Get real

When it’s not guided by the list of Trollope novels I haven’t yet read, my fiction reading is directed by chance, thrift-store serendipity. At the Salvation Army in Binghamton, New York, the other day, I got a copy of Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel Look at Me because I had read A Visit From the Goon Squad and remembered really liking the PowerPoint part of it. I wasn’t planning on reading it any time soon, but when I stopped to get something to eat on the way home, it was the only book handy, so I started it. Now I’m sort of engrossed in it.

The book’s action is mostly set in the late 1990s, which makes it dated without being of particular nostalgic or historical interest; it’s more describing a time very similar to our own but getting it wrong, overlooking things that hadn’t actually yet become prevalent but which nonetheless seem to obviate the characters’ dominating concerns. Egan wants to explore the idea of the value of mediated “authentic” American ordinaryness — the novel is populated with historians, fashion photographers, market demographers, private detectives, anti-American terrorists and Internet entrepreneurs who each in their own way want to capture and possibly exploit the essence of authenticity — but the advent of social media shortly after the book was published has left her exploration feeling frustratingly incomplete, if not irrelevant.

In Look at Me Egan rightly picks up the “reality hunger” of the 21st century zeitgeist but extrapolates it in a direction that ends up seeming slightly off. It’s as though the immense value of prosumption, of the productive efforts of ordinary people to make their lives livable and feel like somebody, was just coming into focus, but it was not yet clear what innovations would be deployed to capture it. Egan doesn’t anticipate the Web 2.0 wave of capturing immaterial labor with seductive “sharing” peer-to-peer platforms, or the Big Data approach of capturing everything and sorting out the potential value of it later with algorithmic brute force.

But the weirdest thing about the book, which seems indicative of how far down the social-media path we’ve gone in a decade, is that the yearning for a superficial notoriety is depicted as inherently aberrant rather than a humdrum aspect of everyday social participation. The repellant main character, a fashion model who has had facial reconstruction surgery after a car accident, is preoccupied by the possibility of fame and exposure, and when her modeling career is ruined, she accepts a job divulging her everyday life online for a company that is a sort of top-down-administered proto-Facebook. (I like that it’s called PersonalSpaces.) She is chasing after what she thinks of as “the mirrored room,” her personal image for the glamour of being able to watch yourself being watched among a host of glitterati. Her yearning for the mirrored room is supposed to mark her as an outlier, but we all inhabit the mirrored room now. It’s not extraordinary to want that; in fact, social media has normalized the desire for it by making it so readily accessible. It’s far more abnormal to ignore the mirrored room.

Everyone in the book acts as though the protagonist’s willingness to perform an ongoing public self-confession is totally, almost apocalyptically insane. But what read as narcissism in 2001 now seems like routine self-care. Posting some random thoughts, sharing some private details, orchestrating some genial self-promotion, reframing one’s experience to try to find a way of registering with a harried, distracted audience of peers — it all seems like basic adherence to the anticipated rituals of belonging, not the acts of an egregiously desperate victim of image culture.

The moral tenor of the novel is that America has been swept over by superficiality, by artificiality, by seductive images, and it has left everyone alienated by self-consciousness, obscurely yearning for the “real.” But this concern seems so quaint, almost as distant as Victorian preoccupations with propriety. Wait, what? People act inauthentically? Who is really troubled by the idea that we eagerly construct facades to get attention? Who believes that naked attention-seeking is wrong? Who is shocked at off-handed voyeurism? We’re just not startled anymore by the revelation of the hidden constructedness of the ordinary anymore; that universal artificiality tends to be taken for granted.

The “authentic” ordinariness of other people is consumable only as an alternative to the staple diet of celebrity; what made the people on NBC’s old 1980s show Real People (or the people on any reality show) real is that they didn’t seem to exist before being in the show you are watching. They were not part of the network. Social media makes everybody part of the network, so we need a new opposition through which we can construct the real. The famous/ordinary dichotomy can no longer structure it, nor can mediated/unmediated. Glimpses into the private lives of others have also become routine and thus not especially real.

What now seems most real has less to do with human behavior and more to do with mechanical glitches, tears in the fabric of mediation, the unanticipated results of automation and digitization and algorithmically driven feedback — James Bridie’s famed New Aesthetic, assessed in this essay by Bruce Sterling. The “eruption of the digital into the physical” is presumed to humanize technology, render it at the scale of life, with all its vulnerabilities. “Above all, the New Aesthetic is telling the truth,” Sterling writes. “Anybody with a spark of perception who looks through this thing: http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com/ must recognize that modern reality is on display there.”

My semi-futuristic prediction about contemporaneity is this: What comes across as authentic is no longer what seems to be untouched or unvarnished. We take it as “authentic” to want to be noticed and to work for it, and “inauthentic” to pretend to a Garboesque yearning for privacy. The spurious link between spontaneity and sincerity will be severed. Common courtesy will come to be a matter of respecting one another’s mediated solipsism rather than demanding that it be set aside. The insulation provided by a smartphone will come to seem like a layer of clothing, and you wouldn’t expect that everyone you encounter would just spontaneously disrobe for you.