The idea of “reality”, once the esoteric realm of philosophy, is about to be radically democratized. The Joe Biden show - in contrast with the reality-television Trump spectacle of the last four years - is going to be all about how, exactly, we should define “reality”. Biden laid this out very clearly in yesterday’s inaugural speech. His ambition, he made clear yesterday, was reuniting America by getting everyone to share a common ontology. If we can agree on the facts, on reality, Biden said, then America can be put back together.
Even calling this a Biden “show” is a bit cheeky. The Trump regime was, of course, just a show - an always-online media spectacle that reveled in deep fakery. That’s why, as the now ridiculed host of a failed reality-tv show, he is already a distant memory. The one thing America excels in is forgetting. But while Trump is now history, Trumpism - that ontological assault on reality - certainly isn’t.
Biden’s task, then, is to reunite America by taking that perennial Philosophy 101 class: What Is Reality? But it’s not going to be easy. After all, all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. Indeed, as the Canadian writer Stephen Marche told me yesterday, “America’s Next Civil War” may already be inevitable.
But I’m not quite as pessimistic as Marche. Biden’s great opportunity is to work with Big Tech to not only to verify “reality” but also to rewrite what I described last year, in my How To Fix Democracy documentary, as “the music of democracy”. Big Tech can do this not only by verifying social media but also though the curation of so-called “synthetic media” - the next wave of digital tools specifically designed to splinter our collective sense of reality.
Thirty years ago, Umberto Eco tried to make sense of America by traveling in hyperreality. Historians will remember Trump’s America as a trip in virtual-television-reality. Joe Biden’s America, in contrast, will be the Reality Show.
And now for something completely different.