First they changed the way we bore ourselves online, revolutionized hotels and taxis and minor financial transactions, and gave us lightbulbs that won’t switch on if you haven’t installed the right software driver. Now—it was always inevitable—they want to destroy the universe.
The news was snuck without attribution or comment into a New Yorker profile of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sam Altman, a brief sentence that might be our first warning of the apocalypse: “Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”
This line has been dutifully repeated by all the usual news sites, usually as a minor, amusing little anecdote—nerds versus the Matrix, tech shamans and their wacky ontological theories—without much thought going into what this would actually mean. Ignore for a moment any objections you might have to the simulation hypothesis, and everything impractical about the idea that we could somehow break out of reality, and think about what these people are trying to do.
The two billionaires (Elon Musk is a prime suspect) are convinced that they’ll emerge out of this drab illusion into a more shining reality, lit by a brighter and more beautiful star. But for the rest of us the experience would be very different—you lose your home, you lose your family, you lose your life and your body and everything around you. Simulation or not, everything would disappear. It would be the end of the world. Comic-book movies, in their own sprawling simulated narrative universes, have been raising the stakes to this level for years: Every summer we watch dozens of villains plotting to blow up the entire universe, but the motivations are always hazy. Why, exactly, does the baddie want to destroy everything again? Now we know.
Unsurprisingly, nobody bothered to ask us whether we want the end of the world or not; they’re just setting about trying to do it. Silicon Valley works by solving problems that hadn’t heretofore existed; its culture is pathologically fixated on the notion of ‘disruption.’ Tech products no longer feel like something offered to the public, but something imposed: The great visionary looks at the way everyone is doing something, and decides, single-handedly, to change it. The result is often unspeakably banal (take, for instance, the Wi-Fi-enabled smart wine bottle: finally, an end to the days of waving your wine bottle in the air in search of 3G signal—and it’s rechargeable too, so you never have to worry about your wine bottle running out of battery again) but it all adds up to something.
Wealth is being concentrated in fewer hands, we own less and less of our own lives, and meanwhile these brave entrepreneurs are automating ever more decent-paying jobs, turning humanity into an ungrateful sea of surplus flesh, to be connected and quantified but not necessarily fed, because that’s what progress looks like. And once social reality is the exclusive property of a few geegaw-tinkerers, why shouldn’t physical reality be next? With Google’s Calico seeking hedge-fund investment for human immortality and the Transformative Technology Lab hoping to externalize human consciousness, the tech industry is moving into territory once cordoned off for the occult. Why shouldn’t the fate of the entire cosmos be in the hands of programmers hiding from the California sun, to keep or destroy as they wish?
Computer simulation might be new; the notion of a simulated reality isn’t. In its modern form, the simulation hypothesis—as put forward by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom—argues that if the possibility exists for an advanced society to create vast, computer-generated ‘ancestor simulations’ they will almost certainly do so, and with the vast amount of processing power available to them they will be able to create many billions of these simulations: statistically, our world is unlikely to be the real one. It’s not just Elon Musk, who stated that ‘there’s a one in a billion chance we’re living in base reality,’ who believes this—in an extraordinary piece of hedge-betting, the Bank of America has judiciously announced that the probability that waking life is just an illusion is, oh, about fifty-fifty.
It makes sense: In a far more mundane way, we really are all trapped in a computer. You could argue that tech billionaires who built their lives out of lines of code would only ever see the things that surround them as digital artifice. But there’s always been the lingering suspicion that our reality is somehow unreal—it’s just that what we once thought about in terms of dreams and magic, cosmic minds or whispering devils, is now expressed through boring old computers, that piece of clunky hardware that waits predatory on your desk every morning to code the finest details of your life.
Kabbalist mysticists, Descartes with his deceiving demon, and Zhuangzi in his butterfly dream have all questioned the reality of their sense-experiences, but this isn’t a private, solipsistic hallucination; in the simulation hypothesis, reality is a prison for all of us. Its real antecedents are the Gnostics, an early Christian sect who believed that the physical universe was the creation of the demiurge, Samael or Ialdaboath, sometimes figured as a snake with the head of a lion, a blind and stupid god who creates his false world in imperfect imitation of the real Creator. This world is a distorted mirror, an image; in other words, a kind of software.
The Gnostics were often accused by other early Christians of Satanism, and they might have had a point: Many identified the jealous, petty, prurient God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge, while sects such as the Ophites revered the serpent in the Garden of Eden as the first to offer knowledge to humanity, freeing them from their first cage. And something Luciferian persists in the techno-Gnostics of San Francisco. They have decided that our universe is the conscious creation of a higher power, and now they’re massing their armies to storm the gates of heaven and go to war with God. And like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, their doctrine is omnicidal. ‘All that exists deserves to perish.’
Just a little tweak to the formula: All that appears to exist must be destroyed. There’s something admirable in this blasphemous ambition, but it’s based on some very shaky ideas. It helps to look at an influence on simulation theory that’s a little better known that the Nag Hammadi codices: 1999’s The Matrix, in which a gang of heroic freedom-fighters try to wake humanity from a false computer-generated universe and return them to the real world. The film has plenty of knowing references to those older traditions, and to some newer ones: In one scene, Neo is shown hiding his cash in a hollowed out copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (appropriately, a black hardback edition that doesn’t seem to have ever actually been printed.) The philosopher himself wasn’t particularly pleased, insisting in an interview that the film fundamentally misunderstood his work, that ‘The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.’ In The Matrix, there’s a real world behind the simulation. It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth. In his book, Baudrillard also talks about virtual realities and deceptive images, but his point isn’t that they have clouded our perception of the reality beyond. The present system of social images is so vast and all-encompassing that it’s produced a total reality for itself; it only lies when it has us thinking that there’s something else behind the façade. Baudrillard, always something of an overgrown child, loved to refer to Disneyland: As he pointed out, it’s in no way a fake—when you leave its gates, you return to an America that’s just one giant Disneyland, a copy without an original, from coast to coast. ‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.’ Digital and cinematic media actively construct our experience of reality. The world of film stars and theme parks, social media and supermarket shelves designed to look like something out of an old-time grocery—this is the one we live in. Our Silicon Valley Satanists have made a very questionable assumption: What if there’s nowhere to break out into?
Baudrillard was talking about social rather than material reality, but his point stands. Say the simulation theorists are right, that a hypothetical advanced civilization has nothing better to do than create a fake reality that includes Stevenage, San Bernadino, tax returns, and the banal revolutions of the tech industry. If reality is whatever’s mutually agreed upon, or in Philip K. Dick’s phrase ‘that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,’ does it make sense to then start talking about fake realities and real ones? As Deleuze argued, the virtual is also real. Why is a universe composed of software necessarily any less real than one composed of matter? Computer simulation is of course only a metaphor, a new-ish way of describing what was once expressed in oneiric or theological terms. They can’t really mean that our universe was built in something similar to the machine you’re using to read these words right now; simulation is a process independent of whatever divine or technological apparatus is used to achieve it. The real argument is that, by some unknown mechanism, what we see is only a function of what really exists. But we’ve known since Kant that our sense-perception can never give us a full account of the material world; all this can be said of any conceivable reality.
Outside the simulation hypothesis there are scientists who propose that our universe is a single black hole, with what we perceive as matter being a hologram emerging from a two-dimensional ring of information along its event horizon; there are mathematical Platonists who, following Max Tegmark, consider the world to be a set of abstract mathematical objects, of which physical objects are a crude epiphenomenon. If matter doesn’t ‘really’ exist, there’s no need for anything to be rooted anywhere; we might live suspended in a looping chain of simulations and appearances that coils back on itself and never has to touch the ground.
Elon Musk and his co-religionists aren’t actually blinded by artifice; they’re fixated on a strange and outdated notion that somewhere, there has to be a concrete reality—they’ve just decided that it’s not this one. It doesn’t really matter what top-secret projects are being cooked up in their airily malignant campuses; they’re highly unlikely to ever shatter the bonds of physical reality. After all, our unknown creators could always just hover the mouse over their weightless and unreal bodies, and press delete. What’s far more worrying is the fact that the people who want to destroy the only world we really have are also the people increasingly in charge of it.