A friend of mine recently told me that his wife was often depressed by "looking at Instagram and seeing how happy every couple seemed." The endless array of beautifully posed people, gleefully posting about their #blessed, #best and #NBD adventures on beaches and balconies, discouraged her. Compared with the carefree, happy-as-can-be photos that filled her social streams, her marriage seemed rocky by comparison; hardly Instagram-worthy.
She's not alone. Who of us hasn't struggled with the insecurities and comparisons that arise from the world of social media posturing. And who of us, if we're honest, hasn't perpetuated the problem by posting only the photos we've carefully selected, cropped and edited to present the best picture of our enviable lives?
Technology is making it easier and easier to live in a world of facades and false perfections. As we exist more and more in a world of digital mediation, a rupture widens between who we are and who we choose to be online, as perceived by the anonymous hordes. A rupture also widens between the reality of knowing and being known in embodied community, and the fantasies of disembodied escapism and false intimacy that can characterize life in the solitude of our iScreens.
Ashley Madison is just one byproduct of this widening rupture; just one (particularly brazen) example of the unreal escapism and supposed anonymity that characterizes so much of our lives online. The hack that lifted the curtain on Ashley Madison may elicit a "they had it coming" response from us, but the truth is we're participants in the same brand of duplicitous fantasy with every exaggerated, embellished or painstakingly posed photo we post online. By slapping a happy hashtag and a Valencia filter on something and presenting it as real, we too are widening an identity chasm that may one day be too big to traverse.
Last week Banksy lifted the curtain on another sort of corrosive fantasy, albeit one that didn't involve hacking and publishing adulterers' e-mails. But with his Disneyland sendup Dismaland--a "bemusement park" installation billed as "the latest addition to our chronic leisure surplus"--he is exploring similar territory in the landscape of what he calls “post modem-ism.”
Though a predictable critique of a too-easy target, Dismaland (like all of Banksy's art) is nevertheless right about the duplicitous fantasy that characterizes much of today's Amusing Ourselves to Death world. It's a "reality TV" world where "real" and "fantasy" are ever more conflated, where warzones make for good movies and movie theaters make for good warzones; where comedy substitutes for news reporting and news reporting is inadvertently comedic; where Donald Trump is thought to be a serious politician, baby dismemberment is considered polite lunchtime conversation and ISIS beheading videos show up in our newsfeeds in between Batman vs. Superman trailers and Farmville ads.
I'm reminded of Jean Baudrillard's classic book Simulacra and Simulation, in which he famously says of Disneyland:
"Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.”
Bansky's "Dismaland" confronts us with the blatant simulacra of not just Disneyland but of the entertainment-industrial-complex broadly and its mass machinations of fantasy. And even though Dismaland is itself (as a bourgeois "art event" for dilettante consumption) a part of this entertainment-industrial-complex--anti-consumerism as consumer good (there's a big market for it!)--its critique still has some merit. In amusing fashion it highlights the paradoxes and disconnects of our reality-confused, duplicitous age. Banksy's clever installation is simply a more ironic and intentional version of the same observation offered (unintentionally) by Megyn Kelly's FoxNews banter with Donald Trump. Both are highly amusing artifacts of a culture where "real" and "fantasy" have all but lost their semiotic difference.
Ashley Madison may not seem to have much in common with Instagram, Disneyland or Donald Trump, but they're all connected; all products of the fantasyland in which we presently live, blissfully avoidant of reality until reality (inevitably) hits home... or gets hacked.