Is simulation turning people into escapists, wonders this Argentinian philosopher and science-fiction expert.
BUENOS AIRES — Years ago, I remember a cyberpunk writer in Barcelona saying that George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four made us fear that a Big Brother state would watch our every move through screens. In recent years, a show called Big Brother turned up on television, allowing us to gawp at a bunch of bored people in a house. You see, the state already knew everything about us. The difference was that now certain people delighted in being watched because they believed that they existed only if their image was broadcast — even if it was merely on social networks.
At the time the cyberpunk writer spoke to me, I sent that report to Buenos Aires using a phone booth on the street. Today, you would do that using a pocket-sized phone and, who knows, even that small device may soon become a chip that we embed in our skin. Technology is the only thing that progresses in our world, which seems to regress on every other front.
The speed of communication today and the merging of phones and computers has created a need for us to be constantly connected and to translate our personality into images. The web is no longer the mythical library we had dreamed that it could be. Instead, it's a virtual playground where people shuffle between fictitious settings. It's become a second reality that's interfering with the actual one.
The virtual reality game Pokémon Go, which has been invading our streets lately, is more fearsome than Martians. It represents an offensive of the virtual world against realism. Authorities have had to remind drivers that cars and trucks are not animations. They are palpable objects that follow the laws of physics.
Modern man has decided to reshape nature in his own image. Post-modern technology has created simulations and imitations that allow one to ignore the disagreeable aspects of reality. The industrial robot was born copying the worker's movements and ended up stealing the employee of his work. Motion capture may rid cinema of its need for actors. Cellular automaton simulates the evolution of species. Imagination has languished since virtual games came about. Multi-User Domains provide us with hallucinations on demand. Daily social networking foments fictions and deceptions.
It would be easy to blame technology for everything. But we should consider that technology emerges specifically from our culture to meet certain needs. Modern humans have rediscovered realism in the form of environmental disasters, even if they continue to seek refuge in fiction and simulations. More than 30 years ago, when this technology was little more than a dream, James G. Ballard wrote that our world had become a soup of fiction with a few crumbs of reality floating in it.
We have zero-calorie foods, virtual sex and big-media politics that are closer to the television show Big Brother than the kind Orwell wrote about. We have trouble recognizing fakes in a world where everything is copied, where what we think of our economy is replacing what our economy really is, and where speculation and gambling have become the same thing. Argentines can recall that for 10 years we all thought we had a stronger currency, and, for even longer, we chose to believe the state's "proactive" social and political discourse. We should bear in mind that a sense of reality is the frontier between madness and sanity.