a humorous or malicious deception
trick or deceive (someone)
When a nation becomes unmoored from reality, it retreats into a world of magic.
Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion
Let’s be honest here – we do not live within an accurate portrayal of the ‘real world.’ We assume that our perceptions – our sights, sounds, and textures – are accurate descriptions of the world around us. But they are not; rather, they are the filtered representations that have been processed through us. We can never perceive the world directly, just as we can never look directly into our own faces. The world we perceive ‘out there’ is a projection of the inputs we have received; it is our brain’s best guess based on the data available. And since most people’s brains work in a similar manner, the final projection onto life’s movie screen is more or less similar. The brain filters out the majority of inputs in order to keep us sane. What it finally passes on to us are nothing short of ‘brutal representations’ that allow for our general survival. This means that technically life as we know it is a simulation, or simulacrum – an image or representation of someone or something.
Our societies, especially modern media-driven cultures, are creating layer upon layer of substituted representations of reality. Sometimes the new layers are over-simplified in order to portray a basic ‘Us vs. Them’ world. Yet the result is the same – our sense of reality becomes flooded with these portrayals and representations. What was once only partially real (our observer-influenced reality) now becomes far-from-real in that our cultures become saturated with superficial content created by our mainstream media, politics, and similar propaganda channels. And this is all part of the simulacrum – the unsatisfactory substitution – that constitutes layer upon layer of projected interpretations of what is ‘real.’ One way or another, however you look at it, life is a simulation of something, which itself is a simulation of something else. Another way of calling this is the ‘soup of the soup,’ and here’s a story from the exploits of the well-known Nasrudin that explains it:
A kinsman came to see Nasrudin from the country and brought a duck. Nasrudin was grateful, had the bird cooked and shared it with his guest. Presently another visitor arrived. He was a friend, as he said, ‘of the man who gave you the duck’. Nasrudin fed him as well. This happened several times. Nasrudin’s home had become like a restaurant for out-of-town visitors. Everyone was a friend at some removes of the original donor of the duck. Finally, Nasrudin was exasperated. One day there was a knock at the door and a stranger appeared. ‘I am the friend of the friend of the friend of the man who brought you the duck from the country,’ he said. ‘Come in,’ said Nasrudin. They seated themselves at the table, and Nasrudin asked his wife to bring the soup. When the guest tasted it, it seemed to be nothing more than warm water. ‘What sort of soup is this?’ he asked the Mulla. ‘That’, said Nasrudin, ‘is the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck.’1
The highest function of simulation is to make the real disappear, and at the same time to hide the fact of its disappearance. The whole event never happened. This is the true art of the mainstream media, for example, and it is a highly articulated conjuring trick.
Great mystic literature from all over the world has spoken about our reality as being, in some form or other, an illusion – as not real. Sure, but some things seem very real to us: we get hurt, endure pain (sometimes horrific, inhumane pain), and we suffer as well as we love and experience joy. Yet we are still told that it is all an illusion in that it is only a copy of a greater truth. As Plato would say, it is a shadow of the original Pure Form. And now this illusory play is being taken to its extreme; to its illogical ‘logical end.’ Welcome to the simulation that has now substituted our modern lives. Welcome to the play of perception. Welcome to the hoax.
A Seductive Hoax
Historian Yuval Noah Harari states that according to mathematics, ‘since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.’2 There has already been a lot of talk about whether we are living in a computer simulation. This debate was largely triggered by philosopher Nick Bostrom’s original essay ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’ (2003).[i] Bostrom famously argued that the evolution of humanity will inevitably lead to a posthuman state in which our descendants will have immense technological power, unless they blow themselves up beforehand. And if they do reach this advanced stage then they will have the technological ability to create complex simulations of their ancestors (that’s us!) in which everything seems real. Even the consciousness of the ‘characters’ in the simulation will feel as real. These posthuman descendants will be able to create as many simulations as they wish – which leads us to the scientific theory of multiple dimensions. And if they will be able to create as many simulated universes as they wish, then they will naturally create far more ‘simulated characters’ than the number of actual ancestors. Therefore, according to Bostrom, given that the probability of any of us being a simulated character is much greater than that of being a real ancestor, it can be concluded that we almost certainly live in a simulation.
As intriguing as it seems, the issue we face now is a closer-to-home cultural phenomenon – the social representation of life that seems more unreal than real. In other words, the cultural allure of a lifestyle that appears to be further from the original ‘real’ with each retelling. Simply stated, what’s on offer is far more seductive and attractive than ever – and this is the hoax. It is in fact a hoax more insidious than the ‘computer simulation’ model for at least that model would aim at some internal consistency. What we have is an imitation, and an unsatisfactory one at that.
The social simulacrum is an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute. It attempts to substitute offerings that disguise the genuine, and which perpetuate the illusion that what we see and hear going on in the world is the actual truth. Yet these illusions are like pantomimes, catering to those people attracted to the façade. And this façade has been gradually built up – a process known as ‘function creep’ – over many years. And it has got to the stage where it can fascinate us and lure us in. Yet since it is a simulacrum, a copy, it naturally must be inferior because all copies are. However, we do not see or perceive this inferiority because we are not meant to. This ‘wonderful reality’ that is a simulacrum is then spread across the globe in the hope that everyone will want to participate. And the danger here is that not only do we allow this to happen but that we naturalize it to ourselves by participating in it.
The all-encompassing Simulacrum
The simulacrum that is now the system is all encompassing. Everything that we know, or think we know, exists within it. And this simulated substitute attempts to contain all anomalies. A reflection of this can be seen at the end of the second Matrix film – Matrix Reloaded – where the Architect (a Freud look-alike) says that the matrix was reprogrammed to incorporate all of its anomalies into the new program. That is, even anomalies are needed to keep the program running for they are a part of the program itself. It is a totally inclusive reality-matrix that has no exterior. In the Matrix films it is possible to un-plug from the matrix. For us, we have not yet discovered a simple escape route. However, there have always been methods and techniques for transcending beyond the simulacrum that surrounds us.
In the terminology of humanistic psychology this form of transcendence has been called the path of ‘self-actualization.’ And yet we only get the privilege of ‘working on ourselves’ when other more primary needs have first been realized. These needs include the physiological needs of food, water, and rest; then the safety needs of shelter and security; following these are the social needs of belonging, love, relationships; and then the esteem needs of accomplishment. Only then when these needs are met are we in the privileged position to consider fulfilling our true potential – self-actualization. And yet the simulacrum of society and culture does a very good job of occupying us with the lower needs throughout our lives so that we hardly ever get the opportunity for any form of self-actualization. The simulacrum is very good at keeping us busy, distracted, and engaged with other things.
Our social systems promote, even unashamedly, those aspects which may appear as the anomalies. Music artists who rage against society – such as singers whose songs protest the system – are all massively promoted by the very same system that gets rich from them. Such anomalies are not only tolerated or accepted, they are also actively encouraged. The system seeks to incorporate all genuine alternatives. Everything feeds into the same hoax. The world that we think we know is being represented to us through copy, as a form of radical illusion. Life is then lived and experienced through the new medium of a ‘proxy life.’ By accepting this we succumb to a life that is lived indirectly as if feeding upon the menu rather than the meal. Our real, genuine, and deep hunger is ignored. Of course, there is suffering, conflict, hatred, and all the rest, that is all very real to us. Yet what we rarely stop to consider is that we have made all this real through our own stories – through those narratives fed to us by society. Our cultural programs are stories built upon stories.
Whether we wear a turban, sport a long beard, shave our heads, or dress in particular types of clothing, we are indicating to those whom we meet that we adhere to a particular narrative. When people are willing to die to go to paradise; to kill to bring glory and honor; or to destroy lives for a few bank digits – they are all adhering to their stories. And stories only have value if there is a common consensus. It is exactly the same with money, whether it is fiat currency or hard metals; they have a certain value because there is a consensus story around them. Yet what good is a bar of gold if you’re dying of thirst in some desert and the only camel driver with water does not accept your gold?
Our social stories have formed structures of meaning which have validity within a similar network of stories. Once we encounter another social structure of stories that do not tally with ours then we usually end up going to war with them. Each story we tell ourselves is mutually reinforced within our own network, confirming its validity, until we end up believing what everyone else around us believes. And the great hoax is that each simulacrum uses language, images, and social rituals and reinforcements specifically to create completely new realities. If we wish to understand our future, then the best thing we can do is to decode our cultural stories. We literally live within a world of fiction. And in a world of fictions and stories, reality will always lose out. Reality, or the real, has always been forced to fit our stories of the world – and always will. Whether we are told the world is flat; that the earth is the center of the solar system; or that we will go to hell if we are bad. The simulacrum of stories will always force reality out of the picture. We live within a sea of stories, and these are the simulated programs.
It is crucial to understand how the simulacrum programs us so that one generation does not ‘unknowingly’ submit to programming the incoming generation. Otherwise, the system becomes a continual programming machine. And the hoax knows how to sell itself over and over again, using different catchphrases for different generations. In terms of popular culture, its banality is often dressed up and sold off as the fascinating, the intoxicating, the entertaining, the alluring, the game-play, the fun, and all the rest. But banality, whatever it is dressed up as, is still banal underneath its sheen. And for those of us in modern cultures especially, we are lured into accepting the banal just as the naked emperor wears his non-clothes. It’s the fast food of meaning. We take our portion, feel nourished and refreshed, and then walk away seemingly satiated only to feel hunger pains again shortly afterwards. It does not truly fill us with anything of substance. And this is the banality of the hoax: we are not given anything of genuine meaning or worth. But so many of us fall for it. Really, let’s ask ourselves – how many of us are truly happy?
We may wonder why so many people in highly-developed cultures are so depressed. According to a recent report published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) 16.7 percent of 242 million U.S. adults reported filling one or more prescriptions for psychiatric anti-depressant drugs in 2013.[ii] This is one in every six people and is an increase from 13 percent in 2012. Despite the simulacrum of happiness, there is an overwhelming amount of anxiety and depression. And not only within the general populace either as this syndrome is endemic also amongst the ‘stars’ of the show. Many of our well-known celebrities are in therapy, or have been in therapy, or are in dire need of therapy; for ailments ranging from alcohol and drug abuse, failed relationships, stress, and other factors. Only the most gossip-driven stories are splashed over the show-time news; yet deep under the surface many celebrities silently suffer and are already addicted to popping their pills. In the last few years alone, we have seen ‘famous stars’ drop down like drugged flies, including Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Prince. Just pop in ‘famous stars died of drugs’ in your online search engine as I have just done and see what comes out. In fact, you might even need to narrow down the search as there is far too much information. Why not write – ‘famous stars died of prescription drugs.’ The greatest show on earth it seems is underwritten by a medicinal diet of therapy and pills. There’s no escaping parody. The escape itself would only be a caricature.
It seems that nothing anymore can be taken at face value, if ever it could. Simulated environments attempt to erase any competing ideas or ideologies that may contest them; or else they seek to incorporate them. They whitewash over any opposition, re-pixelate the screen so that everything looks in accord. Yet they do this not only by eradicating opposition but also by creating a false sense of opposites, dualisms, and opponents. Everything, from our sense of choice, our politics, our economics, is manufactured and packaged for us, just like prescription drugs. What we are facing more and more has less to do with the real and more to do with its replacement – its replicant.
The Rise of the Replicants
We pride ourselves on knowing the difference between the real and the imaginary. Our sense of reality is guided by signposts called dualities – by the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and the ‘left’ and ‘right.’ And yet these home-spun superficial structures are overused as substitutes. They are like replicant signs that distract us from what may be going on below. We are presented with a packaged ‘hoax’ reality that fakes its oppositions and its choices. We are asked to make a choice between one thing or another without having any choice in the selection offered to us. There is an incredible sleight-of-hand going on, and this is the illusion of free choice. We think we have free choice when we are asked to choose between A, B, or C – whether they are candidates, objects, policies, etc – when in fact all we are being offered are limited options. To be offered choice is not the same as having free choice, and yet the difference is blurred. When we are given the choice between A and B, the sleight-of-hand is distracting us from the question – ‘In what type of system do I live which produces the choices of only A or B?’ Also – ‘where are all the other possible choices beyond A or B?’ Our perspectives are being managed into a specific and controlled focus so that we miss the broader picture. We rave over our stories of the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ and we even transfer our stories onto placards and go onto marches. We say that ‘we’ are labor or conservative; democrat or republican, when in fact what we are really saying is that ‘you gave me the option of A or B, and I chose A – and now I’m going to defend my choice.’ These are the external dualisms, the false paradoxes that create the illusion of a nuanced playing field. To any keen observer they can be seen for what they are – superficial, paper-thin cut-outs parading as a pantomime.
What are the choices of freedom available to us? In terms of staged politics, what is our ‘freedom’ of choice when the whole system behind the candidates is beyond our choosing? The illusion of choice distracts us from realizing the very absence and lack of choice that really exists. It is the magician’s sleight-of-hand trick that distracts our attention from the object of true value. In this case, the fact that our political systems are stage-managed to exclude choice and to be as limiting as possible for the general populace. This is a simulacrum of freedom that replaces its former representation of repression (whether feudalism, dictatorship or authoritarianism). The special effects are more subtle, smoother, and cause less opposition. Or, in the words of Herbert Marcuse – ‘A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress.’3 Marcuse also noted that the ‘Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.’4
Simulation plays with the notion of substitution, replication, and replacement. Most things are a copy of something else. The real – the original – is out of sight, unseen by the untrained eye. Any semblance of the real has undergone substitution – welcome to the hoax. And so, we may ask – where are the originals today? What is even original today? Even our personalities (our personas) are a mask; our identities are socially conditioned sets of cultural identifiers – where is the original ‘I’? Who is the original ‘You’?
The social-cultural simulacrum loves nothing better than to make a grand performance about so-called ‘originals.’ For example, even ‘original’ paintings are copies because they are a copy of something else that was imagined or copied from life and transferred onto the canvas. You cannot say any painting is ‘original;’ this is just a fake word used to cover up the simulation. What we call an ‘original’ painting is merely the ‘first copy’ before the other copies arrived; and then after that the fakes arrived, which is yet another layer to add to the overall deceptive simulacrum. And yet the ‘first copies’ still fetch incredible amounts of money (money being another object of simulation which is based on perceived or consensus value). Examples of this ridiculous spending spree include the $300 million paid for the painting Interchange by Willem de Kooning in September 2015 (as did Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? in February of the same year). This overblown behavior ends up looking more like a parody than anything else. These events in our lives are supposed to give us meaning, to provide satisfaction and achievement; and yet they are governed by the artificial, the shallow, and the show. These are events which are ever drifting toward their own vanishing point. The replicants guard the portals to the void.
The simulacrum of contemporary cultures is awash with the synthetic image. Synthetic images go viral because they replicate through our social and technological networks. They replicate without boundaries to be copied, pasted, and passed through social media posts, blogs, inboxes, etc, until they have been reproduced up to millions of times. They are so far from the original they are no longer its ghosts – they are its phantasmagoria; the visual driftwood contributing to the ever-growing flotsam of psycho-candy. Now movies have merged with the synthetic in computer-generation images (CGI) that create a cinematic simulation away from real objects, persons, and settings. We are in the process of obliterating the traces of our existence as we slip closer to the void.
Perhaps the trick, if there is one, is to be aware of ourselves within the simulacrum that surrounds us. It is up to each of us to be responsible for our own vigilance.
Being Vigilant within the Hoax
Now is a good time to be alert. Each day of our lives we are impacted, influenced, and swayed by forces external to us. We are inundated within the simulated environment that is the hoax. And like fishes in water, the nature of our environment is often hidden to us in plain sight. Cultural institutions and social systems spread their conditioning forces over us, ply us with propaganda, and sell us playful images and pursuits that appeal to the collective. It is a representation of reality that prefers its participants to be mechanical, without creative thinking. What we need now is a keen attention; a capacity to see things coming at us from a distance. It is time to take a more active role in our own watchfulness.
As we walk daily through the simulacrum we should take note of our steps. There are always moments, opportunities, when certain choices have to be taken. The simulation (hoax) likes to play out on those choices we make, so each of us should be aware of our choices and decisions. We need to be alert to the nature of the hoax as there’s little chance to walk away. We may pretend it’s not happening or ignore its charms, yet we have to be ‘in the game’ in order to exist in our social and cultural environments. The best strategy would be to play the game wide-awake. There is a fine line from being players to pawns. Not being a pawn means being aware of the nature of the game. And it is all made up of stories – both the stories told us and the stories we tell ourselves.
If we are hoaxed, then it is because something inside of us allows it to be so. We need to know the hoax for what it is – an illusion. As Albert Einstein once said: ‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.’ Nowadays, this belongs to the great art of perception management.
1 Shah, I. 1985. The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. London: Octagon Press, 107.
2 Harari, Yuval Noah. 2017. Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Vintage, 139.
3 Marcuse, H. 2007/1964. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society Oxford: Routledge, 3.
4 Marcuse, H. 2007/1964. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society Oxford: Routledge, 10.
[i] Nick Bostrom has posted his essay online; see http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html
[ii] For more information, see http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2592697