Simulated Versus Real Experience

Is a day at Disneyland a “genuine” experience, or a kind of grand simulation:  one that is mostly manufactured with a potential range of outcomes that are heavily circumscribed?

The quarantine and shutdown of many businesses has sent Americans back to their homes and to pursuits both virtual and actual.  A recent news story about the resumption of some live sporting events offers an interesting test of whether we still notice the difference.

Presumably, a virtual or “designed” experience is one created specifically for an audience.  It’s usually constructed with specific goals, like selling a pleasurable event and profiting from it, but retaining only the the illusion of authentic experience.  Visiting a theme park tests the theory well.  Is a day at Disneyland a “genuine” experience, or a kind of grand simulation:  one that is mostly manufactured with a potential range of outcomes that are heavily circumscribed? These days, our real main streets hardly resemble the Orlando version.

Similarly, is a baseball game of real players in a stadium where the pandemic mandates that there be no fans still a “real” event to us, especially if the network carrying the game is “sweetening” its audio with fake crowd noise? Presumably, an audio technician matches the ebbs and flows of the action on the field with digital effects that mimic those used in a video game.  There might be a real game happening in real time at the site, but the game coming from your television would be an auditory fraud.

This is more or less the equivalent of a laugh track of recorded shills added to a situation comedy, as when character A enters stage left to peels of laughter and applause. Or it could take the form of a phoned-in user endorsement for products touted by hosts during a QVC promotion.

While we are at it, is a film a simulated experience?  If so, why don’t directors add audience reactions to their carefully constructed audio tracks? And what about the simple act of listening to recorded music? The staples of manufactured experiences surely remain strong; Netflix, videos and on-demand content streamed by YouTube are often cherished as sanity lifesavers.

All of this tests our susceptibility to succumb to any simulated event as a full representation of what lived experience looks like.

But there is also another narrative about people who have shunned simulated experiences for something closer to their real thing: bike rides around town, hikes in local parks, or socially-distanced picnics with friends. I also have friends who have more seriously taken up painting, writing, learning a foreign language, gardening, cooking and long-postponed home repairs.  Others have revisited their home libraries for another look at a favorite book. I’ve also heard hopeful stories of children who don’t want to spend any more time on a screens that have been used for homework and instruction from their schools.  The want their birthright back: to engage in activities where they retain the spontaneity that comes when the outcome of an experience is not already decided for them.

One of the hopeful long term effects of this pandemic may be that more of us have a new appreciation for the value of finding our own paths that will allow us to exercise the mostly unused muscles of creativity and personal innovation.