All week Motherboard has been exploring and investigating simulations, whether they come in the form of video games that feel like work, virtual dry runs in SimCity for mayoral candidates, or theories that claim that the universe may be a giant hologram. But what about living in a simulation a la The Matrix, the 1999 cyberpunk classic that has inspired untold numbers of hazy conversations in dorm rooms around the world? Would that be GOOD or BAD?
Living in the Matrix would be GOOD
"If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts—the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging)—as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra. Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal."
"The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself. In fact, even inverted, Borges's fable is unusable. Only the allegory of the Empire, perhaps, remains. Because it is with this same imperialism that present-day simulators attempt to make the real, all of the real, coincide with their models of simulation. But it is no longer a question of either maps or territories. Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction. Because it is difference that constitutes the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real."
"This imaginary of representation, which simultaneously culminates in and is engulfed by the cartographers mad project of the ideal coextensivity of map and territory, disappears in the simulation whose operation is nuclear and genetic, no longer at all specular or discursive. It is all of metaphysics that is lost. No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept. No more imaginary coextensivity: it is genetic miniaturization that is the dimension of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control - and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational. In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere."
- Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra & Simulation (1981)
- Jordan Pearson
Living in the Matrix would be BAD
Come on, is this even a debate?
Look, I understand that my Facebook interactions are still interactions with real people; that my whole is sort of a pale imitation of some idea I had of how lives should be lived, and I still love exploring the world in the pages of a book—I'm not against simulations, simulacra, or Sim City.
But dammit, living in a The Matrix? No way, man. Bridge too far.
I think the "authenticity" argument is pretty tough to make without clumsily invalidating a lot of people's life experiences, and frankly, I'm in no position to say what qualifies as an authentic life. If The Matrix tells you that you ate a delicious, bloody steak, and if it tells you that you've loved and lost and whatever else, who am I to say that that doesn't qualify as "living life"?
But follow me on this: if living in a simulation or The Matrix means that all of human endeavor is in service of something else—whether a computer simulation or as the world's least efficient batteries for squid robots—then the whole thing is ruined for me. Living in The Matrix robs you, and by extension Humanity™, of our ultimate pointlessness: our freedom and responsibility to create our own intrinsic meaning. Therefore, life in The Matrix is worth raging against. Matrix BAD.
Shit's about to get a little existential so pour a tall glass of wine, light up a Gauloise and hang onto your chapeaus.
As your Jean-Paul Sartres and Albert Camuses would have it, whatever the purpose of human life is, it has been the duty of both individuals and societies to determine that meaning. People aren't really for anything, on our own—we're just a lot of fucking and eating followed by dying—but no one wants that to be the end.
So we posit meaning through our families, our careers, our art. I wonder sometimes if this is why we venerate art so highly: because it's pretty much useless beyond itself and the continuum of created meaning that it exists in. Just like us!
This need to posit meaning also leads to religion, Camus argues, which grant a certain type of extrinsic meaning to individuals in the world, and I feel comfortable expanding that to nations, and every other group. It's a narrative context that gives us meaning. War is a force that gives us meaning.
So what if you found out that there was a fixed meaning for humanity? What if we, all this time, were existing for something or someone else. Yeah, you spend a lot of your life doing that—as an employee, as a consumer, as an object of desire—but what if that was the ultimate?
Then something essential seems lost, that couldn't be fixed even by moving to the woods.
Yeah, you could live your life by your values and practice your religion and be part of your community, but shit—none of that matters if you're a battery. All of that may not matter now, depending on how angsty you are, but fuck, it's what we've got and it's ours. And no damn squid robot's gonna take it away.
Red pills for all!
- Ben Richmond