#150: Bright Size Life

I haven’t really kept up with animated films lately but whenever I periodically check in, as I did last week by watching Pixar’s latest, Soul, I’m once again stunned by how much better they keep getting (the same is true whenever I interrupt my 20-year hiatus from video games). When I sat in the theater watching Jurassic Park as a kid in 1993, it didn’t seem like visual effects could progress much further, but of course they could, and did, and thirty years later they continue to improve. Despite this unquestionable progress—or maybe because of it—many still express discomfort with the transition toward digital representation in film, preferring (for example) the original puppet Yoda over today’s CGI version. Maybe the distinct popularity of Pixar movies and animation more broadly derives from their ability to present an unbroken illusion: Instead of digital creatures sharing the screen with human actors and reminding us that one is more real than the other, we can just suspend our disbelief altogether and inhabit a consistent universe for two hours. But regardless, it’s all getting better, and CGI is easier to tolerate now than it was in its awkward adolescence.

Or maybe we’re finally just used to it, and have permanently suspended that disbelief. David Graeber’s famous complaint about recent technological progress—that we were promised flying cars but got apps instead—makes the essential observation that our technologies of simulation have improved dramatically as our physical infrastructure and built environment have stagnated, widening the gap between the two. What has declined in the past century, Graeber argues, is the “use of rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality.” Reflecting on this a year ago, I wrote that “it’s easier to modify our subjective experience of the environment than to modify the environment itself.” But it’s also worth acknowledging that the idea of flying cars was implanted in Graeber’s head by the same image-production machinery that he found so uninspiring a half century later, so perhaps not much has changed at all. Maybe—I’m playing devil’s advocate here—we should just admit that crafting brilliant illusions and spinning vivid narratives are simply more exciting than building something material, and now that we can do the former with unprecedented fidelity, that’s all we need. Why else would we rather deprive ourselves of food than our iPhones? The more we embrace this, as the pandemic has forced us to in an extreme way, the blurrier the lines between fantasy and reality get, fomenting confusion that now chaotically spills into new domains, creating a crisis of boundaries in fields ranging from politics to finance to journalism. But it’s only a crisis if you try not to participate.

When Elon Musk vaulted past Jeff Bezos to become the world’s wealthiest human last month, it was immediately clear that he’s a much better candidate for the role. One quality that makes Elon so compelling is that he actually seems to subvert Graeber’s argument: He builds things—he uses rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality. His true achievement, though, is just being a fascinating personality who thrives in the contemporary media landscape—a “shitposting meme king” who creates spectacles around accomplishments of varying substance, which might even seem quite mundane if portrayed differently. The juggernaut that Bezos actually built is considerably more impressive, ironically, but he was smart enough to make it seem as boring and invisible as possible. How many people have a lucid mental image of what a fulfillment center looks like? It’s tempting to credit Bezos with the more responsible strategy, but it might also just be archaic by now. Everything is an extended cinematic universe and the masses demand leaders who are willing to impose their own, or at least believe in them. In 1979, Christopher Lasch wrote, “Overexposure to manufactured illusions soon destroys their representational power. The illusion of reality dissolves, not in a heightened sense of reality as we might expect, but in a remarkable indifference to reality.” Reading that today, it already feels like the concern of a different era—which means that it’s exactly right. Who needs flying cars anyway?

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