As humans, we seem to be becoming increasingly preoccupied with material existence. At the same time, we are existing less and less on the material plane and more and more in ones and zeros, in flashes of light in fiber optic cables with the capacity to be everywhere at once, transcending the limits of space and time. And yet, despite all of this instantaneous travel, rather than helping us transcend to higher planes of consciousness it is numbing our senses. It leaves us craving emotional intimacy and lasting fulfillment more than ever. It leaves us empty: physically close, emotionally alone, virtually connected. We’ve achieved the form, but in the process lost the spirit. This paradox seems to have become a characteristic struggle of the digital generations.
I'd like to ask an ancient question: what is reality? And to garb it in a contemporary cloak: how does the interplay between virtual and non-virtual worlds impact our perception of reality? These are questions that arose for me as I contemplated this beautifully provocative set of images by Shadi Sabet.
What you see in these photos is what I would like to call displaced reality. I call it displaced because what is happening in the offline world is being framed, curated, and uploaded into the cyberverse. Here it enters into the largest art gallery in the history of humankind--social media--where each of us is curating our own show.
Erving Goffman, in his “analysis of ritual elements in interaction” speaks of the “face work” that each of us performs in every interaction. Goffman defines face as the “positive social value a person affirms for themselves”. It is the image that an individual accepts of themselves as a result of interactions with others. We naturally have a desire to maintain face and are able to do so when there is evidence that others perception of us is consistent with our own. We do not, therefore, have complete control over our face; it is something that we tacitly negotiate whenever we interact with others. When we make choices about what to include in the frame, and what to exclude, we’re effectively entering into negotiations with our audience. We’re employing rhetorical strategies aimed at persuading them to see us in a particular light. In face to face interaction our negotiations take place within a context; when we upload elements of face online, we have time to choose them carefully and to edit them before they are seen. When we do facework online we have a new level of control, we have the ability to present disembodied pieces of who we are, and the opportunity to construct a new context for those pieces. We naturally tend to choose only the pieces that we think will benefit our face, and censure those that we think might lead to us being perceived in a way inconsistent with how we see ourselves.
In another life, I had a landscaping job that required me to travel. As I traveled, I would take photos and post them on my social media. In choosing which photos to share, I would only choose photos of beautiful landscapes, I didn't include any of me working, or doing the other things, which in truth made made up the majority of my time. After about six months of this, I had several experiences where I would run into someone I hadn’t seen in several months and they would comment on the image that they had of me, from my photos. I had more than one person comment that I must be living a great life, just travelling and doing adventure photography. I was quite shocked at this, because there was a significant void between my experience, and the vision they had glossed from my social media.
In our efforts to share, to validate and ensure our existence we inadvertently remove ourselves from the present and slip into the cyberverse. When we extract a moment from its context I wonder if in a way, we also extract ourselves from that context. If our face is “the positive social value” we affirm for ourselves, then this is impacted by our understanding of how others perceive us. We discern this by assessing our own galleries and weighing the narrative that we have spun, of ourselves. The act of uploading a moment alters our perception of that moment and its surrounding context, and in turn alters in our motivations and decisions at a subconscious level. If we’re not careful, we can alter our perception of reality.
These questions that Shadi has posed with each of these intricately composed conceptual pieces are questions that I think we should ask ourselves each time we go to share a photo or moment, and to reflect on how it may influence our perception of reality, or the perception of others.
Disclaimer: these are not real instagram posts.