What does “reality” look like, anyway?


A little over a week ago, I bought a somewhat fancy new television set. As with many sets today, it contains some impressive technology that promises to deliver a sharper, more detailed, clearer, and smoother picture. It accomplishes this by a number of means including a high resolution screen (much higher than we grew up with), and the ability to process images fed to it so that movement on screen appears clear and in focus the whole time (this technology is called 240hz, which you can read about here). At first I was just amazed at the jaw dropping clarity of the images. But then I started to notice that things had a kind of odd, video like quality to them, even though I could see greater detail. I messed around with a bunch of settings, turning on and off motion blur correction, color settings, picture settings and the like. The more I played around with the settings, the less sure I was of what I should be looking at. I got more and more confused about what the “best” picture should be, and came to some interesting conclusions about our relationship to represented “reality”.

The idea that a moving image on a flat surface is more or less real depends on many learned assumptions about what reality looks like in the first place. Other than the standard representations that we are exposed to growing up (that change with new technology anyway), we have no objective reference point. None of it is real, and the degree to which something feels “right” or “real” is completely culturally determined. I now find myself floating in a kind of no man’s land regarding what I should want out of a picture. In some ways this is quite liberating, as I can decide how best I want reality interpreted for me by my set. And in others it is quite destabilizing, because we seem to have lost the shared language of representation that once pervaded our culture. Who become the new arbiters of the real? Who should we trust in these matters, if anyone?

One of the funny things a new technology like this exposes, despite its marketing hooey about clarity and reality, is how completely arbitrary representations are. When photography first came on the scene a couple hundred years ago, people were amazed at how much more “real” it was than painting. Ultimately, although it often carried more detail, it was no more real than a painting or a view with ones own eyes. Which is more real by the way? A present viewing or a memory? Something seen from up close or far away? I could go on, but the point is they are all equally real, and equally unreal. They each distort some understanding of a reality, even as they enhance other aspects.

And so I am left in a brave new world of uncertainty thanks to my new TV. Will I argue with friends over what the settings should be? Will I seek cold comfort in making it conform to the style of images from my youth, or some hybrid of new and old? Now that I am freed from the myth of representation, will I still relate to my peers the same way while watching a TV episode or movie? Perhaps my mood will determine whether I seek to adjust to my subjective notions of real, hyperreal, or surreal.