The rhetorician in me cringes at that title, so let's clarify some terms before we move into this conversation about how to hold onto to a sense of authenticity and integrity in this rapidly changing, consumer-driven, techno-forward world. Most obviously, the fact that I'm making an argument that pits two terms, real and fake, so matter of factly, against one another is problematic from the onset. The world isn't black and white, and there's an argument to be made that things that are virtual and transient are just as real as my fingers typing against this keyboard as I write, but that is an argument, and I'm not making it.
For the sake of this exploration, when I say real, I mean things that exist as they are. For example, the "real" me is the one I see when I look in the mirror, as opposed to the me I see when I apply an Instagram filter. The plants I'm growing are real, the virtual plants my daughter used to raise on her digital game are not. The photograph I take with my camera is real, the image I generate by typing some words into a computer program is not...or at least it's not real in the same way. Maybe that's the point, not black or white, real or fake, but a spectrum of realness. Maybe it's unadulterated versus polished, an attempt to subvert the performative (which, in and of itself, is probably performative).
Here's what I know for sure: I want to be the most real version of me I can be, and what that means is I want to show up as me, curly gray hair and wrinkles and tattoos and mismatched clothes and bare feet and all, and I want to speak the truth as I've experienced it. I want to know that the words I'm reading were authored by a human being with a human being's heart and consciousness and lived experience. I want to know that the images I'm looking at were created from, for example, an actual flower that at some point in time actually lived in the world under the same sun I'm living under now. I also recognize that an argument based on terms that require this much qualifying is about as strong as a piece of paper in a rainstorm, and yet, I'm making it. I need to make it. I need to know that something real exists in this world. I need to know that genuine connection with another human being is possible. I need to know we aren't all doomed to live in screens as Bratz doll avatars who barely remember what it was like to feel the breath of another human being against our skin.
The Amazon Prime shopping carts arrived at my local Whole Foods a couple weeks ago. You know the ones I'm talking about? You have a Prime account and you just check out as you shop, just you and your cart and your grocery list. You can do your weekly shopping and never have to speak to another human being in the store. I saw those carts, and I felt sad. I'm old enough to remember days before self-checkout lanes, days when you'd stand in line at the grocery store and thumb through the tabloids as you waited for your turn to exchange a few (or more if you're a talker like me) words with your checker. Yes, I'm one of those people who talk to people, and guess what, people talk back. I have very few tales to tell of rude checkers or unpleasant service workers, but I have lots of anecdotes about the time the pregnant checker told me about the mermaid decor she was planning for her nursery or the college kid who I had a lengthy conversation with about my Rolling Stones t-shirt and his sadness about missing their last concert. From my days of working as a Registered Nurse and sitting on the foot of many a bed of people who bared their souls to a stranger in the night, to my time as a college instructor listening to young adults just out of high school stress about everything from what class to take next semester to whether the world will still be inhabitable for their grandkids, my world has been enriched by the countless conversations I've shared with random people who either reached out to me or reached back when I extended my hand. I fear the rise of Prime shopping carts and everything they stand for puts all that in jeopardy, and I am both saddened and angered as I see more and more people using them. Can we really not see what the cost of convenience is? Have become so disconnected from one another that we can't recognize the cold call of greed sold to us as ease and marketed as progress when we see it? I don't want a grocery experience that feels like I'm playing a computer game.
Last week on Instagram, someone sent me a message that said, "How come sometimes you look [insert fire emoji] and other times you look old af?? Filters?" I let that message sit for three days. My gut response was to ignore and delete it, but something stopped me from doing so. I just let it sit. After a couple days I went back to it, and I looked at the account it came from, a photography account with just a brand name for the bio image. I scrolled through the account, and I couldn't find any place where the owner of that account showed her face (I'm assuming "her" because the name is female). So this faceless account is asking me why my face looks different day to day, and I wondered: are we so used to FaceTuned features and avatar women we can't recognize real ones when we seem them? Are we losing our ability to understand things like real people's body's change on a daily basis. Some days my face is swollen; it's allergy season. Some days I'm not as hydrated, and so my wrinkles are more pronounced. Some days I get less sleep, and so my eyes look more tired. That's what happens to real people in the real world. Have we forgotten that bodies are made of flesh and blood and that they do weird shit and that they age and they change, and that's what makes them beautiful? In our youth obsessed culture on steroids, have we forgotten what it means to be human?
This is probably about the point at which someone will make an argument about progress. That argument looks something like, "this is happening, and if you don't get on board, you're gonna get left behind," and it's total bullshit. In academic terms, that argument consists of a slippery slope logical fallacy. A logical fallacy is when an argument can be disproven through reasoning, it is logically fallible or erroneous. A slippery slope logical fallacy is when someone claims some event will follow from some other event without providing any evidence that connects the two events. In this case, you being left behind (whatever that means) follows from you're not supporting this particular type of progress. That argument is empty, and it's self-fulfilling. You tell photographers, for instance, that they better get on board with AI because that's the way of the future and they're going to be left behind if they don't learn to use it, they freak out and learn to use it, and now AI is the way of the future because we've made it that way. But the original argument, AI is the way of the future and you better get on board with it, is a logical fallacy, one that seeks to cash in on our fears of being "left behind" and our greed to "get ahead." The argument for progress for progress's sake is, and has always been, a logical fallacy of some sort: slippery slope, hasty generalization, false dilemma, bandwagon, you name it.
Then there's the argument that says the tools aren't the problem, the problem is how we use them. These are the same people who say ignorant things like guns don't kill people, people kill people. It's not FaceTune, it's the fact that people use FaceTune and don't tell anyone they're using it, so you don't know it's actually not who they are and what they look like. I downloaded FaceTune for the sake of writing this entry. I wanted to be sure of this statement before I made it. It will surprise no one that no where on the FaceTune app does it advise, encourage, or warn a user that they should inform others of their use of FaceTune. If you buy that tool argument, email me about some oceanfront property I'm selling in Arizona.
Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people in the US between the ages of 10 and 34. Let that sink in for a minute. The second leading cause of death in this country for children 10, 11, 12, 13, etc is suicide. And it's the fifth leading cause of death for people ages 35-54. I'm not saying that AI leads to suicide or that the Prime shopping carts do or that FaceTune does, but I am saying I worry that those things and so many like them contribute to our ongoing and increasing alienation from one another. I am saying the growing levels of anxiety and depression, the incredible loneliness and the lack of support, the withering social skills and the lack of human connection does contribute to rising death rates, rising domestic violence rates, our growing intolerance of anyone different from us, and our lack of empathy for one another. As the world gets what I am problematically calling faker, it is changing how and if we relate to one another.
Now that so many of us are working from home, it doesn't take much for us to build such insular lives that we never have to encounter anyone or anything outside of our comfort zone. We can structure our lives so that everything around us, from the shows we stream to the accounts we follow, is only ever pleasing to us in the narrow ways in which we've defined pleasure, and we can grow more bitter and complacent in our misery by the day. We can, but we need not. Here's how I'm working to be a real girl, or middle-aged woman, in a world that keeps getting faker:
I'm embracing my physical, aging body. I'm not using apps like FaceTune. Sometimes I use an IG filter, cause it'll do fun things like put purple sparkles in my hair or have flowers sprout from my ears, but when I do, it's obvious. You'll never find me using one of the goddess filters, so that my eyes glow blue like some bad drawing of a cartoon mermaid. I won't pose strategically so that my ass looks larger and my stomach looks flatter. I will rest my arms at my side in a normal pose rather than holding them out just so from my body so that they look more toned. I don't wear Spanx, and I don't get Botox. And I know someone will say it's not on me to judge what other people do, and I'm not judging it as much as I'm saying it's not compatible with what feels real for me, and I question whether it feels real for you.
I'm seeking out human connection in every place I can find it. I had a ten-minute conversation with a Fed-ex driver the other day about his rattlesnake tattoo, and we both walked away from it smiling. I will not be using the Prime shopping carts.
I'm owning my voice every opportunity I get. That means I'm speaking my truth, that means I'm not shrinking from the hard conversations and the challenging spaces of my life. I am in charge of my journey on this planet, and at the end of each day, I want to be proud of how I showed up. I want to say I spoke up when it mattered, I fought the good fight. I walked the walk. I'm engaging, and I'm engaged.
I'm building a life that gets slower everyday. I have another entry coming about what my philosophy of "slow art for a slow life" means in practice, but in short it means living as tech-reduced as I can. It means making my art from botanicals I've grown with my own two hands or that I've sourced locally. It means unique, limited, lasting. It means being over doing. It means local, sustainable, reduce and reuse over recycle. More creativity, less mass production. Collaboration and cooperation over competition.
I'm learning. I'm asking all the questions, and I'm revising as I go. I work to keep my heart as warm as I can, and my hand as open as I can, but that doesn't mean I don't have boundaries. As Kenny Rogers so eloquently encouraged, I'm learning when to hold, when to fold, when to walk away, and when to run.
I'm feeling. I'm staying present in my body, and I'm feeling when it says no and when it screams yes.
I'm practicing radical accountability. I'm staying focused on what I can do and what I can change. I'm staying responsible for the thoughts I think, and the emotions I manage or don't. I'm bringing all my experiences back to me and where I have power from which to act. For example, I can't control if someone else uses the Prime carts, but I can control if I use them. I can control whether my actions contribute to making a world I say I want to live in or whether they work against it.
Yesterday on Instagram, I had an exchange in my dm's with a woman about loneliness. It wasn't a lengthy exchange, just maybe ten or so messages back and forth, but at the end of it, she thanked me for writing her back, and she said, "and I think you're dog is really cute." But we weren't talking about Edward, so that last part struck me. I don't know this woman, her account is just images. She's not really in stories except to repost things, and the reason she reached out was because she watched the IG live I did about living with PTSD in which I mentioned loneliness and healing (see below).
Sometimes I get irritated with Instagram, sometimes I wonder why I keep showing up there the way I do. But then there's moments like that, when I hear from someone whose paid enough attention to what I'm doing to know my dog, who trusts me enough to reach out with something so personal, and I remember why I do it. It's pretty much the same reason I talked to the Fed-ex driver or I long for the checkout chitchats in the grocery store. I do it because I'm human, and we are inherently social creatures. And what the woman in my dm's taught me yesterday (how many times do I have to learn the same lesson) is that even when you think no one is watching, even when you think no one cares, someone is. Someone somewhere is waiting for you to show up, and I think about the chorus in that song by the Fray, "How To Save a Life:"
Where did I go wrong?
I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life
I don't think AI and Prime carts and avatars save lives, but I know that showing up in all our imperfections and reaching out to one another does. And so I'll keep showing up on Instagram, and I'll keep answering dm's. I'll do my best to keep modeling what it looks like for me to be a real girl in a world that encourages me to get faker everyday, because people are watching, and you never know who--the checker or the Fed-ex driver or the lonely woman on IG--needs that five or ten-minute human interaction with you to make it through one more day. Hell, maybe you need it yourself, I know I have.