Image: Matt Mahdavi

Inside a British Urban Outfitters, a Hypothesis for the Nature of Reality

A popup British art exhibit explores the idea that reality is a computer simulation.

Jun 9 2016, 7:11pm

Image: Matt Mahdavi

Of all the places in the world to ponder the nature of the universe, an Urban Outfitters in the small British resort town of Torquay probably doesn't come in very high on the list.

But adorning the walls there is a pop-up "hidden" art exhibit inspired by the hypothesis that reality is a simulation, an idea that has high-profile supporters such as Elon Musk and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

"It's the only explanation that's ever really made sense to me," Matt Mahdavi, the photographer behind the exhibit, told me over Skype. "I just think life is so strange that it could be a real possibility—seeing how fast technology has evolved and seeing virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift, I think tech could make something that's completely indistinguishable from actual life."

This is much the same argument that Musk made earlier this month, when he said he believed there is a "one in billions" chance that we're living in real reality at the Recode Code conference. If our technology is improving to the point where we're able to simulate reality, who's to say that a more advanced lifeform isn't simulating what we perceive around us? Motherboard has written several articles about the subject, and explains more about Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom's "Simulation Hypothesis" here.

To convey a simulated reality in his work, called "Mud and Dust," Mahdavi took photos of the same environments at different times of the day and then blended them together and manipulated them to make them look otherworldly. In this photo, the trees you see in the foreground were shot during the day, and the stars were shot at night.

"It's the idea that these things exist, but it's not quite what we think it is," Mahdavi said. "These images are manipulated with code, and the idea that you can change your surroundings with code is really interesting to me. I'm creating my own existence and view of the world."

To drive the point home, the image is displayed with a poem that's rendered within a coding terminal.

Mahdavi says he eventually settled on displaying the photos in an Urban Outfitters because his small town doesn't have much of an art scene, and he thought it was a bit subversive to display them on the walls there without much fanfare. Mahdavi says he's glad to see Bistro's simulation hypothesis get more attention from mainstream figures like Musk and DeGrasse Tyson rather than the typical philosophical and theoretical physics circles it's normally discussed in. He says he thinks artists need to spend more effort trying to spread tough scientific and philosophical ideas.

"Hypotheses like these are so hard to explain to the public by writing a paper. With art, it's universal—you can reach a lot of people and get a complicated point across with images," he said.

So what if it turns out that reality is indeed a simulation? Mahdavi says he's thought about it.

"If we're in a simulation, it doesn't mean we don't exist," he said. "Life would go on, but I think people would be a lot more confident knowing that we've broken the code."