“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation
I was in the gym last weekend running on a treadmill, with another 10 people alongside me also running on treadmills and I got the giggles.
We were all running absolutely flat-out on a road to nowhere together while watching, of all things, Jeremy Kyle on the gym TV screens. It struck me that there was something surreal and faintly ridiculous about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a paid up, certified member of a gym and I like it. But I also still have a strong desire to get out too and I need to train outdoors, sometimes even in the worst our British weather has to offer.
But why? I’m not a sadist, I can see the merits of both indoor and outdoor workouts. I enjoy both. What drives me into the hills in the pouring rain or out on my bike when the sidewinds might throw me off?
The postmodern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard said the modern human living in the digital world is now so exposed to so many simulated experiences that we live in a state of hyperreality.
In the postmodern media obsessed age, he said we are experiencing ‘the death of the real’, that is to say we connect more and more deeply to things like you tube personalities, games and characters in a film, ie things that merely simulate reality, rather than engaging with the actual reality around us.
He says we have become stuck in a ‘desert of the real,’ a cultural space where simulated digital images are more ‘alive’ to us than the physical reality that surrounds us.
But what’s French philosophy got to do with sport and keeping fit?
When you think about it, we are surrounded in sport by simulations. Why climb a mountain when you can stay indoors and clamber up a giant artificial wall in a lofty warehouse? Why row down the river and take a soaking when I can stay in the gym and be the admiral of my own canoe to nowhere (and watch more Jeremy Kyle)?
Why bike up that massive hill when I can spin indoors watching my simulated self, my computer ‘me’ razzing up and down hills in California to a natty soundtrack of ‘fist pumping choons’?
I guess the answer to why we train in simulated modes is unfortunately, largely not a philosophical one. It’s really simple… British weather is fundamentally quite shit.
But despite ‘simulation me’ being perfectly happy in the gym most of the time, I remain fixated on going outdoors and I still feel like a cooped up child on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Why?
Because, ultimately nothing can compete with real experiences. Not treadmill running, not charging up a fibre glass wall, not even fake fighting in boxercise.
The problem with engaging solely in simulated sports experiences is that it is too easy not to put the effort in that we are truly capable of. When the risk and challenge element goes up, so does our performance and this just doesn’t happen in the gym in the same way as when you train outside, it’s too easy to back off.
For example, in a spin class, no amount of increased resistance on a spin bike can replicate the sheer difficulty of cycling uphill and not hitting the deck when every fibre of your muscles is on fire and you are pushing the pedals down desperately in a bid to keep travelling forwards and not fall off.
You push or you fall and hit the tarmac. You push because you have to not because the instructor tells you to. Essentially, the stakes are higher.
Ditto for running, there’s nothing like a black cloud looming in the distance to make you pick up the pace and get back home.
But even more importantly than that. In a modern life, surrounded by simulations and stimulants, machinery and madness, I need to let go of that ‘hyperreality’ and step out into the real world.
Sometimes, I need a wind that hits me so hard it makes my teeth grind and my eyes water. I need the burning in my nostrils as I breathe in and I’m exhilarated by the desperate push for air through my lungs as I’m climbing and trying to keep moving. There just seems to be something so beautifully human about the struggle.
I need these ‘real’ sensations to help me remember that among all the simulated experiences in so many areas of my life, that I am a human being. I remember that I am capable of just feeling, whether that feeling is good or bad.
I have to remind myself that I can step out of my hypperreality and experience and connect with something genuinely real, even if it’s only for a few hours before I return back through the front door and back into the modern, digital world.