The Desert of the Fakes: Critiquing Copycats in the Era of User Generated Content

Do you want the real desert or the fake desert?

I preface this article with the following premises. I watch The Matrix too much. I think about The Matrix too much. I write about The Matrix too much. Therefore, I was watching The Matrix recently and I began to think a lot about the concept of the “desert of the real” and why I needed to write about it more.

As a former Philosophy student, The Matrix is a treasure trove of easter egg references to some of my favorite thinkers. In the past, I have always used the film to unpack larger treatises on reality and the relationship between humans and machines. However, the more I watch the film, the more I see it as an example of the issues with social media algorithms and the construction of computer generated realities.

While all media deal with the conundrum of reality vs. representation, I would argue that social media platforms have become spaces which not only fail to replicate the real, but instead choose to privilege the fake i.e. simulations. Specifically, this privileging of the fake is seen in the ways that both disinformation and disingenuousness spread online.

Simulation Theory and The Desert of the Real

The differentiation between what is real and what is constructed is first demonstrated in a scene in The Matrix (which I have linked) during which the main character Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) has his first experience in “the construct”, a computer generated reality which feels and appears real to him even though it is not. It is in this construct that Neo learns that the world he has been living in is not actually “real” at all but the “desert of the real’’ which has replaced reality with artificial intelligence.

In this desert of the real, the characters are dependent on machines for their survival, but the machines are also consuming human beings. It is in this scene that the character Morpheous (played by Lawrence Fishburne) defines the Matrix as “a computer generated dreamworld, built to keep us [humans] under control, in order to change a human being into this”. When Morpheous says “this” he then holds a battery in front of his face, indicating that the Matrix turns human beings into an energy source for the machines to feed on.

This scene is commonly used to unpack the concept of simulation theory and Slavoj Žižek’s writing on “the desert of the real” which draws from the work of Jean Baudrillard. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard discusses the relationship between what is real and the fakes and deep fakes that are created in this world.

Instead of living in a world that is based on the real or an objective and authentic understanding of reality, we commonly exist in the realm of simulation and simulacra, or copies of the real and additional copies of those copies. Through media, technology, and even the everyday performance of self, we construct a reality that is based on what we see, what we have learned, and our own subjectivity.

And while there are many people who have discussed simulation theory in our current moment in time as a way to understand everything from the COVID-19 pandemic, to government conspiracies, and virtual reality, I enjoy using simulation theory to think about social media and the current era of user generated content.

The User Generated Simulation

During the early 2000’s, internet aficionados were introduced to the concept of Web 2.0 and the rise of user generated content. Instead of an internet which was primarily focused on static information sharing and viewing, Web 2.0 introduced an internet that was more collaborative and co-constructed between platforms and users.

In this sense, we have moved from a Matrix that has not only been created by technologists, but a computer generated reality that is co-constructed between individuals and algorithms. This user generated simulation means that we are not only dealing with the ways that those in power and machines are controlling the simulation, but also how those around us have been integrated into the construct.

We especially see this through the creation of content which is disingenuous and the rise of disinformation. In particular disingenuous content is content which is a copy of someone else’s content and it has become quite common due to lack of creative accountability online. Instead of attempting to create the real through making new or original content, disingenuous creators engage in their own form of simulation and simulacra, by constantly replicating the real.

Especially when it comes to users who have larger platforms, this simulation creates a simulacra online as most users never know if the content they are consuming is real i.e. original or if it’s a copy of something that has been done before. In addition, because the algorithm for most social media platforms privilege platform size and social influence more than anything, real or original content can easily get lost in the shuffle. As these copies or simulacra gain more popularity than the real, then the real almost ceases to be relevant within the app.

User generated simulation is also seen when it comes to the rise of disinformation online. Instead of seeing real and accurate information quickly spread through social media platforms, it is much easier for misinformation and disinformation to spread. Especially as so few people have the skills to see through the matrix of media and information, it is easy for disinformation to spread when we don’t have any checks on how information spreads online. Once again, by privileging the simulation and simulacra over the real, algorithms support this desert of the fakes online.

Crafting an Algorithm of the Real

As users have more influence over the matrix of social media and the content that is produced online, we must also think about how algorithms and recommendation systems need to be updated in order to keep up with these changes. For example, What would it look like for algorithms to be able to fact check the information that we share online?

Especially as social media sites like Twitter begin to experiment with prompts like “read before you tweet”, it is quite possible for other platforms to tweak their own algorithms to encourage a flowering garden of real and authentic content over recycled trends and clickbait.

Finally, as someone who is always interested in speculating about the future of the internet, I would ask all of us to ponder this final question: What would it look like to engineer an algorithm that privileges the real or the original creation/creators over the simulation and simulacra of copycats and controversial content?

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