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We're All Living In a Reality TV Show and No One Cares

How the controversy surrounding a pretty lame "magic trick," is the perfect metaphor for life in 2018.
Illustration by Adam Noor Iman

No one really expects reality TV to actually be real. There's a certain amount of unreality we've all grown to accept as the price for entertainment. Is that sobbing television presenter really hypnotized? Did that other one really pass out mid-show because of her pregnancy? Reality TV has always been more "television" than "reality," so all of these contrived plot twists are pretty standard stuff.


So who cares? Why am I talking about reality TV? Because in 2018, our actual reality, the one you and I are living in, is looking more and more like the "reality" of television. Case and point: Limbad.

Some facts: Limbad is a magician. He works hard to cultivate an air of mystery around himself. This means dressing in all black. It means having long hair and fangs instead of teeth. It means never talking to anyone on-camera, ever, even when you're buried neck-deep in a grave of ice.

Limbad's latest magic trick wasn't really magic at all. He told everyone that he would remain buried in a tomb of ice for 15 hours. Or I guess his publicist told someone that, because Limbad didn't say anything to anyone. He just arrived and let his assistants pack him in ice.

Then fourteen hours later, the show's on-screen doctor said something was terribly wrong. Limbad's heart had stopped beating. The crew frantically dug him out, and the cameras kept rolling. It was a shocking end to a dangerous stunt, exactly the kind of thing that makes for good television. Or was it?

Soon, the infamous Instagram account Lambe Turah published an allegation that the doctor was hired by the tv production house to follow a script. In no time, local media was asking whether the whole thing was made up. Did Limbad's heart really stop, or was it just a pre-scripted plot twist to make sitting motionless for hours in a box of ice more exciting?


Take a moment and think about this. An anonymous Instagram account known for pushing salacious—but not always true—stories accused a reality TV magician of faking a near-death experience for ratings by hiring a real doctor to follow a fake plot line detailed in a real script. This is a story where everything, and nothing at all, is 100 percent real. It's like peeling an onion where every layer of reality is wrapped in another layer of unreality. It's frustrating. And it's also our new reality.

In 2018, we live in a world where a reality television billionaire is the president of the United States. One where millions of people are adamant that the world isn't a round globe, that it's actually a flat disk. A 61-year-old limo driver so believes this that he just shot himself into the heavens in a homemade rocket in a failed attempt to prove that we're all really living on a domed frisbee in space.

We live in a world where the former governor of Jakarta is sitting behind bars on charges of committing blasphemy in a video another court said was manipulated and fake. One where that governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, just filed an appeal saying, "hey, so I'm serving a prison sentence based on evidence a court now says was fake, doesn't that invalidate the guilty verdict" only to get that appeal shot down by a judge who declared that it was "irrelevant," whether the video was true or not.

A few years ago, pundits in the West were wringing their hands over whether we were entering a "post-truth world," once realizing that the US was being run by a president who constantly lies after being voted in by a public manipulated, in some part, by a massive social media disinformation campaign that was allegedly masterminded by Russian intelligence agents.


But here in Indonesia, we were "post-truth" before it was cool. Politicians have been lying for years without any real repercussions—remember when Anas Urbaningrum told everyone he would volunteer to be hanged from Monas if he was proven to be guilty of corruption, only to tell the press that he never said that once the verdict came down?

And decades of propaganda and manipulated history textbooks have left us with a past where the details of even recent events, like the mass killings of a half million suspected communists or the anti-Chinese riots that shook Jakarta, remain clouded in mystery and controversy.

There are few objective truths anymore. Lies are presented as fact. Facts cast off as lies. Those who dig and try to get to the source of the actual truth, the Truth with a capital T, are branded provocateurs. Or worse.

So what's this have to do with a magician on ice? Everything. Reality TV has conditioned us to expect the world to be dramatic. So much of the reality presented on local television is manipulated for dramatic purposes that it's not even reality anymore. It's what Yovantra Arief, a researcher at the media literacy group Remotivi, calls "augmented reality." And viewers today no longer have the capacity to distinguish between the two, he said.

"There's a gap between media, reality, and us," Yovantra told VICE. "Our brains can only work out whether something is logical or not, not whether it is actually true. When we talk about reality or variety shows, it's unclear whether it's real. There's no ethics like in journalism and it's only claiming that the content is 'real'."


Augmented reality is the manipulation of something that really happened to suit a specific goal. Think of a show like Katakan Putus where whoever is dumped is always portrayed as an asshole through the testimonies of their "friends," who saw them out on a date with someone else, or a "flashback" to a time they were a spectacularly shitty person. We never really know if any of this evidence is actually true, but it still elicits the wanted emotional response.

“Reality will be presented with dramatization, making it more emotional," Yovantra said. "So augmented reality is always more intense."

Augmented reality is a problem in all media, not just reality TV shows. Facts are routinely manipulated on social media and in the press. Videos are edited to make something seem worse than it actually is or twisted to prove a point and that fact that it's in the media means that, to many, it's got to be true, Yovantra explained.

“We have this fetishization of the media," he told VICE. "We believe that if something is on TV, then it’s gotta be true. That’s why people buy into reality shows. In the end, only our logic and our mindset can help us tell whether things that happened on the screen make sense or not."

The dangerous part of all of this isn't how something fake is being passed off as something real. It's how this kind of manipulation affects our opinions and internal biases. Augmented reality is reality that's been altered to get a reaction, often an emotional one. And all of these emotions can change the way we think about something. Suddenly it doesn't matter if someone tells you that a story is fake, because you're so worked up over it that anyone who doubts you just has to be wrong.

"The point is not whether a program is a set-up or not, but the thinking and logic it promotes," Yovantra said.

And in 2018, changing someone's mind is as simple as reality TV.