Like millions of his generation, my teenage son is a gamer. I’ve spent hours watching him play Apex Legends. This game is not so different from others in that the interface lets players customize their characters. As it happens, his favorite character Bloodhound identifies as nonbinary. And in a limited sense, my son identifies as Bloodhound for hours at a time.
My son could choose from among other characters, but he likes Bloodhound’s enemy scanner. He has earned enough experience with the tracker to modify him them with all manner of “skins.” Game avatars are an example of how young people spend hours, running around in worlds gamers call “maps,” pretending to be someone or something other than themselves.
As an American trained mostly in anglophone philosophy, it pains me to admit that Jean Baudrillard has a point. If you’ve never heard of Baudrillard, he’s a French philosopher known for a theory called “The Precession of Simulacra.” He writes:
The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory….
In other words, one feature of our postmodern condition is that, despite our progress, we have both created and discovered a more complex world. This complexity gives rise to the need to use various models, metaphors, and maps to navigate reality. But these maps, of course, are not the territory. They are cognitive shortcuts. And they can take on a life of their own.
Though we need maps, models, and metaphors in our investigations, these can take data – 2D representations of 3D reality – out of their contexts. Reality’s contexts are rich and not reducible to bits or bytes, stats or data points.
“Warm data,” writes complexity theorist Nora Bateson, “is information about the interrelationships that integrate elements of a complex system. It has found the qualitative dynamics and offers another dimension of understanding to what is learned through quantitative data (cold data).”
Bateson’s point is that there is more to life than cold data. But such data, sufficiently abstracted, fuels a kind of reductionism–a precession away from the real. So, whether in science or society, how can our minds become so divorced from our world?
Obvious examples include our dependency on smartphones and social media. It’s hard to deny that these techno-umbilical cords have transformed us. As Marshall McLuhan is credited with saying: “we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” I’ll pass over the irony that McLuhan probably never said those words, though our hyperreal memeplex has other ideas. The point is that technology – including the models, metaphors, and maps they instantiate – changes us enough to prompt questions about our very natures and technology’s place in our lives.
Baudrillard describes “precession” as the tendency for simulacra to pull us into a Hall of Mirrors. The simulacra can be layered or nested—so much so that we lose our contact with reality. This strange trap surely relates to our sensemaking crisis. Indeed, we must construct tools and methods to navigate reality, but the more we use our tools, the more we operate outside reality. The tools, after all, are but simulacra. Our maps can become decoupled from the territory, which means we start to live more of our lives in our heuristic scaffolding than in the world.
Baudrillard calls this condition “hyperreality.” Once you see the problem, it’s hard to unsee it. Baudrillard takes the point too far by suggesting that the “simulacrum is true,” but this is also generally why postmodernism fails. Reality returns with a vengeance. The precession of simulacra eventually collapses, and the world eventually punches us in the face. While postmodernists blame capitalism for such woes, we can set that debate aside for now. The problem of hyperreality rears its head in any number of contemporary debates.
The question looms: Can we acknowledge Baudrillard’s point without collapsing into absurdity?
Hyperreality in Public Health
David Cayley is a Canadian writer and student of social critic Ivan Illich. Cayley gained visibility early in the pandemic for his reflections on how too many experts have come to view public health. Channeling his teacher, Cayley writes,
Illich had a sense, during the last twenty years of his life, of a world immured in ‘an ontology of systems,’ a world immune to grace, alienated from death, and totally convinced of its duty to manage every eventuality – a world, as he once put it, in which “exciting, soul-capturing abstractions have extended themselves over the perception of world and self like plastic pillowcases.
Soul-capturing abstractions are a species of hyperreality.
Cayley noticed that authoritarians of scientism use hyperreality to justify their authority. Public health figures had already begun to conflate science with narrow academic research methods. The COVID pandemic prompted them to double down on this conflation, and that fact was no more pronounced than when front-line physicians started successfully using treatment alternatives that threatened emergency use authorization (EUA).
Twitter-famous public-health commenters such as Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz (GMK) were not only soul-captured by statistical abstractions but used Illich’s plastic pillowcase to suffocate dissent. In GMK’s view, only randomized control trials (RCTs) ought to qualify as The ScienceTM when it came to the pandemic.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Meyerovitz-Katz, et al. tip their hands:
The pressure to act quickly and do something instead of nothing in a global health emergency can lead researchers to cause harm or add to already existing injustices.
Such a statement might seem innocuous in isolation. But remember, GMK uses a scholarly medical journal to call out methodological malpractice in studies of off-label Ivermectin used in COVID treatment. To be sure, GMK deserves credit for finding errors in a few Ivermectin studies. Sadly, though, he and his colleagues appeal to hyperreality by suggesting only RCTs are justifiable. Other methods – such as relying on past safety research, observational studies, or patterns discovered in successful clinical practice – ought to be off-limits, according to the self-styled Health Nerd.
“But the answer is not to abandon research during crises, which could itself lead to ‘inadequate, ineffective, or even harmful care.’ The answer is to abandon research exceptionalism.” (My emphasis.)
Meyerowitz-Katz never really applies his concern about causing “harm” or “adding to injustices” where the vaccines are concerned, even though EUA is the apotheosis of research exceptionalism. When humanity’s greatest medical experiment on humans rolled out, Meyerovitz-Katz was still nattering on about Ivermectin. Indeed, if one compares GMK’s history of looking into Ivermectin studies against his history of looking into vaccine trials, one might infer religious zeal in the lopsidedness. Despite mounting proof for vaccine injuries and shoddy clinical trials, Meyerovitz-Katz is content more or less to shrug.
But that seems odd.
“The urgency of a pandemic,” writes Meyerowitz-Katz, “is never an excuse for poorly designed studies, ethical misconduct, or the violation of human rights.”
Maybe I missed Meyerovitz-Katz’s call for abandoning research exceptionalism in the woefully inadequate and potentially fraudulent vaccine trials. If he ever made such a call, it got buried by his obsession with an off-label drug that’d been used safely for decades. Instead, he worked in collusion with so-called “fact-checkers” to deny questions about vaccine safety and efficacy.
Note that MGK’s “poorly designed studies” admonition is a subjective assessment intended to exclude anything but RCTs, which mainly only megacorporations and governments can afford (read: “the institutions”). Yet the RCTs that constituted The ScienceTM on mRNA vaccines were crummy, almost certainly because their purveyors were eager to get EUA and thus billions of dollars. Alas, anyone who suggested such a thing would be hectored as a conspiracy theorist.
In hyperreality, inexpensive therapies determined safe and already in use by billions worldwide would be derided as a “violation of human rights” at best and “horse-dewormer” at worst.
Vaccine boosters (no pun) and skeptics of alternative treatments such as Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine were too quick to genuflect before the Blue Church. Far from applying a skeptical lens, people like GMK circled the wagons around biopower, or what Michel Foucault refers to as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.”
Those once reflexively skeptical of Big Pharma started carrying water for the vaccine-industrial complex. One can identify them by their willingness to malign mRNA skeptics as anti-vaxxers. Public-health authoritarians are also comfortable with suspending liability for vaccine injury, cheering for mandates, and denying data transparency to the public, which was once a cornerstone of informed consent.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing randomized control trials are somehow wrong or that there are a hundred superior methods for understanding complex features of reality. I am saying that the scientific enterprise cannot be reduced to a single methodology. Other methods should not be discounted because a Twitter-famous graduate student says so in the BMJ, notwithstanding his breathless references to ethics or justice – areas in which he is clearly not an expert.
The ScienceTM is a series of religious rituals that purportedly improve the quality of scholarly output, but is actually dominated by petty and hopelessly captured gatekeepers of which GMK is an exemplar. Improved standards and methods are great until they run squarely into that iceberg known as the replication crisis. And peer review has become circular onanism.
Yet a clutch of public-health authoritarians, including GMK, routinely attack others from their Twitter perches using blue-check rhetoric. Their targets included far more accomplished and better-trained statisticians, epidemiologists, and practicing physicians. Such is not to argue these cock-sure health nerds aren’t entitled to their opinions. The problem is that their discovery of faulty data in a few Ivermectin studies catapulted them to Warhol fame. People will too often say dumb things to extend their fifteen minutes, but fifteen minutes isn’t enough to justify anyone’s throwing the rest of medical science into hyperreality.
The epistemic status of a given claim can be justified or critiqued in different ways, including RCTs, metanalyses, and communication among experienced clinicians and, yes, even amateurs. And that justification can be shored up using multiple methods whose results cohere to make a hypothesis more or less likely to be true.
We must take care, therefore, not to choose a single model or method as The One True Way, even if that way is considered the gold standard. Science is a process that, though imperfect, ought to be undertaken by multiple investigators, some of whom will use local knowledge, even tacit knowledge, as many hands upon the proverbial elephant. RCTs, though powerful, can reduce complex multi-dimensional phenomena to plot points and p values. They can also hide errors or evidence of fraud, such as Oxford’s Together trial does, allegedly. Meta-analyses, though helpful, can reduce science to data aggregation. Even if not all methodologies are created equal, methodological pluralism is necessary for scientific advance.
When we see someone claiming the One True Way in science, we have good reasons to be skeptical–especially if they bludgeon their detractors with appeals to expert laurels, ad hominem attacks, or The ScienceTM. It’s no surprise that GMK referred to one critic as a “transphobic troll.” Such accusations are a popular form of discourse among many young people today. Many in his generation have been raised in the cottony confines of hyperreality. It’s no wonder they believe hyperreal methodologies are the sine qua non of science–at least when that belief is convenient.
Hyperreality in Trans Ideology
According to Psychology Today, “magical thinking—the need to believe that one’s hopes and desires can have an effect on how the world turns—is everywhere.” You can find synchronicities or spirits or signs. You just have to look for them. This tendency to make imagination into reality is human but it’s rarely rational.
One of the most extreme versions of hyperreality manifests in trans ideology, which is an outgrowth of postmodernism. While it offers some justifiable critiques of modernist realism, POMO turns out to be a kind of intellectual ouroboros, a symbolic creature that eats itself in the end. That doesn’t mean Baudrillard has no point. It means postmodernism reveals more of its vaunted irony. Specifically, trans ideology thrives in hyperreality.
Before readers throw rotten tomatoes, I am not arguing that there is no such thing as those rare few who experience gender dysphoria. What I am suggesting is that not all transsexuality is created equal. For the purposes of this conversation, I’d like to postulate two basic types: strong and weak transsexuality. Strong transexuals experience gender dysphoria as an epiphenomenon, which means the dysphoria is rooted in some underlying psycho-physiological substrate–aka reality. Weak transsexuals are those for whom the desire to transition is fundamentally ideological, cultural, or fashionable, and rooted in hyperreality. In other words, weak transsexuals graduate from “I identify as…” transgenderism, which is a socio-cultural construction they can adopt rather than a condition they must confront. As such, weak trans ideology originates in postmodern Queer Theory more than any supervenient property of their biological natures.
To understand the difference, consider that many trans ideologues are fond of deriding others as “essentialists.” This term comes straight out of the POMO lexicon. Most postmodernists think metaphysics – inquiry into the fundamental nature of reality – is impossible. There are no essences, that is, no properties of the physical world that can be known, much less that can influence other higher-order properties. According to this view, everything is a subjective or intersubjective construction. Because science is a subset of metaphysics – which acknowledges reality’s powerful properties – those quick to dismiss ‘essentialism’ end up dismissing that which is real, not to mention important modes of understanding that which is real.
Left-handed people who lived in puritanical Massachusetts might have “identified as” right-handed to avoid persecution, but it’s hard to argue their handedness a radically subjective social construction, full stop. Most garden-variety homosexuals agree: I was born this way, they’ll say, and quite rightly. Not only does the denial of essences militate against sensemaking, it offends those for whom features of their identity, such as sexual orientation, are more than subjectively determined.
That’s why a lot of homosexuals are feeling the strain of intersectionality.
The label LBGTQ+ has lost its luster for many, especially those who see trans activism gobbling up decades of gains for homosexuals and women. So now we have splinter factions such as TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Most TERFs not only understand that synthetic augmentations of biological women and men, far from helping them “transition” to the opposite sex, actually help them transition to a simulacrum.
Some transsexuals will be fine living in hyperreality. But others will come to regret arresting the fullest expression of their biological natures, especially if they transition during adolescence or earlier. Transition severs the complex nexus among the chromosomal, the hormonal, the developmental, and the psychological that emerges throughout our lifetimes. Now, regret is one thing. Obliging women and girls to make unfair accommodations for trans women is quite another. For many, it’s a bridge too far, not only because it requires women and girls blindly to accept activist hyperreality, but because it requires women and girls to forfeit intimate aspects of their lives to people living under the spell of magical thinking.
Hyperreality in Economics
Hyperreality is not just infecting science and sex.
Behind the esoteric imagery of the U.S. dollar, a monetary cult controls the money supply and the interest rate. These cult members are, in one way or another, the children of John Maynard Keynes. Considered by many to be the most influential economist ever to have lived, Keynes offered models and metaphors to stimulate generations of economists eager to work in the administrative state and play at being God. You might recognize these models by their emphasis on aggregate demand, which only governments and central banks have the power to affect. Perhaps you’ll recall Keynesian metaphors such as “pump-priming,” or, more subtly, “fixing,” “running,” or “building” the economy.
But to understand why Keynesian monetary- or fiscal policy is utterly inapt, imagine trying to prime a rainforest’s pump, or to fix, run, or build the Great Barrier Reef. Most macroeconomists imagine hydraulic models and routinely use machine metaphors, which prompt them to regard a complex economy as something deterministic and, frankly, much simpler than it is. So the vast majority of economists, and therefore the experts teaching in higher ed, working in government, or practicing reverse-alchemy at the Fed, are living in hyperreality. One might go as far as to say the whole discipline of predictive macroeconomics performs little better than a seer who reads entrails.
What had seemed to many at the time like a great trolley problem was suddenly resolved by authorities pulling the lever towards lockdown, which sent the nation into uncharted fiscal and monetary territory. The tyranny of experts succeeds when people are afraid. As the pandemic raged, experts in ‘the institutions’ told us we needed to compel lockdowns to save lives, but to lock everyone down meant locking down production, collaboration, and exchange. To prevent catastrophe, the experts proposed spending money the government didn’t have. They used debt spending to “rescue” Americans from the very policies they had imposed.
What was supposed to have been a few weeks turned into many months. The people suffered. To repeat, experts at the government’s Department of Helping People dropped legal counterfeit dollars from helicopters onto the self-same poor souls they’d told to stay under house arrest. Businesses closed. Jobs were lost. And one budget-busting COVID recovery bill was not enough. In crisis, the political class saw an opportunity and licked its chops. We needed five such bills, insisted the experts, which didn’t include all the Fed’s interventions quietly going on in the background, accelerated by the spate of COVID “relief” spending bills.
Recall that, all along, a new wave of Modern Monetary Theorists (MMT), Keynesian kissing cousins, had been whispering into the ears of power, telling them exactly what they wanted to hear: If you have the world’s reserve currency, they said, you can use debt spending as much as you like without worry.
The U.S. government’s debt now stands at $30 trillion.
Over the course of two years, the Fed created 38 percent of the dollars ever to exist. The experts told us that inflation would be “transitory,” probably because their models told them so. As we have suggested, macroeconomists are not just drowning in hyperreality but drowning us in an ocean of red ink. As rampant inflation (reality) threatens to achieve escape velocity, the Fed has decided – perhaps too little, too late – to confront reality. But that reality presents the horns of a dilemma: Raise interest rates too much, and we could all be thrown into a deep and lasting recession. Raise interest rates too little, and the country could experience inflation like we’ve not seen since the end of the Carter presidency. Some worry we could see both a recession and persistent inflation, which is not unreasonable. Macroeconomic modelers meddlers have been pushing the buttons and pressing the dials on their money printers for decades. The experts sought in 2008-09 to save us from all the problems they’d created before. Intervention begets intervention. Their ‘plan’ is to help the addict with either fentanyl or withdrawal.
When the storm arrives, most everyone will wonder what the authorities will do. But the trouble is coming because we have turned to authorities for far too long. Now the tab has come due. There is little more than can be done from on high. We will have to learn to turn to ourselves and each other again. So it has always been in the real world. So it will always be. We can no longer afford to live in this economic precession of simulacra. Reality will re-exert itself as night follows day. And it will hurt.
But we must confront reality and shed ourselves of national experts or authorities who gain and keep power by clinging to hyperreality.
Outsourcing our problems to distant capitals has always gotten us into bigger problems. So the lesson here is not just about hyperreality. We must start to decentralize. Localize. Self-organize.
Of all people, comedian and social critic Russell Brand has been sending out similar messages for a while now. He says we ought to organize our own local polities according to various overlapping conceptions of the good. We must live or die by our chosen niches. You might think I’m crazy for finding common cause with the cockney comic. But boy, he gets it.
It’s not altogether different from what Thomas Jefferson refers to as the “consent of the governed,” which is neither a hypothetical “social contract” nor a General Will. A consent-based order means real people come together in real communities, signing on to their own rules. Governance pluralism means tighter feedback loops for different experiments in living. Those experiments rooted in reality will be sustainable. Others will pass away.
Whether you lean left, right, or somewhere off the crude political spectrum–it doesn’t matter. By joining a civic association, you can choose to live in reality or in hyperreality. But be warned: in a decentralized, consent-based order, we will all bear the costs of our decisions more directly. And that will discipline us.
In the long run, we’ll all be better for it.