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.

Whose reality, really?


I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine today. We were talking about the bad economy and she was saying how a number of her friends aren’t “facing up to reality”. I asked her what she meant and she told me that they just weren’t “dealing” with the enormity of the economic crisis in before us. In what way, precisely weren’t they dealing, I was curious. Had one of them just lost their job but was spending like a drunken sailor? Were they about to get laid off? Were they out of work but not looking? My friend told me it was none of these, but they just seemed blithely unaware that the economy is in TATTERS, and that this is BIG. People all around them are losing their jobs, and they just go on with their lives. I asked my friend what exactly she expected them to do, but no information of that sort was forthcoming. She repeated her line about them not facing up to reality, and I pointed out that at a macro level, there is not much that any one person can do about what is happening in the economy. And what good did it do to worry about it? I get the feeling my friend feels that if we are sufficiently freaked out about something bad, that we are living in “reality” and if we are not, that we are in “denial”.

Applying this to my own life, I must not be living in “reality”. I don’t have enough work to live off of completely yet (although my contracts are growing), but I am not especially freaked out. I am doing what I can to generate more, and not terribly concerned. I find it a useful exercise to imagine the very worst possible thing that could happen in any situation, and realize it usually isn’t the end of the world. In my case, the very worst thing that could happen in me not finding enough work would be that I would have to go live with friends in California or with my family in Indiana, both of whom have offered me shelter and food if I need it. Neither is hardly a terrible outcome. When I look at it this way, I feel comforted and very lucky.

I asked my friend to imagine similarly what would be the very worst thing that could happen to her in this terrible economy and she talked about losing her home and everything in it, likewise being forced to move in with some family member. But for her, this was clearly a fate too horrible to imagine, and it really made me think again about a subject I often return to, our possessions. We are a society of consumers, and at least partially status and self esteem in our society comes from one’s possessions. The more one accumulates (and the more one spends), the more one takes part in the economy and society. In a very real way, one’s value in a consumer culture is directly proportional to what one spends and is capable of spending. The problem with owning a lot of stuff is that it requires a lot of care and upkeep. Our possessions end up owning us as much as we do them. Especially for large purchases (like a house) is is natural to feel a greater attachment and weight, as the effort to acquire is so much greater. I realize after my years of travel that I really have little desire to acquire such things. At least, If I do head down that road (which may be inevitable in a society such as ours) I hope to be calm about the possibility that it could all disappear tomorrow. All the better to enjoy life’s gifts in the present. We of course do what we can, but complete control is an illusion. The reality is just much more chaotic.