Reclaiming reality in the digital age
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Alice Sherwood’s ‘Authenticity’ examines the post-digital cultural shift in which scams and counterfeits have been automated, and nothing is what it seems.
“We live at a time when the pursuit of authenticity is more important to us than ever before,” says Alice Sherwood. It doesn’t matter what example you give, she adds, whether it be the trend for artisan food or the fight against the dissemination of disinformation, “it matters to us”. You can punch in an n-gram for authenticity on Google and discover that searches for the term are “going through the roof. And yet we seem to have created a world that is less authentic.”
It’s a paradox that intrigues Sherwood, one that lies at the root of why she wrote her new book ‘Authenticity’ and subtitled it ‘Reclaiming reality in a counterfeit culture’. The word culture is important because, while her forensic dissection of swindles and skullduggery is built on the foundation of science, statistics and expert analysis, there’s also a narrative laced with the inquisitiveness of the storyteller who wants to know why this shift is happening, and whether we can do anything about it.
To answer these questions, ‘Authenticity’ examines the drivers of the counterfeit culture of the book’s subtitle, “that have always been there, but seem to have made our world particularly more fake”. There are ‘big forces’ that underlie the shift. Evolution, economics and technology, says Sherwood, have all pushed in a direction against authenticity with increasing intensity over the past half century.
This watershed moment is coincident with the dawn of the Information Age, the early days of the Third Industrial Revolution, the point after which our identities, communications, financial interactions and culture rose from the launchpad of digitalisation. Sherwood agrees that this moment on the technology timeline created a perfect storm for the inauthenticity she deals with in her concluding chapters. But, while the effect of technology has undoubtedly been to amplify the fakes and scams, “the instincts for deception were already there”. Though this era represents only the final part of Sherwood’s biography of authenticity, the story of how we arrived here is important for the reader wishing to understand the present.
According to author Alice Sherwood, we live in an age in which the pursuit of authenticity – from living our ‘best life’ to the consumption of exorbitantly priced craft ales – appears to matter more and more to consumers of everything from the clothes we wear to the digital lifestyles we inhabit. It’s something of a paradox that the hostile forces of inauthenticity are competing for space in this world, especially in the post-digital age when the horizons and opportunities for self-deception and scamming are limitless. Of course, there have always been counterfeits and deception and, as Sherwood describes in her analysis of trickery and malfeasance, we can cite examples from evolution to art, long before the integrated circuit was ever dreamed of. But with today’s virtual worlds and social media, email and the internet, we are now more vulnerable to the forces of inauthenticity. Or are we?
Humans have always had an impulse towards fakery, and so too has the animal kingdom in which competing creatures are ‘hard-wired for deception’. We learned from the shapes, colours, camouflages and disguises of animals and called the thoroughly modern science that now informs design engineering biomimetics. We’ve also sought to impersonate other people for our own advantage, replicate (with varying levels of success) luxury goods, pharmaceuticals and drinks.
This in turn has led to the rise of authenticity as a marketing benefit and a sales technique. But while we once painstakingly and manually forged art, treasure and currency, technology is now “seen as the most powerful of all the enemies of authenticity”. We’ve created a world in which we have the speed, connectivity and ability to make perfect, instantaneous and virtually unlimited copies. With social media, we can hide behind versions of ourselves, creating a society “full of people and products who are not what they seem to be. A lie can find its way into a million social media feeds before the truth has got its boots on.”
But, says Sherwood, there’s no reason to suppose it is inevitable that we are going to disappear into a sump of Big Tech-led digital deceit. “In fact, I make the argument against the cyber miserabilists.” When the internet first came on the scene, she reminds us, it was regarded as a force for good, “a glorious digital Gutenberg, a new Library of Alexandria”. Despite the veil of anonymity on the web meaning content creators lose authority and editorial provenance becomes harder to authenticate, “extraordinary collective action has taken the fight against pandemic falsehoods from a national to an international scale at record speed”. Citing a massive initiative to counter the Covid-19 ‘infodemic’, Sherwood notes how more than a hundred organisations joined forces to rapidly fact-check news in 70 languages from 40 countries. “Open-source intelligence outfits have mushroomed,” she says.
For all its seriousness, ‘Authenticity’ is also an entertaining read in the traditional start-middle-end format, from a writer who keenly senses the weight of authenticity on her narrative. While the first order of the day when tackling such a subject is manifestly not to undermine yourself with glibness (or even inauthenticity), this hasn’t stopped Sherwood enjoying the process. She displays a sharp wit, with continual interjections that confidently impose the authority she brings to the text as a top academic at the Policy Institute at King’s College London (as well as a distinguished career at the BBC). Just in case the reader feels they might be in for something of a mirthless experience, Sherwood introduces ‘Authenticity’ with some amusing scene-setters. The fact that one of her two introductory epigrams comes from a Dolly Parton song – ‘It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world’ – speaks volumes.
Right from the word go we’re plunged into Sherwood’s complex and duplicitous world. Did you know, she wonders rhetorically, that “one in ten of you may not have the father you think you have”? Did you know that “around 11 million of the 31 million men who signed up for a dating website (tagline: ‘Life is short. Have an affair’) didn’t realise they were chatting with ‘fembots’, and not the eager available women they imagined”? Similarly, “40 percent of what doctors prescribe will be placebos... on the other hand a million people will die because the medicines they take are not what they think”. Back in the 16th century, protestant reformer John Calvin observed that there were enough pieces of the True Cross in existence by 1543 to make a further 300 crosses. But it doesn’t matter how diligent your research is because, “16 percent of you have started to wonder whether these are facts or wild assertions”. Sources are listed on page 359, she informs us, leaving us contemplating what the punchline will be. A few paragraphs on she declares: “Only one per cent of you have turned to page 359.”
Quite possibly the most literary and well-written book we’ve ever delved into, Sherwood’s ‘Authenticity’ is – had to be really – the real deal.
‘Authenticity’ by Alice Sherwood, is from HarperCollins, £16.99
War of the worlds?
What fundamentally distinguishes virtual worlds from that other great digital invention, social media, is that users of social media are in the real – albeit often embellished – world, and virtual worlds are imaginary. Social media applications were invented to enable users to create and share content and to participate in social networking. Compare, say, a social media influencer with a user participating in a virtual world, such as World of Warcraft, or Second Life, and some key differences emerge. An influencer-inspired Instagram account is created to advertise an unrealistically perfect version of life. The creator knows it’s not real, but others are encouraged to believe that it is, often to the point where their own lives are made to seem duller by comparison. Much of social media (sounding off on Twitter, showing off on Facebook) is about being seen and being heard, a performative basis that exerts a similar gravitational pull on users towards inauthenticity.
Though no generalisation will fit every one of the billions of social media and virtual world accounts, I find it telling that, whereas Instagram influencers are the apotheosis of ‘cool’, gamers and inhabitants of virtual worlds are often quite the opposite. But might the digital lives of these earnest nerds and electronic cosplayers be more vivid and authentic than those of the doyens of social media? After all, there can be no question of deception in a world where imposture is a condition of entry. No one is going to think you are actually an elf, an orc, or a cartoon penguin. Social media is the shallow end of the pool to virtual worlds’ deep and immersive end. Where social media offers ‘show and tell’, virtual worlds make possible something more profound: the chance to live a new life.
Edited extract from ‘Authenticity’ by Alice Sherwood, reproduced with permission.
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