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By Michael McCurley Working with and studying computer simulation modeling has given me a healthy respect for reality. What surprises me is how perfectly rational people can confuse their most untenable perceptions with incontrovertible truths. One thing is a personal sensory based experience, another is the consumption of ready made perceptions that have been created for us. Although we watch television programs that are reported to be ‘fair and balanced’ promising that ‘you are there’ with ‘no spin’ objectivity, the actuality of what we observe is usually quite distant from our perceptions—but what we have become used to makes such an observation invisible. We are accustomed to artificial observations. We absorb international problems from local vantage points so far away that there is no possibility of actually connecting more than a small fraction of what we observe with our own experiences. We are not directly, emotionally, or physically involved. And yet these things seem to be ‘here and now’ on our laptops, and in our homes. They become vicarious, virtual parts of our lives. It’s no wonder we have difficulties making distinctions between simulacrums and reality. A simulacrum is a representation of reality using symbols and signifiers that are identifiable or understandable to us—these may come from common codes or sources such as sound clips, video, images, expressions, commentaries, texts, blogs, books, radio or television shows, but they are NOT a direct experiential part of the world we actually live in. You may have heard words from President Obahma, Hillary Clinton, or Scott Brown. But if you have never met them, do you really know these people? The perceptions we form about the politicians (or simulants) we watch in government are quite different from who those people really are, what they represent, and what they will do at any time in the future. Should we be surprised when these politicians are not what we expected? While we listen to ‘first hand’ accounts, which bring us ‘up to the minute’ news in our nation and around the world, we trust a proxy extension of our senses, mixed with the subjective viewpoints of strangers who are multimedia performers, often accepting them as our own. When we identify with our favorite commentators, using some of the same capabilities we developed to suspend disbelief as we watch movies, our faculties to distinguish between illusion and reality may become blurred and distorted. How much of what we think (or feel) is actually a result of our own careful consideration and observations? How many ideas are borrowed from mental models and emotions (or emulations) that have been provided by others? We may be getting the wrong picture if we aren’t doing some real thinking and analysis for ourselves. Some people are becoming lazy thinkers, just as others have become lazy readers. They mistake the relative sophistication of technological innovations with cosmopolitan fashion and culture—without any real input or effort of their own. And they don’t examine critical issues with real first hand perspectives. What results they get are laced with rhetoric and pre-packaged ideologies. And that may be all that’s needed to create
societies of sophisticated savages (pardon my gross, politically incorrect faux pas). So I will NOT apologize until more people are willing to assume personal responsibilities for their own conclusions. It makes no sense to subjugate our minds to thought peddlers. While I do not question the potential anyone has for competent rational analysis, I do criticize a general laziness that many people have for not thinking on their own, for not reading and examining controversial issues, and for generally accepting simplistic televiewer pabulum provided by specially sponsored ‘experts’ who have been paid to tell us what to believe. Are we actually so naïve that we would willingly expose ourselves to this senseless form of brainwashing? The irony of it all is that there is no wizard hidden in the wings or behind the curtain. There’s no actual global conspiracy group that has carefully mapped out a plan for world order and domination. Instead we may become the incidental victims of smaller and larger power brokers who are jostling against one another and competing to survive. I see no advantage in being relatively ignorant by allowing my thinking to be implanted by special interests, which are not my own. And many people accept this by default, because thinking on this level requires self-awareness, and an important amount of effort and time. As we know, there are people who are convinced they cannot afford that luxury, or that it is, in fact, a waste of time. That conception is a lie. Most people cannot afford NOT to think for themselves, but the ignorant who are unaware or are actively against this, are the ones who cede their minds without purpose. All of us can benefit by thinking more carefully and clearly. A tragedy of American politics is that so much of what we admire in our democratic system is actually subject to a mindless reactionary pendulum cycle—the increasing public disapproval of a current political system and the growing attraction of an opposition that offers to change the system. General public opinion grows more unfavorable towards any (or all) government systems, which do not rise to our expectations, as hopes grow that a renovated opposition will do what the government up to that point has been unwilling or unable to do. The mindless part is the (unfounded) hope that the opposition will somehow be different than it was the last time the cycle between the two major opposing parties began. Eventually the incumbent party will be thrown out, the opposition will be voted in, and the cyclic process of moving from favor to disfavor will begin again, when a new administration lags behind heightened expectations, until the new opposition rousts out the incompetents of government who have again failed to follow the will of the people. And so on it goes, generation after generation. The American tragedy continues. Democrats, republicans, or even the socialists, it makes no difference! We vote them in, and then we vote them out. Why? They were not what we hoped for. The programs, platforms, and candidates were simulacrums, the modeling of promises that were supposedly real, but not actually practicable. This is not to say that simulacrums are entirely fictitious, but there is a vast difference between a vision and the reality of an application. It is sad to think how politics would fare if it were a software company, where the success or failure of
software products would be determined by consumer satisfaction and demand. Politics has not yet been accurately measured in terms of success, because time delays allow candidates to make emotional appeals that move voters to cast their ballots more on the basis of gambled future hopes, than on performance standards that would be applied for using machines, say, like computers. Politics is not sold like other commodities, though perhaps it should be. We vote for people who later charge us through taxes, and who later may or may not deliver what they promise—thus the forward value of the simulacrum and the regressive results of the actual process. The time delays often reveal startling discontinuities that tend to repeat rather than resolve themselves. The pendulum process is oscillatory. Again we’ve fooled ourselves—until (we promise) the next election comes. We may blame others for the simulacrums, but we actually created or accepted them ourselves. What’s the problem with ‘business as usual in Washington’? It happens to be the only business we know. And it will continue to be just that until we change the structure within our political system, which is also the only picture we know—in this case the American simulacrum as a whole is a program that determines our political realities. Forget about the town halls, tea parties, political campaigns, and the disgruntled blogs of dissatisfied citizens. A real change would call for another social upheaval as great as the founding of our nation. But so far, the 2010 simulacrum for ‘the shot heard round the world’, which was the 1775 battle cry from my home town of Lexington, Massachusetts, is still a long way from becoming another American Revolution. For further Reading see Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994) This article may be shared for personal or educational purposes only. It may not be reproduced for any other reason without express permission from the author. ©January 2010 About the Author. Michael McCurley is an alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Guided Study Program in System Dynamics for Education that was offered through the Internet. He lives in Liberia, Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
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