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Planes of Existence

David Evans Bailey takes a look at our existence between the digital world and reality. Illustration by Leo Walton

Before the internet, most of us could say our existence revolved around ourselves in mortal flesh, as it were. In other words, our physical form and existence were all that represented us, unless of course we got to be famous, or made it into the newspapers. But that wasn’t usually for the likes of you and me, that was for other people. It was probably much easier, back in the day, to believe what you saw because you were seeing physical things.

For most of us, houses, cars and clothes were the things that represented us and portrayed what we stood for in society and as people. You could probably tell if someone was rich, or poor, middle class or upper class. You could tell by where they lived whether they came from the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks. That was at least how some people viewed it. Barring celebrities, our physical existence was pretty much everything.

Enter the internet and more specifically social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. From that moment on we all became, in effect, two or more people. We began living a life on the physical plane and another life again on the digital plane. We all discovered, some more rapidly than others, that what you see isn’t always what you actually get when it comes to the digital world. It’s easy to only post the best photographs, the nicest events and the coolest places we’ve been. On the internet, we don’t see the person so much as a representation of who they are and what they want us to see. It is possible to fashion the illusion of a perfect life while living one that is perfectly crap in the real world and for both to exist at the same time. It’s possible from looking at the posts of our friends, to believe that they live the dream. We all know a couple who's always out for meals and taking pics of lovely food etc. They have this amazing relationship, look at all these lovey-dovey snaps. Whilst this may all be true, what if it’s not? They could be struggling financially, they may have a row every time they get home.

We just don’t know, because we weren’t there. Only their real flesh and blood friends and family know the truth. Making up something that is not quite as true as it seems isn’t just confined to the media, we all do it, to one extent or another. Even if it’s just to use that app which smooths out the wrinkles on our faces.

It’s funny because we all know this, yet we pretend that we’re appalled when someone turns out to not have been who they said they were on social media. The man who ate 500 hot dogs and has the photos to prove it was actually discovered to be a fake. Shock horror. We know that the tools for faking everything exist and yet we expect to still trust everything we see. In reality, it turns out that on the internet lying is easy, telling the truth is much harder. If we compare two things, even many things, it comes down to this; which one is more important? Who we are in real life, or the persona we’ve made up on the internet. People are making money entirely from creating themselves on the internet. But, on the flip side, if we somehow make a mistake or put a foot wrong, the world is there to make it go viral which could potentially ruin our lives in the process.

With the willingness of others to record everything we do or say, we can suddenly be posted all over the world, vilified, lose our jobs and more. Our online presence can often override everything else that people might or might not know about us. Not that it’s a bad thing to expose bullies, racists, and the like, but the consequences for these people and anyone else caught in the headlights can be dire.

Interactions on social media can also be difficult. When two people meet face to face or talk on the phone, all the nuances are there, in the voice, in expression and emotion. You can see and hear the person and pick up all the other clues that are not present in the written word. Social media interactions often go awry due to not being party to these other cues.

In Facebook messenger or even social media comments, it’s hard to tell if the person is being truthful, sarcastic, funny or anything else. Many online arguments are a testament to that. Even with emoticons, it’s not the same as being there in person. Thus, our existence in the digital world and its interactions require different types of communication skills.

In China, it’s becoming apparent that social media is being used to evaluate a person’s performance in real life. Programmes are being put in place to score individuals and deny them certain rights if they don’t measure up. The software uses facial recognition and other features to recognise people. A recent episode of a Netflix show called Black Mirror also depicted a world where people are defined by their scores on social media and their behaviour towards others. If people scored them badly they were denied societal privileges. Suddenly, in such a scenario the person is subsumed by their online existence. Fiction becomes reality. This doesn’t seem like a good idea at all.

In the end, if you have a cold you can’t disguise it. If you go to work with a runny nose and are sneezing everyone can see it. But when you’re online you don’t have to show any part of you or your life that you don’t want to. We lead an edited existence in the cloud. Perhaps somehow, we should try to reconcile our two existences, the digital and the real, before it’s too late.

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