On Simulation and Reality — Between the Story and the Thing

Red LeafI was eating at an Italian restaurant the other day and something troubling occurred to me. The music, the food, the smells, the decor –everything there was so carefully composed, so deliberately created, that for very fleeting moments, especially if I closed my eyes, I actually felt as though I were back home in southern Switzerland. I wasn’t, of course, I knew that. Even if I didn’t know, I would have figured it out. English being spoken. The sound of the streets. The subtle, rank scent of the city riding on a draft. No, the deception was not quite artful enough to fool me –but it was enough to force me to think of my life, of my other experiences, and wonder at their authenticity. Where else have I seen such deception? How much of my life has been composed of simulated experiences, and how much of my character has grown out of these simulations?

I am not sure if it is a quality of the time we live in or not, but simulated realities seem to be commonplace today. I have a feeling that the phenomenon is very, very old, but that our modern technological capabilities are providing ever more astounding means to achieve it. Along with this impressive ability to effectively deceive our senses into thinking that something is real, however, comes the threat of an alarming disconnect between true experience and simulated experience.

In many ways, this disconnect is no different from that between experience and testimony, between hearing a story and living the story. The story that goes to great lengths to recreate the sensations of an experience does, to a certain extent, provide the listener or reader with a version of that experience. However, if even the narrator is removed from his or her own story by time, memory being fallible, then the receiver of the narrative is twice removed from the experience, which by now is a ‘Truth’ as elusive as the best of them. Yet still the story is passed, and still it is received.

Ancient children looked at the walls of caves and listened to their father’s stories of the hunt, and part of the ‘true’ hunt was given to them. When later they went outside and saw a beast, they were not seeing the beast for the first time. When they worked to bring it down, it was not the first time their mind had gone through those motions. For all we know, they played at hunting every day, recreating the picture they had gathered from paintings and stories and hearsay. Of course, it was not the exact beast that they had expected, and bringing it down did not go exactly as they had imagined it would, but still –through the simulated reality of the narrative, they previewed what would later become an actual experience.

In this way, simulations are paramount to the way the world works. Astronauts train in simulated environments. Parents and teachers do their best to simulate the obstacles that children will someday face. Even literature, to a certain extent of course, presents readers with narratives of profound struggles, physical and psychological, that they would have otherwise never experienced. Values can be drawn from these narratives, understanding, sensitivity, knowledge. All of the simulations like these ones, which are at their core like the simulation of the hunt, I will call functional simulations.

Our world is not only full of functional simulations, though. I remember being very young and raving about the incredible graphics of a new video game or platform. The shift from Gameboys to Playstations was quite a thrilling one for me. Soon came the newer models and then the newer and then the newer, each of them surpassing the last in many regards. Soon the graphics were so good that it was almost like watching a movie. I was enthralled. I never thought that I was actually in the game, but my senses were certainly deceived in greater detail with every new development. The narratives that I received from playing these games were not functional narratives; these simulations were crafted for the sole purpose of my entertainment. Because of this –because they propose to impart no practical experience and their principal objective is to trick or deceive for the sole sake of the simulation –I will call these self-serving simulations.

Deciding which of these types of simulation exists in greater abundance would be difficult, as their definition is relative to a certain point; what I find functional, another person might find only self-serving. If I had to say, though, I would say that self-serving simulations outnumber the functional by a staggering amount. We love it when our senses are tricked. We love going to a movie theater and putting on special glasses so that extinct dinosaurs can stick their two-dimensional noses in our faces. We love going to a restaurant that reminds us of where we came from and of our ancestry and of our youth. We love the feeling of experiencing things that we have never experienced, or never could. Nostalgia, in many ways, is a simulated experience. This all sounds wonderful. We can experience dinosaurs. We can feel as though we are somewhere else without actually going. To a degree, this is wonderful, but when the simulations cease to be complementary to actual experience, when artificial events replace instead of build upon real ones, then we have a problem.

The modern simulations we encounter are so advanced, the simulated reality so expertly rendered, that the simulation is no longer only a representation of the ‘truth’, but now acts as a replacement for it. Functional simulations exist with the implied suggestion of an eventual, practical transference –of sometime incorporating the simulated experience into your real experience. Self-serving simulations –the ones that pervade most forms of modern entertainment, the news, social networking, city-living –imply no such incorporation. When we go to eat at an Italian restaurant that expertly simulates the sensory experience of actually being in Italy, it does not matter if we really go to Italy or not. In fact, if we don’t go to Italy, the simulation is stronger because it would be all that exists of ‘Italy’ for us. Similarly, when we go to watch a movie about war, we need not go to battle to complete the experience. Instead, that experience of war becomes the only experience of war most will ever have (which can account for some very misguided children). Not only do self-serving simulations not require any real-life incorporation, they are actually strengthened if no real incorporation occurs. This is dangerous, I think, because it pulls us out of ourselves and into a strange and borrowed space with no necessary connection to the space we actually inhabit.

So enthralling are our self-serving simulations, that I wonder how many people’s collective experience is comprised mostly of these crafted realities. It seems to me that as we move forward, what we hold dear is not the hunt itself, but the paintings and the stories of the hunt. We favor the representations of things over things themselves, so much so that those representations become representations alone, attached to no thing at all –isolated signifiers floating blatantly without referent. They exist for themselves. Sure, the hunt is dangerous and tiring and time-consuming, but are the stories and the paintings really enough? How do we dig in and find out who we truly are when the things we’ve really done we haven’t really done? Are we detaching ourselves from true experience? Is testimony all we need? Do painted flowers in a painted field smell so sweet as those that wave and shine in the wind?

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In this post about mirror neurons, you might find some information relevant to the above ideas.