A Lighted Window at Dusk

My friend Matt is in hospital with a broken pelvis. He’s a cyclist so serves him right, I suppose. Anybody who straps their lycra-clad body to a thin sliver of carbon fibre and hurtles down mountainsides at 80km an hour is certifiably insane — in my opinion.

Anyway, he’s in hospital and asked me to write something interesting for him to read. Specifically, he asked for something about time machines. I’m getting to that and I’ll write something about that soon because time is fun.

Right now however, I can’t help but think about:

1. the concept of sonder

2. whether or not we all live in a simulation.

The Concept of Sonder

It’s a really cool word.

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness — an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Technically, this is a made up word. But then, all words are made up. A great portion of the English language, is in fact, made up by one dude.

In the case of this word and its lovely description, it was coined by John Koenig of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

I read the definition of sonder three years ago and it has been stuck in my head as one of my favourite words ever since.

I’m not quite sure why. But I do know I wasn’t born with sonder. Nobody is, technically.

But I do remember a point very early on in my life where this reality-altering realization blossomed in my mind like an oncoming freight train. My brain buckled and warped as it tried, in vain, to comprehend the impossible complexity of that concept.

I reacted by having an entirely appropriate minor existential crisis.

Case in point: I’m sitting at my desk in my apartment, which itself sits on the highest hill in my city. It is late. My window overlooks the suburb below and the city beyond. The office buildings, some whole floors still lit, others in patches as if they’ve only started to be coloured in by an artist.

I wonder if those little dots of lights are people working through the night? If I could fly across the expanse of open night air, crossing a few kilometres as easily as I cross my living room and peek into their window, what would I see?

Perhaps a man sitting at his desk, crunching numbers. Maybe his name is Sahir.

He’s working on finishing a financial analysis paper that’s really awfully close to deadline. And he’s tired. But he’s also avoiding going home because just that morning he had a huge, nuclear argument with his partner — over pillow cases. They always fight about the weird things, the inconsequential things. Over lunch he read about a formula for a healthy marriage — more sex than arguments. Simple as that. He doesn’t know why they don’t have sex anymore. But he loves her. And he thinks about the day they met in his third year of university. He should buy her flowers…

… and on and on — a whole life. And maybe if I were able to rewind Sahir’s day, back to that morning when he ordered coffee, I was there. Standing behind him, trying not to take up too much room in the tiny hole-in-the-wall city cafe as I waited to order. I would probably be staring off into space in my own thoughts, thinking about time machines and sonder and virtual reality, while he was thinking about pillow cases, financial analysis, sunflowers and Ulysses.

And if I went to the next window, there’d be someone else. And in another window, someone else. And on and on.

People. With their own decades of personal history — failures that they’d rather forget, past successes that they turn to in memoriam for those really bad days, former or current loves first met on holiday or on the starting day of primary school or in the supermarket buying pineapples.

Their own family mythology. Their own dreams, wishes and fears.

And everyone appearing as bit parts or background cameos in the lives of those around them.

After all:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…

On the surface, this concept seems fairly obvious. Of course everyone has their own life, their own history and experience of reality.


Yet, I have met people who seem sonder-less.

Years ago, when I briefly took a job helping manage and design processes for a small business,I met a man who seemed completely and utterly unaware that people were people — not just fleshy machinery that moved and did things for you if you pulled the right lever.

He seemed unable to relate to people, unable to understand that they come with their own life and all its complex accoutrements. He would seem frustrated and amazed that people had other things to do outside of work hours, that they weren’t available at a moments notice or that they had had different experiences to his own, therefore had different data to that which he possessed.

This was particularly frustrating as I reported to him.

He also had a habit of trying to defuse heated arguments (which happened often in the two weeks I was there) with bizarre token gestures such as leaving a bucket of KFC fried chicken on every staff members desk, without comment or explanation.

The problem with being sonder-less though, apart from a lack of human empathy, is that you limit yourself to purely your own knowledge and experience. If you presume nobody else around you comes equipped with their own vast array of knowledge and experience wholly unique to your own — you cut yourself out of the richness of perspective that they could provide.

But then… what if that’s all not true?

The Life Simulated

There are a number of philosophical uncertainties about our own reality.

For instance, how do you know you’re not currently dreaming a very complex, lifelike dream?

How do you know that your memories are real? What if the world and all of existence actually only commenced a minute ago and all that came before it — all your memories and mythology — were simply planted on you by a god who wanted to grant you an illustrious back story?

How do you know you’re not actually on an alien space station somewhere and an hour ago you put on a video game helmet to try and get a high score on the video game about a human life?

From the episode ‘Mortynight Run’ of Rick and Morty — one of the best television shows ever.

Philosophers have been talking about the simulated reality hypothesis since about 2003. The gist of it is: we are participants in a computer simulation designed to look just like real life and that we are all unaware of the simulation. Essentially, The Matrix.

It also reminds me of one of the greatest paragraphs I’ve ever read:

“Imagine: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, reclines behind a desk built out of spare rocket ship parts. A gleaming saber rests to his right. Sean Murray, founder of the independent development studio Hello Games, sits across from him, chatting about Hello’s new title, No Man’s Sky. There’s a break in the conversation and an awkward silence threatens to stretch between the two, but then: “What do you think is the percentage chance that we’re living in a simulation?” Musk asks. Murray hardly has time to answer — he’s running late for an appointment with Steven Spielberg and his communications director is getting antsy. At this rate, they won’t have time to meet up with Kanye.”
Engadget, June 19th 2015

In fact there are some pointers that suggest the idea that we’re all living in a simulation might not be too far fetched. Some particles only behave certain ways when observed — almost as if they are ‘popping in’ like video game assets that were slow to load.

So what if we are all playing Roy: A Life Well Lived, like Morty? Does that make someone like Elon Musk a high scorer? Maybe. Maybe we just all have our own unique video game-style quests to achieve: beat cancer, raise a family, write a book, be happy, save that dog, write a symphony…

Yeah. I think I’d like that.

But what has always struck me when thinking about this concept is the word ‘we’. How do we know that everyone else is in the same virtual boat? What if everyone else is a program and we each have our own simulation, much like Morty in the Roy video game above?

I don’t know. It’s an unsettling thought, but a really intriguing one.

But it also reframes the word sonder for me. Rather than being somewhat melancholic — faced with the reality that there are billions of people living their own lives, filling in the pages of their own storybook and I’ll never, ever be able to know them all and sate my curiousity… instead sonder becomes a welcome philosophical life raft.

I think if I were able to choose my reality, I would opt for a simulation. On the provision that we’re all playing the game together and reincarnation is simply inserting another quarter and having another go at the Game of Life.