This last Summer I was appalled by the large number of edited pictures proposed to me by my Instagram research page. These were either photos where the female bodies had clearly undergone a Photoshop treatment, or portraits of mature women who used filters made directly available by Instagram. I speak of “filters” in the plural but in reality it is always the same: the filter that smoothes wrinkles and gives a vaporous effect to the face. You will rarely see the “bunny ears” filter on portraits posted on Instagram.
I quickly understood that this avalanche of photos was explained by the Summer period – people publish more regularly on vacation – and by the unveiling of bodies that life on the beach supposes.
However, my astonishment lead to a personal reflection on the metaverse, this portmanteau word whose definition is still multiple. To put it simply, the metaverse is a virtual world promising an augmented reality combining a real environment with a computer-generated content, shared and interactive spaces in 2D or 3D, where everyone can evolve thanks to an avatar.
All of these concepts have been around for a long time thanks to science fiction writers, including Philip K. Dick in “The Simulacra” in 1964 or Neal Stephenson, who literally coined the terms “metavers” and “avatar” in “Snow Crash” in 1992. Games were the precursors of the metaverse, with for instance “Second Life”, a multiplayer sandbox game created in 2003. In parallel, cinema, strongly inspired by science fiction novels, has put into images the future which is our present today.
But it’s the very word “avatar” that created a link that I quickly found obvious between the metaverse, the artworks of science fiction of the last sixty years and Instagram. Connecting old sci-fi movies with the current world is exciting. Beyond the game which consists in pointing out what the screenwriters and directors of the time had accurately anticipated, science fiction says a lot about our anxieties, our expectations and the technological drifts of which humanity can be either responsible or victim.
Let’s take the anthology pieces that are the following movies:
“Blade Runner” by Ridley Scott dates from 1982, takes place in 2019 and was the subject of a sequel in 2017 by Denis Villeneuve which takes place in 2049, as indicated by its title “Blade Runner 2049”. (Two comments here: “Blade Runner” has had several versions over the years, in my opinion you have to see the “Director’s cut” version. Also, you have to see the three short films that fit between the films by Scott and Villeneuve, who asked three directors to imagine what could have happened between 2019 and 2049 – they are available on YouTube). The ensemble formed by these works is masterful.
“Total Recall” by Paul Verhoven dates from 1992, takes place in 2048, and Len Wiseman directed a second “Total Recall” in 2012 (the remake is forgettable, IMHO).
“Total Recall” and “Blade Runner” are both based on novels or short stories published between 1956 and 1968 by the immense American science fiction author Philip K. Dick, mentioned above (same for “Minority Report” by Stephen Spielberg, which dates from 2002 and takes place in 2054). Two transcendental questions irrigate his work: what is reality and what is being human.
Finally, the monumental first part of the “Matrix” saga, by Lilly and Lana Wachowski, dates from 1999 and takes place in an undated but still distant future.
On closer inspection, the majority of these films present a post-apocalyptic world following a disaster of climatic or human origin (or perhaps it is the same thing). In fact, the sky is often dark (“Blade Runner”, “Total Recall”, “Matrix”) and it rains, it rains a lot (“Blade Runner”). The absence of a clear horizon perfectly reflects the “no future” tone of the presented universe.
In some cases, digitality has been imposed by robots and humans are victims: I am obviously thinking of “Matrix”.
The heroes of “Matrix” have all the powers possible in the matrix, that is to say the virtual world. Neo, Trinity and Morpheus are unfathomably weak in the normal world but their digital avatars are in the matrix capable of doing the impossible, defying the laws of gravity and their powers and knowledge – flying a helicopter, mastering martial arts or jumping from one skyscraper to another – have no limits. In fact, the avatar of each red pill swallower is an idealized version of their real person. The viewer is well aware of the falsity of this avatar, pinpointed by the references to the allegory of the cave, “The Wizard of Oz” (with mentions to Dorothy and Kansas) and “Alice in Wonderland”. The risk clearly identified by the movie is that of preferring virtual life to the detriment of an unattractive real life. It is the choice of Cypher who does not hesitate to betray his resistance companions to find the comfort of a virtual life which he knows to be false.
In other science fiction films, digitality is not suffered, but chosen. In “Blade Runner 2049”, police officer KD6-3.7 played by Ryan Gosling chooses a virtual companion in the person of Joi, interpreted by Ana de Armas. In “Her” (2013) by Spike Jonze, the lonely Theodore played by Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his virtual voice assistant Samantha, carried by the sublime voice of Scarlett Johansson. In the ultra-disturbing “Strange Days” (1995) by Kathryn Bigelow, Ralph Fiennes plays a dealer of clandestine hypersensory recordings that allow those who watch them to feel in their flesh what they see. Finally, in “Total Recall” (2012) and in “Vanilla Sky” (2001) by Cameron Crowe, digitality allows any parallel life. In these last examples where robots did not enslave humanity, the latter escapes its condition by finding salvation in virtual worlds. And it is interesting to note, in our time of great loneliness, that these films are about love and the absence of it.
Whether digitality is imposed or chosen by humanity, the omnipresence of screens is already anticipated in all these artworks of science fiction and identification by biological recognition (the eyes in “Minority Report” and in “Blade Runner”) already exists. Today, it is often the fingerprint that unlocks the phone.
It is quite disturbing to note that past imagined evolutions have more or less become the realities of today. Climate disaster included.
If we come back to the two fundamental questions of Philip K. Dick – what is reality and what is being human – they are more than relevant today.
When it comes to the question of what it is to be human, “Blade Runner” and “Blade Runner 2049” pit a dehumanized humanity against “replicant” androids stirred by emotions, feelings and a strong desire for transcendence. Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer and Rachael, interpreted by the troubling Sean Young may be androids but they show more humanity than the humans around them. Lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright in “Blade Runner 2049” is only human in name. The androids of “Blade Runner” and “Blade Runner 2049” accept their condition as androids by trying to transcend it through love and the search for truth, and that is what makes them human ultimately.
If we come to the question of what is reality, I come back, after all these convolutions, to Instagram and the digital worlds in general.
Instagram allows everyone to create their idealized avatar – as anticipated by the majority of the films I have just mentioned. Photoshop and built-in filters provide the ability to post staged photos that reflect a reality that never existed. Some women have unreal bodies, unreal smooth faces and this digital version is the unspoken avatar they present to the world.
(Let’s be clear: I’m the first to see the discrepancy between the perfectly controlled image that I propose on the Internet and my tired face in the morning, even if I know that the two proposals do not diverge radically, I fully accept the phenomena because, why not, that’s life).
How do these women see themselves? Are they aware of the gap between their real image and their digital image? Do they see themselves in everyday life as their real image or their digital image? This potentially comes back to the risk mentioned earlier in “The Matrix”, which consists in preferring a virtual life full of falsehood, to the detriment of a real life perhaps less attractive but more real. “Matrix”, already in 1999, also speaks of “mental projection of one’s digital self”, which is disturbing in view of our Instagram today.
The creation of these digital avatars has another consequence: the creation of links with strangers around the world. One would be tempted to see this as a positive step forward, but in the vast majority, the links created are superficial (these are short comments under photos) or worse, aggressive – anonymity allowing any excess.
The impoverishment of the language, reduced to emojis, unfortunately reflects to perfection the impoverishment of ideas, thoughts or feelings expressed on social networks and probably in real life.
Giving up the search for relevance or veracity distances us from our humanity and from our reality. Are the little hearts received under each photo posted on Instagram the current reflection of the search for love illustrated in “Her” or in “Blade Runner 2049”, with Samantha and Joi? Highly possible.
On a societal level now: what about the monumental risks induced by deep fake, which allows videos to be tampered with? Avatars of Tom Cruise (“Minority Report”, “Vanilla Sky”!), Keanu Reaves (“Matrix”!) and more seriously, Barack Obama hang around the Internet, and deliver speeches that real public figures never gave. The apps that allow anyone to insert their face into a personality clip (whether it’s Marilyn Monroe or Madonna) only compile thousands of faces that will allow the deep fake technique to refine. (Please stop, because this is exactly how intelligence services operate to create fake digital profiles of people who never existed).
So many uncertainties, so many questions.
Let’s stay real, let’s stay human, like the androids Roy and Rachael 😉 Let’s not get lost in these new artificial paradises.
The pictures accompanying this text obviously evoke the troubling Rachael of “Blade Runner”. No clear sky, but an origami, if you have the reference 😉
January 13, 2023
Pucci jacket – Vintage leather skirt – Dior belt – Maud Frison derbies – Marni coat – Agnelle gloves – Agnès Gercault fur