Visitors to the British Museum this May (2005) would have found an unusual exhibit beneath a limestone statue and a first-century tombstone. A cave painting of a spear-carrying caveman pushing a supermarket trolley. It wasn’t discovered until a few days after it had been hung by art prankster Banksy.
Banksy was making a succinct point about fooling people. The picture’s unreality is only given up on study: we see a finely executed picture, a satirical commentary on consumerism, and an aside on how easy it is to hide the inauthentic among the authentic.
He’s right. Fake culture is everywhere. Don’t be fooled by talk of ‘reality TV’ or of ‘keeping it real’. There’s a fake for everything. Our museums are full of fake pieces. Politicians in the US are debating whether they should label ‘news’ put out by the PR industry and government departments as fake; as it stands, broadcast news is able to transmit these video press releases, fronted by actors and looking like real news, but with a positive, spun edge, straight to air alongside their real reports. You can’t tell the difference, apart from the fact that fake news is a lot happier and follows a script. But as the rising viewing figures in the US for Fox News show, news that tells you what you want to hear always trumps inconvenient or unexpected stories.
The majority of us in the rich world no longer struggle to feed ourselves. We have become bored. We demand new experiences. In his 1975 essay ‘Travels in Hyperreality’, Umberto Eco wrote of an America where prosperity meant there was always a surplus to throw away (‘that’s prosperity’), and coined the term ‘hyperreality’ to explain ‘those instances [in which] the American imagination demands the real thing, and to attain it must fabricate the absolute fake’. It’s a land where the demands and imagination of the consumer are always satisfied. It’s a land where the fake can be better than the real thing. ‘A real crocodile can be found in the zoo,’ Eco wrote, ‘and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands... Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.’
Our daydream demands are more urgent than ever. We don’t have time to wait for the crocodile to show itself. That’s inconvenient. We’ve got shopping to do, and the traffic’s terrible, and… call that a crocodile? It doesn’t move, and we saw that movie with thingummy in it, in which the crocodile jumped on them and they fought in the river and now that was a proper crocodile. We’ve been fed so many tall tales by the culture industry and advertising that reality keeps falling short of our expectations. Our egos, the primal ‘I want’, have been seduced by a society organising around consumption and self-gratification and the values of the entertainment industry. The hyperreality that Eco wrote of in 1975, which he saw mainly transmitted through the re-creation of art and history, has spread through the rest of our society until we are hemmed in by fakes on every side.
Nurseries sell artificial plants and trees. Mobile phone masts are disguised to look like pine trees, or boulders, or cacti. Want to give your four-by-four killing machine that genuine off-road flavour? You can buy spray-on fake mud. Japanese GM researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals, and if that’s not fake food then I don’t know what is. Researchers are close to perfecting an odour that smells of fresh air. We buy and we believe.
Our society is comfortable with the artificial: it’s much less troublesome than the real, and a lot more obedient. But the dislocation from nature poses growing problems, not the least the fact that our physical survival is hanging in the balance. By living in this hyper-artificial reality we’re ignoring deeper problems or dismissing them out of hand. Rates of mental illness continue to rise as our societies grow richer, and this epidemic is dismissed as an interior problem: he couldn’t cope; she’s not up to it; they’re sick. The solution? Swallow a pill, and get back into your box. But a psychological viewpoint would help here. Take a rock star in a spiral of drink and drugs and sex that’s great to begin with at least (and no one ever says no). After a while, he detaches from reality and floats into a world that’s based around gratification and believing the lies he’s told (and still no one ever says no). The rock star needs to control his new reality, and any threat to what he thinks is real must be destroyed, because if that threat makes it through then the house of sand comes tumbling down. That’s schizophrenia, baby, and you don’t know what to believe because everything is true and false at the same time and nothing is normal any more.
Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek has touched on the phenomenon of self-harmers, mostly women, who cut themselves. The act is usually dismissed as suicidal or a desire for self-obliteration, but Zizek argues differently: ‘This is strictly parallel to the virtualisation of our environment: it represents a desperate strategy to return to the Real of the body... Cutting is a radical attempt to (re)gain a hold on reality, or... to ground the ego firmly in bodily reality, against the unbearable anxiety of perceiving oneself as non-existent.’ The only way to break through the fog is for self-harmers to hold a razor against their arm and slice through the flesh and see the blood run red. Welcome to the desert of the real.
Technology has given us the opportunity to realise power over the world, and therefore freedom from it. This drive for control over our environment started in Western societies with Genesis: ‘And God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”’ Genesis also said that we should tend to the earth, but the philosophers René Descartes and Francis Bacon cemented the view that man was above nature.
Scientific progress, which is always seen as good, is enabling us to achieve our goals, one by one, while any unintended blow-back can, we are assured, be secured through scientific advance, or what got us into the mess to begin with. But the blow-back is increasingly severe. Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinning explains that the Neolithic era was the first time man walled himself off from nature. What was inside the fence was good and could be consumed, but what was outside the fence was a threat and must be destroyed. The threats from outside the fence are growing. There’s climate change, new technologies, Aids, Islamist terrorism and unrest caused by globalisation. Zizek argues that ‘it is the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe which generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction’, but you can turn his argument on its head. The bigger the threat, the greater the need for control. We are trying to extend that fence outwards, because what we control can’t hurt us. Hence the urge for a garden space which acts as another room of the house. The modern urge for cleanliness is about controlling the area inside the fence. The real has become dirty in our culture and needs to be tidied up.
Life is like a three-act movie, in which motivations are simple and everything always ends neatly. Nothing needs to be real, because the fake is so much better. The more optimistic social commentators welcome reality TV for its unscripted nature. But unscripted doesn’t mean real (if it’s unscripted at all). A friend of mine appeared on the Australian version of Playing It Straight, in which a woman had to guess which of the male contestants were gay and which were straight. The men taking part were told what to say about each other.
Similarly, the premise of the ITV show I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! was simple enough: here the celebs were in Australia, home to sharks and spiders and snakes and lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Stuck in the jungle! Savage creatures! Icky food that savages eat! No M&S sandwiches! These people were going to suffer. Not even any tea bags. The horror! the horror! They were living outside the fence, and anything could happen. I was living in Sydney when the first series was being filmed, and the rumour I heard from members of the production team was that the entire site had been carpet-bombed with bug spray. The camp site was covered and cleared of all spiders and snakes. Instead of risking losing control of the storyline, the TV company made sure it stuck to a script. This wholly reprehensible show had failed pop star Peter Andre heroically sticking his head into a box full of orb-weavers and huntsman spiders and making lots of noise, scaring them half to death. The first time you see an adult huntsman will take 10 years off your life. They are huge and hairy and move like greased lightning, but they are utterly harmless – unless you’re a cockroach, in which case you’re dinner. They can’t harm you, which is more than you can say for Andre’s music.
The values of hyperreality mean that there is a place for everything, not that everything has its place: anything can exist anywhere now. We live on a movie set. Sheldon Adelson is the Las Vegas businessman whose outrageously glitzy re-creation of Venice, complete with its own canal, is situated in the middle of the Nevada desert. In 1997, when he announced his Venetian resort, he said of a rival’s neo-city: ‘We believe New York-New York is a “faux” New York. We are not going to build a “faux” Venice. We’re going to build what is essentially the real Venice.’
Nature itself isn’t coming up to scratch, so we’ve started to replace it. It’s worth looking at how the manufacturers of fake trees and plants describe their products, as their language offers useful clues into why and how the culture of fake has spread so far and so fast. They’re not fake, for one thing, but maybe artificial. The company Just Artificial promises: ‘No watering, no dead-heading, no insects or bugs... All-year, lifelike flowering, colour and fruit.’
Fake plants and trees do have many advantages over the real thing on a material level. They are resistant to drought, beetles and other pests. They never grow, never need pruning, and their roots will never buckle a pavement or a house’s foundations. They are immune to root rot and mould, and will keep their shape for ever. If they are UV-treated they will keep their looks for ever. They do well in all types of soil and in solid concrete. And they will never provoke hay fever. They will survive virtually anything. They are like cockroaches.
The first fake tree in the US was made in the 1930s with machinery used to manufacture toilet brushes. One of the biggest US firms selling fake trees is Nevada’s FauxEco. The profile of the firm’s customers has changed, says FauxEco president Jessica Woodrow; previously, they were Disney, water parks, resorts or shopping malls. But Woodrow says: ‘Increasingly, residential clients across the globe are wanting maintenance-free landscapes or ones that can create an atmosphere not native to their environment. The more popular [fake trees are], of course, the palms. Whether interior or exterior, the addition of palm trees with all the wonderful romantic memories or dreams of escape they invite is clearly a human urge that artificial solutions can fulfil. Homes in Canada, northern USA and Sweden are “planting” FauxEco palms in their back yards to complete their “backyard resort”, which includes a pool, hot-tub… and barbecue.’
You used to have to travel to palm trees to gain those romantic memories or ‘dreams of escape’. Indeed, that was the point of those dreams. But now you can bring that world to you, sort of. This signals an enormous redefinition of our relationship with nature: if we can re-create a ‘look’ outside of its native environment, it does away with the need for that native environment absolutely; we are moving towards a world that values visual experience above all else.
This prioritisation of the visual is also demonstrated in our relationship with mobile phones. There is a 300 per cent higher cancer risk associated with using mobile phones in rural areas than in the urban environment. Our mobiles may be making us sick, but we don’t want to do without them. But nor do we want to look at mobile phone technology. Arizona company Larson offers the most ingenious ways of hiding mobile phone masts from public view, a move akin to how Disney disguises the real workings of its theme parks – by draping them in ‘nature’. Mobile phone towers can be made to look like a pine or palm tree, a petrol station sign, a saguaro cactus or even a church steeple. The website Fraud Frond.com is devoted to pictures of such fake trees, including one stirring specimen that carries a warning sign saying ‘Danger! keep off!’.
There isn’t as much demand for disguising mobile masts as fake trees in Britain, as planning authorities aren’t as strict here as in the US; though the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales did give an award to the FLI Cypress Tree model used in Snowdonia. Peter Brannan, technical director for tree-mast manufacturer Levacom, says: ‘There always has to be a trade-off between looking perfect and [the] price that the mobile operators are prepared to pay. If you look from 100 metres away then [the mast] looks like a tree, but if you look closer you can see it’s not a tree.’ You can pay £20,000 for a pine tree with a steel trunk, fibreglass branches, highdensity polyethylene foliage and waterbased paint to get that realistic hard bark finish.
Our sense of smell is a lot easier to fool than our visual sense, and easier to manipulate. We might like to think that we could easily pick out a natural odour versus an artificial one. But Dr Alan Hirsch, managing director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, says: ‘It’s hard to show a difference.’ People’s olfactory ability is set in childhood. A cross-cultural study Hirsch conducted found that people born before 1930 described a natural smell as evoking their childhood, but people born in the following 50 years were more likely to describe something artificial, like PlayDoh or jet fuel.
Artificial odours were first produced because they were much easier to make in bulk and consistently. That has now fed into what we expect from our environment, so people prefer the smell of artificial leather to real leather. ‘Many of the luxury cars made today with natural leather have been impregnated with the smell of artificial leather,’ says Hirsch. ‘Virtually everything is scented, even scent-free soap.’ The perfume industry has developed an aroma that makes men think that women who use it are six years younger than their actual age: a botox in a bottle. And when one scent was introduced to the Las Vegas Hilton, the amount of money put into the slot machines increased by 45 per cent.
Natural smells are becoming redundant. Now industry is working on a new smell, one that’s hard to get a good lungful in the real world: fresh air. ‘We have different odours already for the outdoor smell,’ says Hirsch. ‘We’re in the process of mixing them together. [Fake fresh air] gives people the perception of being outdoors. You could use it for people who are claustrophobic, people stuck in a psychiatric ward, on a long-haul flight... There are lots of potential uses.’
The food of choice for hyperreality is genetically modified, of course. Look at the claims for GM, like increased levels of vitamins to cure blindness in the Third World. The supermarkets that would like to sell such food are also fake, offering the illusion of choice, value and endless bounty. As behemoths like Wal-Mart and Tesco dominate the market, they end up dictating what’s made. Value is often restricted to a number of leading items, and doesn’t exist at all with processed foods and packaged vegetables. And the endless bounty (who could fail to be impressed by overflowing vegetable and fruit baskets 365 days a year?) is also a myth, based on flying in produce from all over the world and ruthless control over the price of what’s sold and what it looks like.
The need for control grows ever stronger. Eco-psychologists like Glendinning see that need as arising from a psychology of fear leading back to the fragmentation of our world into a Good Inside and Bad Outside dichotomy. After 1945 we suddenly had the ability to destroy the planet, and the fear was jacked up. ‘Politically there are people who are grabbing control, who are running on this kind of fear,’ she says. But politicians like Bush and Blair are ideally suited to hyperreality, with their belief that if you say something enough times people will believe it; whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter, as something fake can still be a real fake.
Psychologically, Glendinning sees deep trauma in our societies. ‘I look around and everyone is being traumatised, whether it’s by war or leaving their homeland or living in a mechanical-technological society and all the trauma that goes along with that,’ she says. The rise of fake culture is, for her, the next step of the dissociation caused by such trauma. ‘It’s mentally ill. That people would fall for it or go for it is a testimony to the level of dissociation.’
It’s no wonder our physical and mental environments are in so much anguish: our psychic environments are in disarray. And the implications of our continuing to surround ourselves with the fake are severe indeed. On an immediate level, if we carry on our journey into the fake then the real can carry on failing, and we won’t know it’s too late until it really is too late. We will wait for the technological knight on a white horse to save us, but he will never arrive. Part of the reason people involve themselves with environmentalism is cognitive, but the more powerful motivation is emotional attachment; one of the ways that is developed is through our senses. ‘What’s going to happen in 20 or 30 years time when the people in charge aren’t nostalgic for the environment but for artificial chemicals?’ asks Hirsch. ‘Will they be so involved in ecological actions? Cognitively they might want to, but there will be no emotional link.’
The longer we surround ourselves in a culture of fake, the harder it will be to go back. The mind adapts, and adapts naturally towards the fake. The plasticity of the human brain is all too well-suited to our current, virtual realities. Where can you get the stimulation of a video game in nature? Or the hyper-flavour of monosodium glutamate? So our problems mount. Technology lets us realise our desires, but the natural world will forever be beyond our control. And so we continue to substitute the real, and it is overtaking us.
As humans, we spend our lives searching for meaning and truth. Some find it in work or families; some in helping others; some in sex, drink and drugs; others still in science. But when we can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t, whether our meaning is valid or not, then our mental breakdown will be complete. If we don’t know or care what’s real and what isn’t, then it won’t matter any more, and we will be living in a giant show staged for no one’s benefit, the cameras never rolling, the trees never dying, the people never really coming to life...
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2009