If we live in a simulated reality, chances are it’s a prison.
A Trope for our Times
It’s been talked about, considered, pondered, and philosophically mused for some time. It’s even been posited as the most likely state for the universe you’re experiencing right now. And, we’re going to consider it and its ramifications for all of us once again, but from a slightly different perspective.
Are we living in a simulation right now?
I wrote an article back in 2020 theorising that the most likely future for the human race would be an existence within an all encompassing simulation and I still very much hold fast to that.
This is majorly because, excepting major advances in physics, space travel as a means to expand our civilisation is likely to remain technically hard, physically arduous, and temporally lengthy. Strange new worlds sounds wonderful, but we’ll need a warp or quantum slipstream drive to get there.
Conversely, advances in both energy generation and computer capacity continue apace at an exponential level. Why go travelling when you can get all you need right here on your desktop or, collectively, in the cloud? It would be a whole new way of experiencing the world from the comfort and security of your basement. Welcome to the future.
To enable this we really just need to crack the problem of reliably and safely plugging ourselves in or uploading ourselves to the simulation. We can improve the resolution, storylines, and complexity over time. Iterative development is the way. Start with immersive role playing games perhaps, then progress to full life simulation.
We can do all of this on the ground with all of the resources of the Earth at our disposal without mucking about with rocketry, elaborate life support systems, and landing rockets on rafts. In fact, work is already progressing on the first promising way to plug ourselves in.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% behind the likes of SpaceX (for example), but I believe the technology for large scale and detailed simulations will arrive first.
However, that’s all to come. In the future.
If we’re living in a simulation right now then the question I’m going to consider here is why would some future generation of humanity choose to simulate the present, for me now March 2021, with all of its pain, suffering, and seemingly endless conflicts? Let’s not even mention the other thing¹.
Consider now a more technically advanced version of humanity at some point in the not too distant future with the ability to run some kind of fully immersive simulation that human(s) can engage directly with.
Let’s also assume it’s cloud based and not running on your desktop, or more likely phone, so that large scale computing resources can be thrown at it and its connectivity is both reliable and extremely fast. I’m not sure if you’re fully immersed if you’d notice significant lag, that’s a deep question, so we’ll leave that for another time.
The sum of all human knowledge to that date is readily available — all arts, sciences, and literary works are online and ready for the use of the authors of the simulation itself. Everything.
The operator swipes his hand near the console taps a rather prominent button (obviously for effect as they could just be plugged in too), the lights dim, and something hums in the distance. An eerie silence then descends upon the room. Momentarily, a solitary green light winks on. It’s running.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question²”
First, consider whether or not you, the reader, are the only person in this future based simulation of our present and everyone else you experience is merely a construct of the running program.
- There could be just you who’s a real person, a few people, many people, or literally everyone all in it together.
- If there are other real people then are they your friends on the outside, your family, a collection of random people sharing an experience, or is everyone here real too and it’s a mass collective simulation?
Thing is, you just don’t know who’s a simulation and who’s real. We’ll discuss later about whether or not you can find out.
“A dagger of the mind, a false creation⁴”
Bearing in mind (no pun intended, it’s coming in a moment) who’s real and who’s not and assuming that you yourself are⁵, why would the simulation be set in the our current present?
The present for me is March 2021 and for you, the reader, whenever you read this article assuming the simulation allows it to remain — but more of that too later on.
“I might have written something terribly subversive, at least for a moment or two, before the operators remove it and then no-one will ever know. Maybe not even me.”
It could just be that you’ve been dropped in here now, the simulation booted up just a moment ago, or it could have been running for decades or even millennia and you’ve joined a long running simulation that has only just reached the moment that you joined.
Perhaps the simulation was one of the Roman Empire, or the European Renaissance, perhaps the Cold War, but then it progressed as a self-sustaining narrative driven either by its occupants, the operator, or an unknowing collaboration of both.
Interesting, that with all of human knowledge and imagination that you’re inside a simulation of what is (or was) effectively the past, isn’t it?
Even stranger is that you have no knowledge, or at least immediate access to the knowledge, as to why you’re in this time period or why you joined in the first place.
It could be that totally immersive simulation requires some kind of memory trickery to prevent cognitive dissonance perhaps, but maybe that’s not perfect either, maybe some echoes remain of your future self.
Back to the script for a moment. Why are you here in the present, right now?
“No, ’tis impossible he should escape⁶”
Should you have chosen to be immersed in a simulation then it would be a matter of personal choice, but it’s very strange in that you have no knowledge of your real self. Even worse, how do you exit?
As science progresses inside of our simulation (I’m in it too, as you’re reading my prose inside it — or perhaps I’m the operator, number one as it were, who know for sure) an inevitable consequence is that philosophers, scientists, and the conspiratorial folk begin to ponder whether or not our “shared” reality is a simulation.
Methods are devised to subjectively test reality to see if it’s fabricated. Perhaps there’s a granularity to the world that can be observed, perhaps the simulation in effect has pixels. All software has limits, or bugs, after all.
“Program testing can be used to show the presence of bugs, but never to show their absence!”
We do have Planck units in our reality, tiny indivisible measurements of time and space, so it certainly seems an interesting avenue to explore. Are they the pixels?
We also have quantum mechanics, where experiments suggest that the eventual state of something isn’t decided until it’s actually observed (I’m simplifying that a bit so if you’re a physicist or mathematician give me some slack here). Perhaps the simulation doesn’t ‘fill in the gaps’ until someone’s looking — rooms are empty until entered, the Earth is hollow until drilled, the sky is false and it really is a series of LED lamps in the distance and astronomers’ telescopes are populated with elaborate high resolution animated gifs. Perhaps the Earth is flat until someone observes it from space? Truly the sum of all conspiracies!
Why simulate everything if you don’t have to?
That’s refactoring for optimisation if ever I heard it.
“Denmark’s a prison⁷”
Now, finally, the clincher.
I’m thinking that you didn’t actually choose to be here.
I’m thinking that your memories were inhibited and you were dropped into this simulation as a kind of future reeducation or punishment for something you did.
I’m thinking you’re in prison.
You did something, who knows what, who knows when, but you’ve been sent away for a while. Perhaps you’ve been sent back to this present to experience what the world was like before whoever sent you back got into power?
They’re going to show you something or maybe teach you a lesson!
This could be a good thing, but equally it could just as well be quite a Bad Thing. Perhaps you’re being reeducated because you’re a political subversive but, lucky for you, capital punishment has been outlawed. Or perhaps extremely unlucky because you’re not leaving, something’s in store for you here, something quite bad, and the future has washed its hands of you. You could have a long hard life ahead of you, an enduring punishment, a living hell to wade through with no hope of salvation. Equally, you might only be here for the weekend. Glib, sorry, but the possibilities are endless.
Perhaps the reason that we here right now in this simulation can’t quite ascertain if it’s a simulation or not is because we’re not allowed to.
The clues, maybe, are there but every time we get close to discovering something vital the operator pauses the construct, removes the dangerous knowledge, winds back time a short while (it’s a journaled file system, naturally), and resumes the simulation without skipping a beat.
I wonder if the simulation’s evolution is predetermined. That would put the question of free will to rest for sure.
Did the operator set the parameters and let it run — surely it will run to chaos, it certainly seems like it has — or does the operator have fine control of what happens. Are they watching right now, seeing you read this article and marking you for an update? That’s quite an Orwellian thought isn’t it, and you thought CCTV cameras and facial recognition was bad for your privacy!
You’re here, now, and you’re not leaving. Worse, they’re watching you too.
“Mine own escape unfoldeth to my hope⁸”
And yet here we are, making the best of it, living the best lives we can. Or you are, at least, you can’t be sure about me. Perhaps I am the operator after all, passing the time, dropping titbits of information to torment you, leaving a trial of Shakespearian breadcrumbs for you to follow. Perhaps. Maybe I don’t like your scientists so I tease them a bit, rearrange the amount of Dark Matter around the galaxy once in a while to keep you on your toes.
I might have missed something, though, if I am indeed the operator.
I may be just as fallible.
Humans in this simulation have discovered science, if that’s what it is, if the science you discover is what you’re allowed to know. They’ve made progress on understanding the environment they live in. They’ve also constructed elaborate belief systems to get them though the hard times and to give them hope.
Perhaps the belief of some in reincarnation or afterlife is a memory echo from the future, an underlying theme that lives on in their original brains trying to pull them back into actual reality?
If you’re a “good person” in the simulation then you’ll return to actual reality, reincarnated, born again, an afterlife? It’s amazing how flexible the human brain can be in adapting to situations, how it fills in the gaps to help perception, how it tries to comprehend dissonance.
Perhaps, even, you’re evolving out of control — the human mind could be more flexible than we here in the future imagine and you’re about to break free. Perhaps, even, the “Free your mind” people have a point? Who knows.
It’s a can of worms isn’t it, or a can of humans, perhaps.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Unless you’re a historian or social scientist I don’t think you’d have a good reason to be here, especially without your original memory, unless there’s a necessary technical reason for that. What’s your escape route anyway?
You could be a fan of 20th century fashion or music, I guess, but how would you carry your memories out of here? They’ve have to be reintegrated somehow, though I guess if you can run this kind of simulation then perhaps that’s easy too.
All in all you have to admit that evidence suggests you’re here most likely against your will, doesn’t it?
Be seeing you.
 Hamlet, Act III, Scene I, William Shakespeare.
 I’m playing through Skyrim again at the moment and the vastness and existential melancholy of the bleakness can be striking. The howling wind in the mountains, the howling of wolves in the wind, you know the thing. If you don’t, you should play it.
 Macbeth, Act II, Scene I, William Shakespeare.
 Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene VI, William Shakespeare.
 Hamlet, Act II, Scene II, William Shakespeare.
 Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene II, William Shakespeare.