Columns, Opinions

Secondo ’16 GS: Reality distortion: the unnerving legacy of the 2010s

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, December 6, 2019

Well, we made it — another 10-year demarcation that allows us to reflect on society and ourselves. Whether or not the 2010’s will be crowned by Time as the latest “decade from hell,” these 10 years demand a more serious retrospective than an inflammatory moniker.

The decade that brought us athleisure, renewed demagoguery and Candy Crush also ushered in an age of mass disruption. Status quos in politics, entertainment and indeed, human relations writ large were routinely strained into modified or completely new arrangements. Remember when there was no other option but to use a DVD player to watch a movie at home or call a cab over the phone or print out a ticket for scanning? It feels like a vestige from a distant past. The culprit for such memory-warping change? As in every period of universal change, technology propelled this decade’s turbine of transformation.

Driven by the entrepreneurial industrial-complex of Silicon Valley, innovations in computing, media and telecommunications launched a revolution in how humans connect, communicate and conceive of ourselves in society. Seemingly universal adoption of the iPhone has ushered in the app-ification of everything imaginable. Food, banking, dating, transportation and entertainment have become just a few swipes and scrolls away. Social-media platforms emerged as the foremost mediums of human interaction and information exchange. Electronic interfaces evolved into extensions of our physical being, solidifying the virtual environment as another dimension of our reality. Visually captured memories are stored in metaphysical clouds, while Uber ratings and number of Instagram followers are now components, no matter how small, of a modern person’s identity. This era of moving fast and breaking things yielded positive changes to daily life based on values of access, convenience and gratification. But fulfilling the law of unintended consequences, technologically-driven disruption has brought more than convenience and efficiency to societies. Indeed, it has spawned the most unnerving and concerning upheaval to the modern human experience: the reality distortion revolution.

Famously ascribed as a key aspect of Steve Jobs’ magnetism, reality distortion describes the phenomenon of convincing oneself or others to see anything as real. This process is theoretically achieved using a myriad of social-psychological tools and personal gravitas (along with a heaping helping of egomania). It warps actuality into alternative virtuality that is in the control of the beholder: more favorable, more outrageous, more persuasive. People dissociate from physical reality, preferring customized virtual spaces to face to face interaction. Certainly, bending reality is hardly a novel concept. With modern technologies, however, it is now easier than ever before; it does not require strenuous training of the mind, but rather consistent perusals of an Instagram feed. As one spends more time in these online spaces, the line between these curated realities and physical life start to blur.

Decade-defining AR/VR products like Pokémon Go and Snapchat reflected the more lighthearted side of this distortion revolution. Certainly, these toy-like products are not the pernicious subjects of this column. I instead want to discern how reality distortion has been able to impact society at such rapid scale, spurred on by products implemented without such creative intent. Mass adoption of technology platforms has democratized media and self-promotion. It has eroded established channels of information consumption and personal presentation. Platforms like YouTube and Facebook empower individual control over the production, dissemination and curation of “content.” This redistribution of power results in fragmented information-spaces, mirroring the siloed landscape of traditional media that divides our real-life communities. Exacerbated by the exclusionary comfort of our devices, our withdrawal into these hyper-personalized spaces tugs at the social fabric and norms that bind people together.

Fragmentation of virtual spaces has come with a hypercuration of these spaces, which makes them uniquely suited to distorting individuals’ perceptions of reality. Take Instagram. A far cry from its nascent days as a picture-sharing platform of landscapes with artsy filters, the platform has evolved into a realm of self-commoditization and signaling of social capital. In this simulacrum of the public square, reality is curated to reflect the ideal image users desire to project to the world.

This decade has nurtured a coterie of grifters. Tech darlings and faux socialites alike reveled in alternate realities to suit their needs. Disgraced tech startups like Theranos and WeWork were houses of lies and false prospects. Anna Delvey, aka Anna Sorokin, conned New York high society until her scam was eventually uncovered. And then there’s the president. Co-opting Fox News, Facebook and Twitter to take his preferred narratives directly from the arenas to private digital spaces, he built the perfect cross-dimensional reality distortion firewall against the forces of fact and integrity.

Beyond hypercuration, fakery and scamming, what else has this legacy of reality distortion left its wake? Dilution of authenticity. Distrust of establishment. Disregard of truth. Dismissal of fact. Disinformation. Disillusionment. We may be stumbling in a funhouse for now, but spend enough time there and it may morph into an Orwellian reality. Happy 2020s.

Reid Secondo ’16 GS can be reached at reid_secondo@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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