Testing Simulacra

Jean Baudrillard Portrait

Jean Baudrillard

“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none.  The simulacrum is true.”

  Jean Baudrillard, Simulations

As we enter the brave new world of 2017, there has been much reflection on the nature and validity of information appearing on the internet and reflection on just how far digital sources can be trusted.  For those of us who grew up alongside the development of the internet, the existence of dubious web sources has been a constant, yet they were relatively easy to assess.  Web pages of curious design or strange URLs were often assumed to be lacking in authority, while forums were places of debate where an individual statement would be challenged by those who didn’t support the viewpoint being put forward.

The advent of social media, however, has fundamentally shifted the manner in which information is retrieved.  A mere 10 years ago, it was usually the end user who actively sought out information on a given topic.  For example, if I were interested in a particular news event, it would be up to me to do a search via a search engine or actively navigate to a news source.   This sort of information searching we could classify as pull methods.

Since 2006 such a model has shifted significantly.  An average internet user is now bombarded by trending topics and articles that are pushed into our view whether we are interested or not.  They range from the fantastic to the seemingly boring, but none of this information comes about due to an active search from the user.  Such ‘news’ has become rarely tested or doubted; the information that appears on a Facebook timeline is presented without an associated origin or reality.  They have now assumed the form of a hyperreal that are taken by users as to be more real than the world around the computer screen, in the same manner that Baudrillard describes vestiges of reality lying scattered about the hyperreal productions of human cartography: the map.

In the final months of 2016, there have been many conversations about how to combat the hyperreal nature of online information and how to separate the true from the fanciful.  But these conversations are happening through the same channels of digital simulation.  The real continues to be produced from individual matrices buried in cyberspace that come together to produce an infinite number of permutations then displayed on the web-bound screens found on the desks and in the hands of an end user.  The question becomes whether this end simulacrum in any way bears a relation to reality.

The challenge of actively assessing the quality of information presented to a reader is not limited to social media and news feeds.  Academia faces essentially the same problem, an issue that has traditionally been combated through the use of peer review (although one could argue that academic disciplines create their own simulated existences that are detached from a true reality).  Yet peer review is only a single stage of one facet of modern scientific inquiry and dissemination of end results.  The wide open world of the internet has led to degradation in the academy’s ability to control the quality of information being presented as factual and exhaustively researched, just as mainstream media is challenged by partisan and biased sources for the title of trusted news source.   A masking and potential perversion of the reality of a situation can therefore occur at any number of stages in a research program.

"Mayan" City

“Mayan” City

Returning to the online world, we often see such twisting of truths by reports that take grasp of a scientific study and report only a single, sensational line from what may be a complex and lengthy study.  An archaeological example of this phenomenon occurred in May 2016 when reports broke that a Quebec teenager discovered massive Mayan ruins through the superimposing of star charts on positions of known cities.  The Canadian Space Agency trained their satellites at the area of a predicted site and, voila, what was shown was quickly interpreted as a city so massive it became a wonder how archaeologists never discovered it.

After a few days, professional Mayanologists weighed in, and the discovered city ended up being an abandoned field.  Gadoury’s theory of cities aligned to constellations was noted as interesting but impossible to test.  Reality managed to push through the glossy allure of sensational headlines.

Another area where an illusion of certainty can be problematic even in the core of academia is in the realm of Geographical Information Systems (GIS).  GIS allows a researcher to produce any number of visualizations related to topographic and geographic input.  One such analysis that has become very popular in the realm of archaeology is Least Cost Path, an algorithm that suggests a path that offers the least resistance between two dots on a map (an origin and a destination).  It is often used in considering how people move through a region and choose the navigation routes that they do.

When presented with a Least Cost Path, a reader sees a digitally produced map that is likely highly refined and annotated.  Atop this graphically impressive map is a single line showing the path extrapolated by the system.  By virtue of the fact it was produced by a machine, the line is easily trusted as something real and true.  This path must be that taken by individuals traversing the landscape.

Example of a least cost path.

Example of a least cost path.

Yet the line of a map does not visually display the factors that went into its creation.  In attempting to create an easiest route from Point A to Point B in the digital simulation of a geographical region, what factors does the system weigh?  Very often a Least Cost Path relies heavily on slope, that is, how steep the terrain is.  This information is calculated from a Digital Elevation Map, which in itself is a digital simulation (potentially created at any level of resolution) of real world topography.  Our simulated route is created from something that is itself a simulation, and the responsible algorithm may be considering only one element of the simulation.

In reality, an individual agent may choose a particular route for any number of reasons.  A longer path along a steeper slope may be followed due to personal decisions:  one may be required to pass a sacred spot or simply desire to take the scenic route.  Those who drive in Los Angeles are likely well aware that the simulacrum of Google Maps may often be a stark contrast from the reality of traffic presented before the headlights.  The digital representation must be constantly queried and tested; it never is a truly accurate reflection of reality.

It is just as critical to constantly question digital research methodologies. Technological results, whether it be a Least Cost Path or a 3D reconstruction of a Hellenistic Greek house, offer powerful methods to visualize and present data, but in no way possess an inherent quality of infallibility.  Those viewing the data should be bold and ask questions, while the researcher responsible for the work should welcome such questions and know exactly what went into the visualization work and openly discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of a particular methodology.

Bauldrillard lays this situation out, a world where we trust the simulations before us more than the reality surrounding us, noting that the simulacrum becomes “the real for the real, fetish of the lost object – no longer object of representation, but ecstasy of denegation and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal.”

Featured image: Photographic excerpt by Thomas Garbelotti of an original work by Eyvind Earle (Landscapes, 1970-96). Viewed and photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Additional imageWikipediaBaudrillard20040612-cropped.png by user Europeangraduateschool used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_Baudrillard.png#/media/File:WikipediaBaudrillard20040612-cropped.png)


Myles Chykerda is a Research and Instructional Technology Consultant (RITC) at the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities, and is a PhD Candidate in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology where he researches the development of early states in Thessaly, Greece using landscape and regional archaeological methodologies. Through a combination of technology and traditional archaeological data, he challenges the traditional idea that northern Greek states were less advanced versions of their southern neighbors.  Technology and visualization methods also take a central role in his teaching practices, particularly in courses dealing with Mediterranean material culture.


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