My car was parked under a street light which made the fine November rain sparkle silently in long, broken lines. Something small and yellow glinted prettily on the roof and it looked like a piece of jewellery, that maybe someone had picked up from the pavement and placed there, thinking that I might be the owner. Upon closer inspection I recoiled, realising that I was admiring a small blob of bird poo. Nothing had changed, except my perception.
We rely on our senses to bring information from the world into our brains. But our brains contain a wealth of experience which it applies to all of this information, in order to make sense of it. Hence no two people’s perception of the same information is the same, as no two people’s experience of the world is the same. This is how we learn and it is a by-product of an evolutionary feature which has set us apart from other creatures. I do not mean to suggest that less evolved creatures are not capable of learning; moreover, we do it on a more sophisticated level and the helplessness of the human baby compared with the young of animals who are more reliant on innate responses, is testament to this.
But what if someone tampers with our perception?
The film industry has got this one covered.
In ‘Room’, a young woman, known as ‘Ma’, is forced to raise her son, Jack, in a reinforced shed. Incarcerated for several years and with seemingly little hope of escape, she tells Jack that there is nothing but space beyond ‘Room’. Evidently, her motives are to prevent him from feeling imprisoned and as Room is all he has known, having been born there, he is happy and well-adjusted with all his needs catered for. She alters his potential perception of Room as a prison and whereas it is just that for her, with her previous experience of freedom, it is his world. He even feels bereft at the thought of leaving Room, when the opportunity arises for escape and grieves for it when he does leave. They return so that he can bid farewell to his old world and his question – ‘did Room get shrinked?’ is an indicator of his altered perception, having tasted life in a world so big he cannot comprehend its size.
This is not an uncommon theme within the film industry. ‘Room’ was inspired by the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl’s incarceration by her father for twenty-four years along with the children she bore him. But other movies are the work of fiction …
In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank is the star of his own reality TV show, but he does not realise it. Born to a single mother and adopted by a TV corporation, everything he considers to be real and constituting his world, is created by the director (within the movie), Christof:
“We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.”
Whether you agree with the ethics of the premise or not, Christof has a point. Because it is the human condition (especially as children) to soak up our world until we are saturated, it is true that we accept the reality with which we are presented. The younger we are, the more this is relevant, hence children’s endless capacities for learning. Unlike Jack in ‘Room’, Truman yearns to escape from Seahaven – Christof’s fake city – because unlike Ma in the former, Christof allows Truman to learn about the world beyond Seahaven. Both Truman and Jack are imprisoned from birth, but their perceptions of their ‘worlds’ polarise each other because of the information given to them.
‘Pleasantville’, although strikingly similar to ‘The Truman Show’, is also its antithesis. Whereas everyone except Truman in the latter is an actor and therefore deceiving Truman, who is the only one ignorant of the truth, the two protagonists in ‘Pleasantville’ are the only people who know that they are in a TV show. (Although, unlike ‘The Truman Show’, the town of Pleasantville seems to actually exist in another dimension.) The existence of the residents of Pleasantville is questioned by unsolved issues such as their lack of knowledge regarding sex, amongst other things; yet they seem real enough, or at least have the potential to be real. David and Jennifer, residents of the ‘real’ world, bring colour to Pleasantville, both metaphorically and physically and the hitherto two-dimensional residents develop a third dimension. David and Jennifer feel imprisoned by the town of Pleasantville, yet it is all the residents have known, so until the arrival of the two main characters, they are happy with their lot. The offering of the apple between two lovers in Lovers’ Lane is clear Christian symbolism; when Eve shared with Adam the apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, their perception altered. The eating of the apple is symbolic of the acquisition of knowledge, and when people acquire knowledge, their perception changes.
But with the exception of ‘Room’, these are works of fiction. No film corporation has ever adopted a baby and duped it till around thirty years old and clearly, getting sucked into your favourite TV show is the stuff of dreams. But are we at risk of having our perception altered in other ways?
In the sci-fi movie ‘Stalker’, there is a zone created by aliens where perception is managed by the hierarchy. You cannot be sure of the reality of anything. Again, a work of fiction, but based on the book ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, it was reflective of a time during the Soviet era when Soviet leaders took to creating an arguably false society, to hide the disillusionment of their failure to maintain the perfect socialist society. Adam Curtis references the story and its inspiration from Soviet Russia in his recent documentary ‘HyperNormalisation’. Hypernormalisation is a term coined by a Russian writer during the aforementioned Soviet era to describe a situation where the masses accept the ‘reality’ with which they are presented, even if they know elements of it to be false. But that was the Soviet Union. Not here, or the US … or is it?
I grew up with the seemingly real threat of nuclear annihilation lurking ominously overhead, alongside the controversial phenomenon of alien visitation. Not once did I place the two themes together; at least, not until Adam Curtis did it for me. His well-supported theory within his documentary, that apparent sightings of UFOs during the ‘80s were actually sightings of nuclear target practice are, at best, enlightening and at worst, chilling, given the subtle fuelling of this belief by the US government. What should have paralysed people with fear, actually excited them with adrenaline, because of their altered perceptions of the fascinating lights on the horizon.
And just in case you’re sitting back on your haunches because that was the US, the most visited story in ‘HyperNormalisation’ is that of Colonel Gadaffi’s nuclear arsenal. As David E. Sanger said in The New York Times just months before Gaddaffi’s death in 2011:
“While Colonel Gaddafi retains a stockpile of mustard gas, it is not clear he has any effective way to deploy it.”
Evidently, Adam Curtis was not the first person to question the late Libyan leader’s reputation for hoarding weapons of mass destruction, yet this is what the world believed and the answer to why this was the case, lies in a closer look at the relationship between the US and the UK governments during Gadaffi’s lifetime. If the director of ‘Hypernormalisation is to be believed, the US and the UK manipulated whole countries into believing Gadaffi was a tyrant with his finger on the button, when it was convenient.
But it is not an entire catalogue of impending doom either from a nuclear holocaust or abduction by aliens; ‘Hypernormalisation’ looks at the less catastrophic but equally colossal topic of technology. We talk about the ‘real’ world and the virtual world but how do we define reality? Amongst many other technological advances, the documentary discusses a computer program called Eliza which was invented in the ‘60s that acted as a therapist, by largely repeating back whatever the ‘patient’ typed in. Of course, Eliza could not actually empathise, but acted as if ‘she’ did and in this way was successful in aiding recovery. The question of sentience in artificial intelligence crops up in many a sci-fi scenario: in the movie A.I. the android is programmed to love, rather like the story of Data in Star Trek when he agonises over the decision of whether or not to adopt an emotion chip to make him sentient (the fact that he agonises over the choice is enough evidence of sentience, one would think!) A less fantastic premise is to be found in ‘Her’ – a recent sci-fi movie – which tells the story of a man who falls in love with an operating system called Samantha. It seems laughable, but how different would the fictional operating system be from Eliza? And what would it take for the distinction between the ‘real’ world and the virtual world to be dropped?
At around the age of six, I recall asking my father if Santa Claus was ‘real’. His reply was a resounding “Yes!” I pointed out the overwhelming evidence supplied by my friends, against the whole phenomenon and he argued that even if only he believed in him, then he was real. Being of tender years and not quite grasping his line of thinking, I expressed my lack of comprehension and eventually he said that Santa existed inside his head. I was not wholly satisfied with this and so asked my mother, who supplied me with sufficient evidence to assuage my fears. As I grew up and became slightly wiser, I understood my father’s argument. Again, it boils down to perception. Every Christmas, millions of children receive toys on Christmas morning. ‘Santa’ – whoever or whatever Santa is – has visited, whether it is a man in a red suit or millions of doting parents.
Little Susan in ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ displays this perfectly, when she bravely walks up to the judge who holds sway over the authenticity of Kris Kringle as Santa Claus, clutching a dollar bill with the words ‘In God we trust’ clearly printed on it. Her argument that if the currency of a superpower such as the US, is based on a belief in a supreme being, the existence of which cannot be proved definitively, then surely there is room for the possibility of a belief in Santa Claus?
My life experiences thus far have rendered me doubtful of my perception of what is ‘real’ and doubtful of whether I should perceive anything as ‘real’. Therefore, I like to keep the door to my imagination open because I prefer it that way anyway. Perhaps it is as Drew, in Meet Joe Black – no, Daniel Defoe – no, Benjamin Franklin – well, one of them anyway, says:
“Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”