In a world that we increasingly experience through screens, things seem increasingly unreal;
Fake sports fans – though it’s been great having live sports back, the fake crowd sounds and fake fans (either cardboard cut outs or digital avatars) have felt flat and insipid and a poor imitation of the real thing.
Fake movie scenery – Tom Hank’s Greyhound, about Allied attempts to protect the North Atlantic shipping routes in WWII, took the terror and majesty of the open ocean and with state-of-the-art CGI, denuded the cruel sea of its cruelty and left an irritating puddle.
Fake meetings – is that really the Empire State Building behind you or just a Zoom background? Have you been working out, or are you just using the “Touch Up My Appearance” filter?
Fake news – is Covid-19 fading or spiking? Is Prince Harry angry with his brother? Or his wife? Is Ghislane working for Mossad? Or Victoria’s Secret?
Deep fakes – who knew Elvis is alive and has been hiding in North Korea all this time?
Keeping it 100 is the ultimate big up on the street. In corporate corridors, leading with authenticity is the objective de jour. Yet, digital technology is taking us further and further away from real connection, real emotion, real purpose - leaving us trapped behind Gorilla Glass, and like fake sports fans, insipid and a poor imitation of the real thing. Our current grand work at home experiment takes us deeper into this world of bits, and further from the atoms we are at our core.
The future is becoming less real and less authentic as the possibilities of digital manipulation become more and more manifest. This may seem, at times, funny and other times simply trivial, but as we wrote in our From/To report, we won’t be laughing anymore when a fake American President says, “the bombing will begin in five minutes.” (see page 39)
The fight back against our fake future has started, but is in its infancy. The Content Authenticity Initiative, a project led by Twitter, the New York Times, and Adobe, is focused on creating an un-hackable “watermark” that will prevent digital imagery from being monkeyed with. This is a good start, but simply that, a start.
And a start that fails to address the deeper issue - that the online world enveloping us is taking us further and further away from the reality we crave. The reality of presence, of touch, of honesty, of intimacy, of spirit, of our very human-ness. Humans are not meant to live behind “media” – a stone based hieroglyphic or an Oculus based avatar.
I see three scenarios ahead in reaction to these new and unprecedented dynamics;
1 On into the matrix – “everything that can online go line, goes online”, as we put it in our recent After the Virus report and we plunge deeper and deeper into our strange new world, warts and all. Solutions a la the CAI emerge and we trade off upsides against downsides. Pandora never sees the box again.
2 A renaissance of the real – we reject the “Screen age”, and thirst for the office, the meeting, for travel, for the face-to face, the in-person, the conference, the hotel, the Kasbah, the souk, the mall, the crowd, the sweat, the grime, the sand in our toes, the grit in our oyster, the salt in the air, the crush at the bar. Reality wins and we conclude that our unreal lives were ok, but not great. Virtually, but not really cutting it …
3 The virtually real hybrid – screen mediated experiences expand our desire for real experiences; they don’t replace or substitute them. Just as TV in the 1970’s grew the audience for live sports (team owners were worried nobody would come to games after they were being shown live) and made being there (Wimbledon, Fenway Park, Anfield) bucket-list-y, doing something or seeing someone online only makes you want to do that thing or see that person offline even more.
Talking of never walking alone, watching the recent tsunami of EPL games before Liverpool’s coronation the thought struck me that the visual area created by placing tarpaulins over seats was probably more valuable as an advertising space than those seats were as simply sold to fans. You probably noticed that, quelle surprise, as the weeks went by, the tarps became more and more festooned in ads. I imagine the commercial departments of the clubs have modelled out the financial possibilities of this approach in great detail. Modern green-screen digital technology could make that “seat space” extremely valuable as sophisticated animated ads correspond to on-pitch activity – “that great run by Trent Alexander-Arnold brought to you by the new 3-litre Volkswagen Rabbit”; “the red card for Raheem Sterling is sponsored by Diablo Mexican Sour Cream”.
Though the commercial department may be salivating, ultimately, wiser heads will prevail and crowd-less “fake football” will be rejected – I believe and hope.
Whilst the short-term commercial benefits of swapping advertising space for fans might be huge, the long-term existential costs would be bigger. Undermining the authenticity of LFC – of any team, in any sport – would cut into its very premise, its very purpose, its very soul. The essence of Liverpool’s appeal – of any team, in any sport – is that it is not fake. That the struggle is real. That the 90 minutes in front of you is the real deal. (In fact, team owners may come to realize that they should probably be paying fans – for the atmosphere, for the passion – rather than charging them).
Billions of people around the world dream of places and people they’ll never see because they yearn for the real thing, for real connection. For authenticity. Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool embody it. That millions travel to games and pay small fortunes to experience things they’ve seen through screens, is just proof that we can’t live in a modern version of Plato’s cave for long.
Our unreal world, our fake future, expands, unrelenting. But ultimately, unsatisfyingly, and ultimately, our need for reality will see the fake exposed, as, well, fake. This will be true, IMO, in not only sports, but in lots of other areas of life – including work. The Year of Living Virtually (aka 2020) will act as a punctuation point on the first phase of the digital revolution (1940-2019). We will realize that we don’t want technology for technologies sake – to replace our real lives. We want technology to make our real lives realer – richer, deeper, more authentic. Digital solutions that enable these deep-seated human desires will take the second phase of the digital revolution (2021 – 2050) onwards. But fake futures will be exposed as cul-de-sacs that real humans rejected.
If the future is fake, count me out. If the future is real, I’m all in.