Saturday, February 4, 2017

Alternative Facts & Us

            OK, so let’s talk about alternative facts. But we’re not going to start with Kellyanne Conway, or Stephen Bannon, or even Donald Trump.

            We’re going to start with Pokémon.

            It was a July afternoon, and I was walking past the water tower in Cape May, NJ. Behind me, I heard cars honking, as a young man nearly caused an accident while driving carelessly through an intersection with a cell phone in his hand. This driver, you see, was playing Pokémon Go. You might remember this game taking the nation captive for a week or two in early summer last year. The Cape May water tower had a Pokémon there, so this driver had decided not to worry about the real traffic, but to focus instead on the cartoon character dancing around on his smartphone. He pulled his car over, put it in park, and captured his tiny monster.

            They called this enormously successful game an example of “augmented reality.” It’s a kind of technology that mixes the real world with digital technology, and we haven’t seen the last of it. In the case of Pokémon, it involved following a real navigational map on your phone in search of cartoon creatures who only surfaced on the phone when you were near certain spots.

            America seemed to love the idea of blending truth and fiction back in July. Of course, they could put the phone down whenever they wanted and get back to real life. The same applies to so many of the Instagram and Snapchat photos we send and receive each day. They are often another form of altered reality, with staged photos that reveal us in ways that may not be genuine or tell the full story. But, again, we can dip in and out of our friends’ lives or Kylie Jenner’s world whenever we want. It’s not forced upon us.

            So that brings us to February 2017. America has branched out from its social media-fueled, Pokémon-popping, fantasy football-playing alternative reality and voted a president into office who is a “reality” TV star, meaning he spent years hosting a show that featured staged competitions. We have voted in a man who has mastered a form of social media that engages in alternative dialogues that don’t involve real conversations, and that often end with the words “So sad!” Many people keep saying they’re shocked that he is now president, but you could argue that we chose this path a long time ago, the moment we stopped looking at one another and started living in part through our phones and tablets.

            Now this president holds us captive, breaking news every hour so that we can’t stop checking those phones again, this time in order to keep up with the alternative reality that is his presidency. We keep reading stories and watching videos about him – some of us pleased, some disgusted. But either way, we’re living in a Truman Show­ world in which we are the puppets, while Christof looks down upon us and smiles.

            During these past two weeks, some of us may have come to the realization that neither Siri nor Alexa nor any emoji we can find will get us out of this world. And Barack Obama is no longer here to take care of business while we OD on Candy Crush. It’s up to us now. Alternative realities and alternative facts are everywhere we look. If we wanted that world, then we’ve got it. But if we are appalled and angered and demand better, we’ve got to do more than bash Donald Trump. We’ve got to start with a long, hard look in the mirror.

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