The Unreal World

Gil Fewster
May 15, 2019 · 4 min read

“Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is a generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” — Jean Baudrillard, 1981

“Whoah” — Keanu Reeves, 1999.

Philosophers, artists and stoned teenagers have grappled for centuries with the nature of reality, and the impossibility of ever truly knowing if what we experience as real is, well, actually real.

Doubting the world around us is a peculiarly human trait. Gazelles do not go around thinking “but wait, what if this pack of hungry lions running towards me isn’t real?” And any that do start thinking that way are likely to experience some pretty swift Darwinian consequences.

By contrast, the gazelle who thinks “that looks like a lion, I’d better nick off” is a gazelle that stands a very good chance of staying alive and continuing to nick off for a great number of years, regardless of whether or not every single thing from which it nicks off is, in fact, real.

Somewhere along the evolutionary road, humans developed the twin gifts of self-awareness and creativity. And this has lead us to make a pretty bold distinction between things that are actual things and things that are not actually anything at all: real and unreal.

And good old reality used to feel pretty reliable. We tended to think we had a decent handle on what was real and what wasn’t. We’d get together in big, smug groups and laugh at all those stupid gazelles on the savannah, getting startled by puffs of wind and nicking off from absolutely nothing at all.

But things change. We’ve gone digital, online, wireless. We’ve spent the last fifty years or so cheerfully severing the links between representations of things and the things they represent. And in the last decade we’ve really stepped up the pace.

Digitisation has enabled infinite reproduction. Data can be endlessly cloned and distributed without any discernible loss of fidelity. And almost anything can be reduced to data: art, knowledge, ideas, debt, money, history, culture. Even physical objects can be scanned, modelled and analysed as digital data, and spat back out into the world courtesy of a 3D printer.

Our digital photos are enhanced with effects which represent imperfections and characteristics of an analogue medium that has been killed off because we all take digital photos (which we enhance with effects which represent imperfection…well, you get the idea).

And money? Hah! Pure fantasy. It’s been decades since money actually represented real gold, of course, but now we have apps which represent the money which used to but no longer represents gold.

About 70% of trading of the US stock market is conducted by algorithms! Entire economies are reliant on automated software trading vast amounts of money that doesn’t really exist, following sets of rules which are largely designed to respond to market activity which is mostly generated by other software systems doing the same thing. Nearly three quarters of the US stock market is just a bunch of computers passing imaginary money back and forth between themselves.

So nothing is real. Fine. Great. At least we own that. We rule this world, and we alone possess the power of invention, of creating something from nothing. If you want to hear some bullshit, go talk to a human being.

And now we’re really on a roll. We are so enamoured with making shit up that we reckoned it would be fun to make up some new things that can go right ahead make up their own shit. Our computers have started to create things.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning has been advancing at a startling rate. The explosion of work in this field is producing new kinds of software. Software which behaves less like the cold true/false, if-this-then-that logic gates of traditional programming and much more like our own fuzzy trial-and-error approach to problem solving.

And sure, what the computers are doing right now isn’t what you might call real creativity or real invention. But if it’s a good enough simulation of the real thing, and inevitably it will be so good that we can no longer tell the difference, then what difference does it make?

For the first time in human history, we’re looking down the barrel of a world in which, not only are we fundamentally uncertain of what is real, we aren’t even the sole creators of the unreality that surrounds us.

Baudrillard would be having ball right now if he wasn’t dead.

All of which brings us, in a roundabout sort of way, to Advance Party and our current mission. The Unreal World is an investigation into the opportunities and risks presented to creators and communicators in the age of people who don’t exist, of dead musicians going on tour,and text generators too dangerous to make public. We hope you’ll join us for the ride. It’s should be a real good time.

Advance Party

Research, prototyping and development team at The Royals.