Authenticity Begins at Imagination

You see the seared steak in front of you and smell char as you slice into the middle. As you pick up the piece of cut steak you think, “Yes, this is really a steak. Although I know it’s not. It’s not a steak yet that is what I see, smell, and taste.”

In my efforts to explore everyday I have come across three different areas where describing what is “authentic” leaves many struggling for answers.

Tourism is of key interest to me for the ability to help destinations economically, educate visitors, and study globalization. However, industry stakeholders and digital influencers constantly talk about “real tourism” and “authentic experiences”.

If you are traveling and experiencing a present moment, how is it NOT real?

Inthe virtual world the ability to transport someone’s senses via VR/AR is counterbalanced by the person’s mental ability to “leave” their current environment and arrive somewhere new.

Which is “real”, your current physical space and body, the environment you are now mentally in, or both?

Inapplied ethnographic research, the debates range from “Who is an ethnographer?” to “What counts as ethnography?” to “Is ethnography a watered-down methodology?” or “Do ethnographers need to be physically present or can they telecommunicate their work?”

What is “real ethnographic work” versus pure nomenclature?

In all of these fields of study the theme I see over and over again is “Is this real?”

Tourism

Ah, holidays. The ability to break free, leave all regret and responsibility at your home to be scooped up later, and to relax.

When most people — or me — are at the tail end of their vacation what is often heard?

“Well, it’s back to the real world.”

The idea of dislocating ourselves from everyday life is attractive and fuels a $7.6 trillion global industry. We travel in various ways: slow, fast, for leisure, for adventure, for food, for music, for sex, for hunting, for art/architecture/nature/history/etc.

The essence is traveling for the sake of something. We are searching for something (new/exotic/familiar) that we cannot find in our everyday, very real lives.

The “authenticity” of this time spent away from our homes is two-fold: 1) we are leaving the “real world” but want to enter 2) an “authentic” or “real” version of our destination as well.

So, what is real? Do tour groups and walking tours count as a real version or are they made for people who want the thin, flaky crust of a destination? Is it real if you visit a location and don’t eat purely local cuisine every day? Is it real if you stay in Airbnbs and go to farmer’s markets and conduct life as if you are at home?

Real versus real. Authentic versus pretend.

As a resident in a top tourism destination I can say that I go to the famous landmarks and festivals and they are very real to me. I’ve taken taken friends and family and strangers to bars and restaurants and beautiful green spaces around the city and those too are very real.

What is the main difference when talking about “authentic travel” then? Is it the physical spaces or the mentality of the traveler?

VR/AR/AI

The two worlds of today will cease to be separate. “One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real.” — William Gibson

Itis interesting what people perceive as “real”. VR, AR, AI, and other newly created spaces are the talk of every marketing, business, and innovation conference at the moment. Humans have created the ability to transport consumers into an existence they desire, or to bring a brand/experience directly to the consumer. It’s a two-way street of virtual/physical collision.

Through various methods people are exiting their current arena of senses and transplanting themselves into another. Is it a complete physical manifestation in the new place or merely a mental arrival?

Companies such as Project Nourished deliver “gastronomical virtual reality experiences”. They have a litany of projects with an expansive future in providing much needed support to under-respresented diners as crazy as that sentence is. One mission goal is to “Broaden perception of food and diversify food systems for betterment and preservation of both humanity and environment.”

On their main project, if you are eating, swallowing, and digesting the Jello-like cubes they’ve placed before you is it only “virtual reality” or pure “reality”? Is it a “real” experience?

What will be an “authentic” meal moving forward? One made of completely natural ingredients or one designed to make you believe you are eating natural ingredients?

Ethnography

Nine ethnographic things you can’t do in ethnography by Siamack Salari(ethnographer):

> ask participants to capture their own behavior with an app and call it ethnographic research. If they know what you want to know, you are doing a conventional research project

> not present findings which include at least a few observations participants themselves were not aware of, could never have reported on

> create a task plan and stick with it. If you don’t change it based on new observations, you aren’t doing it right

> keep filtering across tasks and segments to make sense of participant outputs if you don’t first understand your participants as individuals

> present findings to your client unless you can answer the, ‘did anyone say/do…’ questions. If you are not intimate with your data, you will look stupid

> say you have captured all you need to unless you can show that events/themes are repeating themselves

> say you have an answer to a question you have sent participants unless you have posed the same question in three different ways — as an activity, as a reaction to someone/thing else and as an observation of themselves.

> [produce] nuggets/actions/insight [that] comes to you in an instant, it’s probably not there yet.

> present findings that your 8 year old won’t understand, remember and be able to repeat back to you.

In my marketing past life customer journeys and experiences drove a lot of my strategy for the brands I managed. Now, as I am new to the rigorous structure of ethnographic research, reading Siamack’s explanations provided clear insight into what I felt, but could not fully articulate.

Researchers have their different mechanisms for educating their clients/boss (via written reports, video, workshopping, etc.), but the integrity, a.k.a. “realness of research”, of what they deliver starts at the very beginning. Yes?

Set the structure and as James P. Spradley, author of The Ethnograpahic Interview and much more, said “I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?”

The authenticity of Spradley’s intentions echo through in this quote. “Real” is down and dirty. “Real” is setting yourself aside and finding a nugget of truth.

I haven’t quite ascertained why we need “realness” or “authenticity” so much. Do we need “real” and “authentic” ideas and experiences because we listen to so much noise everyday that sometimes we just want the truth? Perhaps it is in the search and hunting for “what is real” that strikes a primal cord in us.

“Trust is the foundation of society. Where there is no truth, there can be no trust, and where there is no trust, there can be no society.”
— Frederick Douglass

Written for Medium.