Simulation Nation

Lena Wang can't #liveauthentic.

Artwork by: Risako Katsumata

When my life is a mess – when I can’t find a job, or when my microwave pastry heats unevenly on the inside and outside – I play The Sims. Not to wreak havoc by removing pool ladders – rather, I derive satisfaction from helping my Sims get promoted, preventing their hunger bar from dipping too low, and planting trees. I harvest electronic fruit, even though in reality I inadvertently kill all unfortunate houseplants in my vicinity. I live vicariously via home décor while piles of unwashed clothes surround my bed in a moat of shame. I even make my Sims play The Sims on their computers. Such parallels lend themselves to existential angst. Why do I find these pixelated stories more compelling than my own? And why is there a social fixation instead on some notion of ‘authenticity’?

The separation between real life and videogames is slim. Videogames require ‘flow’ – a process of completing rewarding tasks that strike a balance between being too challenging, to prevent frustration, and too easy, to prevent boredom. The Sims carefully creates rules and rewards in their gameplay to create that sensation of flow, even when completing mundane tasks like planting trees – because hey! we get a little virtual apple at the end, accompanied by a victorious musical riff. Similarly, to give ourselves a sense of flow, a sense of work-reward satisfaction, we create rules (social norms) and rewards (status, money, religious salvation, the respect from my parents that I will never again attain after dropping law) to become benchmarks for how far we’ve progressed and how much we’ve achieved in life. We’ve gamified the paradigms of our society.

Beyond social structures, our minds have a similarly interesting process of constructing reality. Everything that we see and hear and indeed, think, are just neurochemical processes taking place in our brain – just electrons jumping from one neuron to the next, in a systematic, organised network. Electric signals in the cerebellum coordinate muscle movement, the occipital lobe interprets vision. ‘Hearing’ is just sound waves propagating to and vibrating your eardrums, which create signals in your brain that give you the sensation of hearing. You’re literally hallucinating everything you perceive through electric signals in your brain.

Hypothetically, we could artificially stimulate specific neurons by passing electric signals into them, making you think you’ve heard or seen something when you haven’t. Cochlear implants already turn sound wave vibrations into electric signals that are sent directly into the nerve endings that carry those signals into the brain, allowing those with poor biological hearing capacities to still perceive sound.

Elon Musk infamously claimed there’s a one in billions chance we aren’t living in a simulation. Futuristic virtual reality (VR) could indeed stimulate the neurons in our biological brains, for ultra-realistic games. Further, some artificial intelligence could just simulate the very biological processes that make cognition possible on software, so we’d exist entirely virtually. How do we know if our reality is indeed ‘real’?

This crusade for objective reality may be in vain. We use our flawed senses to input information from the world (whether it’s my astigmatism, or a bad sense of smell), and process it in the flawed cognition systems of our brain (rife with biases, skewed judgments, and by-products of evolutionary fear). We output it through flawed attempts at communication – filled with hesitations, misconstrued idioms, and grammatical errors. The hallucinations created by neural signals in our brains are themselves hindered by the subjective nature of our senses, and the limited way in which we can interact with our environment. Briefly, our terrible player interfaces prevent any sort of objective interaction with reality. We already exist in VR. In the words of modern philosopher Jaden Smith, “How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren’t Real?”

No matter how many acai bowls we consume, it may be impossible to #liveauthentic. Slowly but surely, we have all begun the process of cyborgisation – first with pacemakers, and braces, and arguably more subtle body-changing technologies like waxing. But as these practices have entered public consciousness, they lose their contention and associations with the concept of ‘augmentation’. It’s not a matter of naturalness, it’s a matter of shifting moralities – maybe in 10 years, brain-computer interfaces will be hailed as the new cochlear implants.

We’re already fake. We’re already inauthentic. Our bodies are supplanted by technologies, our social structures entirely constructed, our minds unable to objectively interface with reality. Yet authenticity cannot be a concern if it’s impossible to achieve.

This doesn’t mean we still can’t derive pleasure from acai bowls. The Matrix, after all, still tells our brain that a steak is juicy and delicious. If we’re stuck in this virtual, MMORPG together, we might as well enjoy harvesting apples, accruing promotions and status, and reaping the rewards of what we have engineered.

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