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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Snook, Digital Lock-in, and Our Perceptive Realities

Last night I almost fell into a giant fit of shouting and exclamation points when on twitter some girl, referring to the cast of The Jersey Shore, both “felt embarrassed for them” and wished they would “go back to where they came from.” Now at this point we have to assume that she knew what she was getting into watching in the first place; he might lie about it but even the president knows who Snooki is and I’m sure it’s because one of his daughters, or maybe both, were part of the five million viewers the show garnered in the first two episodes.

What bothered me about my twitter friend’s offhanded dismissal is that I felt she was over-looking an essential truth about The Jersey Shore: in so many ways it is symptomatic of the culture that produced it. In my mind anyone who has a twitter or facebook page is not much different in action than the cast members. The only difference is the scale.

140 characters isn’t enough to explain this thought: there isn’t much difference between me and Snooki.

I think we can all agree that these are narcissistic times. In their book “The Narcissism Epidemic” the authors cited several studies and noted increases of as much as 30% in the rate of narcissism as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1979 and 2006. Even more shocking is the statement (taken from another study by the New York Times) that “the year by year increase between 2002 and 2007 in these data is twice as large as the year by year increase found between 1979 and 2006.” Still another study of 4,000 students from the University of South Alabama polled between 2006 and 2009 when compared to a 1994 study showed “a huge increase in narcissistic traits: a full third (1 out of 3) of USA students answered the majority of the questions in a narcissistic direction in 2008-09, up from 1 out of 5 in 1994. Thus 89% more USA students answered the majority of questions in the narcissistic direction in 2008-2009 compared to 1994.”

It’s obviously no great leap to the statement that the cast members of the Jersey Shore are themselves huge narcissists. It takes a special kind of person to flaunt their abs in front of a nationwide audience or to brag that they are “the princess of Poughkeepsie,” however ridiculous that may seem. But their over-exposure isn’t the interesting part. Nor is it that we too share some of their narcissistic qualities. It is interesting that in so many ways they represent breaking the barrier between ourselves in reality and the third wall of our self-awareness.

Wait, what? Here goes:

Internet culture has allowed us to embrace our narcissism and present ourselves as we wish to be seen. I don’t think there is any argument that who we are on twitter or facebook is probably a little shinier than the real life reality. The reason for this is obvious: it’s only natural that we want to show our peers only the finer parts of our character. But it does create a divide between the three basic parts of our character: who we are in reality, how we wish to be seen in the real world and online, and the gap between how we want our projected reality to be seen and the extent to which people buy into it. The first two parts are self-explanatory and relatively non-interesting. The third part is only interesting in as much as it relates to the first two.
There are two kinds of social reality: perceptive reality and objective reality. The first relates both to how we see ourselves and how we construct ourselves to be seen. Objective reality is all about what’s really happening. For instance, I might choose to post pictures of myself in which my nose does not look as big and Jewish. The objective reality is that my nose is in fact big and Jewish. But you wouldn’t know it you only had the digital perception to rely on. Another example is if I were to tweet on a sunny day “Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s raining so hard.” If you lived in the same town and at that moment read my tweet from a cubical in a basement without windows your perceptive reality would be that it was raining. Is it untrue? Objectively yes but only if you know the difference between the perceptive reality and the objective reality. Otherwise your perception becomes the objective reality.

A large part of how we spend our time now is in trying to eliminate the gap in perception and reality. Because we are narcissistic and we only put up the best images and statements about ourselves we are forever increasing the distance between reality and our own imagery. You could easily argue that we aren’t trying to become the people we present ourselves to be but I think that’s largely an act of self-deception: the decision to say one thing and not another, to post one picture and not another, the selection of one word over another speaks to our conscious and sub-conscious desire to shape the way we are perceived.

In his 2009 internet treatise “You Are Not A Gadget,” Jaron Lanier introduces the idea of personal lock-in. The term was originally used to describe the way software programmers followed similar basic steps on their way to more advanced platforming. For instance, the use of MIDI in music creation is a flawed system because it doesn’t account for the fullness of notes in reality. There is just one true C note as opposed to the reality of notes that can be even the smallest bit sharp or flat. The idea of a synthesized version of Brahms’ cello sonata in F is ludicrous particularly because the arrival at harmony from dissonant noise is part of the beauty of classical music and in the best of it is prevalent almost inaudibly in every note. Yet MIDI is the basis for all music programming. The reason for this is not because programmers don’t care about the intricacies of music and sound but that in its earliest stages programmers established the first few steps and everyone took for granted that this is the way things are supposed to be done. They became locked-in to the patterns of the people who programmed before them not out of laziness but because their thought was on developing new programs focused on steps 40 and higher and the first few steps in the programming process were the literal means to an end.

My fear is that we are becoming locked-in to the assumption that who we are online is who we are in reality. As social networking sites become more and more pervasive we accept as totally normal our online voice and images. The lock-in comes in the form of our losing touch with the gap between the objective reality and perceptive reality. We assume that there is no gap because we’ve so habituated ourselves to the task of digital sharing.

But what does all this have to do with Jersey Shore?

Reality television is a microcosm of the breakdown between perceptive reality and objective reality. The very word “reality” makes a play at our acceptance of the term because we know that these people can’t possibly be this way “in real life” yet the cinema verite way they are captured on camera and our relative suspension of disbelief tells us otherwise. At heart reality television is people acting as we expect people who want to be famous/infamous to act. That is to say, acting badly. The Jersey Shore is the apex of the genre.

Over the past twenty years MTV (followed by VH1, Oxygen, the networks, FX, Speed Network, et all…) has conditioned young people to act a certain way in front of cameras. The practical application of this conditioned response plus the feeling that they individually are so important as to deserve a nation-wide audience has led hundreds of young people to reality television notoriety. (I refuse to say ‘fame.’) But what is interesting is not their blatant attempts at self-aggrandizement but the times when they let their television personas slip and their real faces are exposed. In the first season Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino expresses his feelings for Sammi Sweetheart only to have Sammi Sweetheart choose the even more muscle-bound Ronnie instead. For a split second we stop seeing “The Situation” and see a man whose pride is wounded. It’s only a split second but it’s all we need. The Situation in the first season is ripe with these kinds of moments where his perceptive reality is confronted with objective reality and we are given the pleasure of watching.

That’s where reality television is at its very best: when we see others drop their narcissistic sense of self and the real person is exposed. On some sub-conscious level we are all struggling with the divide and it’s refreshing to watch someone lose their grip and let their real self shine through.

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