the vote in favor of Brexit are also good indications that we are entering hyperreality. These shocking events made it abundantly clear how many people had been living inside bubbles of hyperreality. It snuck up on us over the 8 years that Obama was in office, during which smart phones became ubiquitous, Internet usage became as common as tap water, and social media became our #1 past time. We were already used to the 24hr news cycle thanks to cable TV, but our biases were limited to a handful of narratives pushed by a limited number of sources.

With the rise of social media, our biases are now being fed by an endless number of sources, meaning the “truth” can be found pretty much anywhere we choose to look for it. If you’re a progressive college educated feminist, you can find ample evidence of pervasiveness of a rape culture, Patriarchy, and sexism. If you’re a working class christian white male from middle America, you can find ample evidence to support your fears over illegal immigration, Islamic terrorism, globalist conspiracies, and cultural Marxism. There are armies of Patreon supported pundits ready to validate anybody’s pet beliefs.

So much of what we believe to be true and real comes to us through tiny little screens, and so very little of it we bother to ever confirm or witness with our own two eyes. This is the message that Contact is trying to get across — our view of truth is limited by our ability to perceive it, yet it exists independently of our ability to prove it. Ellie couldn’t prove that she had traveled across the galaxy any more than she could prove to Palmer that she loved her father. As a rational scientist, her conclusion would be to reject what she experienced as false, or at the very least, unproven. As a human, her conclusion would be that what she experienced was as profound and true as the love she had for her father.

Ellie’s trip through the galaxy is a metaphor for spiritual awakening. People who have spiritual awakenings cannot prove that they’ve had one, yet they cannot deny that it has happened. Its significance is not based on peer review, independent confirmation, or consensus — it’s based on faith, personal conviction, and honesty to oneself. Post-enlightenment, we shifted toward a level of skepticism that has caused us to rely far too much on editorialized data to confirm reality and truth.

We have learned to suppress our instincts and rely instead on scientific expertise about material truths. If scientists tells us something is right, yet our instincts tell us it’s wrong, we hold our noses and put our faith in the scientists anyways. And who could argue with the results? After all, we enjoy more comfort, longevity, health, peace, and entertainment than ever before. But is this reality? Are we really more in touch with truth? Do our lives feel more fulfilled?

Are we happier?

Despite our shift toward the materialist point of view, we’re living in a world that was constructed by human minds. It was dreamt up by the artists, writers, poets, politicians, and philosophers of the past and present. Its boundaries are fluid, its rules are ever-changing, and it’s becoming more and more volatile. Our reality isn’t the socio-economics of the homeless person we’re stepping over on the way to work or the nutritional impact of the coffee we drink once we get there, nor is it the latest data coming out of the CERN supercollider in Geneva or the economic impact of our productivity for that day.

It’s the number of likes on the photo we posted to Instagram, the salacious headline about Trump, the shoes we’ve been coveting, the next 5 episodes of the show we’re binging on, and the girl in the elevator we want to say hello to, but never do. In other words, reality is the small amount of structure and meaning that we’ve managed to cobble together from an infinite and chaotic ocean of sensory information.

We don’t have a good grasp on material truth because, frankly, it’s just not that important for us to. So long as we are able to learn the rules for navigating through whatever hyperreal world we happen to find ourselves in, objective, material truths can be safely ignored. If we’re told that the country is being overrun by neo-nazis—sure, we’ll believe it—so long as believing it provides for us the optimal outcome based on the reality we’re living in. Being accepted by whatever group your reality is aligned with is far more important than holding fast to inconvenient objective, material truths.

When you discover objective truths that run contrary to your group, disseminating them will only lead to your excommunication. After all, these are truths about far away people and events you have no business caring about in the first place. Which calls into question whether they can even really be considered “truth”. If membership to your social groups is contingent on you believing that Trump is a white supremacist, or that Islam is infiltrating our country, or that global warming will kill us all in 50 years, it hardly matters whether or not it’s objectively true.

What matters is what impact believing or denying those truths has on our immediate happiness and well-being. Because the immediacy of our own personal satisfaction will nearly always supersede the remoteness of the benefit of prolonged intellectual honesty, it is likely that we will continue to fragment into increasingly isolated pockets of hyperreality. What this brave new world will look like, one can only guess. The only thing that seems certain to me is that it is, in fact, happening, and that it’s probably accelerating.

But don’t take my word for it. From Sagan’s book Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, published a mere five months before Contact first hit theaters:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

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