Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

The Desire for Omnipotence and the Illusion of Hyperreality: The Strange Case of the Virtual Hostess

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

The Desire for Omnipotence and the Illusion of Hyperreality: The Strange Case of the Virtual Hostess

Article excerpt


The following headlines are a selection of those that appeared in today's newspapers in Italy: The virtual hostess arrives at the airport 1, Bologna Airport launches the virtual hostess 2, The virtual hostess arrives at Marconi Airport 3, Bologna: virtual hostess, motion-activated by people 4.

What surprises us about this story? At a time of major scientific discoveries in the fields of technology and computers, with frequent launches of innovative IT products in the market, what is so curious about this news?

Let us try to understand what the virtual hostess is.

It is a woman (?), although it might be better described as a computer facility, which uses holographic images and is activated when people approach, providing different types of information in Italian and English. Its technology5 offers services that aim to enhance the operating efficiency of information services and increase passenger satisfaction by reducing waiting times6.

The special feature of this machine is its appearance, as the virtual hostess has the face of an actual member of staffat the airport.

Jean Baudrillard would certainly have smiled on hearing this news and said: I told you so!

Indeed, the virtual hostess is an example of what Baudrillard defined as third-order simulacra. These true simulacra are copies that destroy reality and cause a form of void, a general nothingness that even encompasses the subject (Baudrillard, 1976).

Keywords: virtual hostess, simulacrum, hyperreality

1. The precession and aspects of the simulacrum

Let us briefly summarise the distinction that Baudrillard makes between the different types of simulacra in one of his most famous works (L'échange symbolique et la mort, 1976). The author claims that simulacra have changed (precession of simulacra) in accordance with the historical evolution of our society and that three orders of simulacra have followed one another since the Renaissance, running parallel to mutations of the law of value 7:

-The counterfeit, the dominant schema in the classical age,

-Production, the dominant schema in the industrial age,

-Simulation, the dominant schema in his, and our, current society.

What is the difference between these three orders?

If the starting point for our reasoning is the assumption that the simulacrum is the result of a process of representation, a reproduction of an original, and is therefore simply a copy of the original, we can see that this relationship is modified and transformed with the passing of time in accordance with two main indicators: aesthetic similarity and time8.

In the first order, which according to Baudrillard can be linked to the traditional reproduction of the artworks of famous masters by their pupils, there is a likeness (but not sameness) in terms of appearance between the original work and the reproduction9 and a time gap between the creation of the original work and the moment that the copy is produced.

The second order also features this element of temporal differentiation, but achieves genuine sameness in terms of appearance. This is the age of serial reproduction, a characteristic of industrial production, where the moment in which the original is created is followed by a second moment when an infinite number of copies are created that are identical to the original after it has been reproduced. It is therefore evident that there is no longer any differentiation in terms of appearance, as the copies created are identical to the original. However, the uniqueness dictated by time remains, as the copy is created first.

This brings us to third-order simulacra, the true simulacra. In this case, as a result of the process of simulation we have identical copies of the original in terms of appearance and there is no longer the time gap that characterises the normal process of reproduction. Reproduction here is synonymous with simultaneity. With a computer code the original disappears and the process creates an infinite number of identical copies. …

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