An analysis of Baulrillard’s simulacra and their role in digital representations in organisations
This essay is an attempt to identify the complex relationships that exist between management, organisational change, power and information. From the point of view that the employee is an individual and that the individual is the entity at the core of how organisational surveillances occur, the crux of the argument is how power relations affect our understanding of what is real and what is simulation. Taking an in-depth view of organisational and socio-economic changes, this essay examines how the codification of information (read technology) has drastically altered the way employees are being seen by employers; increasingly they are being viewed as ‘knowledge workers’. We examine how power, discipline and resistance are inter-related and how Jean Baudrillard views the existing notions of reality simulation. We view how the panopticon can be used in organisational structures even today and how too much information is not always good. Finally, there is some insight into the understanding of how the social-technological networks affect each other. Factum est 2009
“The future isn’t what it used to be – Arthur C. Clarke”
The world as we know it is in a constant state of metamorphosis with thousands of integral elements interacting and shaping the ‘post-contact’ outcome. These in turn become the cataclysmic perpetrators of further interactions, a silent reminder of the complex chain reaction which is forever in transcendence with the passage of time. What are these elements?
From the societal perspective, these elements range from the macro scale of social networks with intrinsic actor–network power relations to the micro scale of each individual being viewed as an entity in its own universe. This universe is comprised of a being’s collective interactions between his or her intellect, thoughts and actions within the invisible boundaries that define that very universe. Whether at micro- or the macro level, the collective interactions within those spheres of influence are guided independently by technology and the socio-economic order that has been set up and moulds the way reality is perceived. The actor-network theory asserts that knowledge is a complex social product rather than generated by scientific methods and that the society itself is a heterogeneous network (Brigham & Corbett, 1997). Hence, technologies mirror social relations and reproduce and embody heterogeneous elements which go to the centre of the way we live and perceive societies.
This essay is an attempt to understand the notion of ‘simulacrum’ in certain aspects of the social networks and how digital representations in organisations can be better understood, specifically from the point of view of surveillance. The essay is neither an attempt to embrace those who may be enlightened, nor is it an attempt to criticise any previously stated views. It draws upon the ‘writ principles’ and tries to extend that prognosis of what will be learned in varied contexts as well.
‘Reality can only strive to emulate simulation though unknown to it; it is its purest form.’
It is not be correct to say that he invented it. Instead, what should be said is that that he thought to look at it in that way. The man in question is Jean Baudrillard who elaborated the concept of simulacrum in 1981. Baudrillard argues that there are four levels of simulation. The first level (pre modern era) is an obvious copy of reality which it imitates. It is a naturalistic, natural form of simulacra with images, text and imitations trying to achieve a harmonious, optimistic reconstruction of the reality. The second level is the productionist simulacrum which masks reality ideologically. It is a copy so good that it blurs the boundaries between reality and representation; e.g. Borges’ fable of exactitude in science. The third level is one that produces a reality of its own. Apparent in the digital age, it truly masks the absence of reality with a model which precedes the real and can be said to be ‘virtual reality’. Virtual reality truly is a simulation of reality as it puts us within the framework of worlds based on mathematical models and codes with no part of it referring to the actual world. It is this which is ‘hyper-real’ for this is where the model comes before the constructed world (Lane, 2000, p. 30). The fourth order is pure simulation. It is this hyper-reality which becomes real as the fractal stages of reproduction and duplication precede actual production. Images can be formed mechanically and in such a state, simulation is pure. Its aim is the nihilism of reality and hyper-reality. So after the natural, commodity, and structural stages comes the fractal stage. Baudrillard states that it is at this stage that there is no point of reference for value and it radiates in all directions. Nothing is false as there is no standard for judging truth, value, falsehood etc. It is pure. (Gane, 1999)
Referring to his orders of simulacra, Baudrillard explains that society has become so reliant on technology that the gap between what is real and what is simulation has been lost. Genealogically, humankind has lost its intrinsic capacity to view itself as original. With the passage of time, technology is becoming more powerful; it is overshadowing our individual powers of understanding. Though the actor-network theory states that both society and technology shape each other through complex inter-relations, my view is that with time, there will be more of the latter and, increasingly, less of the former. The following discussion describes how these relationships are inextricably interwoven.
The world is a global village. Or is it?
The post-modernist era has been one of globalisation. Throughout history new and varying forms of technological breakthroughs, changing organisational structures and socio-technical methodologies have played an integral role in the shaping of society. The Industrial Revolution broke out during the 1780s and continued until the 1830s, bringing in its wake a profound effect on the socio-economic, cultural and intellectual conditions around the world. Although the economic and cultural viability of mass production was sustained for a long time, it was inefficient and, in the face of changing world scenarios, required changes.
The early 1900s saw the advent of Taylor’s model of scientific management in the USA. This required standardisation, with stringent measures introduced to effect the change. The tightly controlled environment epitomised a bureaucratic setting where regulations and structures were set up to control activities within the environment. This passed on the flow of power to the upper administration and the specialist managers, creating an efficient and rational organisation rather than the traditional alternative of charismatic domination. (Introna, Lecture slides, 2008). The early 1980s saw an era of automation with the aim of making human involvement redundant. However, despite all the machinery, it could not render human workers obsolete (Peaucelle, 2000). The general consensus in the face of failing economies was to move from manufacturing and industry to service- and knowledge-based economies. This change was, to a large extent, brought about by shorter product life cycles. Globalisation, causing boundaries to recede, and the advent of information technology in organisations have provided the consumer with a plethora of choices from around the globe (Dunford & Palmer, 1996). The key characteristics of the new form of organisation are a flat structure with minimal hierarchical levels, small corporate headquarters and fuzzy outlines and boundaries. Traditional boundaries have been permeated by collaborations and alliances in- and out of the organisation and there is the concept of outsourcing activities from which the organisation has no distinct advantage. These new organisations have flattened structures to achieve empowerment, are networked in the light of core competencies and are more clustered around team building.
Surveillance has always been a matter of the utmost importance in all aspects of an organisation but this concept is not a new one. From the 19th century usage of photography and fingerprinting in criminology to the various ways of practising the vaunted panopticon in modern day work places, surveillance remains. In the face of modern technological inventions with IT and ICT systems, these digital representations take on different characteristics.
I am but 1s and 0s:
The digital age is one of digital goods and services; IT based organisations and more specifically, one of digital economies. A digital economy is characterised by industries and forms of IT enabled business processes which include e-commerce, digital delivery of those goods and IT supported retail sale of tangible goods (Kling & Lamb, 1999, p.17). A digital economy focuses on goods and services whose development, production and sale or provision is critically dependent on IT. Kling and Lamb (1999) give us four sub-sectors of a digital economy:
Highly digital goods and services
This includes goods and a substantial portion of the services being digitally delivered. These include inter-bank transfer of funds; online information services, electronic journals and so on.
Mixed digital goods and services
This includes the retail online sale of tangible goods like clothes, books etc. Music sold online can be digitally stored.
IT-intensive goods or production services
This includes those services which are critically dependent on IT; the majority of accounting in the US, data-intensive market research and complex engineering designs.
That segment of the IT economy which supports the other three
This includes the computer networking sub-industry, PC manufacturing and IT consultancy firms. These are those goods and services which directly support the other three segments of the industry.
All these goods and services are going to grow in the near future with more technological breakthroughs. Technology, in a way, has been developed to make our lives easy and comfortable but if we accept this thinking, our approach is fatally flawed. The developed economies boast of such organisations and, with the reducing costs of technology and the rapid strides being taken in the world of computing, developing countries will soon be catching up to the groove. Exceptions are India and China which are rapidly becoming the biggest economies in the world and boast fantastic IT infrastructures. With this, new types of workers are being created. The demands of labour have shifted from mass production (2nd order simulation) to hyper-realism (3rd order). The onus is now shifting towards pure simulation where the essence of reality will be in its very absence masked by purveyed simulation. The new class of workers are freelance workers, sitting at home and working from their computers, knowledge workers and IT specialists. The emphasis is being laid on silicon chips and fibre optics and computers. Society has created a new structure in which the ‘away from home’ concept is alien (Negri, 1989, p.92). This does not require structured, rigid rules and strict bureaucratic settings to function; in fact, the divide between mass workers and the rest of society has been bridged. We live in a world of flat topological networked organisations where reality is in the fibre optic cables, reality is in those workstations, captured within the glowing orb that is the screen.
Simulation and the parallel universe:
An electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square displays the American public debt, a figure of some thousands of billions of dollars which increases at a rate of $20000 a second. This is all floating money which will never be repaid as also, every person will never actually have all that he, she is worth or what an object might be worth. It is floating. It is in the air. It is unreal. The world has tied itself up in knots whereby organisations, people, banks and nations are all interlinked and share intricate and complex pseudo-relationships (Baudrillard, 1996).This is the kind of money potential out there. Organisations, people and the world thrive off this anarchy and require surveillance to keep track of everything. Companies plan the next quarter’s sales and targets on the basis of numbers on a spreadsheet. There is no real, actual money. It is credit. It is debt. It is floating money. Reality cannot be shown by figures on a chart being presented by employees to the boss for forecasts. The financial crisis of 2008 is ample proof of this; of all the ‘invisible’ money the world owes and has. There is too much information flowing through the system. Data after filtration and the addition of valid points becomes information. The addition of valid discourse and the further adding of one’s own intellect to understanding create knowledge. For example, we see advertisements offering mobile phones with thousands of features. We are tempted to buy the latest model. We will not necessarily ever use all the features but the social networks make it the norm. With such rapid strides being taken in the field of technology, when the equipment malfunctions, we send it off for repairs. Where does learning happen? It is not knowledge then. It becomes data to us. Information is losing its meaning. This can be better understood by taking a small example – that of the media. Socialisation is measured by the exposure of an individual to the media (Baudrillard, 1983). Whoever is underexposed is de-socialised. The way it sensationalises an event and thrusts the viewer into it, it ‘exhausts itself in the act of staging communication’ (Baudrillard, 1983). War, as represented by the media, leads to a simulacrum of the real images being portrayed as imaginary at the subcontextual, subconscious level, leading to pertinent changes in thinking by the masses, shifting from consolidated solidarity to visible impotence. It becomes as simple as changing the channel. At some level, real interactions are important.
In summary, the overflow of information leads us to believe that our own natural reserves of information are hugely deficient in the face of so much information. Over-dependency on those modes of our own creation hinders cerebral growth as collectively the masses take up the simulation of reality as the inherent perception of truth.
Moving on to the present day scenario and analysing the work cultures that have been fashioned, we find certain ideas of Baudrillard’s getting credence. In this engineered culture where we have shifted from authoritarian to normative forms of control, we can say that we are empowering the employees—they are knowledge workers who can think and act freely in a substantive organisational culture whereas those are the very forms of surveillance in a scripted world. Is it an idea of control or just a simulation of authority to ensure that work is being done properly? Not necessarily. In offices people use laptops, computers, security cameras, e-mail, spreadsheets, information systems, etc. In offices, cameras are used to enforce the idea of being watched and employees are constantly aware that they are being watched. Foucault (1997) drew on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century writings and designs on the panopticon prison in giving power relations and surveillance but simulation analysts turn to Baudrillard’s notion of society’s post modernistic shift towards techno-strategic simulation (Baudrillard (1983) quoted in Der Derian (1990)). Interestingly, complex interconnections between simulation and surveillance have been theorised by Bogard in his new book The Simulation of Surveillance (1996).He provides a holistic approach to these interactions which emerge from the growing digitalisation of increasing swathes of information.
‘It is simulation that is the key to explaining the direction that surveillance societies are taking today, a movement that is more about the perfection and totalization of existing surveillance technologies than some kind of radical break in their historical development’ Bogard (1996, p. 9).
CCTVs, cameras, increasing levels of sophistication in virtual reality (VR) and the ever-growing number-crunching capacity of computing is resulting in massively advanced simulation levels. Technology has developed so much that organisations have huge ICT systems with a massive capacity to generate VR. Advances in GIS technologies have allowed the world to be mapped. Individually this might have been a 2nd order simulacrum but combined with other potent technologies it has generated the power to beam a simulated reality which is one step closer to Baudrillard’s 4th order of simulation— pure simulation. Flight simulators are now being used to train pilots. The simulators are perceived to emulate reality to the extent that the training hours are added to the total flight hours. Military applications include simulating nuclear explosions. Earthquakes and hurricanes of brute force are being recreated in laboratories. Weather applications predict long-term weather patterns on both a global and local scale. Robots are well-represented in industrial applications. As far as we can see, the ground beneath our feet is crisscrossed with huge networks of wires and fibre optic cables creating a seamless bind across the world, both in its pictorial and aesthetic sense. With scanning and security technologies like biometric and retina scans being developed, moral questions arise as to where the limit to all this control and surveillance will be. The ethical side of surveillance is an issue to be addressed. Answers to these are beyond this essay but need critical reflection.
Technology…………….. Is it playing GOD?
The silence that is e-mail:
E-mail as a tool is uniformly used by nearly all the organisations. In engineering organisations it is used in planning, control and the organisation of wide communications. It is durable, transparent and mobile (Law, 1986) and has been suggested as a better means of communicating by some. Though I do not disagree entirely, there are some issues that are of concern. It is certainly an effective tool for formalised communication where face to face communication is not possible and lots of people need to be addressed. However, within social relations it is becoming a substitute for actual communication. Though the information is being sent, the very means by which it is being sent does not exist in reality. The mid-80s move towards total and complete automation could not see the light of the day due to the realisation that business process re-engineering wasn’t what it appeared to be. Actual knowledge is created through valid interaction and genuine discourse. It is recognised that the elicitation of knowledge occurs through knowing the finer nuances; hence the move towards knowledge management in the 90s. E-mail is too mechanical; a simulation of the actual reality; a substitute for verbal, physical, sociological and diverse discourse. It reduces the extent of the cerebral functionalities to what has already been decided and judged; a decision which occurs in time after the event has occurred rather than being based on live, real time judgement. So effectively, it limits us. We are already in simulation, guided by invisible hands which decide the outcome of our decision-making prowess. Those hands do not act on their own accord but when they become ours, we are just providing them the means to do what in a sub-minimal way can be identified as their decisions.
Example of the link between perceived reality and simulation under surveillance:
“Time is god’s way of keeping all the things from happening all at once.” – Anonymous
In the real world these interwoven fabrics of technology and social cultures has left an identifiable pattern in its wake. It has become a part of our daily lifestyle. We see that in the automated answering systems, massive CRM systems that organisations totally rely, all the flow of cash put on the stock market based on the calculations of programmes, our very lives screened into the records maintained with the government. Our nonchalant acceptance of that mechanical voice, our admission of allowing our life’s savings and every innermost part of our identity be screened into the cyberworld of databases, those vast warehouses, just shows how much simulation there is. In his book The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard (1996) addresses nihilism. He states that to understand the 4th order of simulation, one has to engage in radical thought, situated ‘at the violent intersection of meaning and non-meaning, of truth and non-truth, of the continuity of the world and the continuity of nothing’. The importance of these ICT systems and the web of technology cannot be underestimated. The internet is a good example of a tool which serves the needs of billions of people today across all spheres of life. Yet it is virtual, a universe unto its own. It is a world which we are all a part of, either apprehensively or readily. What remains to be seen is how we shape the future. How will technology and humankind evolve, playing in those intricate webs that they have set up? How much of reality can we retain, hold on to? All questions to which answers are but philosophical and theological in their nature, open to endless debates and countless lectures. The essence of reality, its primordial form, results from a valid conception of its own simulation. It becomes a guiding reference to how reality should be or is fathomed. Simulation’s possibilities are endless, real life still has structured limitations. Maybe we move towards this not out of exasperation but out of choice.
‘The simulacrum is never what hides the truth—it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.’ —Ecclesiastes
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