If Life is a Simulation, Let’s Make the Best of It

An optimist’s view of living in a computer and embracing alternate reality.

Hollywood makes illusions of other worlds and times It even brings people back from the dead, as Viola Davis said in her moving Oscar speech Sunday night. A couple hours later, the stage of that same show was chaos and it seemed that the Academy produced a space-time rift to an alternate timeline. Unfortunately, our current alternate reality is nothing like from LaLa Land. Adam Gopnik writes about the parallels of Oscar Night, the Super Bowl, and the 2016 U.S. Election and wonders what prankster is tinkering with our world. Tinkering with earth and it’s elections aside, this post is a positive take on a simulated worlds and the upside of a plurality of realities.

We live in a computer simulation or it’s highly probable.
This is what many people with knowledge about the science of computers, physics, and the cosmos have been saying in recent months. If an intelligent species like ours can reproduce life in a computer, they’ll do it. And they’ll do it over and over again. Therefore, Elon Musk says it is by far the most likely probability. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bryan Green say it is a coin flip: Heads, everything is real; Tails, your life is a game.

If we live in a simulation, that’s fine by me.
I regularly feel like I’m living in a simulation. For years now as I drift to sleep or stroll in a quiet metropolis at 2am, I sense that the Euclidean edges of our world and the strange loops of our minds are programmed by an entity outside or above our space and time. I don’t have evidence of this virtual reality; nor am I writing to persuade anyone of this notion. I simply want to share how I’ve come to find comfort and meaning in such a world. 
Here are a few reasons for optimism.

A simulated world created in SimCity

Living in a closed-loop game is only one of infinite possibilities.

Even if the galaxy around us is running on a small device invented by an immortal teenager in 4040 AD, our blue planet is an astonishing and ineffable place to live. If a being with the temperament of a child is running the United States, why not the entire universe? Well, for one, that scenario lacks imagination: If human life can be simulated on a mediocre computer of the future, then much richer worlds and more intelligent life are likely to exist. As a child, I sang the banal song He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands too many times; and as a young adult read enough science fiction and Popular Mechanics that I must insist upon grander possibilities.

We either don’t understand the operating system running us or it inhibits our dreams.

Humans have a shortsighted view of the future (or past) that created us. We talk about our simulation based only upon the science and technology we invent. Even our beliefs in otherworldly and omnipotent beings suffer from this anthropocentric impulse and observer’s paradox: With the exception of Contact and The Arrival, the aliens we imagine look like us, travel like us, and have the motivations of earthlings. Further, the supernatural beings we believe to have created our world are, in fact, gods created in man’s image (see Christianity).

While Elon Musk and other technological prognosticators are probably right that we live in a computer, we should be terrified of machines that their companies would build for sentient life. A virtual world created with today’s most cutting-edge technology would be a dull and undramatic place not unlike Edwin Abbott’s Flatland satire: Billions of human agents are governed by simple rules along a single thread of time in a inescapable black box. If corporations like Google or IBM were capable of creating a simulation, they would build and maintain Earth-as-a-Service: Earth 2.0 would be a system that pleases agents of Wall Street, not humans outside or inside the simulation.

Michael Chang is building a simulation game of a cyberpunk dystopia. It procedurally creates an environment ruled by evil tech corporations.

Simulations of life in the near future would be like the prison artificial intelligence pioneer Jaron Lanier worries we are currently building for ourselves. An existence where humans forfeit their own intelligence to dumb bots:

“People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good.”

We can do better that Simulation Status Quo

Contemplating our world as a simulation is a worthwhile thought experiment— even if you believe the simulation is impossible. It exposes some problematic things, for example. Humans, machines, or some other invisible hand created a model world in which happiness is too often outweighed by suffering.

Now may be one of the greatest times to be alive, as Barack Obama said, when leaving office, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. On the surface, 2016–2017 AD has been a tough year for optimists, like myself. A time of daily acts of violence against everyday people in the world’s safest cities. A time that suggests technology disproportionately benefits the powerful and wealthy. A time where industrialization and international development will have destroyed the earth’s climate before they can bring better quality of life to the majority of the planet’s population. A time that makes you wonder if “progress” is a regressive loop that convinces us the world is better than it really is.

Take the two most powerful empires of the past 250 years; the United States and the United Kingdom are anything but united. Two nations who promised prosperity and progress, but failed to bring peace and are withering into isolationism. People in the U.S. continue to be harmed because of their beliefs and the color of their skin — often at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect. Many residents of these democracies are afraid. They distrust science and technocrats. Many even prefer to by humored by the lies of a self-important demagogue, a cartoon of capitalism. “Powerless victims of the future someone else is creating” is Marina Gorbis’ excellent phrase for the situation.

Douglas Rushkoff furthers this line of thinking:

“When you operate on the scale of the corporations, of the internet, you end up getting caught in these giant standing waves, you end up losing your home field advantage as a living person. When a human being tries to operate on the scale of the internet you get Donald Trump. That’s not a human being, it’s a phenomenon that is utterly divorced from the values, the ebbs, the flows that make us human.” — douglas rushkoff
Perhaps the arch of our simulation bends towards justice, but we must bend it.

Does then mean our simulation is doomed? Of course not!

While I can no longer be so optimistic as to suggest that we live in “the best of all possible worlds,” I believe that we can make the best of our world and explore the hope of other worlds. For those of us that like to think globally and act locally, expanding the definition of “global” to include other realities transforms our daily actions. For the same reason, I’m a member of The Long Now Foundation, which promotes long-term thinking.

A longer and broader view, gives hope for dealing with domestic problems. Take income inequality in the U.S. for example. As Tim O’Reilly wrote last week, the American economy lacks imagination and settles for optimizing an economy that doesn’t work for the middle class. If this is not already a crisis in itself, we may require additional crises to spur a mission greater than ourselves. It is about finding a national or global purpose that is people-focused and it requires ideas and ingenuity from everyone. In fact, one of the biggest “jobs” in our simulation is dealing with a reality where machines and artificial intelligence inside and out have greater control.

Living is a simulation doesn’t make the outcome of earth meaningless, it makes our decisions matter even more.

We can help others

Atrocious events have happened throughout the course of the human simulation. Game or not, the pain has been real. And the suffering of other creatures in other simulations is also real. We may be in a simulation of an earth that will fail or an earth that never existed. If we’re in one or more simulations of a place just like earth, it is plausible that our creators are looking to us to understand their own world. Our existence is more than one spin of the roulette wheel because humans have been programed with a profound agency: we empathize with the pain of others and choose causes beyond our own life and timeline.

We can never know the full impact of our actions on the world around us. There’s truth in that cliche. And the possibility of who our lives touch is multiplied if observers outside our world can learn from our behavior and culture. We can do something sublime in our world that benefits billions or trillions of other sentient beings.

We can experience the wonders of worlds unknown
The trajectory of human achievements in our simulation is evidence that we have many more things to discover. Some scientists argue rapid progress of a technological and intelligence species is programmed into the system and this is a consequence of simulation . We sent people to the moon, for example. This same knowledge of physics and space, may help prove that we’re in a simulation. Perhaps a singularity exists in the physics of our world such that we are capable of much more that we were programmed for. Furthermore, we could learn enough to find an inflection point that would allow us to explore the world outside of our simulation.

Anything is possible in the worlds beyond us. It is hard to unburden your mind from the physics, materials, and signals of the device you’re using to read this article. Let me simply posit that there is a computer of which we cannot dream. Its components are ethereal. Its storage is universal. Its logic is post-math. The network is connected with other worlds. Its communication protocol is with the gods of simulation Its runtime is infinite.
I pray we find it.

Thanks for taking a moment to read and ♥ this article. When I’m not writing about computer simulations, I read and write about how data, design, and technology can improve urban life and government. Follow along here and on Twitter (@stevepepple).