“Either we’re going to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist, those are the two options” – Elon Musk
We shouldn’t really be bothered by the mere fact that we might be living in a simulation, a common trope promulgated by a surprising range of notable thinkers in this post-Matrix world. It has some advantages. We can wreck the environment and expect an eventual reboot when things get ugly enough. All this war and strife we’ve engaged in over the years isn’t actually hurting anybody. Heck, it might even mean that your odds of finding a soulmate on match.com are vastly improved, given the presumed algorithmic nature of the universe. No, if I can’t tell the difference between the simulation and some vague base reality, living in a simulation isn’t the part that disturbs me most, rather it’s the fact that it is predicated on the idea that we are owned.
Oxford philosopher and founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute Nick Bostrom has wisely reasoned that there are three possibilities in the “simulation hypothesis”: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero, or (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one. If (1) and (2) are correct, the good news is that we’re probably real. If (1) and (2) are incorrect, you, your reality, and your consciousness have a high probability of being a simulation. Physicists and mathematicians are starting to consider this possibility seriously. Take for example the paper by Silas Beane of the University of Bonn called “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”, which proposes that there could be evidence that reality is pixelated, just at a very fine resolution. The evidence? The energy level of cosmic rays “snaps to” the “resolution” of the universe in which we live. Laws of electromagnetic radiation, seem to be confined to the resolution of the three-dimensional simulation we call a “universe.” Now, I’m a big fan of physical constants. Can’t get enough of them, but imagine we are trapped in a simulation (not even as human batteries or cosmic playthings, but as numerical tests).
Personally, I’ve long suspected that life is a trap. Get an education. Get a job. Get stuff. Wonder why you wanted stuff in the first place. But now you have rent (or mortgage), a powerful need to eat, kids in school, life insurance policies, and you wonder where the time went and who’s dog keeps digging holes in your yard. We’re sure there’s a mechanism, since nothing but a finely crafted machine could ensnare us all so effectively into our lives of quiet desperation, but we can never quite point to it. Well, that’s not entirely true. The loonier wing of conspiracy theorists have all sorts of candidates for ultimate control, from cruel desert gods to reptilian aliens, but the rest of us just assume it’s the nebulous, yet ubiquitous “man” that’s oppressing us. We’ve had entire generations exhorting us to impotently “tune in and drop out”, die hard advocates of personal responsibility telling us that it’s our individual fault for the shortcomings of our existence, and political candidates of all stripes, cultures, and ideological motivations offering us panaceas for what ails our consciousness. Sadly, it’s all looking a little bit like a con job.
The touch-feely idealists make pithy statements like “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. They must be found and eliminated, as they are god-awful annoying. And dead wrong. If all of humanity just did what they loved, we’d all starve to death or wake up on the wrong side of a nuclear explosion. Not that there is a right side. It’s a convenient argument for the infinitesimal number of people who are actually doing something they feel good about, but essentially ignores 99 percent of the human race in an egalitarian pose that simply makes you feel bad about the state of your life. It’s just about as logical as Ariana Huffington emerging as an advocate for work-life balance and the value of mid-afternoon naptime after selling her company for 350 million dollars, a company founded on the business model of not paying anybody anything when they can avoid it.
No matter who your employer is, they don’t care about you. Are you self-employed? Then you are beholden to your customers/users/readers, and they don’t care whether you’re children have shoes either. There’s no complex economics here. You exchange stuff for stuff. We trade hours of our life for money, goods, or internet “likes”. It’s a barter system, and all you have to offer is your soul. And the worst part is that what masquerades as a life is an imperfect simulation of a simulation, which is the textbook definition of a simulacrum (an unsatisfactory substitute for reality).
It matters not whether you are a communist or a capitalist. You are trapped on a prison planet, where the only commodity you can sell is your consciousness. You either buy into the prevailing narrative and consume copious amounts of psychoactive medication or cocktails to take the edge off, hedge your bets on an eternal life of bliss, sell yourself on some notion of making the world a better place for the next generation, or you are ground beneath its gears. Try not having a job. Try not paying your bills. Try doing what it is you love. It’s all stolen moments, punctuated by scrambling to make ends meet and convincing yourself that it’s the best of all possible worlds, or minimally the least painful of the options. Yet you know something is fundamentally wrong.
Blame the immigrants. Blame the Republicans. Blame the UKIP. They are merely symptoms to distract you from the colonization of your consciousness and the idea that you are no more than what you produce. Social media, heralded as the savior of our individuality has turned out to be an echo chamber, a sounding board that promotes the idea that your thoughts, your passions, and your hopes are your own, when all of it is contained, from the most obscure fetish to the most mainstream political blog within the idea that you can pursue your dreams, and if only you are good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you, dreams can emerge as a reality. The standard snarkiness, uncalled for viciousness, and self-satisfied pontification that are part and parcel of our 24-7 news, demands for unending commentary, and scramble for vague recognition in the oversaturated stream of the internet are the effects of our policing of ourselves. Sure you believe in an abstract concept like privacy, yet your average Facebook page contains more information than would ever appear in the most comprehensive FBI file on you. Welcome to the self-indulgent panopticon. We want others to watch us, thus we watch ourselves. Yet we are not sheep. Sheep instrumentally follow a leader in flocks for the purpose of self-preservation. We are all wolves, running in the dark until we can find a tasty slab of meat to rend and tear. And then howl at the moon, imagining that our loneliness and predatory instincts are a kind of freedom.
But like livestock, all indications are that we are owned. But who’s property are we? Well, the answer to that requires a recognition of the fact, something that all our institutions, ideologies, and social control mechanisms strive to obscure. Charles Fort once said, “Pigs, geese and cattle. First find out they are owned. Then find out the whyness of it. I suspect that, after all, we’re useful — that among contesting claimants, adjustment has occurred, or that something now has a legal right to us, by force, or by having paid out analogues of beads for us to former, more primitive, owners of us — all others warned off — that all this has been known, perhaps for ages, to certain ones upon this earth, a cult or order, members of which function like bellwethers to the rest of us, or as superior slaves or overseers, directing us in accordance with instructions received — from Somewhere else — in our mysterious usefulness”.
Perhaps this sounds like garden variety paranoia to you, but we all viscerally know what is right, even if we refuse to admit it. Kindness and love for our fellow man, compassion and empathy, generosity and patience, fairness and justice. We understand these concepts, yet generally fail to apply them both in our institutions and individual lives. And we fall back on that pernicious lie of “the tragedy of the commons” as our excuse. Such is the behavior of slaves, of those who are owned, only able to exert our will within the boundaries set by the terms of our ownership.
So perhaps we are living in a simulation, or the universe is a hologram, and the anomalies we so carefully ignore are manifestations of the bugs in the system. Even a simulated life is still a life. Our fear should not revolve around the possibility that what we regard as existence is a sophisticated projection. If something other than us is the author of our reality, we are owned, and the basic question must be, for what purpose? And perhaps these are just word games, a deliberate attempt by human consciousness to apply symbols with which we can organize our “to do” lists, but as Edgar Allen Poe said, “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality”.