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The Age of Simulation.
July 1, 2002 9:59 PM   Subscribe

The Age of Simulation. Do we live in Reality or do we live in a Simulation? Following themes most popularly found in movies like The Matrix or in books like Stanislaw Lem's Futurological Congress, we are being told via email and even by philosophers at Yale, that what we perceive is not what is. Is this merely paranoia?
posted by vacapinta (31 comments total)

 
bout time they found out Ryan and Jacob's site..... I got the e-mail too but didn't want to try all of those damn combinations to find their site.
posted by banished at 10:15 PM on July 1, 2002


good thing Buddha set it all straight 2500 years ago.
posted by Satapher at 10:27 PM on July 1, 2002


Philosophically, of course its possible, but highly unlikely. I always thought this was an attempt by existentialists to be taken seriously, and yet, I somehow still don't take them seriously, no matter how much I liked and appreciated things like "The Matrix." The thing I'm most worried about is the inevitable fabrication of video, making people say and do things they never actually did. That will lead to a lot of confusion and disillusionment, I think.
Am I confusing two different schools of philosophical thought? Just want to be sure
posted by insomnyuk at 10:28 PM on July 1, 2002




The tools with which you perceive the universe -- your brain, eyes, ears, etc -- are evolved to produce a useful perceptual interface to the world around you. They are not evolved to tell you any "truth." Of course what we see is a simulation -- it's one which we create for ourselves to live in, moment by moment.

So, forget trying to think your way to 'the truth' about the way the world is, you're creating it as you go along. The distinction between 'reality' and 'what lies beneath' is a false one. There is no 'reality.'
posted by hob at 11:10 PM on July 1, 2002


There is no 'reality.'

Samuel Johnson is gonna kick your ass.
posted by homunculus at 11:28 PM on July 1, 2002


"Whoa."
posted by muppetboy at 11:43 PM on July 1, 2002


Am I confusing two different schools of philosophical thought? - insomnyuk

I'm not sure, because you didn't mention anything but existentialism. :) However, I don't think that The Matrix could be considered an existentialist manifesto, as it were. I think a stronger argument could be made that the Matrix was a retelling of the messianic mythos than anything else.

Existentialism: A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts.

Personally, I've always taken the existentialists rather seriously, as it's a branch of philosophical study that resonates with me...but, ya know...I'm an existentialist, so I don't really expect it to resonate with everyone else. ;)

I think the branches of philosophy that correspond most closely to the Matrix concept are probably Transhumanism / extropianism, and even...although people may disagree...Platonic, especially if one considers the "Allegory of the Cave".

As to Ryan and Jacob...they are silly buggers, if they even exist. heh.
posted by dejah420 at 11:45 PM on July 1, 2002


Well put hob. There's no such thing as some kind of pure mechanistic perception in humans. Reality is perception + processing. This is why eye witnesses viewing the same thing disagree on details, even major ones.

There is 'reality' though, but its generated and never completely consensual. The system is quite easy to hack. Hypnosis is a pretty impressive demonstration.
posted by skallas at 11:45 PM on July 1, 2002


one of the few spam mails that i actually read... it was interesting for a second, but i hate having to search for content (i suggest they pick up krug's don't make me think, a book on usability.)... it got deleted after a moment or two of though, which i suppose is what they wanted.
posted by lotsofno at 11:56 PM on July 1, 2002


I got it on saturday, read what little was out there, found the site. Then, I remembered memes and web hunts we find out later to be a marketing net we all got snagged into (Buddy Lee, A.I., etc... ).

I'm kind of thinking it's about The Matrix myself. Shame on me if I'm wrong.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 12:41 AM on July 2, 2002


"Even" by philosophers at Yale? What's that supposed to mean? They're probably some of the most clueless people in existence. Of course, they'd probably claim that they don't exist... and then go on to take another hit from their taxpayer-sponsored bong.
posted by dagny at 12:42 AM on July 2, 2002


To expand upon the important point made by Satapher,

Dwelling at Savatthi, there the Blessed One addressed the monks: "I will teach you the origination of the world & the ending of the world. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak."

"As you say, lord," the monks responded to the Blessed One.

The Blessed One said: "And what is the origination of the world? Dependent on the eye & forms there arises eye-consciousness. The meeting of the three is contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. This is the origination of the world.

[...]

"And what is the ending of the world? Dependent on the eye & forms there arises eye-consciousness. The meeting of the three is contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. Now, from the remainderless cessation & fading away of that very craving comes the cessation of clinging/sustenance. From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress & suffering. This is the ending of the world.

posted by stuporJIX at 12:52 AM on July 2, 2002


"How about a positive drug story. Don't you think that'd be newsworthy, to base your opinion on facts, rather than propoganda?

"Today, a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. We are all one conciousness, experiencing itself subjectively. There's no such thing as death, life is a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.
Here's Tom with the weather...""

--Bill Hicks, 1991
posted by Optamystic at 1:27 AM on July 2, 2002


I don't want to get too pedantic about this (issuing the plea makes it so), but by the appearance of Simulation and Simulacra in The Matrix, as well as the hybrid visual styles, borrowed tropes from many other texts, the Franken-culture (pastiche, pastiche, pastiche) makes it a postmodern movie.

Focault takes the blame for giving us the theoritical underpinnings behind the conspiracy/domineering society/state repression/mass coercion plot lines we keep seeing. Save Paranoid Phillip K., Focault’s “Panopticon” theory wasn’t an idea to explore for pomo artists. McLuhan’s Massage, Dellilo’s White Noise all of Pynchon, Baudrillard and the Cyberpunk stuff didn’t really bother with it. Not until Dick’s books got reprinted in the early 90s, the popular understanding of globalization took root and Privacy became an issue worth considering that we see post-Fordist fatalism enter mainstream and big time art.

Focault describes the Panopticon this way:

“The crowd... a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the point of view of the guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised; from the point of view of the inmates, by a sequestered and observed solitude.”

The Panopticon sounds so familiar. It’s got that angsty, No Exit quality of individuals trapped in groups, of living in a world of actor/conspirators in The Truman Show, the realization of waking in a world of isolated cages in The Matrix (or 12 Monkeys), of cubeland, or eyeing the security cams at the airport as they eye you.

Surveillance, society asking for surveillance and the state taking them up on the offer, brought the consequence society wanted and no one predicted: We act how we think those who monitor want us to—if Focault is right. That makes people pantomime their lives and beliefs, in effect disciplining themselves. The simulation isn’t the sim-stim or the soyburgers, it’s our own actions in the prison of an imposed reality. The movement to Free Truman, to take the red pill, to find the people who aren’t faking it.

The existential brain-in-a-jar-game of “do we live in a Simulation?” is no longer the point. The question becomes “Is escape possible?” Can a people trained to act in specific ways, to teach others how to act, to teach themselves how to act learn how to act originally and uniquely, outside of the Panopticon, the Matrix, cubeland? Is there a permanent way outside the broadening scope of societal disciplinarity? Temporary Autonmous Zones are just rearguard actions. Is there no Permanent Autonmous Zone?
posted by raaka at 3:39 AM on July 2, 2002 [2 favorites]


Great post, raaka. Never thought specifically about the panopticon and recent film trends in such a way, but a good essay is "Foucault and Databases" by Mark Poster, from his book The Mode of Information, in which he uses the term superpanopticon for the addition of electronic/computer surveillance to the panopticon model.

Hmm. I have some trouble philosophizin' if I suspect it may have been instigated by Hollywood marketing wonks.
posted by D at 5:00 AM on July 2, 2002


Robin Williams said it best in a standup routine back in the '70s: "Reality...What a concept!"
posted by alumshubby at 5:56 AM on July 2, 2002


Whoops, should have previewed a little better. Meant to say:

...essay is Foucault and databases, by Mark Poster, from his book The Mode of Information, in which he uses...

Yeah, that's the ticket.
posted by D at 6:29 AM on July 2, 2002


  • DATABASE AS A SYMBOLIC FORM After the novel, and subsequently cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate -- database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don't have beginning or end; in fact, they don't have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.
  • dataspace OVERLAYING LAYERS OF DATA OVER THE PHYSICAL SPACE. I will use the term ³AUGMENTED SPACE² to refer to this new kind of space which is slowly becoming a reality. As I already mentioned, this overlaying is often made possible by tracking and monitoring the users; that is, delivering information to users in space and extracting information about these users are closely connected. Thus augmented space is also monitored space.
  • Wired A reality that is on a continuum with Real World. Stimulated, as in "This Accela makes me Wired". The state of being connected (such as to a network).
  • logic of the dust Part two is set entirely within the simulated Permutation City. Eventually the logic of the Autoverse (which has evolved intelligent beings who, I think rather implausibly, manage to think up a simpler explanation for the Autoverse than its original one) starts to erode the logic of the automaton simulating it, and things fall apart. I found this part was less engaging - if still interesting - and the actual ending unsatisfying. I guess it was never going to be easy ending a novel that could, without inconsistency, have had absolutely any ending (including ones where causality just goes completely haywire).
  • You're All Alone The Sinful Ones is an enjoyable thriller built on a simple but ingenious premise. Written at much the same time as David Riesman's best-selling sociological book The Lonely Crowd, but many years before the coinage of the phrases "dropping out" and "the counter-culture", it dramatises a modern sense of urban alienation very effectively. It's a pity about those unnecessary sex scenes, though.
  • The Disease of Images After being lost in herself and her dreams, Claire is rescued by seeing herself, through Gene's words, recontextualized in a larger world view. Gene's book takes all of the images that we and the audience and the characters have been seeing and arranges them into a narrative, which is that of the film. Wenders has written previously about the strange difference he sees as a filmmaker between stories and images.
  • DIEGESIS An old term for an utterance, in whatever form (descriptions, narratives, propositions, etc.) that makes no evaluation and draws no conclusion. Roland Barthes reintroduced the word in The Responsibility of Forms and elsewhere to distinguish what is shown ( mimesis) from what is told. See also story. The adjectival form is "diegetic."
  • how shall we be? All systems -- that is, any theoretical, verbal, symbolic, semantic etc. formulation that attempts to act as an all-encompassing, all explaining hypothesis of what the universe is all about -- are the manifestations of paranoia. We should be content with the mysterious, the meaningless, the contradictory, the hostile, and most of all the unexplainably warm and giving.
posted by kliuless at 6:51 AM on July 2, 2002


From Martin Amis' short story "The Janitor on Mars":

"...The War with the Scythers of the Orion Spur was hotly prosecuted for just over a billion years. Who won? We did. They're still there, the Scythers. Their planet is still there. The nature of war changed, during that trillennium. It was no longer nuclear or quantum-gravitational. It was neurological. Informational. Life goes on for the Scythers, but its quality has been subtly reduced. We fixed it so that they think they're simulations in a deterministic computer universe. It is believed that this is the maximum suffering you can visit on a type-v world."
posted by Marquis at 6:57 AM on July 2, 2002


A previous MeFi thread on Massively Multiplayer Online Entertainment seems somewhat related to this one.
posted by piskycritter at 7:07 AM on July 2, 2002


The problem with a proposition of escape is that it is intrinsically fettered. Same problem with Permanent.

Escape Is Real
There's no conclusiveness on this point.

So I'm told.
posted by mblandi at 7:38 AM on July 2, 2002


I always thought this was an attempt by existentialists to be taken seriously

You mean there are still some who doubt the truth of existentialism?? Wow....

The existential brain-in-a-jar-game of “do we live in a Simulation?” is no longer the point. The question becomes “Is escape possible?” Can a people trained to act in specific ways, to teach others how to act, to teach themselves how to act learn how to act originally and uniquely, outside of the Panopticon, the Matrix, cubeland? Is there a permanent way outside the broadening scope of societal disciplinarity?

Excellent post, raaka.
posted by rushmc at 8:28 AM on July 2, 2002


I'm down with The User Illusion.
posted by troybob at 8:41 AM on July 2, 2002


Its interesting (to me at least) to consider the similarity between the idea that our reality is some kind of simulation and the idea that our reality is some how constructed by gods.

Both ideas suggest that there is something outside our perception (but not our imagination) that constructs what we see and hear.

I'm not sure if the idea of living in a simulation provides the same level of reassurance as the idea of a world constructed by gods.
posted by none at 8:45 AM on July 2, 2002


I'm not sure if the idea of living in a simulation provides the same level of reassurance as the idea of a world constructed by gods.

Why would one feel reassurance at the idea of a world constructed by gods?
posted by rushmc at 8:54 AM on July 2, 2002


Do we live in Reality or do we live in a Simulation?

Wasn't this question answered in a far more elegant fashion a couple of decades back? I distinctly remember Slartibartfast explaining that the mice had been running we humans through a massive biological computer. What do you get when you multiply six by nine?
posted by bradlands at 9:08 AM on July 2, 2002


raaka: We act how we think those who monitor want us to—if Focault is right. That makes people pantomime their lives and beliefs, in effect disciplining themselves. The simulation isn’t the sim-stim or the soyburgers, it’s our own actions in the prison of an imposed reality.

That's Pynchon's suspicion, too:
Well, if the Counterforce knew better what those categories concealed, they might be in a better position to disarm, de-penis and dismantle the Man. But they don't. Actually they do, but they don't admit it. Sad but true. They are as schizoid, as double-minded in the massive presence of money, as any of the rest of us, and that's the hard fact. The Man has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit. We do know what's going on, and we let it go on. (712f in the Penguin edition)
In fact, paranoia is so pervasive in Pynchon that you could argue that the Panopticon is central to his fiction. How to free yourself when you can't even trust your own instincts?

I would also group a whole spate of paranoid movies such as Dark City, Arlington Road, Sixth Sense, Jacob's Ladder, and Total Recall, under this heading. The shock of recognition that it was YOU all along.
posted by muckster at 10:36 AM on July 2, 2002


Uhm, that's page 712 of Gravity's Rainbow-- but really, all of Pynchon's novels are concerned with the question of who controls our reality, and possible avenues of escape.
posted by muckster at 10:57 AM on July 2, 2002


bradlans: not 42...
posted by glennie at 10:30 PM on July 2, 2002


We act how we think those who monitor want us to—if Focault is right
So you're saying this guy is bucking the system?
posted by daver at 9:21 AM on July 4, 2002


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