The Weekly Stripe – 12.02.21
A global pandemic, mutant viruses, crowds storming the Capitol, cryptocurrencies more valuable than gold: of late reality feels increasingly surreal. If for many this uncanny visceral feeling is new, the idea that we are living in a spectacle isn't. In this weekly Stripe, we explore the (crazy?) thought that reality is not what it seems.
If reality is that strange, it might just be because it isn’t real? Almost two decades ago Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom posited that it is more likely than not that we are living in a computer simulation. Since then, the idea convinced many, from Steven Hawking to Elon Musk (whose own erratic behaviour might be the best exhibit for the case).
A generation of French social science students have been shaped by the Situationist philosophy of Guy Debord. Its thesis? The history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing“. His main opus, “The Spectacle Society”, was accompanied by an eponymous film, which Debord also wrote and directed.
Even without fully agreeing to Debord’s doctrine, one has to acknowledge that reality feels ever more staged and performative. In his book History has Begun, writer Bruno Maçães makes the case that this is the defining characteristic of current American politics: “Things in America felt like a disaster movie. In Europe they just felt like a disaster”.
Writer Neal Stephenson coined the term “Metaverse” in 1992. Back then, it was pure science-fiction. 30 years later, pundits are predicting it will soon become a reality. Video games like Fortnite are already letting players freely roam in ever vaster environments and artists are lining up to perform within the game. The next step? An open, digital universe where avatars stroll unconstrained by the limits of one single game or platform.
To conclude, one might wonder what is the utility of creating another world that would be so precise as to exactly replicate the original one? And indeed writers, from Lewis Carroll to Jose Luis Borges or Umberto Eco, have – “And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!