So you thought it was solid, up there in the air?

by Yule Heibel on January 22, 2019

It’s Tuesday, January 22, 2019 and I’m once again wondering about reality.

There’s a reality that’s a slow-moving train wreck, easily ignored but also easy to obsess over, called the news media. It’s only virtually real for most of us (unless we’re in its cross-hairs, e.g., #covingtongate, in which case: watch out). There’s another reality outside my window: the frozen wasteland of a New England winter, keeping me penned up indoors. But everything “real” in my head (for I’m not outside getting frostbite) seems confounded by the manufactured reality (the virtual kind), making me wonder how much reality has been supplanted by virtual “reality,” by a virtuality that’s anything but ideal.

Or, considering how fake it is, anything but virtuous. (Because, consider that all commentary of anything that happened is mediated, stuck in this infinite, turtles-all-the-way-down interpretive stack.)

Anyone who spends a lot of time immersed in media, whether social or mainstream, feels this insertion of irreality into their own head. Something that for you isn’t immediately real takes your attention, colonizing your thoughts, putting you to work for its purposes.

Maybe this calls into question what reality is, really. Say I were not in this frozen wasteland, but instead in a paradisaical environment – somewhere posh, really posh, in the Bay Area or SoCal right by the ocean: I might be driving down the freeway (uncongested, of course!) in my convertible with the top down, dazzled by warmth and scenery. Yet my head could be as cluttered with virtual reality as anyone’s. Anywhere. In fact, maybe even the damn the scenery is virtual.

And here’s the discombobulating nub: our sense of reality is destabilizing, we are easily led. All that is solid melts into air. (Marx.) Revolution – first, the Industrial, now the Digital.

Perhaps, if you want to be a winner in this revolution, you have to do the Industrial Revolution equivalent of seizing the means of production. In our case today, the media are the means of production: they produce the reality we think is real, along with all its attendant meanings (because, in the West at any rate, we’ve destroyed religion as an arbiter of meaning and purpose, and now we’re destroying civic nationalism and virtue, too).

The news media can upset us so deeply because they’re creating what look like realities, but whether true or fake, they’re harvesting our attention to make us work and produce coin for them.

And it’s getting worse. At any given time, a good chunk of the people (half?) believe that media-generated reality is real; the other half doesn’t. This is the “two movies on one screen” idea developed by Scott Adams. However, whereas half the people believing something to be true (even if it’s fake) used to vouchsafe some kind of stability and consensus, the non-believing other half are now instrumentalized, turned into weapons in this battle royale for control of the means of production (which turns both sides into combatants). And it causes the realities of both “sides” to be called into question, to be destabilized. We’re seeing a repeat of the (tragic) battle to control the means of production, which is why fake news is flourishing (as farce). It’s war, it really is.

We have to figure out how to take control of at least some of the means of production (of reality). And maybe that’s what was happening with blogging and social media in the early days: it was us, the “little people,” as citizen journalists, producing meaning (reality) in a then nascent digital media realm. But the corporate giants, who started as little helpers (“here’s a cool platform you can use to create meaning [for free, as in beer – not!]”) have weaponized all the little people (we are but pawns) in their battle with big corporate media – a big corporate media into which these formerly “little helpers” with the now-monopoly-level platforms have themselves morphed. Two camps, the mainstream media and social media, gigantic, grotesque, and corporate through and through, facing off with armies of pawns sheepling into bloodthirsty mobs, ready to fall on swords they don’t even own, didn’t produce, and from which they won’t benefit.

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