In the aughts, when first exposed to philosopher Nick Bostrom’s idea that we’re living inside a computer simulation rather than reality, I accepted the premise as a fun thought experiment and something perfectly fine to consider.
It’s lost a lot of charm ever since Elon Musk went on a Bostrom bender after reading Superintelligence in 2014, as he and some other Silicon Valley stalwarts have taken this notion, theoretically possible if unlikely, and transformed it into almost a sure thing. Musk, an aspirant Martian, has said that “there’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality.” It’s this certitude, an almost religious fervor, that seems the actual threat to reality.
It reminds me of when I worked for Internet companies during the tail end of Web 1.0, a time of supposedly self-fulfilling prophecies, when everyone, it seemed, was sure NASDAQ would soon leapfrog the Dow, right before the tech bubble burst.
In “Silicon Valley Questions the Meaning of Life,” a smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, Nick Bilton articulates exactly why a mere philosophical exercise has become so disquieting. An excerpt:
The theories espoused by many of the prominent figures in the tech industry can sometimes sound as though they were pulled from The Matrix. That’s not really as unusual as it sounds. Hollywood, after all, has been exploring strands of the simulation idea for decades. World on a Wire, Brainstorm, Inception, the entire Matrix franchise, Total Recall, and many other movies have envisioned this theory in one way or another. Most of the technologies we use on a daily basis were first envisioned by sci-fi writers many years ago, including smartphones, tablets, and even a version of Twitter.
But these ideas are often put forth for the purpose of entertainment—the movies end, and we all leave the seemingly real theater, and go back to our real, seemingly un-simulated lives. What’s fascinating, however, is the velocity with which the fictional premise has become a serious, and seriously considered, theory in the Valley. I have been asked, on more than one occasion, if I believe we’re in a simulation. And I have listened, on more than one occasion, as people carefully articulate how our very conversation could be taking place in a simulation. Like a lot of things in the Valley, I have lost track of the line between where the joke ends, if that line even existed at all.
Whatever the case, the conversation is moving from the confines of cubicles and research labs to the mainstream.•