Is Life Just a Giant Simulation Thanks To Tech?
Welcome to your life in hyperreality
By: Chi Lee
Congratulations, we’re in the 21st century and we’ve learned to build a near perfect simulacrum of our reality — so perfect that we have trouble distinguishing the real from the fake.
With all the good that has come from technological advances, which I am a huge supporter of considering the net of things, I do find myself asking… what are the consequences? Not from an ethics perspective, which already generates plenty of attention today (can we embed a sense of morality into self-driving cars to make tough decisions around life vs death?) but rather, from a philosophical one. Do we know what’s real anymore? If we don’t, does it even matter?
(This isn’t about to be a history lesson, bear with me.)
200 Years Ago: Technology Acts As a Means To Preserve
Two centuries ago, the world saw the advent of its first device that captured still photos — the camera. Within the same era, audio recording entered into the mix. Early technology like these enabled us to reproduce aspects of the world as we saw and heard it. The fundamental value of both of these was in its ability for preservation. It didn’t have a function in the every day. Instead, it served as a means for recollection. A way to resurface memory. In its essence, both of these technologies acted as recorders.
100 Years Ago: Technology Acts As a Means To Replicate
Shortly after, the combination of the two features — visual and audio- merged in the first creation of what we know today as video. Because of its inherent demand to engage two of our senses simultaneously, the value of this technology grew exponentially as compared to the camera or audio recorder. Beyond the value of preservation, it delivered the ability of replication. Videos allowed for a replay of reality, even at real-time. Metaphorically speaking, technology at this point no longer acted as an attic where one could go to retrieve storage; it evolved into a mirror that we looked into to see reflected back at us live events of the world we lived in. We turned towards it not to tell us what we already knew, but to learn something about what we didn’t know existed.
Today: Technology As a Means To Simulate
Fast forward to our current era — what is popularized to be the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Digital technology has completely revolutionized the ways in which we make meaning out of information. I argue that no longer does tech act as a passive mirror, instead, it’s transformed into a portal. One that we step into only to arrive at an unknown and eerie place which looks, feels, and sounds like reality and yet, upon closer inspection, is merely a (near-perfect) simulation of it.
Let’s look at an example.
Basically Photoshop for audio.
It uses learning algorithm to analyze any speech patterns. With only 20 minutes of speech, it can generate every sound of that voice in that language. It can even say words that weren’t originally fed into it. For instance, after Voco analyzes a short interview of Elon Musk, it can generate a 5 hour long audio clip of Elon reciting the bible. Not saying I’d personally want him to, just saying it’s possible.
On a pure technological level, that’s pretty impressive. You have computers dismantling complicated nuances of human speech, compartmentalizing that logic, and categorizing each piece systematically to in turn create new speech from scratch. That’s pretty damn powerful. Even trying to grasp the logic of how Adobe Voco works gets pretty complex.
Let’s take another example.
Basically, Photoshop but for video.
It uses a neural network model to learn how to recreate a face from a series of images you feed it. You can essentially recreate a cult classic scene by overlaying the face of Nicholas Cage onto Juliet who wakes up to find Romeo dead and so, pulls the cord on himself shortly after.
Though similar technology of this nature does serve whimsical purposes to feed our appetite for entertainment (think Snapchat filters), unfortunately, the prominent applications of Deepfake serve much more insidious goals. As a few examples to name, it is being used in the adult film industry to replicate celebrity faces, as well as in the political sphere to distill false information. Okay, yes, I hear you. Undeniably its arrival is momentous in our Fourth Industrial Revolution. Let’s just hope that overtime we are able to build more meaningful use cases so that this tech can facilitate more good than evil.
The reality of our situation today is simply that technology is doing things that we simply cannot do. We don’t have the processing power. Arguably, we may have equal mental capabilities to problem solve, yet, in the competition of bandwidth, there simply is no competition to be had. The same solution that takes a computer one hour to solve may take us one week. A conundrum which takes a computer one month to dissect, may bankrupt 100 years of our lifetime. Sure, tech is truly stretching our capabilities as a human race (a race that we already know faces limited potential), however… at what cost?
At this point, we are well beyond using technology to reflect a world back to us. We aren’t holding up a mirror any longer. We’ve long transcended that and stepped into Narnia. The mirror we once held has since evolved into a portal into another world. All have a sudden, we are using technology to create false realism. We are living in a simulated world of made up realities.
The fact is, the role of technology in our lives has undoubtedly shifted. It use to help us preserve selective moments (cameras + audio recorders), then it evolved to keep us informed by replicating the world around us (videos + motion pictures), now it simulates a version of our lives that’s actually beyond what is natural to us (augmented reality + virtual reality + video/audio manipulations).
We have Adobe Voco that collects living data and metamorphosizes it into unchartered material. We have Deepfake that does the same and produces some version of a world that we think we know, but we don’t. We can’t know it, because we don’t live in it. Yet strangely, the line is blurred here and we think we do because it looks so real to us.
For instance, recently a Deepfake video (which looks impressively realistic by the way) of Obama calling Trump a dipshit poured over the internet. On one hand, we can fully grasp the cultural context and relevance of the video because it works with symbols that are familiar to us (politicians, speeches, formal addresses, name-calls, etc.) On the other hand, we can’t grasp it at all because it doesn’t follow our line of reason (why would Obama say that? No, he wouldn’t say that! He shouldn’t! He can’t!) Constantly, there is this subtle tug-of-war between being able to process realistic images, and being able to make it fit into what we know to be real. It’s a tension that causes subconscious unrest. Like the state just between falling asleep and being asleep. We somehow float in between two worlds — the real one and the simulated one.
I’m not saying Deepfake is the only culprit here, it’s just one example. I’m also not saying that we’re on the path of blindly accepting fake videos as being legitimate. I do argue that if this type of fake-yet-has-all-the-clues-of-being real begins to increasingly and consistently bombard our senses, we may develop issues deciphering real from simulation because their likeness is converging into a single point.
Before this wave of Deepfake and the like hit us, we had computer generated imagery (CGI animation), and though you may argue this also posed an existential risk of not being able to separate real from simulation — I don’t think that’s true. Most of the time, we are able to distinguish CGI because its applications lives predominantly in the world of art and entertainment — in realms where we purposely seek out an escape from reality. But now that we have entered a political scope, times are beginning to change. When you blend advanced tech like Deepfake with the powerhouse of major broadcasters (news outlets, social media, etc.), all of a sudden you package this information with some sort of credibility to be trusted. As a result, our grasp on reality falters when we so closely blend made-up/augmented videos, images and sounds with what we recognize to be real tangible makings of the world. When nature can be constructed, altered and edited, what then becomes of it? What of nature becomes left?
In a philosophical context, I find this terrifying. What is real life anymore? When things that do not have a history and have never existed in the past suddenly get erected and instantaneously become our new truths, then what is the point of taking the time to seek trueness in the world.
As early as in the 80s, Jean Baudrillard, a French Philosopher, had coined the term “hyperreality” to describe this phenomenon. He had warned us that society is becoming so reliant on models and maps that we’ve lost all contact with the real world that preceded that map. In essence: real is beginning to imitate the model.
“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.”
Umberto Eco is another philosophical thinker who theorizes on the repercussions of hyperreality. A decade after Baudrillard coined the term, Eco goes on to suggest that reality is being completely mediated by visual perception.
“Authenticity is not historical, but visual. Everything looks real, and therefore it is real; in any case the fact that it seems real is real, and the thing is real even if, like Alice in Wonderland, it never existed.”
If these thoughts persisted before the advancement of our technology today, just imagine how far deep into hyperreality we are now given the modernism of computing powers. If Eco thought wax museums and Disney World were emblematic of perpetuating cases of hyperreality… I wonder what he would think of Obama calling Trump a dipshit.
My intention is not to cast cynicism on rapid tech advancements. I do believe there are plenty of useful, helpful applications of the aforementioned pieces of tech. However, I think it’s also important to consider implication in addition to just application. What does it imply when we can no longer distinguish natural from artificial? Is there a need to distinguish it? If so, what are the dangers if we continue to fail to distinguish between the two?
My point being, we may be losing touch with the truth. “Truth” has always been a lofty concept to begin with, but these advancements pull us further and further away. I wouldn’t want to see us come to a point where simulated media (VR, AR, Deepfakes, etc.) no longer pretends to imitate reality for it has taken the place of it altogether.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, show me some Clap love so I know to carve out more time to put pen to paper on these thoughts!