The Real No Longer Exists

We went to Alpine Adventures in Lincoln, NH yesterday with a group of friends to ride the ziplines that they have set up in the woods on Barron Mountain. We had a great time. Traveling through the woods at speeds of about 25-30mph suspended by a harness from a steel cable is an awesome way to spend an early summer afternoon.

So what does ziplining have to do with technology and society? Sometimes I tend to think of technology pretty narrowly, thinking only of computing technology. But there is an amazing amount of engineering involved in setting up a canopy tour that will allow a wide variety of tourists to move safely from tree top to tree top. But that’s not the technology connection that interested me most about yesterday’s adventure.

We went out for a drink after the adventure and we learned that one of the women in our group is deathly afraid of heights. In fact, her family was doubtful that she would be able to jump off the platforms to do the ziplining. Someone said to her, “It’s a good thing we took lots of pictures because otherwise your family wouldn’t believe that you did it.” It was her response that I found most interesting. She said, “I’m glad we took pictures because otherwise I wouldn’t believe I did it.” In other words, the pictures will serve as proof to herself that she experienced her own experiences.

This is an example of what Jean Baudrillard meant when he said that the real no longer exists. (Thanks to Ann for helping me to understand Simulacra and Simulation–in fact, she dragged me through that book). What this provocative statement means is that in contemporary society, the copy has replaced the original in importance. So in order to experience the zip line, the woman who was so deathly afraid actually needs to see the copies of the experience (the images) because they are more real than reality. Baudrillard would say that they are hyperreal.

The hyperreal, the need for a (re)mediation of an experience in order for the experience to feel “real”, is something that I’ve encountered in my own experiences. For example, the day that New Hampshire’s famous Old Man of the Mountain fell off Cannon Mountain, Liz, Evelyn and I were driving to have breakfast at Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill. As we drove through Franconia Notch, I looked for the Old Man and never found it. We joked that perhaps it had finally succumbed to gravity but didn’t believe, despite the evidence before us, that this could actually be true. When we got to Polly’s, we heard that it had indeed fallen. On the way home, heading south through the Notch, I couldn’t believe my eyes–no granite face, police cars and helicopters everywhere. I remember saying that we needed to watch the news to be sure it really had fallen. I needed the experience to be mediated, copied, simulated, in order for it to feel “real” to me.

2 Comments

  1. Amen to this. I think this often when I am sightSEEING and watching so many people struggle to get the perfect photo, thereby missing the scene in front of them. I personally witnessed people wait 45 minutes for Old Faithful to erupt, then leave after they took their pics, even though the eruption was still going on.

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