Coming alongside the White House creative use of facts, the upcoming Snap’s IPO is to bring another perspective on reality with its Snapchat star product integrating augmented reality (AR) with media.
Whatever the purpose, the “alternative facts” favored by the White House communication detail may bring to the fore two related issues of present-day relevancy: virtual and augmented reality on one hand, the actuality of George Orwell’s Newspeak on the other hand.
Facts and Fiction
To begin with, facts are not given but observed, and that can only be achieved through a mix of conceptual and technical apparatus, the former to design fact-finding vessels, the latter to fill them with actual observations. Based on that understanding, alternatives are less about the facts themselves than about the apparatuses used to collect them, which may be trustworthy, faulty, or deceitful. Setting flaws aside, trust is also what distinguishes augmented and virtual reality:
- Augmented reality (AR) technologies operate on apparatuses that combine observation and analysis before adding layers of information.
- Virtual reality (VR) technologies simply overlook the whole issue of reality and observation, and are only concerned with the design of trompe l’oeuils.
The contrast between facts (AR) and fiction (VR) may account for the respective applications and commercial advances: whereas augmented reality is making rapid inroads in business applications, its virtual cousin is still testing the water in games. More significantly perhaps, the comparison points to a somewhat unexpected difference in the role of language: necessary for the establishment of facts, accessory for the creation of fictions.
Speaking of Alternative Facts
As illustrated (pun intended) by virtual reality, fiction can do without words, which is not the case for facts. As a matter of fact (intended again), even facts can be fictional, as epitomized by Orwell’s Newspeak, the language used by the totalitarian state in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Figuratively speaking, that language may be likened to a linguistic counterpart of virtual reality as its purpose is to bypass the issue of trusty discourse about reality by introducing narratives wholly detached from actual observations. And that’s when fiction catches up with reality: no much stretch of imagination is needed to recognize a similar scheme in current White House’s comments.
As far as humans are concerned, reality comes with semantic and social dimensions that can only be carried out through language. In other words truth is all about the use of language with regard to purpose: communication, information, or knowledge. Taking Trump’s inauguration crowd for example:
- Communication: language is used to exchange observations associated to immediate circumstances (the place and the occasion).
- Information: language is used to map observations to mental representations and operations (estimates for the size of the audience).
- Knowledge: language is use to associate information to purposes through categories and concepts detached of the original circumstances (comparison of audiences for similar events and political conclusions).
Augmented Reality devices on that occasion could be used to tally people on viewed portions of the audience (fact), figure out estimates for the whole audience (information), or decide on the best itineraries back home (knowledge). By contrast, Virtual Reality (aka “alternative facts”) could only be used at communication level to deceive the public.