A “Thought Piece” on Digital Space as Simulation and the Loss of the Original

A “Thought-Piece” on Digital Space as Simulation and the Loss of the Original: Final Paper for Dr. O’Donnell’s English 4400: Digital Humanities, Fall 2014

          In beginning to think about how I could integrate theory into my final project, I recalled Kim Brown, the DH Maker-Bus, and how she spoke about how her workshops with children have prompted kids to ask “big questions”. It occurred to me that the way in which humanists approach their own work is often very dependent on the ways humanity and culture are defined. It also occurred to me that now, more than ever, humanity and technology are converging. In this paper I want to explore the ways technology and the digital are seen as “copies” of an “original”. Drawing on theories post-humanism and post-modernism I will discuss technology and the internet as simulation. This paper will examine technophobia in the humanities and look to Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulacra, si and the hyperreal in an attempt to explain resistance to the digital and technology, in terms of scholarship, but also examine the larger implications of copy replacing the original. I will attempt to deconstruct the lamentation of the loss of an original, with simulations made possible by technology, and how this affects understandings of things like research, the humanities, and humanity itself.

          To begin to deconstruct the lamentation of the loss of the original; a resistance to the simulated, or technology in the humanities. I think it is important to discuss the theoretical Baudrillardian notion of simulacra. The internet can be seen as a hub of simulation. Sites like Facebook, and Twitter, email, and skype, simulate physical forms of communication, and online shopping websites simulate the physical shopping experience. People have virtual relationships, pets, can gamble, can send money, can publish, and can donate to charity online. If one “goes shopping” online, did they really go shopping? The idea that “shopping” means anything other than physically going to a store is relatively new. With online shopping, the consumer is very much detached from any product, and uses simulations of money (debit, credit, or PayPal) in the privacy of their own home. The physicality is removed, and the process becomes much more abstract. However, the lack of physicality does not make it any less “valid”. Rather, the way shopping has traditionally been defined must be re-examined in the context of a hyperreal digital era. Researching online is not less valid than in a library. The idea I have heard purported by some of my professors that online research is easier or equates to less zealous or engaged students is supported only by the elevation of the original. The original in this sense being the physical book in the physical library. However, whether information is in print or online, the idea that knowledge is easier to learn, or less valued as digital seems to suggest that there is an obvious hierarchy in the value of medium. However, present (although not necessarily pervasive) fear or resistance to digital spaces in the humanities perhaps be explained by the notion that because there is so much virtual content, and simulations online in a digital environment, the truth is elusive. I think this stems from the idea that the “real” truth exists as something that is physical; which have been authenticated in simply by existing in a physical form, and simulations (being further detached from “Reality”) distort and become further removed from truth. The internet can be understood in many ways as the epitome of simulation and the hyperreal. Baudrillard recognized the virtual world as a fourth level of simulacra, building off of his previous three levels: counterfeit, production, and the code-governed phase. “The counterfeit” (Baudrillard 50) level, being in close proximity to the original, “production” being the reproduction of the original and the code-governed phase, a much more abstract assemblage, rooted in signs, and completely detached from the original. This third phase, the “code governed” phase refers primarily to language as code. For Baudrillard (and Derrida, Saussure and others), language creates a distance from reality. In many ways, language is a tool used to simulate reality. In hyperreality, a space comprised primarily of “copies”, and for the purpose of this paper, virtual, digital spaces, and the third or fourth level of simulacra, the simulation often becomes the original. Digital hyperreality, allows for interaction with the thing that is not present, or the lost or displaced “original”.

          If we apply this understanding of simulation and hyperreality to online scholarship, research, reading, teaching, and interaction, the “original” is the physical. That is to say, that texts contained in physical books, in physical spaces are privileged as closer to nature (although not equated to nature, since text itself is simulation, or code). Consistently, digital spaces as a viable research option are subverted in the humanities. Digital text disrupts the lasting finality of print, and seems to threaten the sanctity of Truth in the nature of its detachment from the physical or original. The act of moving our bodies from a home space, to a study space authenticates my research; I conducted research because what I interacted with was real, in the molecular sense. Reading “From Modernism to Post-Modernism”, and holding the book in my hands means I read the book. Did I still read the book if I read it online? Did I still “talk” to my professor if I sent an email? Am I still a person, a human in my entirety, if I have a digital eye?

          Many post-modern theorists such as Fredrich Jameson, saw simulation in terms of its artificiality, and that in itself carried the connotation of inferiority. For example, the consumption of non-artificial, non-simulated foods is praised and sought after. There is a desire to purify foods. More and more often, marketers carefully craft product information to of that which is not natural, or “originally” present in nature. Marketers include words such as “all natural, organic, home-made, home-grown, authentic” and many products (food specifically) is advertised as “GMO-free, no artificial colors, flavors”. In a more abstract sense, consuming food which has deviated from an “original”, is seen as inferior, despite the fact that studies such as A. L. Van Eenennaam and A. E. Young’s “Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations” have concluded that: “Numerous experimental studies have consistently revealed that the performance and health of GE-fed animals are comparable with those fed isogenic non-GE crop lines” (Van Eenennaam, Young). The mere fact that certain foods use technology threatens the sanctity of the original. In a similar way, technology is often demonized as a violation of biology. There are exceptions, and certainly, the average person would not reprimand (in any explicit way) an elderly person with a pacemaker, or a someone with prosthetic limbs. Figures like Donna Harraway posit that the definition of “human” is largely based on biological, anatomical qualities, such as DNA, and naturally occurring physical features. Anatomically, an amputee with prosthetics does not qualify as a human under Wikipedia’s bio-centric definition of a human. Is a person with prosthetics 81% human 19% machine? Where is this line drawn? At what point is a person too far removed from the “original” to be considered a human? If I am anatomically 75% machine am I still a human? No, not based on the current definition. “In the post-human, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (Lenoir 204). The copy, or simulation of body parts removes the cyborg from the current category of what it means to be human. However, this loss of the original allows for production of emancipatory copies. (Baudrillard) This can be seen in terms of the cyborg, (a failing heart allows for its copy, a pacemaker). We can look at the integration of technology into the body as a step in the direction of the eradication of distinction between original and copy. This has serious implications for humanity itself, in addition to the humanities as a discipline.

          In privileging only the original, natural, biological, and physical, it leaves no space for “the copy”, the simulation, or the hyperreal, where the original fails, or inconveniences. Baudrillard says: “the extinction of the original reference alone facilitates the general law of equivalences, that is to say, the very possibility of production” (52). This is particularly applicable to things like web-based journalism, scholarship, and communication… Baudrillard sees the loss of the original as emancipatory. He continues: “Through reproduction from one medium into another, the real becomes volatile, it becomes the allegory of death, but it also draws strength from its own destruction, becoming the real for its own sake, a fetishism of the lost object which is no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denigration and its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal” (72). If we apply this to the notion of online research in English literature, or the consumption of e-books, the real, that is, the physical, does draw strength from its destruction. The simulation through virtual mediums allows for people to engage with content despite physical limitations. Murray McGillivray illustrated this perfectly in his talk. He discussed the nostalgia for the original, as Baudrillard alludes to. He commented how the original manuscripts of medieval texts are extraordinary in their physical state. But he also recognized and concluded that, for the average student, accessing these originals is simply not possible for a number of reasons. The simulation of this text allows for other people to view the content. In turn, The Cotton Nero A.x Project, a simulation of medieval manuscripts, for a reader such as myself, literally replaces the original. That is powerful, given that I will likely not see the physical manuscript in my lifetime.

          Digitized text and content may be an element of hyperreality insofar as a website containing a book is not the same thing as a book. However, digital simulations can be seen as emancipatory for a number of reasons. Permitting, information is open access, or free to view, any person with a device and access to Wi-Fi is able to view that document, regardless of time, and place. (This does not take into account disadvantaged groups, or third world countries with little or no internet accessibility). However, multiple people can view the same thing simultaneously, freeing the content from the confines of a physical object, which cannot be viewed in its “original”. It’s copies can transcend space. While the internet and digital content is often blamed as being the cause of distraction, and poor performance, digital content has also proved to help people become more efficient. The physical book is nostalgic, it is comforting and personal and often carries with it, the sense of attachment, due to its physicality. I have heard professors and fellow students observe how students become easily distracted, how it is more difficult to sit down and read a book with unwavering concentration. Of course it becomes more difficult, since so much of how we operate within the world is now digital, instantaneous, and simulated. However the emancipation Baudrillard alluded to can also be applied to the consumption digital text. Instead of seeing digital content as this formidable “copy”; and lament the loss of the original, we can look to technology which relies on our detachment from the physical, as its selling point. Take “Spritz” for example. I use the “ReadMe” application, which is partnered with a developer called “Spritz”. Spritz’s whole software concept is to utilize the fast-paced, ever-changing, video-centric component of the internet and use it to help people read quickly. I downloaded the Application, “ReadMe”. An Application which separate the words one by one and displays them individually in order. The words are displayed, individually as fragments, of digital text, but as the websites points out, it is not practical for the average reader to read 500 words per minute. This format, however allowed me to read 25% of a 200 page book in about half an hour, with arguably better comprehension than using the “original” method. Accessing books this way is even farther removed from their originals. But that is its precise advantage, its medium is advantageous yes, but it makes reading less about the book, and more about the words. As an English major I found this technology unbelievably invaluable. “When reading, only around 20% of your time is spent processing content. The remaining 80% is spent physically moving your eyes from word to word and scanning for the next ORP. With Spritz we help you get all that time back” (Spritzinc.com). The original, in this case, can be seen as a hindrance because it is simply not as efficient, in my own experience. The copy in this instance is not a book at all. Baudrillard explains how digital environments, in a way, erode the thing(s) simulated in these digital spaces: “at this (virtual) level, the question of signs and their rational destinations, their ‘real’ and their ‘imaginary’ their repression, reversal, the illusions they form of what they silence or their parallel significations is completely effaced” (Baudrillard 57). What Baudrillard is saying here is that the divide between the signifier, in this case, virtual content, is so far removed from the original that the definition of the book itself is completely eroded. The e-book is no longer a book, the e-transfer is no longer a transfer in terms of its physical definition, and therefore reading a book online, is not really “reading a book”. Reading an e-book is reading a simulation of book; a copy of an original.

          The assertion that the copy does something to the original (Baudrillard 425) is true. In many cases the “copy” or simulation is superior to the original. The humanities is based on the study of humanity. History, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, all rely on a bio-centric understanding of humanity. There is a line that has been drawn as to what is considered human. The “original”; the natural. This biological understanding of humanity fared pretty well for centuries. Although there is lots of speculation amongst scholars as to what qualifies as a cyborg, the modern digital landscape has transformed most of the western world into cyborgs. The integration of technology onto our bodies, into our bodies is now more possible than ever. Baudrillard speculates: “Even today, there is a thriving nostalgia for the natural referent of the sign” (51). There is a sense of comfort in the “real”, following the historical assumption that for there to be real things there has to be a reliable, knowable system of production and in a digital space this does not exist. In a digital age, I think it is necessary to re-assess how humanity itself is classified. To stretch the definition beyond the biological and to recognize that the natural, or biological is not always superior.

          The idea that by doing something in a virtual setting or digital space, is almost like it never happened, is another theme Baudrillard closely explores in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Digital environments as simulations does something to the original. In the simulation’s instantaneousness, multiplicity, accessibility, and artificiality, the original becomes sacred, and unknown in an overwhelming sea of homogeneity of simulations. Baudrillard does see the loss of the original as potentially freeing, but also recognizes the effect that simulations have on the original. The Gulf War as people came to understand it through its simulation or virtuality in film is not the same as the original war. The simulation cannot be the thing it copies. It can replace the original in the sense that people only access an original, through a copy, but it does not equate to the original its totality. It might be crude to compare war and research but the theoretical assertion that online, virtual research is not the same as researching or reading in its original bodily, physical sense. However for those who viewed the Gulf War through television, that simulation became the original, in the viewer’s inability to access the original. The experiences are different and the same. Online research is not the dictionary definition of research, but in one’s strict engagement with the simulation of texts in a digital or virtual space, that new simulated experience becomes the original. The result is that one may not go to the library, unless the simulation is not available, at which point one tries to access it’s original.

          The idea that research can occur as a purely visceral, mental experience (simulation), fundamentally changes the definition of research. The simulatory nature of anything digital or technological fundamentally changes the definition of the thing it simulates. I think in demonizing the simulation, you resist progress. Very broadly, resisting technology and the digital on the grounds that it is inferior to the physical or original, means that in many cases, progress or efficiency is delayed. Discrediting the power of virtual technology as a means to communicate because it does not carry the same nostalgia as face-to-face communication means that valuable, virtual conversations with Alex Gil for instance would never have occurred. Similarly, professors requiring students to seek out an expected number of print resources in research can correlate to missing out on valuable virtual or digital research. I always find myself back to the concept of “big questions”. The topic of technophobia and resistance to the digital in some humanities spaces can be explored as a discussion of theory. Baudrillard’s work on simulacra and simulation has allowed me to explore the sometimes subordinate status of simulation and copies. My paper focused mostly on the loss of the original and the ways in which this can be seen as emancipatory, especially when we begin to consider the implications the digital and simulated has on how humanities research is conducted, and the discipline itself is defined. These theories can be applied to the greater understanding of humanity. The merging of technology and humanity has led to massively complicated questions, not only about simulation and original, in terms of research and scholarship, but of humanity in general. Where does machine begin and human end? And are cyborg’s the new species? I don’t think I would have pushed myself to trying to understand the boundaries of humanity and machinery in a post-human sense, without this course. In this merging of technology into classroom’s and bodies, it is clear that the definition of the original must be expanded to include its copies, and simulations.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Symbolic Exchange and Death.” From Modernism to Postmodernism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

          421-434. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death Theory, Culture & Society. Sage Publications Inc., 1993. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Baudrillard Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991. Print.

Harraway, Donna. From Modernism to Postmodernism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 460-484. Print.

Horn, Eva. “Editor’s Introduction: “There Are No Media”.” (Abstract). Grey Room 29 (2007): 6-13. Web. 4 Dec. 2014

Lenoir, Timothy. “Makeover: Writing the Body into the Posthuman Technoscape: Part One: Embracing the Posthuman.” (Excerpt).

         Configurations 10.2 203–220. Web. 6 Dec. 2014

Van Eenennaam, A. L., and A. E. Young. “Prevalence and Impacts of Genetically Engineered Feedstuffs on Livestock Populations.”

         American Society of Animal Science (2014): 1–61. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

tags: , ,


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: