Fantasy vs. Reality
On January 21, at Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration, millions watched as pop music star Beyoncé belted out our national anthem, accompanied by a live orchestra. But what we saw and what we heard were not the same thing. As it turns out, the pop star’s voice and the orchestra were mostly muted, with a studio version of the anthem pumped out to cover any potential imperfections in the live performance. A few days later, at a press conference for the Super Bowl – at which Beyoncé was the halftime entertainment – she said, when asked about her “performance” at the inauguration, that she is a perfectionist and she wanted to sound her best, especially at an event as important as that one. She’d not had time to fully rehearse with the orchestra, she’d not had time for a proper sound check, and the weather (30 degrees) was not great for her voice. Thus, she opted to “sing along” with her prerecorded track.
The simple fact is “singing along” is quite common in the music industry these days. Modern pop concerts are huge productions featuring not just musicians and singers, but light shows, pyrotechnics, massive digital displays, hydraulics, dozens of costume changes, and endless high-energy dance numbers. In such shows, performers have to rely on prerecorded tracks. It is just not possible to put that much energy into dancing and, at the same time, carry a tune. It doesn’t matter how good your voice is, it can’t be done. If you don’t believe me, try singing along to the music in your favorite exercise video while also doing the exercise. So high-energy divas like Beyoncé now routinely “sing along” to their (oftentimes digitally sweetened) prerecorded music.
Let’s face it, with the incredible recent advances in digital technology, the line between fantasy and reality has grown somewhat blurry. And not just in the music industry. When you see a model on the cover of a magazine, it’s a safe bet she’s not as perfect in real life as she appears in print. When you watch a reality television show, it’s an equally safe bet that the onscreen drama is nowhere near the “unscripted reality” that producers would like you to believe it is. For instance, it was recently revealed that the makers of Storage Wars sometimes “seed” the storage lockers with booty as a way to make the show more exciting. Nowadays our music (Beyoncé), our entertainment (Storage Wars), our sports heroes (Lance Armstrong), and even our romantic and sexual encounters are enhanced, technologically and otherwise, for our enjoyment and pleasure.
Generation Gap, 2.0
“Digital natives” are individuals who grew up actively using computers and the Internet; “digital immigrants” are those who did not. Generally speaking, those born post-1980 are digital natives, and those born pre-1980 are digital immigrants. For the most part, it is older individuals (digital immigrants) who are bothered by the constant fakery with which we are currently bombarded. Younger people seem far less concerned, sometimes even embracing the artifice as long as it’s done well. Thus, a primary difference between generations can be seen with the “inaugural deception.” Older generations were primarily offended by the fact that Beyoncé “faked” singing the national anthem, whereas younger generations were offended (if at all) by the fact that she did it imperfectly.
Simply put, today’s kids and young adults, increasingly raised half in the real world and half in the digital universe, are usually much less concerned than their parents and grandparents about the blurring line between fantasy and reality. In fact, younger people seem to view well-done illusion and live experience as two parts of the same reality. Older people, meanwhile, fear that their children and grandchildren are unable to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. Of course, the fears of today’s parents are very much of their generation. In the same way that their elders worried television would “ruin the American family,” present-day parents worry that video games, texting, and social media are destroying the current crop of kids.
Are You There? Does it Matter?
Older people might point to the Manti Te’o “scandal” that broke in early 2013 as evidence against online relationships. In case you’ve been living under a rock, I will briefly recap the affair.
Manti Te’o, a wildly popular University of Notre Dame football star, fell in love with a woman he’d met via social media. Unfortunately, in reality, the girl was an emotionally disturbed young man pretending, in the digital world, to be female. The romance became public when the girl supposedly died and Te’o spoke about his loss to the media. Later, the perpetrator “resurrected” the girl, resulting in confusion, angst, and ultimately public humiliation for Te’o.
According to Te’o, the one thing he regrets the most about this entire situation was lying to his father, telling him that he’d actually met the girl he’d fallen in love with in person. Older people may well scratch their heads at this, wondering why this otherwise upstanding young man would tell such a lie to his loving, trusting father. Young people, on the other hand, seem to understand that Te’o probably lied because he knew his parents were struggling to understand the depth of feeling he’d achieved for a woman known to him only in the digital universe.
And there’s the rub. For younger people, language and visual imagery – romantic or otherwise – shared over smartphones, laptops, and pads via social media, texts, and the occasional phone conversation feel every bit as real and meaningful as in-person interactions. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Te’o, a young man who’d led a sheltered life that focused almost entirely on academics and football, would fall for an attentive girl who approached him online. Even though she was not in fact a real person, the feelings he had for her were quite genuine. And the feelings other digital natives have for their online paramours are often equally sincere. The fact that older people typically don’t understand how this can happen doesn’t make it any less true. Certainly stories like this one stoke the flames of fear in older generations. But blaming digital technology for the situation is just plain silly, as romance scams have occurred since the dawn of time, both with and without the use of digital technology. Troubled individuals misbehave, and innocent people are sometimes victimized, regardless of the technological age in which they live.
Reality is Changing, Pick Your Version
Like it or not, digital technology is here to stay. And as this technology continues to improve, it will likely continue to blur the line between fantasy and reality. In fact, it seems there may now be three ways to view reality, and the one you choose will depend almost wholly upon your age and social perspective. First we have older individuals, many of whom insist on proof of everything. Until they see and experience something in the flesh, it’s just an advertisement. Next we have “tweeners,” primarily members of Gen Y and Gen X. These individuals are, for the most part, able to distinguish between what is real and what is digitally enhanced, though oftentimes they don’t care. These men and women recognize and understand that Storage Wars is rigged and Beyoncé “sang along” at the inauguration, but they’re just not that fussed about it. Finally we have the youngest generation, the pre-teen set that’s had high-speed Internet, social media, smartphones, laptops, pads, e-readers, texting, apps, and more since birth. Frankly, at this point it’s too soon to tell how their still-developing brains are processing and defining the real versus the digital universe, or even if they’re distinguishing between the two. Only time will tell.
Yes, some aspects of mankind’s future appear somewhat cloudy thanks to digital technology. Without doubt the sexual and romantic universe is now (and will continue to be) much different for young people than it was for their parents and grandparents. Simply put, as these individuals develop, their sexual and romantic life-experiences are increasingly of the online variety. Because of this, it is possible (perhaps even likely) that some of these youngsters, if and when they decide they want a “real” relationship, will lack the social skills to make that happen. However, most young people will successfully adapt to digital technology, just as their parents and grandparents successfully adapted to analog technology. In other words, telephones, radios, and television were not the end of mankind as we know it; video games, smartphones, and social media won’t be either.
The simple fact is digital technology is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Rather, it’s evolution in action. Those who learn how to effectively utilize these new technologies in healthy ways will flourish, find romantic partners, form pair bonds, build communities, and safely reproduce our species. Conversely, those who struggle to comprehend and integrate interactive technology in productive, healthy ways will find bonding and reproducing more difficult. As the evolutionary process has always been, so it will continue to be – only now it moves in lockstep with digital technology. Individuals who readily adapt to the rapid changes of our “new world” (like them or not) will thrive, breed, succeed, and carry-on, and those who don’t, won’t.