As technology continues to advance, we find ourselves in a post-truth era, where the line between reality and fiction is becoming blurred. With the rise of generative AI and synthetic media, creating convincing digital content has become accessible to the masses. From using ChatGPT to generate homework, to using DALL-E to create art and porn, the proliferation of artificial content has raised questions about authenticity, creativity, and integrity.
But it’s not just about the death of genuine content; our digital and physical identities are becoming increasingly intertwined, with the online version of ourselves having a greater impact on our real-life identities. In this blog post, I will delve into the complexities of the digital age, examining why the online you is more real than the offline you, why privacy is not enough to protect us, and why embracing fakeness is the key to navigating this new reality.
Sexual cannibalism is a well-known phenomenon among praying mantises. After mating, the female mantis will often bite off the head of the male. Now imagine, you are standing in front of a female praying mantis and you are wearing a mask. The catch is, you are unsure of whether your mask represents the face of a male or a female mantis. Depending on your mask, on how the female mantis perceives you, the outcome could spell serious trouble for you!
This feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing whether or not you will be eaten alive, is what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan refers to as anxiety. Anxiety is the feeling of not knowing how the Other – which can refer to other people or societal expectations – perceives us or wants from us. It’s this feeling of dread when we pick up the phone, or when the doorbell rings unexpectedly. Anxiety is not about losing someone or something, it’s about not understanding our role in the desires and expectations of the Other.
Hell is Other People
How do we know ourselves and how do we know others? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre posits that our social interactions are mediated by a concept called The Gaze, the act of looking at one another. In this subject-object relationship, the subject is the person doing the looking, while the object is the person being looked at. As we interact with other people, we impose our own subjective perspectives onto them, constantly objectifying and judging. Being on the receiving end of The Gaze, being observed, is a threatening experience as it creates a sense of self-consciousness and vulnerability.
When we are being watched, our actions and choices are defined and restricted by the way others perceive us. This is the underlying meaning behind Sartre’s famous phrase, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people”. The Gaze doesn’t even have to be a literal pair of eyes on you, it extends to the mere idea or sensation of being observed by someone or something, like an algorithm. For instance, when you are sharing a room with someone else, even if they are not looking directly at you, you can still feel their their eyes on you. Your self-consciousness is triggered and your behavior is affected. This is why concepts such as the Male Gaze, the All-seeing Eye of Sauron and the panopticon prison are so eerie and unsettling!
We see and we are seen. We are all participants in a spectator sport called society. Lacan shares Sartre’s theory of The Gaze, but argues that there is no inherent authentic self, that is separate from how we are perceived by others. Instead, our identity is shaped around us by the perceptions of others. How do we know our own name? How do we know if we are funny, smart, attractive, etc.? We know these things solely based on the reactions of others. Only through the perceptions of others can we gain understanding of who we are.
The Gaze is therefore not others looking at us, but rather it is us looking at how others react to us. The Gaze is not on the side of the subject, but on the side of the object. For example, when you dress yourself or make a selfie, you are imagining how you will be perceived by others. We can only conceive of ourselves as subjects if we willingly participate in our own objectification. Our authentic self is essentially hollow. Instead, our identities are predicated on the collective illusion that people other than ourselves are in fact authentic subjects, who can see us as objects. Only by believing that others are real, we can believe that we are real.
Masks of Meaning
Although we are objectified, we still have a degree of control over how and when we present ourselves to others. We adapt our behavior and present different versions of ourselves in different social contexts. We act differently at work compared to when we are with our friends, family, or partner. Sociologist Erving Goffman compared this to actors wearing masks, while psychiatrist Carl Jung referred to it as the persona – our public self-image, crafted to meet societal expectations.
However, today we face two major problems regarding our identity. Firstly, we have lost control over when others can view us. In the early days, the internet was a space of anonymity that opened doors to the exploration of different aspects of our identity. With the decline of online privacy, we are now constantly being watched, through both intrusive surveillance technology and our own voluntary participation on social media. This means that our past actions and decisions are forever on display, making it difficult to start over with a new identity.
Secondly, we have lost control over how others perceive us. Privacy cannot shield us from this issue. We need the perception of others to construct our identity, but with the rise of synthetic media and deepfake images and audio, we can no longer be certain about how we appear to others. Even if you don’t participate on a social media platform, you still have a digital persona on it. How can we know if we act in accordance to the desires of others, if we can no longer be certain about (the truth-value of) what others have seen or heard about us? This uncertainty leads to increased anxiety and a feeling of disconnection. We are left facing the praying mantis, unsure of who we are and what she wants from us.
In the era of fakeness, authenticity is touted as the solution. From nature trips promising to help you “discover yourself”, to leadership programs that focus on “authentic leadership”, or the push to create unfiltered unflattering BeReal selfies, the list goes on. The idea of an authentic self is being marketed as a new commodity. Ironically, by buying into the fantasy of “being yourself”, we are commodifying and truly objectifying ourselves.
The emphasis to behave in an authentic manner has paradoxical led to a culture of inauthenticity. The idea of an authentic self is itself the ultimate fake, as we always play being ourselves. Our (digital) personas are more true to who we are than our supposed true selves. To understand and negotiate with the desires of others, we must fully embrace the performative aspect of our lives. Political correctness only exacerbates this problem, as it seeks to shelter us from the encounter with the Other by formalizing social interactions. Only by fully embracing our inauthenticity we can see our true selves reflected back in the gaze of the Other.
In brief, embrace performance! Use (social) media as a platform to present the version of yourself that you want to be. Take control of the narrative by shaping your online identity to align with your aspirations. Direct your digital persona towards the future you envision for yourself.
Be a genuine fake.