The thought of living in a simulated reality is, in my opinion, both intensely intriguing and frighteningly possible. Of course this possibility that everything around us is an encoded virtual representation would peak any science fiction fans interest whether it was created by some all knowing architect or a random ancient system floating through the ether, I often find myself staring at an object and, embarrassingly enough, trying to picture its code or make it dissolve. Luckily I haven't gone as far as attempting to stop a bullet, but one can dream.
While I admit the world of video games are pretty foreign to me, the level of artistic and technological accomplishment has never ceased to amaze me. I enjoyed Chrono Trigger as much as the next person but nowadays my lack of time, and even more impressive lack of funds prevent me from partaking. However, the other day I was watching one of my good friends play one of the more recent Grand Theft Auto games and while I was observing in awe the sheer vastness and beauty of this digital world, a few things started striking me in a way which I have, and will, ponder over for some time. While I was blown away by what I was witnessing and probably annoying my friend with a million questions about the game it started to occur to me that this incredible feat of human ingenuity was gradually making my opinion on the likelihood of our world being a simulated reality shift from possible, to probable.
It all started when my friend whom i’ll refer to as Tony, boarded a helicopter. Again, from the moment I started watching I was overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of this computer programmed world, but once he started climbing in elevation I started piecing together similarities between the two worlds in front of me. I saw an area which I assumed to be downtown. As Tony veered to the right, the downtown area, as in real life, started veering off to the left until it was behind him. Eventually when he came back around, there it was again, and I realized this vast virtual world followed certain programmed rules of spatial relationships and no matter what Tony does this seems to hold true. Just as in real life I can look at a building, walk around the block and it will be there when I return. So I started realizing this huge virtual world was in fact just digital code or data that follows different algorithms or rules. I then realized when Tony started lowering his elevation, the ground or streets started gaining more and more detail, again such as in real life, the closer he was to an object, these algorithms produced more, or different data revealing finer details which were not there before. It all comes back to these real world conundrums such as “if there is nobody present to hear a tree fall” and “does the inside of the tree exist before you cut it open?” as proposed by one of my favorite simulated universe theorists Jim Elvidge.
When he eventually landed and disembarked from the helicopter I noticed all the digital representations of people who were reacting to his presence and what was happening in front of them. Again this struck me as data, which was programmed to react to certain things such as Tony himself, or environmental obstacles, or different actions such as a car intersecting or a grenade thrown their way. Once I started viewing these digital people as such, I started wondering; were they still going about their business in the same fashion when he was in the helicopter and he couldn't see them? Did the downtown exist when it was not in view? Part of me thought yes because of the rules of spatial relations in this digital world, but then I thought it would probably be way more efficient for things to, in fact, not exist until the player’s line of sight called for it. I wondered, do these encoded “people” who seemingly were going about their encoded “lives” know they are just codes programmed to jump out of Tony’s way when he drives toward them? It also struck me that, upon confrontation, some were encoded to fight back and others to run away. Does this translate to personality traits? Imagine my shock when one pulled out their phone to take a picture of Tony and another called the police, who were in fact notified and eventually arrived. It all hurt my non-tech brain.
Finally my skepticism returned and I started reminding myself, if Tony traverses this world in a straight line indefinitely, no matter how vast the digital world it will eventually end. Very promptly I realized the solution to that problem was to make your world spherical. Furthermore if he increased his elevation until he left that sphere he could enter a different set of spacial data with different algorithms such as a vacuum with no gravity. To make it even better lets make that vacuum a giant void where the closest object is so far away it would be unrealistic for anything to travel there. It seemed pretty convenient to me.
Then I started thinking about what comes next. The obvious progression would be size of space, visual detail, and intricacy of algorithms, all of which are continuously being developed and improved upon. Given the whole exponential growth of technology argument, it seems that a digital world indistinguishable from our own will definitely exist within our lifetime. This logic sounded strange to me. It felt highly unlikely that given the vastness of space and specifically time, if it is in fact vast, we would presently be on the cusp of such a creation. In fact, it is much more likely we would have achieved such a thing before. Maybe once, or perhaps millions of times over. The likelihood of a digital cage within a digital cage creating a cycle of technological evolution is more and more prevalent to me and in fact makes me question the nature of our reality constantly.
Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom argues civilization either A) never reaches this level of technology B) does in fact reach a technological level in which we are capable but for whatever reason do not create an indistinguishable simulation (ie. civilization ends or chooses not to) or C) it has in fact been developed and we are almost certainly living inside a simulation currently. I would argue we are presently on the cusp so A is highly unlikely. I doubt we would create the technology and decide not to use it given the history of scientific progression. We could definitely be erased from this equation entirely but to argue whether or not this will happen is trivial. So I am left with either we die, or were already ensnared in a vast illusion of data.
While I'm sure there are many people shaking their heads in disgust at my lack of knowledge involving codes and algorithms the fundamental ideas hold true. What I was witnessing in this “game” was indeed a prophetic glimpse into a man-made world in which a digital sunset is just as breathtaking as our own. A world where interactions have identical consequences and digital people decide what course of action best suits their interests. When a digital person runs for cover amidst a violent firefight is it not for their own survival? Even if one was programmed to do so would that encoded being know? Where does our deep down “natural” instinct of self preservation truly originate? Perhaps we truly are on the precipice of creating a virtual prison, in which case we are in a damn special time. However with our understanding of the reality in which we live, or lack there of, it is not so far fetched to believe in the possibility of a world consisting of simply data and algorithms, especially when such a thing can be purchased in any moment we choose for a mere $69.99.