Memory and the end of reality

canada-mcluhan-stampThe transformation from media as a form of cultural production to media as entertainment has lead us into a crisis as we enter the fifth phase of history. Marshall McLuhan (1962, 2005) divided history in four phases:

  1. culture of oral communication,
  2. manuscript culture,
  3. the Gutenberg galaxy, and
  4.  the electronic age.

The start of each phase is marked by the emergence of a new medium. Writing enabled manuscript culture, printing enabled what McLuhan called the Gutenberg galaxy, electronic media enabled the electronic age of broadcast communication. What has electronic media brought forth?

We have now entered the fifth era of history: the era of communication, simulation, and the end of reality. In previous ages we communicated in order to preserve and pass on memories. We lived in a world in which we believed there was a reality we wanted to share, so we communicated. But the signs we use are tricky and layered, they are deceptive, and the more we used signs the more we became removed from day-to-day, one-on-one interaction, we lost sight of the real.

The principle of reality ended in 1983 with the publication of Simulations, Baudrillard’s most influential work. At first only a small number of cultural and media critics were aware of the end, as the world continued to function under the illusion of reality. Sixteen years later the concept went mainstream with the release of the film The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999). This blockbuster turned Baudrillard’s esoteric notion into a meme of apocalyptic proportions. Baudrillard wrote,

Simulation is no longer that of a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory (Baudrillard, 1983).


If the Matrix didn’t exist, Baudrillard would have invented it.

Simulations became a prescient handbook for the end of Renaissance ideals, fast-forwarding us through modernism, and throwing us straight into the eternal simulated present of post-modernism, post-capitalism, post-history, post-reality, post-memory, post-insert-your-favorite-concept-here. We no longer need to remember, we no longer can remember, for there is no reality, only information at out fingertips. And what we do remember is not even real in the sense of reality before 1983. Perhaps it never was. We are wired into the Matrix. Connected. In a wired eternal present without history, there can be no memory. Only desire fulfilled through consumption.

How did we get here? We learned how to write. Socrates tried to warn us of the dangers:

If men learn [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom. (Plato, quoted in Kabitoglou (1990)).

baudrillard-simumated-bifurcacionesLike Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, we chose to write, we chose to read, we chose “external marks,” and thus we chose to put our reality outside of ourselves, and thus, we created the Matrix, and with the Matrix, the principle of reality came to its untimely end. As Neo says in The Matrix, “All these memories I have, these places I went…. None of it ever happened. What does that mean?” Welcome to the simulacrum. We are happy to serve you.


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations, Trans. by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Phillip Beitchman, Foreign Agents Series, Semiotext(e), 1983.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, University of Toronto Press, 1962.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, The MIT Press, 1994 (originally published in 1964).

Kabitoglou, E. Douka. Plato and the English Romantics, Routledge, 1990.

Image Credits

  1. Marshall McLuhan, © Canadian Postal Service
  2. The Matrix, promotional materials, © Warner Bros.
  3. “Jean Baudrillard (Simulated),” © Bifurcaciones

Note: This essay was originally written February 16, 2009 as part of an assignment for Design Seminar II
 at MassArt. Some minor editorial changes were made for the blog version.

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  1. says

    I’ve been wrestling with the notion of what the meaning of augmented reality might be. Your very beautiful essay helps frame the question. Since you wrote the essay more than a year ago, I’m curious what stirred you to post now?

  2. says

    Critt, I don’t know why it took me so long to post this after writing it, I have a backlog of things I write and it takes me a long time to post them on the blog, this toungue-in-cheek essay was originally written on a class blog, and I thought it would be interesting to post, now that I’m going through things I’ve written in classes as I begin to assemble the pieces that will eventually form into my MFA thesis document. Documentary, reality, virtuality, interactivity, collaboration, participation, social construction of reality, truth, fiction, and the nature of cyberspace (as both a social environment as well as the technological infrastructure) are all themes I’m interested in these days, so I began this quest revisiting this and other essays. By the way, some books I’ve read in the past year related to these interests include Interactive Realism: The Poetics Of Cyberspace by Daniel Downes, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier, and Act/React: Interactive Installation Art containing essays and a DVD documenting the groundbreaking exhibition of the same name curated by George Fifield at the Milwaukee Art Museum, October 4, 2008, through January 11, 2009.

  3. Steve Unkles says

    Hi David,
    I was reminded of John Cage for some reason as I read that. Maybe it hit a few of the same synapses. I never cared much for his music, but he was a fascinating speaker–one that I think you would appreciate if you don’t already.

  4. says

    Steve, I will look further into John Cage. I saw some of his scores at a MoMA show a a while ago, I think it was called “Seeing Music” or something along those lines, and I was fascinated. I think it was with his Imaginary Landscapes, that he combined language, music and noise, a whole new sensibility in terms of musical composition,I certainly something I have to delve more into it, thanks for the suggestion!

  5. says

    Brilliant article. I haven’t looked at the notion of simulation as already being implemented. I was always thinking of simulation as something fully covering ourselves in all aspects.

    I think that it is still a partial ‘matrix’. There is still a choice to make. Perhaps not the one about remembering instead of writing, but the one whether to immerse yourself into the simulation to a bigger extent. Augmented Reality being the next step.

    Shared this article!

  6. says

    Tymoteusz, thanks for your comment, come to think of it, all reality is virtual, for what can reality be other than our perception of some “real” outside of ourselves which we only have access to via our senses, we’re virtually back in Plato’s cave.