Baudrillard’s Hyperreal — A Case Study of Second Life

Interpreting Baudrillard has always been tricky. He himself was critical of artists who incorporated his theories into their work. The nature of these theories, particularly simulation and simulacra, is such that to reproduce them seems to betray the spirit of the text. This is not a defect, but rather a distinctive irony that occurs in discourse on discourse. Besides, Baudrillard’s ideas should not be seen as a strict set of rational truths, but rather a method of critical thinking suited to our era. This essay outlines an interpretation of Baudrillard’s ideas on hyperreality and then considers them in the context of an internet-based virtual world, Second Life.

This investigation will centre on the one of Baudrillard’s early books, Simulacra and Simulation. Simulation is the process whereby the lines between original and replication become blurred or, as Baudrillard put it, the truth/falsity differential is weakened, and the simulacrum is the phenomenon it ultimately produces. Before developing a theory on the orders of simulacra, Baudrillard explains the different orders of the image. An image of the first order reflects reality, a second-order image masks reality and a third-order image masks the absence of reality. These are all different degrees of what we could call appearance, unlike an image of the fourth order which has no relation to any reality or lack thereof.[1] A simulacrum is a broader concept, encompassing the image and its situation and implications. The orders of the image equate to the four orders of simulacra: natural, market, structural and fractal.

The first two orders of image are easily comprehensible, but the idea of an image masking an absence of reality is problematic. Baudrillard uses the example of ethnologists and the Tasaday. In 1971 in the Philippines, ethnologists returned the few remaining members of the Tasaday tribe into the jungle. They had lived there for centuries until twentieth century ethnologists appeared in the country. As a science, ethnology uses peoples untouched by modernity as its subject. A paradox emerges when the ethnologist finds a suitable subject, because in exposing and studying the subject he compromises its very essence. The virgin tribe, in being exposed to the rigours of scientific modernity, mutates into something else. When the reality of the Tasaday was compromised, the basis of ethnology was also compromised. As Baudrillard would put it – when the Tasaday and ethnology were brought into contact with each other, both ceased to exist.

So in returning the Tasaday to the jungle, the ethnologists are masking the absence of reality, their reality. They, and the Tasaday, have become a simulation of their former selves. We see this kind of simulated image all around us, when human settlement blankets an entire country people construct nature reserves to mask the absence of wilderness. The fascinating thing about the simulated image is that in its replication it seems more cheerful and more authentic than the original, the more real than real, like a made up corpse in an undertakers.[2]

Baudrillard defined this blurring of the lines between the original and its replication as the ‘hyperreal’, and one of his most quoted examples was Disneyland. Not a simulation of the world outside, rather, that world is a simulation of Disneyland, which itself exists to hide the fact that it is reality. In Disneyland being presented as imaginary, the surrounding Los Angeles environment seems real. Similarly, prisons are presented as carceral to hide the carceral nature of society.[3]

This should not be mistaken for delusion, a binary that continues to exist in hiding. It is rather a collapse of meaning, a binary that collapses on itself leaving no passive or active, no positive or negative. The dialectical polarity is lost as the two poles collapse into each other. To salvage meaning from the wreckage simulated binaries must be constructed, but these are indefinite and indistinct, in a word – hyperreal.

The idea that difference constructs meaning is central to semiotic thought and Baudrillard uses it to explain how the illusion survives. The real is simulated against the imaginary; the law against transgression; and truth against scandal, just as ethnology was simulated against its opposite – an ethnology with no subject. Not only does the simulacrum simulate the original, it brings it to its fatal extreme, the simulacrum of truth is truer than true, the hyperreal is realer than real.[4]

In Baudrillard’s critique, power has been replaced by the simulation of power, and the ultimate simulacrum of power is democracy. The authorities lead “the people”, but these same people lead the authorities. Again we see the paradox of involuted poles, and to reassert the existence of power its binary partner must be presented, something we could call antipower or unpower. Baudrillard uses the example of Watergate[5], but in fact any collapse of democratic government would suit the model just as aptly, the ritual murder of simulated power, to maintain the illusion that power is still real.

Television is a huge arena of simulacral activity. Baudrillard uses the example of a 1971 experimental TV verité series. The Loud family were filmed for seven months, and as television watched family and family watched television the medial relationship was blurred into hyperreality. Furthermore, the family was already hyperreal, with “a California home, three garages, five children, assured social and professional standing, decorative housewife” they were the ideal American family.[6]

Of course, the family fell apart. As with Watergate, their simulated existence was destroyed in a ritualised killing, to remind the viewing public that their simulated existence was real. Baudrillard lived to see “reality television” mature into the genre as we know it today, but however packaged it may be, it is still presented as unscripted vis-à-vis traditional scripted programming. Again, this is the breakdown of meaning being confronted with a semiosis based on difference.

This is hyperreal society, where television watches the viewer, music listens to the audience, and government listens to the focus group, everywhere the real confused with the model. It is impossible to find one instance of the model, for it has imploded into a fusion of itself and its simulation. Baudrillard quite aptly refers to this as Möbius Spiralling Negativity. If you take a Möbius Strip at any one point, it appears to have two sides. However, this is an illusion, the strip in fact has one side. In any hyperreal situation, no two poles are discernible, but the illusion of polarity is vital for us to be able to understand it.[7]

Purged of all meaning and true polarity, hyperreality holds the implosive characteristic of deterrence, the tendency to obstruct anything which might disrupt the fine balance of constructed meaning. He cited a human travelling in a spacecraft as the ultimately hyperreal experience, a life of asepsis and weightlessness, purged of all meaning, with no room for contradiction, chance, rupture or accident.[8] That was written in 1981, but twenty years later such a consciously hyperreal existence was far more accessible in the form of computerised “virtual reality”.

Use of the word reality in discourse is always contentious, but by any definition its meaning is compromised by the prefixing of virtual. This is central to our understanding of virtual reality, the cybernetic simulacrum of reality, it is unashamedly simulational from the outset. If Baudrillard’s hypotheses hold true, this cybernetic existence should compromise non-cybernetic existence to the point where both are rendered hyperreal. With this in mind, I went on an exploratory mission into cyberspace, in search of the hyperreal.

My Brief Second Life

Second Life (SL), the creation of Linden Labs, is one of the internet’s most popular virtual worlds, with over 1.6 million users having accessed it in the last two months.[9] Its growth has been fuelled by persistent media hype, in the last two weeks alone 996 online news articles mentioned it,[10] and most of the attention focused on its role in internet addiction and its use of real money. Although SL has its own currency, the Linden Dollar, it is fully exchangeable with real-life US dollars on the Lindex virtual exchange. To say money is an important part of the world is no exaggeration, over US$1.5m worth of Linden dollars changes hands within this online world every single day.

When registering at the site the first thing I had to do was choose a name for myself. Any vestiges of a real-life name were left behind my new alphanumeric first name was supplemented by an unrecognisable surname, chosen from a list of 400 options. No Smiths, Bakers or Caseys here, this is a world of Snooks, Bingyis and Qinans. The user assembles a new identity and finds the freedom to sever all ethnocultural connotations, but within the digitised limitations of a computer screen. Identity is transformed into a commodity, a simulation of the user’s original identity which emerges as the realer, more personalised variant. Already a sense of the world being entered becomes apparent. This flexibility extends to the body. The next step is to choose an “avatar” or online persona, in other words how the user is to appear, incorporating height, body shape, skin colour, and hair. The length and breadth of any limb imaginable can be altered at a click, and no change is permanent. The simulated body is commodified in its versatility, and devalued by its ubiquitous beauty.

“Welcome to SL, please refrain from any hate activity which slurs a real-world individual or real-world community”

My avatar appears as a glowing yellow figure on a concrete terrace, to the left a faux-tribal hut holds a sign with one word – “Communicate”. To my right is the gateway to a castle with a red and gold banner reading “Appearance”. It turns out I am “Tutorial Island”, I am zero days old, with no history. I am surrounded by similarly bewildered neophytes, all as beautiful as I am. I quickly learn to walk, talk and use my hands. I approach Franjoe Rossini, who is standing at the mouth of a volcano, and ask her why she has entered SL. She insisted, as most people I questioned did, that she was curious and thought it was harmless fun.

I am teleported off the island and onto a quiet town square. Music is playing, the fountain is splashing, and a voiceover is suggesting places to go. But other than a lone girl sitting on a bench, there is no one around. A poster asks me to “help keep our world clean” – it is an imported imperfection, where a discarded virtual object will remain in situ until someone virtually picks it up again and puts it in the virtual bin. I sit down on the bench beside the girl. Her name is Aneris, she is chatty, and happily tells me where I can find a good club. She also joined out of curiosity, but stayed because she finds freedom here.

It is a sinister, capitalist freedom. There is complete freedom of appearance and personality, and freedom to indulge in all sorts of vice, but the world is programmed in such a way that trespassing, theft and violence are completely impossible. It surprised me to find that few people minded this kind of castrated citizenship, happy to renounce the right to commit crime and be punished for it.

“Aneris is offering you friendship, accept?”

Our social relation is quickly catalogued, and I move on. In fact my avatar falls into a moat at this point, but luckily I have mastered the controls to the extent that I can hover (I later learn how to fly), so my avatar floats out unharmed and dry. I go to the club recommended to me. People dance, drink and chat. People around me are sipping virtual drinks. It is a stunning display of sign consumption, the onscreen drink is ostensibly devoid of use value, and yet online users have spent real money to take part in the social ritual. Although to refer to real money is misleading, inside SL all transactions are handled in Linden Dollars, simulated money. This is the unrestrained exchange and consumption of signs at its most explicit. One side of the club has a row of gambling machines and the other a row of chairs where avatars can sit and watch advertising, getting paid Linden Dollars in return. In “America” Baudrillard described gambling as “a desert form, inhuman, uncultured, initiatory, a challenge to the natural economy of value, a crazed activity on the fringes of exchange”.[11] In fact everything in SL is a crazed activity on the fringes of logical exchange. Even if you do not sit down it is hard to ignore the all-pervasive advertising.

“Strokerz Toyz: Avatar Genitals, from only $400L!”

Prostitution and gambling are central to SL, they seem to make up most of the visible trade online. At one point I found myself in a huge empty warehouse, where every inch of wall was covered from ground to ceiling with neon-glowing posters advertising escort girls, some offline, some online, and some ominously “busy”. Online sex, avatar with avatar, is so openly simulational that it would be easy to compare it to the “real sex” which happens in our world. Baudrillard would argue that both are simulations of each other. Indeed I interviewed an affianced couple who had met online and were planning to move in with each other in real life soon. They are already married online, and so the argument that a “real-world” marriage or sexual relationship can be a simulation of its cybernetic equivalent becomes suddenly plausible. The precession of simulation, the question of which came first, is so indistinct here as to render both situations hyperreal.

The commodification of virtual sex deserves further scrutiny. In his detailed theory on seduction, Baudrillard rejoiced in the possibility of the object challenging its subject using secrecy, mystery and artifice.[12] No such game or challenge in this pantheon of prostitutes – it is overwhelmed by the obscene. Useless objectivity is on display and up for sale, its sign value dictated by a price tag. This is “the more visible than visible”, the fatal extreme of openness.[13]

I leave the carnal showroom in search of the virtual countryside, and quickly find myself by Lake Gnoma. Here we have all the absurdity of a real-world “nature reserve”, wilderness constructed and maintained by man. Everything visual is mimicked, the weeds, the worn grass, the rotting fences. But unlike the real world, the weeds do not sting, the grass does not wet your ankles, and the fence does not give you splinters. It is this neutered, aseptic quality that distinguishes this from what we call real nature.

For the sake of contrast I travel to the “Downtown Urban Centre”. It is loud and crowded; people are busking, dancing and hustling. A woman on a ladder is painting a shop wall, while across the road a barman leans in his doorway. However, it turns out this is an illusion of an illusion. All the avatars in the urban centre are programs rather than users, robots pretending to be real people pretending to be avatars. “A simulacrum of the third order! Simulation which masks the absence of a reality!” – I scream at them virtually, just to make sure, but no one responds. As robots, the point may have been lost on them, but it was still valid. There to dissimulate the fact that there was no one there simulating, this was more of a fourth order simulacrum. Rather than hiding the absence of reality, they were hiding the absence of simulation – any inference of reality long lost in the obfuscating layers of illusion.

“Workers of cyberspace, unite!”

Not only does SL have an active socialist party, it has a rival Marxist party and even an anarchist group. All simulated political movements performing in a world where the basic concept of private property is written ineditably into the computer code. In SL you can gamble and fornicate, but it is physically impossible to pick up a pencil owned by another avatar – the only place anarchism can fulfill in this capitalistic utopia is as a commercial product itself, an alibi for black clothing and radical posturing, but to no revolutionary end.

Before leaving the dizzying world of SL forever I make one last important journey, to the simulation of my home and university. I teleport to the front gate of Trinity College Dublin, walk in onto Front Square and there, past the Campanile, find my very own bedroom window, virtually simulated in an online world. I am now at the same place in two different planes, looking at the same window from two different sides, one dusk, the other twilight.

Another avatar approaches, he is also a real life Dublin resident wandering through virtual Dublin, but unlike me he has invested time and money into SL. He shows me his array of vehicles, all of which he has purchased. After chatting for a while, he gives me a scooter as a gift, my first virtual possession, and I drive off to see what lies further out from Dublin city centre. But just past the Rubrics the written code stops, and before me stretches nothing but white sand, the desert of the real? More like a desert of the virtual, because rather than being the wasteland left behind from a retreating reality it was an expanse as yet unclaimed by a virally expanding virtuality.

On my scooter I return back to virtual Dublin and two avatars approach me. They like my scooter, and explain to me that it is possible for me to replicate the scooter and share it with them. The scooter of course does not exist, only its sign does (in both the layman and Saussurian sense), and reproducing that sign is as simple as copying and pasting computer code. This is the nightmare of fractal simulacra, the commodity is infinitely reproducible at zero cost, within seconds all three avatars are sitting on identical bright green scooters. However one of the avatars, seemingly unhappy with this, edits her scooter so that it becomes bright red. This was textbook semiotic material, the scooter’s value was salvaged in difference as the original sign was compromised by ubiquity. As the urge took hold to pick a unique colour for my own scooter, I left Second Life.

Back to the Real

 The real world feels slightly different. It smells, it hurts, it is cold and wet, and having seen a cybernetic world this one seems all the more real. Baudrillard might have argued that SL and our world are mutual simulacra, both equally hyperreal. Both worlds could be described as more real than real, our world for its sensation, the stinging nettle and wet grass, the cyberworld for its limitless possibility. By this I mean that the user who stays in Second Life “for the freedom to be found here” would insist that their avatar is the most accurate reflection of their real self. Aside from hyperreality, many of the phenomena Baudrillard spent his life examining are on display. It is a semiological perfect world, an unflawed example, where deprived of the ability to actually eat, drink, and move, the avatars have nothing to consume but signs. Baudrillard might claim we too only consume signs, but we have the alibi, we claim we chew gum because we like the flavour. The SL avatar chews gum, at $1L a pack, so as to consume the sign of chewing gum. The avatar rents a prostitute not to have sex, a sex devoid of human contact or experience, but rather to consume the sign of having sex. The avatar buys expensive virtual clothes to consume the difference against the avatars wearing free clothes. All alibis have disappeared, no actual clothes have changed hands, and yet real people spend real money earned from real work – and real time – to consume the difference in signs of non-existent goods.

Second Life is ubiquitously commercialised. The garish neon of Las Vegas is probably the closest real-world likeness. And yet, one avatar I met described it as “a perfect world” because you can “vent your imagination”. Appealing, even fruitful, it may well be; the engaged couple would certainly argue so. But whatever happiness they found together in SL, they still felt the need to replicate it in real life. Baudrillard claimed we live in hyperreality, and yet for all their critical value his theories are not the perfect fit that they are in cyberspace. He was not wrong, hyperreality exists or is at least a legitimate concept, and one day it may well be as pervasive as he suggests. Certainly most analysts expect virtual reality to grow exponentially, to the point where computer-based addiction is widespread and humans control over the technology that surrounds them declines.[14] But in our world, in all of our actions, we insist on an alibi. In taking a viewpoint so radical that few can reconcile it with their real world experience, Baudrillard would find an alibi for his theories in the cybernetic world of Second Life.

This essay was written in Spring 2007 as a university assignment.

Core Text:

Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard (tr. – Sheila Faria Glaser) Michigan 2006

Supplementary Texts:

Introducing Baudrillard, Chris Horrocks & Zoran Jevtic, London 2003

America, Jean Baudrillard (tr. – Chris Turner), London 1989

The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard (tr. – James Benedict), London 2002

Jean Baudrillard in Radical Uncertainty, Mike Gane, Sterling (VA) 2000

Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze, Gary Genosko, London 1994

Online References:

Second Life – Linden Labs

http://secondlife.com

Accessed from early March to early April

Pew Internet Research Centre:

http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/188/report_display.asp

Accessed on 11th March 2007


[1]               Simulacra & Simulation, p6

[2]               Ibid. p8

[3]               Ibid. p12

[4]               Introducing Baudrillard, p147

[5]               Simulacra & Simulation, p14

[6]               Ibid. p28

[7]               Ibid. p16

[8]               Ibid. pg34

[9]               http://secondlife.com homepage, accessed on 2nd April 2007

[10]             http://news.google.com, accessed on 2nd April 2007

[11]             America p128

[12]             Introducing Baudrillard p95

[13]             Ibid. p146

[14]             Pew Internet Report, September 2006