Is Instagram a simulation of reality?

By Claudia Carter

The focus of this piece is to examine and investigate how Jean Baudrillard’s work help us reimagine/rethink the world around us? Baudrillard’s theoretical orientations act to question reality and his concepts suggest that there is nothing, only illusions. He uses Disneyland as his example when discuss simulation because the fantasy it creates was supposed ensure its success, Disneyland is presented in such a way that make us believe it is real (Baudrillard, 1994, p10). His work help to form an understanding of an environment which generates images of what the world is supposed to be like, but these representations are potentially simulations This piece aims to evaluate whether instagram is an ‘illusion’, specifically a ‘simulation’ meaning that is the social media platform actually how it seems. Through the use of Jean Baudrillard’s theory we can start to understand how imagining the world around us is a simulation of reality.

What is Simulation?

What the philosopher Jean Baudrillard meant by simulation is not a place, territory or being, but a model of reality and how makes us think about how reality is generated (Baudrillard, 1994, p2). He summarises simulation as the imitation of a real-world process or system over time (ibid.). His theory is based on redefining the sign as a ‘simulacrum’ (Plural = Simulacra), which comes from the Latin word simulare, which is defined as to “make like” or “simulate” (John and Weiner 1989). However, when images are called a simulation (Baudrillard, 1994, p2) they seduce the viewer by pretending to have something they actually do not.

Instagram is a social media platform which allows users to create a profile and upload and share images across the world arguably acting as a form of mass communication through the use of visual aids. The role of a photo on Instagram creates questions of accuracy in the representation of what is portrayed for example, the image captured might have no connection to the reality, either by being fake or distorted.  What I will draw from Baudrillard’s work is how his theoretical orientations present the consumption of images and the relationship they have to the real world.

What is a Simulation of reality?

Simulated images are not inaccurate or a replicate per say but a new form or order of reality, a “hyperreality” (Baudrillard, 1994). Baudrillard argues that there is no truth but only the simulated image, what this means is that we live in world with fakes and replicas of what the world actually is because mass media distorts reality so much we no longer have any connection to the actual reality. If we want to break down and try to understand how this version of reality is generated then we can do this through a process of simulation. Baudrillard’s “Precession of Simulacra” (ibid., p2) help to discuss the simulation of images and how they come to be. There is no distinct place of where and when images or signs become a simulation; it is understood as more of process or set of stages on how they might gradually transform or come to be.

Stage 1: “it is the reflection of a profound reality” (ibid., p6).

At the first stage, there is no simulation taking place yet, there reason why is because Baudrillard argues the image starts as a good representation of reality; for example, if an image was uploaded to Instagram which was a direct reflection of reality, then it is not necessarily part of the simulation because what was taken can be found in elsewhere in the world. If an Instagram user were to take an image of a flower, which is a faithful copy with an original then the image is a “reflection of a profound reality” (ibid., p6), because the flower can be found in reality, the image on instagram is a direct copy.

Stage 2: “it masks and denatures a profound reality” (ibid., p6).

On Instagram users have the ability to manipulate images and the settings of an image. This is where the debate on simulation starts to manifest appropriately, for Baudrillard the second stage discusses the idea of a slight perversion of reality. If a user wants to take and use the image of the flower, but elects to add a filter, then the image is no longer a direct copy of reality. The image is now an unfaithful copy because the original nature of the image in no longer the same. The image is still clearly similar to the original and a human subject can perceive the image to be a flower, however it is now slightly distorted from the initial image.

Stage 3: “it masks the absence of a profound reality” (ibid., p6).

In the third stage the image then completely masks reality; it is a copy with no original. For example, if the user uploads an image of the flower onto Instagram but decides to change the brightness or contrast of the image, as well add a filter then the user has created a new reality. The image is now no longer the same as reality; it has changed or been altered beyond the original image.

The third stage creates an idea of there being no representation and the arbitrary image is merely suggested to be things that humans have no relationship to. The manipulation of images on Instagram, for example when someone uses a filter or alters visual presentation settings, brightness or contrast, acts to create a new reality for the picture. The new image technically no longer exists anywhere else, therefore having no origin it acts as still being in the process of becoming pure simulation.

Stage 4: “it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum”

The final stage is pure simulation, which means that the image created, has no connection or relationship to reality at all. This is the stage where images or signs reflect other images or signs, they only make sense for themselves now, the image now has its own reality. The image now in comparison to stage one is completely different, the image at stage four is now an image of an image and argued to be unreliable or untrustworthy because we are now deceived when we look at the image, we think the new image is real but it isn’t because it doesn’t belong anywhere else. The image is nothing like the original, the image at stage four is a complete lie and a pure simulation. Simulation is the process of destroying anything that references the real world.

In conclusion it is difficult to state and pin point the exact moment an image becomes a simulation, from the stages of simulacrum discussed I can suggest that simulation is more of a process. Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern critical theory helps to examine and interpret the social media platform Instagram and makes a successful attempt at explaining and arguing as to why the entire network of Instagram might be a simulation of reality, because it makes us believe it is real. His theory can be applied to many areas – for example, he uses this theory to explore TV, film advertising, media stories and so on. However, since the introduction of 21st century technologies his work can provide an insight on the potential for questioning the reality uploaded to instagram because his work helps to demonstrate that the simulation is a state of imagination that is neither true nor necessarily untrue. 

References:

Baudrillard, J. and Foss, P., (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e).

Baudrillard, J. (1993, [1976]). Symbolic Exchange and Death. trans. I. H. Grant London: SAGE.

Baudrillard, J., (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan press.

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