We go to farmers’ markets. I pay a little extra for Amish wood furniture. We didn’t go to Mexico, but Costa Rica. It’s like Mexico 25 years ago. I know it’s not totally real, but I prefer reality, sorry, unscripted television. We live in a golden age of documentaries; I love it!
You have undoubtedly heard these lines from a friend or family member. Maybe you have uttered them. The modern American is on a never-ending quest for authenticity, for what is real. This authenticity might be a manufactured authenticity that a magazine or academic has told them is authentic, or it might be simply assigning the value of poor or uncomfortable as authentic. This yearning for authenticity is a reaction to the American public drowning in mediated experiences, while rarely enjoying actual experiences.
Examples of this silly confusion can be heard when individuals dislike the idea of friends setting them up for a date, but gladly swipe left and right via a giant database that attempts to set them up with partners. Formerly an amazing authentic experience, going to Machu Picchu has lost authenticity points because now there is a train to make traveling to the ruins easier. A smooth train ride is not the same experience as roughing it hiking the mountains of Peru. Americans crave true experience because everything seems a commercialized set-up for maximum profit.
Americans have become separated from learning via experience, and have a political elite continuously telling them not to believe their own eyes and ears, and to instead trust politically-approved and funded research. The experts in the papers, schools, or on television will explain everything. The relentless chipping away at self-confidence in one’s intuition leads people to a place where fewer and fewer people trust their personal observations, unless there is an external confirmation by a credentialed scientific or academic source. Americans increasingly are separated from any natural setting and are atomized in nearly every way.
American society has been structured so that natural experience is minimized and in its place are mediated experiences that an expert or team of experts have crafted, edited, framed, and even written for the individual. The mixing of true experience versus mediated experience is discussed in detail in Jerry Mander’s book Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television from the 1970s. This does not stop with television, but has morphed with the growth of the Internet. Television still reaches so many and has such power due to its physical effects.
Mander points to the situation where “all information has become believable and not believable at the same time. It has become arbitrary. There is no way to separate the real from the not-real”. The concern is that with this uncertainty, “all theories of the ideal organization of life become equal”, and that he who holds the megaphone and shouts the loudest will fill this chaos. The confusion and flood of information will end with a solution provided by the man holding the megaphone to a daily viewer placed in an isolated, near-hypnotic state. The images on the screen are completely out of context with reality. They often do not match reality, and they often exhibit a pattern. When a consistent pattern is noticed, there is a message, which in modern America means progressive-approved themes.
Decades after Mander’s book, we can see this today with movies, television, and even advertising steadily pushing social themes. The diverse good guys versus the all-white bad guys. The implausible and relentless interracial couples of all combinations (always happy and thin). Black astrophysicists and hackers. The steady flow of these images can alter the perceptions of individuals who currently watch over five hours of television a day. Add to this Internet screen time, and waking, manufactured social observation experiences of an individual will greatly contrast with social reality. The feeling of never quite knowing if the world is real or just a show is reflected in the wave of ’90s films that deal with reality, simulations, and experience.
The transition from television screentime being the American screen experience to the combined television and Internet screentime is not much of a transition. Streaming video via Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon when combined with Internet porn viewing accounts for over half of all Internet traffic. The screens people experience life through have just become smaller and held one foot below our jaw. Nick Land pointed out the social media + smartphone = mental mindspace relocation idea. This removes individuals from experiencing even the artificial construction of a plane ride to simply experiencing the constructed forms on the small screen in front of them on the flight. The separation of mind and body takes one more step away from the evolution of the human being.
Yearning for authenticity or the return to the natural is not a new thing. There was another time and place that went through massive manufactured environment changes, changed its basis for living, and even introduced moving pictures that inspired a struggle for authenticity: Weimar Germany. The Germans took to the woods.
Starting around the turn of the century, the Wandervogel movement swept through Germany. This was a movement that focused on getting back to nature and the group experience in nature. Different descendants would come from this movement, such as scouting, hippies, and even nudists. The feelings and motivations were not just focused on the organized, but on common Germans. Albert Speer’s memoirs begin with him citing the hiking and nature movement. Explaining the movement, Speer writes:
Many of our generation sought such contract with nature. This was not merely a romantic protest against the narrowness of middle-class life. We were also escaping from the demands of a world growing increasingly complicated. We felt that the world around us was out of balance. In nature, the mountains and the river valleys, the harmony of Creation could still be felt. The more virginal the mountains, the lonelier the river valleys, the more they drew us.
Speer is writing about his and others motivations for escaping 1920s German city life. A century before our tech focused future, Speer’s peers were equally overwhelmed or disgusted by the pace and churn of the modern world. Even in the infancy of electrified modernity, Europeans were already aware that the manufactured, artificial experiences of the city were not a substitute or even a fair facsimile for the true, time-honored European experience.
The trek into the woods, whether solo or in a group, is in the blood of Europeans and Americans. The myths of Hercules can be interpreted as different founding father myths for what European men had to do to settle the forested continent. Cutting the many heads of the hydra and burning them to not grow back is a metaphor for having to cut the many trees down or burning a forest to sow crops. Cleaning the Augean stables is a metaphor for properly dealing with waste to establish growing settlements. Hercules often must enter the wild natural world to find a wretched figure to slay.
Besides Hercules, countless stories from the European literary tradition involve a young hero or child entering the woods. The woods is a dark place full of mischief, evil recluses, wild animals, or mythical creatures that create conflict and provide the hero with a challenge to overcome. The woods are a completely virgin territory for the European to express his Faustian drive and seek new experiences or learn about the world around him. Taming the wild and settling the west was the American story for decades with the wonderfully religious phrase “Manifest Destiny“. These challenges to the European and American soul are sorely lacking, peeking out in the silly video game completion or fantasy world cosplay of homo economicus.
Muddied experience will not be solved by virtual reality. For all the promises and flashy advertisements of stunned individuals, the experience will be remarkably close to television. An isolated individual will enjoy an experience of sight and sound in a relaxed state. The experience will be produced, crafted, edited, and delivered by a large tech firm with carefully selected editors and product development teams. The solution to the confusion or anxiety caused by muddled experience will not be an even more mixed experience.
The continued mental stress placed on individuals by the muddied experience of modern life will cause them to seek medical help, due to anxiety wonderfully exhibited by the anxious grasp for their phone that they just put down.
Others, however, may look for a way to unplug and exit the carefully manipulated modern experience and take to the woods.