The Simulation Age
(Informally dedicated with thanks to the courageous folks of the Occupy Wall Street and other global “Occupy” movements – frontline warriors in the War Against Simulation.)
I recently bought a frozen pizza. When I opened it, the pizza was half the size of the box. I felt cheated. Despite the fact that the wrapping was probably more expensive to produce than the pizza, the inexorable logic of the capitalist growth mantra meant that more and more profit had to be squeezed out of what was basically a pretty fixed paradigm: pizza of diameter X, sold in box of width Y, for price Z. Taken logically, the end result of this process will be a massive, gorgeous, whopping pizza box, with a tiny pill inside tasting mildly of pizza. And then the frozen pizza company will collapse.
Before that collapse, however, we’ll have entered the era of “simulated pizzas”.
This is a tendency I see everywhere these days. Even (damn my fuddy-duddy ear!) in popular music, where increasingly it’s the superfices of the pop music industry which are recreated before us – adoring crowds, super-lazorlight concerts, gorgeously pneumatic and sexed-to-the-max stars – while the substance, the musical content, degrades into a kind of vanilla blandness, mixed by professional muzoes in a slick corporate studio somewhere, to a tried and tested formula which will ‘get the kids going’. The music industry too is becoming a simulation of itself – and the consumer turns away, the money spent on it decreases, and so the business investment dwindles further. Eventually, music becomes a gorgeously glitzy 3 minute extravaganza of sex, lights, and dancing, but the tune is exactly the same as the last time. Simulated pop.
And even the news! In true Soviet, 1984 fashion, our news pundits peddle lies and distortions with little bearing on our experienced reality, so much so that I wonder who they’re talking to. Most of us living in the real world don’t experience an economic recovery; most of us don’t see a great mysterious overseas threat; most of us see massively higher day-to-day inflation than the laughably bogus government figures suggest; most of us aren’t that bothered about the pointless self-referential sensationalism the media invents to fill the “news hour”. So who are they talking to? They must have an audience in mind. And they do – a “simulated audience”, an ideal consumer of the fictitious broadcasts they invent. Simulated news for simulated people.
At the same time, the internet is burgeoning with news, music, art, blogs, thinking, all produced by individuals existing outside the pizza-box capitalist paradigm. People are awakening to our “simulated economy”, where those who work and pay tax get poorer, to the benefit of those – the bankers, the corporates – who break the laws, receive endless taxpayer handouts, and get rich. All around the world we have protests – online, Occupying Wall Street and other economic centres, a sudden solidarity in the face of a pernicious threat which is hollowing our lives from within, turning them into mere simulations of wealth, liberty, and happiness. We’re creating a direct route between creator and consumer, unmediated by an ideologically- and commercially-motivated “packager” sucking the value out of every transaction. The more the Simulation Age squeezes the life out of reality, the more reality turns its back on the Simulation Age and creates an alternative paradigm, leaving the Simulators to wither, and die on the vine.
When we write, we knowingly produce simulations: artificial realities, with a semblance of existence. But, beneath, what they say is true: psychologically true, emotionally true, philosophically true. We might be writing about fantasy worlds of elves and magic, or science-fiction universes of alt-humans and techno-immortals, or superhumans battling global villains and saving society from destruction; but, on a deep level, what we write has to be true – it has to be understandable, acceptable, meaningful to the reader. If our spacefarers don’t deal with life in credible ways, no amount of technobabble will make the tale ring true; but if their lives are believable, compelling, they tell us something about ourselves and our own condition, we as readers can handle any amount of artifice.
That’s a paradox. On the one hand, we have our modern post-capitalist frenzy, using the accoutrements of reality to create a scarcely believable simulation of that reality, from which people are turning away in droves. Then, on the other, we have modern-day fiction, using the accoutrements of simulation to tell believable tales of reality. We create myths and fictions to tell ourselves the truth.
And, like matter and anti-matter, when lies meet truth in the Simulation Age, they explode in a blinding burst of energy. But destructive or creative energy? There’s the rub. And that’s what we, as creators and consumers of our own stories, get to decide. And in the streets of cities all around the world, in online communities and physical world families and fellowships, that decision is being played out today.
There’s a lot to play for. Simulation or reality? Choose now.