By Gary Elbert
The proposal that we are living in a computer simulation has almost scraped the surface of mainstream conceptions in our rapidly expanding technological world. Notable public figures such as Elon Musk have repeatedly articulated the notion, citing it as a realistic possibility.
Philosopher Philip Bostrom has explored the argument in detail, grounding it in a scientific futurist logic that is both compelling and solid. Bostrom has stated “it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.”
Critics of the notion of free will may find this outlook attractive. What are human beings but pleasure – seeking machines, whose quality of life is dependent on accessing satiety and reward? Our brains are purposefully evolved and selected to reward ourselves, regardless of the fundamental futility of many of the vices we pursue.
The biological necessity of consumption has exceeded its original evolutionary purpose so much so that obesity levels across the post – industrial West are now at critical levels. We cannot control our drives, that is abundantly clear.
Futuristic Orwellian constructs such as simulated reality make up much of the narratives of sci – fi series Black Mirror, and the show’s creators have announced that a future episode will be an interactive ‘viewer as actor’ scenario. The details are sketchy at this point, but the episode may represent the first primitive advance into virtual reality and usher in an era of increased interaction with audiences, eager to transcend the traditional passive role of the viewer.
Computer game giants have also attempted this concept of viewer/player as active participant in narrative structure, to mixed results. In the long run, the lines between reality and virtual identity seem destined to continually blur.
Some would argue this evolution interfaced identity is already in full maturational mode. How many of us harness an idealistic identity online, while failing to live up to our perfectionist digital curation in person?
Once upon a time the concept of self was interlinked with how other view us in physical and concrete interactions, but the rise of technological innovation has facilitated a third way of being, a new method of displaying ourselves free of fear and flatulence. The online identity is infinitely powerful with huge monetisation potential.
But such constructions and presentations of self are fraught with self – destructive potential. Witness the Australian woman Belle Gibson who claimed to be a brain cancer survivor until exposed as a fraud, but not before amassing millions of empathetic followers online who swallowed her redemptive hero narrative whole. Does it matter what we believe if we can coast on the pleasurable deindividuation of belief itself?
It has been speculated that Gibson suffers from ‘factitious disorder’ which is exacerbated by social media’s incessant demand and desire for attention and acceptance. The danger humanity faces centres on our belief in myths.
Rapidly advancing technology represents a new dangerous conjuncture in terms of human identity, and uncovers myriad potential fractions and subdivisions of how we view ourselves and how we think others view us.
The digital space may become the only space worth occupying, as new adaptations of the human brain begin to develop in response to new configurations of society and self. Why walk to the grocery store and check on the elderly owner, when one can click online and remove the intermediary of verbal contact with irrelevant fellow occupiers of the physical world?
In the aftermath of suicidal tragedy, how often have you heard a phrase like “I was only talking to him/her on Facebook last week.” The mooted episode of Black Mirror may just be the next step on the hierarchy of human – technology interaction, leading to future possibilities of full immersion into digital reality as vast swathes of traditional labour modes are rendered obsolete by artificial intelligence.
Reality may become secondary to the removal of all dangers and the constant arousal of reward and pleasure pathways in the brain as humanity opts out of the rat race, and retreats further into technological oblivion.
In China, a Black Mirror storyline is set to become a reality with the introduction of a social credit system which the government hopes to introduce fully by 2020. The aim will be to incentivise all citizens through social engineering, and to produce a utopian society straight out of 1984: free of deviance, crime, and anti – social individualism.
The project represents the possibility of pacifying and controlling an entire population through exploitation of those reward pathways in our brain circuitry. This is Big Data meeting Big Brother in a dystopian surveillance system where human beings are becoming hackable entities.
Those on the bottom rung of the social credit ladder find themselves locked out of society, categorised as enemies and unable to access services such as travel and health. Investigative journalists already have found themselves classified and marginalised. The penalty for non conformity in this Disneyland dystopia is social isolation and financial limitation.
Many respected philosophers have voiced concern about the potentially devastating implications for humanity if we continue our current path. China and America are currently embroiled in an AI arms race, with climate change looming large and solutions underfunded.
We may not know if we are living in a simulation, but already humans are simulating new versions of reality and instigating technological based retreats from reality that do not bode well for future flourishing.