Reality television isn’t.

As a society, we feel compelled to define everything around us. We draw maps to define national boundaries. We study plants, animals, diseases and attempt to name them. We analyze the weather and space and try to determine patterns.

This focus on definitions and explanations eventually takes a turn and the definition becomes more important than that which is defined. Border conflicts become more important than international policy, defining a condition as a “disability” or “mental illness” supercede actual treatments, “El Niño” and global warming take the spotlight from disastrous flooding and drought because they are patterns instead of random events.

French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard explained this phenomenon as a ‘symbolic exchange’ wherein the symbol (Baudrillard uses the term “simulacra”) replaces the original. Our overzealous attempts to define and explain the world around us result in our inability to distinguish the real from the simulated, the object from the definition.

To put it in simple terms, think about how we tend to base our ideals of beauty on processed, retouched images in magazines of celebrities with implants and tucks and custom-tailored garments. We base our impression of reality on things that aren’t real.

Take “reality” television for example. At best they are un-scripted and heavily edited. At worst they are total fabrications, presented as reality. They in no way accurately portray real human interaction, but an exaggerated “hyper-reality.”

A few years ago I was an event manager for a semi-pro basketball team. One of the great perks of this position was sitting at the scorer’s table to watch the game. At almost every game however, I caught myself watching the game on the TV monitor on the table instead of the actual game on the court in front of me.

Why? Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose I’ve just been conditioned to look to the television with its integrated stats and replays. I let the commentators do the thinking for me, rather than analyzing and processing information for myself.

Umberto Eco, author and another purveyor of the idea of hyper-reality, calls this the “authentic fake.” Eco uses the example of Disneyland, a place where fantasy and reality intertwine and the boundaries between the two blur as a result of technological advancements.

With this in mind, believing “reality” television is a valid representation of life is like seeing the robotic alligators at a theme park and believing you’ve experienced real wildlife.

This fascination with the hyper-real snowballs as time elapses. The depiction of professional athletes as more-than-human, super-beings forces those individuals who want to succeed in sports to live up to an unachievable goal, which perhaps can explain the widespread steroid use in today’s sports arena.

Certainly our outrage at revelations of steroid use stems from this confusion between what is authentic and what is enhanced, this inability to distinguish between real and fake.

We feel betrayed when Andy Petitte and Marion Jones admit to using performance-enhancing drugs because we believed they earned their recognition of athletic greatness through hard work and innate talent, but we refuse to recognize that it was our demand for unattainable achievement that may have pushed them to turn to such measures.

The most befuddling, at least to me, of modern simulations is the craze of the online realm, SecondLife.com. According to site, “the World” allows “the Residents” to interact with each other, as well as making digital Creations which Residents can then buy, sell or trade for Linden dollars, the World’s currency.

Ok, so far it sounds pretty harmless. But the confusion comes into play when Linden dollars and Creations from the site are assigned actual monetary value.

For example, a Resident can design a line of handbags and sell them, for Linden dollars, to other Residents. This “virtual world” however has spawned a number of all-to-real lawsuits and controversies.

With all of this confusion between reality and its technological imitations, perhaps we should fill more of our free time with some real life experiences.

So get away from the computer and turn off the television for a few minutes and go out and experience actual reality.

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