Preface: the History of These ideas
by Ken Sanes
Essential ideas are in bold.
In 1977, or thereabouts, inspired by watching the television series Star Trek, I developed a theory of how simulations might one day transform human life. By simulations, I meant things that pretend to be other things, including everything we refer to as fakes, illusions, imitations, copies, facsimiles, re-creations, and so on. It seemed to me that simulations came in at least three varieties -- images, physical objects and forms of acting. And they played various roles in human life which could, to some degree, be categorized as good or bad. Among those roles, there were many simulations that tricked us with their realism, inducing in us a state of simulation confusion in which we confused an imitation for what it imitated.There were hairpieces that masqueraded as heads of hair, fake IDs; and con artists who assumed false identities, to name a few. Other simulations, such as television dramas that created the illusion we were looking in on genuine events, were used as vehicles for fantasy and entertainment. Still others were put to more practical uses, such as simulated disasters used to train firefighters. Collectively, I believed that all of this was giving us a new kind of economy and culture that was, to a significant degree, based on designing, producing and selling things that appear to be other things.
It also seemed to me at the time that there were profound reasons to be concerned about the effect of simulation on society. Among those concerns, I believed that we could one day become addicted to simulations and come to prefer fakery and illusion to what is authentic. This was particularly true when it came to television which, I believed, would evolve into -- or be replaced by -- a medium that surrounded us with lifelike images that we would be able to create and control with computers. Faced with such an advanced form of television that would give us a fake reality that was as malleable as the imagination, I feared many people would choose to lose themselves in invented worlds. These same simulations of reality would also allow us to act out neurotic fantasies and fantasies of engaging in evil and transgression, since everything that happened in them would only be a lifelike pretence without consequences. I feared a future in which many people would become addicted to acting out disturbed fantasies, and I suspected that a new form of legitimation. might emerge in which the acting out of our neuroses via simulations would be justified as a form of art, therapy, and liberation.
As alluded to above, I also had a concern that people would increasingly suffer from simulation confusion in which they would mistake fakes for authentic objects, either by accident or as a result of simulation fraud. There was even the possibility, it seemed to me, that people might one day mistake simulations of physical reality for physical reality, although I wasn't able, in this early stage of my thinking, to figure out how such an extreme state of affairs might come about.
Finally, I also feared that our ability to create lifelike images would result in a new and odd practice that I, somewhat tongue in cheek, referred to as "image abuse" in which people would manipulate other people's images and make it appear those people were in unflattering or incriminating situations. Some of these manipulated images would be forms of simulation fraud in which faked pictures of people that pretended to be authentic were made public, so those people were subjected to pictorial libel. In other instances, no claim would be made that the pictures were faithful renderings of people and events, but the pictures would still degrade those they depicted. I similarly believed that image abuse and the acting out of evil fantasies would come together, so that, for example, person A might appropriate the image of person B and subject it to all manner of indignities in lifelike computer simulations.
I thus saw the potential evolution of a culture with significant and unusual personal and social pathologies, consisting of addiction, the acting out of disturbed fantasies, extensive confusion and fraud, and manipulated images, all of it made possible by our ability to create things that appear to be other things. In the end, I feared, many people might become lost in illusion and cease to care about the difference between fiction and the nonfiction world.
At the time, very little of the technology for this existed, other than movies and television. The commercial industries of personal computers, video games, virtual reality forms of entertainment and many of the special effects of television and movies were still in the future. As alluded to earlier, I took my ideas mostly from science fiction stories which, it seemed to me, were drawing from our own, largely unconscious, knowledge of how humanity might try to use the new technologies of simulation to satisfy its desires. Or to be more accurate, my own unconscious knowledge of how humanity might use these technologies was sparked into becoming conscious by science fiction works in which authors expressed their own conscious and unconscious knowledge of the same thing.
The two-part Star Trek episode, "The Menagerie", which was my most important source of inspiration, depicted a race much like our own, called the Talosians, that was addicted to acting out fantasies in mentally-induced simulations of reality and that also used simulations to trick other people. The "Menagerie" told the story of how the Talosians tried to lure Captain Pike (Kirk's predecessor) into becoming a slave, by placing him in lifelike fantasies in which he could both indulge the dark side of his nature and also live a life of romance in a pastoral paradise, with the promise that he could enjoy these possibilities for a lifetime of pleasure. All he had to do in return was give up his free will. If he didn't cooperate, of course, there were hells of the imagination awaiting him, instead.
One particularly masterful scene took place at an imaginary feast that was intended to give Pike a taste of the pleasures of indulging in evil. At the feast, two imaginary companions tried to strike a Faustian bargain with him:
"Suppose you had all of space to choose from and this was only one small sample - " one said to him.
"Wouldn't you say," asked the other, "it was worth a man's soul?"
It was a question, it seemed to me, that the new technology of simulation was posing to humanity.
A second story where I found similar themes was the short novel, The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem, which depicted a future humanity trapped in a drug-induced simulation in which it saw a world of luxury and high technology while everything was really falling apart around it. Meanwhile, it too acted out endless fantasies, including fantasies of evil. Symington, the dictator and dreamweaver behind this false world, created this spell of illusion as an act of misguided compassion to conceal from humanity the impending ecological destruction of the earth.
A third work, the short story, "The Veldt", depicted a future household in which the children, Peter and Wendy, had become addicted to their automated house, which did everything for them, and which included an animated nursery that simulated whatever fantasies they chose. When their parents decide it is time for the kids to break the bonds of dependence on the house and nursery and begin to grow up, the children lock the parents inside the nursery. Fictional lions then become real, presumably devouring the parents and ensuring that the children can live in a world of fantasy and comfort forever, in the comforting embrace of technology.
"The Veldt", it seemed to me, captured one of the essential conflicts of our time -- we could choose the reality principle, embodied in the parents who demanded that their children become independent, or we could choose the pleasure principle, embodied in new technologies of automation and simulation that would do everything for us and place us in ersatz realms of endless pleasure and fantasy. I termed our desire to create technologies that would let us lose ourselves in lifelike fantasies and grant our wishes with convincing illusions the "simulation complex". Part of the simulation complex consisted of a collective fantasy in which humanity dreamed that simulation would overthrow reality, as in "The Veldt", and create a new world modeled after our desires. Our corresponding desire to use technology to directly refashion the actual world so it too would cater to us, I termed (among other things) the "reality complex". Between them, these two ideas captured what for me was the essence of the age -- we were trying to use science and technology to re-create the physical world into a place where our dreams and desires would come true, and to create fictional worlds in which would could pretend this was the case.
In other words, I believed that humanity was engaged in a collective project to create machines that would result in the permanent victory of the pleasure principle and of human will. We could see humanity bringing this about in the progress of science and technology, which was giving it mastery over the basic elements of the world. And we could see humanity moving toward the goal of giving each of us our own imitation realities as it went about creating the movies and synthesizing different sensory modalities, from silent black and white movies to large-screen color talkies, and then creating television for the home, on to the more advanced forms of immersive, computer-generated television that was still to come. Our ultimate intention, I believed, was to make reality as malleable as a simulation and simulation as lifelike as reality.
But science fiction also expressed our rational and irrational fears of what might happen to reality in a world full of simulation. It showed us characters suffering from total confusion in which they could no longer distinguish reality from illusion. And it showed us situations in which the boundary between reality and illusion had broken down and simulations became real or reality became a simulation. The idea that simulation might become real I referred to as an actualization fantasy. The idea that reality or something real might become a simulation (such as of a person who suddenly finds him or herself trapped in a fiction) I referred to as a deactualization fantasy.
I found these themes not merely in the stories referred to above, but in various other works of science fiction. There was The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clark, and there was the entire (original) Star Trek series which captured many of our dreams and nightmares by showing us a future humanity moving out into the universe as it encountered beings that had conquered the physical world and worlds of illusion.
My intention at the time was to develop the study of all this as a branch or part of social science that would be empirical and stay close to the data, but that would also focus on the ethical issues raised by these changes. There would be a history of simulation tracing its origins in nature through early human history and on to the age of advanced simulations we are beginning to enter. For convenience, I divided history into three primary ages of simulation -- an age of natural simulations; an age of humanly-constructed primitive simulations and the new age of advanced simulations. This last period, which I believed had been gathering "steam" at least since the invention of the movies, had a number of characteristics. Among them: fakes and illusions were rapidly expanding in number and kind and the sophistication of their effects, and they were being carried across the world by mass transportation and communications, creating the beginnings of a global culture based on simulation. The growing role of images, of the acting out of fantasies and of simulation confusion and fraud also characterized the age.
I believed that the War of the Worlds broadcast -- in which a theatrical simulation based on voice acting, sound effects and a script, fooled a nation -- offered an example of the way those in power would be able to falsify our view of the world. The broadcast took place early in the emergence of the new age of advanced simulations. By the time of the Milli Vanilli scandal, in which two performers turned out to be a lifelike synthetic product, we were well into the age of advanced simulations.
In addition to taking into account the simulations we were creating and their social effects, the study of simulation would also take into account the works of fiction and social criticism that expressed our growing awareness of the issues being raised. Many of these works of fiction were themselves simulations, such as the Star Trek episodes that created the illusion of places, situations, and people (or aliens). It struck me as interesting that we were increasingly using simulations to express our thoughts about simulation.
There would also be a psychology of simulation in which we would precisely reveal our interactions with simulations and the roles they played in our lives. As part of this, I developed the beginnings of a comprehensive list of kinds and components of simulations, along with various categories that described the elements of our interactions with them, which I still have tucked away on a disk somewhere. For any simulation or interaction with a simulation, we could apply these categories. The War of the Worlds broadcast, for example, was a theatrical simulation using voice acting, sound effects and a script, communicated via radio that induced a state of simulation confusion in audiences, presumably by accident, which some people were able to see through by consulting common sense knowledge of how the world works, by checking other sources of information, by seeing through flaws in the illusion and by being aware of labels that explained it was a work of fiction. The Milli Vanilli scandal was a theatrical simulation using acting and recordings mistaken for live voices, that induced simulation confusion deliberately...and so on. We could boil down any situation to a general set of elements, like those in italics, to see similarities and understand the basic components of our interactions with simulations.
There would also be a hermeneutics or "science" for interpreting simulations which would take into account our fantasies about, and associations to, simulation, such as those described earlier. The fact that we viewed simulation as an invitation to regression and that fiction kept depicting malevolent simulators who were disguised depictions of controlling and overindulgent parents, would have to be an essential object of study for such a branch of psychology. The message of such a hermeneutics was that we experienced simulation and technology as invitations to regress into states of oral symbiosis, to escape the difficulties of growing up.
Such a science of interpretation would also study the precursors to contemporary fantasies and stories about simulation. In the Greek myth of the statue that became a woman; in the story of Pinocchio in which a puppet becomes human; in stories about people lost in realms of fantasy, we could see the human race already expressing the idea that dreams and fantasies and imitations of life might cross over the boundary. All of this might be correlated with studies of people as they interacted with, and talked about, simulations to find the common patterns.
There would also need to be legal studies, as well as new laws, raised by a host of conflicts that would be revolve around image abuse, simulation confusion and fraud, simulated pornography and depictions of evil, and so on.
I believed that the interpretation of science fiction works played an essential role in all this since science fiction already contained within it a complete psychology and prediction for the future. Humanity already knew pretty much what it was planning, it just had a habit of revealing that to itself only in disguised form. But I believed that the most important thing science fiction expressed was an ethics of simulation, which was based on the essential idea that our wisdom would have to keep pace with our power if we were to use these new powers correctly. In essence, the ethics embodied in science fiction told us that we faced a choice -- we could use these new technologies for progress or regress, although, of course, we would end up using it in significant ways for both. Science fiction gave us this message over and over. The original Star Trek, for example, showed us various kinds of advanced beings who used both simulation and control over the physical world for progressive and regressive purposes, for good and ill.
Trelane, the super-being on Star Trek who liked to use his power over physical reality to torture his human pets (and who turned out to be an immature super-being child) was an image of one possible future. He represented a future humanity that had been lured by its power into regressing and abusing its power. The similarly powerful, Christlike, Organians were an over-idealized image of another possible future in which we had progressed as moral beings, even as we had gained control over the physical world. Similarly, Talos, the planet of enslaving and addictive illusions, found its counterpoint in another planet depicted in the episode, "Shore Leave", where simulation was used for recreation, at least once one knew how to control it.
At some point in my thinking, the political implications of all this started to draw my attention. The key idea here was that of simulation fraud since it became clear to me, as noted above, that people in power create false appearances, including false renditions of "reality" on television, to influence the public. I was only later to recognize how essential this idea would be to everything I was studying.
I first expressed this idea in print in 1992 when I published a piece in the Boston Globe about how we are being surrounded by simulations that trick us with their realism, and about how the fake world of politics is drawing us into an invented world full of staging and scripts. At the same time, I published a piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune about how contemporary culture now invites us to vicariously act out fantasies of evil and transgression, impressing on us a false philosophy of freedom and life. The two pieces expressed the growing sense I had that, ultimately, our media culture was itself something like an invented world, manipulated by those in power in an effort to control us.
At the time, I was just becoming aware that there were a number of important social critics, in addition to science fiction writers, who were warning us of the dangers of simulation. I had already known about the pioneering work of Daniel Boorstin for a good many years. But now I became aware of the ideas of Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard and, later, Guy Debord, who described the way we are being surrounded by a culture of images that is both an endless series of sales pitches and an ideology embodied in the appearance of products and objects.
Throughout this period my ideas were evolving. I had always viewed simulations as physical and sensory objects and forms of acting that expressed and let us act out our underlying fantasies and fears and desires. This was expanded when I elaborated a theory that described the news media as creating narratives with characters, settings and plots, and attempted to show that these narratives were forms of action intended to affect people and events.* These ideas on the news media constituted a second theory in addition to the theory of simulation, one that involved a fairly detailed social science model. And I developed a psychoanalytically-based, theory of how we come to have false selves because of irrational fears of being whole, competent, and assertive. I didn't, at the time, fully appreciate that all these theories were part of a larger theory of representation, culture and human nature.
I don't know whether it was around this time or before that I began to more fully develop a psychological theory of how we act out fantasies in entertainment-oriented simulations. As this aspect of the theory evolved, these creations, such as television, movies, video games, theme parks, and so on, were described as symbolic arenas that let us reenact our core unconscious fantasies, and fears and desires in a more interesting and grandiose way and also in disguised form. As the psychologist Robert Stoller said of daydreams and art, we control the simulation to ensure the danger is only imaginary and to ensure that we resolve the story by winning in the end. It seemed to me that we also use these creations to experience happy endings in which we momentarily got to enjoy the kind of better world we all desire. Similarly, in video games, we could act out grandiose fantasies by controlling the image surrogates for ourselves on the screen, while we simultaneously admired our own magnificence in these heroic surrogates by observing them from a distance. These simulations were thus acts of self- and world-repair that gave us a more interesting version of our own inner world back to us in disguised form.
I also began to study themed or fabricated environments sometime in the early 1990s, most essentially, the immersive artificial rain forest exhibits that were beginning to appear in zoos. In studying them, I saw the way fake trees, plants and rocks were blended in with genuine nature and the way anything that might interfere with the illusion was hidden from viewers. I saw that these same techniques of weaving together what is invented and authentic, and relying on stealth simulations based on hiding, disguise, near-invisibility, and so on, were also used to create movies and other complex simulations. In addition, I saw that all these physical fabrications were used to draw visitors into an immersive story in which the visitors pretended to go on a journey through the rain forest as they learned about the dangers to the forest's survival and were taught the philosophy of environmentalism. I thus saw how physical simulations could tell and draw us into stories which were forms of ideology intended to shape our view of the world and move us to action. In the case of movies, they might only draw us into the story through our psychological immersion in the story, but the basic principles were the same.
All of this seemed to me to be much like television news, which used actual events and situations as models in order to create visual and auditory images that told stories, which were forms of ideology intended to manipulate us. Like these exhibits, TV news was also simplified; and relied on spectacle and the manipulation of space and perspective to achieve its effects. And like these exhibits', the claims of news to accurately depict something in the world were more than a little suspect.
So, somewhere around this time it became clear to me that all the things I was studying -- Star Trek, TV news and entertainment, artificial landscapes, theme parks, advertising, political performances, video games, nature documentaries, and so on -- had the same elements. All were sensory and physical objects, including simulations, that had, embodied in them, meanings which were, for the most part, organized into stories with characters, plots and settings. These stories and story-based simulations allowed us to (and caused us to) vicariously and directly act out fantasies and desires and fears. In doing all this, they sought to shape our view of the world according to particular philosophies and ideologies, by depicting things as good and bad. And they were forms of action that allowed their creators to accomplish all kinds of things, from exerting power over audiences to building up their own image. All relied on simplification, exaggeration and spectacle, and offered us various promises that we could transcend the limits of life. Falsehood and illusion might be found in various of these domains.
Along with the prevailing zeitgeist, I also began to view simulations not only as imitations that depict actual and imagined objects and kinds of objects, but as representations. Now my study of simulation and news was part of a larger study of the representations of popular culture that consisted of images, objects, scripts, stories, performances, and rhetoric, all of which play to our fantasies and fears and desires, and all of which are forms of ideology and action.
I saw all this as the work of "culture fabricators" who were expert at reading our fantasies and fears and desires, and feeding them back to us in an exaggerated and appealing form, in lifelike simulations. Their work represented a new synthesis of irrationality and instrumental reason, as computers, marketing studies, et al were used to play to our own fantasies. The culture fabricators were, in turn, employed by those with money and power, and often they were them.
As the 1990s progressed, I began to think of simulation as something that is created through a process of "simulation-work" in which fabrications are disguised to look authentic in order to offer us a disguised fulfillment of our unconscious fantasies. I also saw simulation-work as one kind of "representation-work" by which we create representations and communications.
It is the essence of simulation-work, I came to believe, to create imitation worlds in order to draw us into a disguised re-creation of the world of the mind, just as the dream-work creates an imitation, if bizarre, world that expresses our fantasies and fears and desires. (One could even carry the analogy further, since simulations and dreams, as well as the other great form of disguise and illusion -- neurotic symptoms -- all rely on stealth simulations that hide certain things from the perceiver.)
But in doing this, the creators of simulation were really only doing what the creators of more traditional forms of fiction and drama and art had done for centuries, which meant we could trace all the techniques that made art and fiction lifelike and all the themes and story types from the earliest fictions of the cave painters and before, down to the present. One difference of course was that, with advanced forms of simulation, art was beginning to masquerade as life, allowing us to walk into the illusion and become the heroes and villains of the drama. Another difference could be seen in the fact that these creations expressed not only universal human perceptions but also our changed perception of the world. In an age in which we can manipulate the elements of "reality" and simulate reality, for example, we are seeing endless stories that expressed our growing exhilaration at our power and our growing fear that we will misuse our power and ruin some fundamental aspect of reality. We thus see story-based simulations, such as movies and movie rides, repeating the same sequence over and over in which we gain power over reality; we threaten reality with our power; and we then use our power to save reality. Whether it is visitors to rain forest exhibits being told they can save nature or audience members on "Back-to-the-Future: The Ride" acting out the role of protecting the normal unfolding of history from a time traveler intent on changing it, we are now busy in our imaginations repairing and restitching the fabric of the world that we fear we can now tear apart. Thus, simulation is our age's unique form of art and fiction, which we are using to express what is on the collective mind of the age.
Similarly, we had begun to use simulations to indulge in forms of recreational evil of the kind Lem and Star Trek predicted in their fictions. Explicit fantasies of regressive sex, violence, grandiosity, degradation and combinations of these were now being turned into forms of entertainment. Sex and aggression were being set loose from their hiding place in the unconscious and being let loose in an imitation realm in which they only appeared to take place.
But what particularly concerned me was that contemporary culture had taken fiction and the arts, vastly expanded its realism and paired it off with science and technology to offer us an endless number of sales pitches and forms of ideology. In essence, it was using simulation to offer us phony forms of transcendence, with the promise that we could pretend to escape the limits of time and space in science fiction, in the themed rides, and the fantasy world of advertising; that we could escape ethics by indulging in recreational evil, that we could escape the problems and mundanity of life in the fake utopias of advertising, and so on. While the simulators of Washington, Madison Avenue and Hollywood offered us the world, they were busy picking our pockets and taking our power.
Through interpretation, I came to believe, we can unravel these various representations and false appearances, and make our selves and the culture transparent to our view and understanding. In essence, we could stand up to the internal censor that keeps us from knowing our true selves and stand up to the information manipulators of the age who play on our psychology for their own ends.
As that last sentence suggests, during the middle period of the 1990s, my ideas became more political. This tendency began first when I started to view contemporary society as based on a con artist culture in which people in positions of power routinely manipulate appearances, stories and words to get what they want.
But the politicizing of my views was also accelerated and enhanced by my study of another story-based simulation, the movie Logan's Run, which depicts a future humanity trapped in an enclosed city controlled by a computer-dictator, after the surface of the earth is destroyed. Inside the city, the computer has created a false world, convincing everyone that life is intended to be a giant singles party, without love or procreation, until you are executed at 30. The main characters escape this false paradise and return to destroy the walls of the city and reveal to its young inhabitants that there is a reborn world outside waiting to be rebuilt in which they can love and work and die a natural death in old age.
It seemed to me that Logan's Run offered an exceptional metaphor for contemporary society in which the governing classes in politics, media and the corporations trap us in a false world to steal our power. For all of its abundance and pleasures, our society was still, like the city in the movie, a place in which people were denied much of the power over their own lives. Grandiose and martyr-like as it might sound, the role of the critic was to be like Logan -- to go on a journey of mind outside the controlled world of culture and return to break down the walls of the city.
One of the many things that interested me about the movie was that it depicted people trapped in a false world because they believed falsehoods and myths and because a police force and walls kept them from going outside, not because they were surrounded by sensory illusions. Similarly, I believed, all cultures, including our own, place us inside invented worlds by shaping our views and selecting what we can see and know about.
As a result of all this, it now seems to me that America (and other nations) are only partly democracies. The rest is a kind of virtual oligarchy in which governing classes in media, politics and the corporations create lifelike fictions and manipulated appearances, along with forms of rhetoric and stories, to influence public opinion and stay in power. The corporations, especially the giant media companies, play a dominant role in this but even the news media offers us invention in the service of marketing and propaganda.
Today, then, our culture is full of governing classes that are working overtime to play the role of the computer in Logan's Run, and the Talosians in Star Trek, and Symington in The Futurological Congress, drawing us into invented worlds. Indeed, all media play this role to one degree or another, from AOL to NBC. The imaginary companion who asks Pike if getting a world of illusion isn't worth a man's soul, doesn't merely represent the technology of simulation. He represents all the simulators of America and the world who are trying to play regressive parents to our children, feeding us endless fantasies for our pleasure, in exchange for which we need only accept their version of what the world is about and allow them to influence us to their own benefit.
Like parents, these media manipulators want to shape our world view, and they play on the fears and desires that are part of our transference, so we will seek to please them and be afraid to challenge their manipulations for fear of various kinds of retaliation. They do so by using every tool at their command -- images, scripts, contrived public events, advertising, images, stories, rhetoric and so on. Unfortunately, most of the news media exists in a state of perpetual subordination to the most important of these manipulators -- the giant media companies and corporations. The news media hides virtually everything they do (and that it does) to shape the culture and misuse power, as it perpetually tries to convince us that news is primarily about what politicians do. The media and news media today thus seek to immerse us in a false view of the world that, by way of metaphor, can be referred to as a virtual reality. It is a virtual reality that is shaped by power and that is a massive stealth simulation that hides and disguises the way power is really exercised in society. And like the city in Logan's Run, and the illusions in "The Menagerie" and in The Futurological Congress, those who control communications don't reveal the way power is really being exercised because the intention is for this "virtual reality" to have no windows, no "arch" or doorway we might see and travel through to go outside it and see things from a different perspective.
This is not to say we live in anything like a closed system. The governing classes in the media, corporations and politics both cooperate with each other and compete with each other for money, power and fame. They are in an endless race with each other, although all have an interest in protecting the existing system of manipulation that gives them their power. People's common sense has also led them to get part way there themselves, but their perceptions haven't been confirmed and articulated by the surrounding culture. And very importantly, the internet and the growing sense of anger at media marketing and abuses has led the slow emergence of a new kind of media criticism.
What all this means is that the conflict we face isn't merely psychological or ethical. It isn't merely about whether we will resist the allure of regression and illusion. It is also about the essential connection between politics and representation understood in both senses of the latter term. It is about whether we can muster the courage to stand up to those who now dominate this culture and constantly try to weave illusions around us, to sell us their products, candidates and ideas. It is about whether we will be willing to fill in all the missing information that is so artfully woven around by the media, and whether we will insist that the representations of the media represent us and our perceptions and concerns.
Even as I was coming to these views, I was also adding another theory based on a more detailed interpretation of movies and television. In movies and television and other forms of fiction I discovered multiple domains of meaning about birth; the functioning of mind; the family; society, politics and power; myth and metaphysics and the meaning and end of life. But, in the end, I found that most tell the same story about our desire to become whole selves, and to lead full lives, live in a good society and see other people treated fairly. This is the subject of virtually all, and perhaps all, our stories, including news, advertising, and story-based simulations. The science fiction stories about characters who escape the realm of illusion and high-tech falsehood to rediscover their true selves and a better way of life, and the stories about characters who find the courage and insight to repair some aspect of reality, are just two versions of these stories we tell about our desire to become whole, to escape from falsehood and illusion, and create a world modeled after our better selves. Another version of this story can be found in the movie Groundhog Day, which shows us a character trapped not in a city but in himself, with false ideas about life and how to live. He too escapes into a wider world, which, as in Logan's Run, was there all the time, waiting to be discovered. In the situation comedy M*A*S*H we see a society of life, represented by surgeons, trapped in a society of death and falsehood, represented by a caricatured depiction of the military. Here too a struggle takes place in which life finds the tools to outsmart death.
In movies, television, and other stories, then, one can find deep desires that both as individuals and societies we should grow into something better. Essential images of undoing our fallen state, of escaping bondage and growing to maturity express these desires in a myriad of ways. It is no exaggeration to say that what all this reveals is that we are telling ourselves endless variations on one story over and over because that story is about the central issues of human existence.
I now view culture is a disguised and not-so-disguised expression of our desire to find our true selves. But it is also an effort to escape from ourselves, a massive symptom formation based in authentiphobia -- the fear of the real thing, especially the fear of leading an authentic life. The endless manipulators of the age offer us escapes from the truth along with phony forms of transcendence in which we pretend to undo our fallen state. In the fake paradises of malls and commercials; the images of sexual utopia and perfection; the efforts to convince us that transgressing social taboos and acting out fantasies of evil is a form of freedom; the false political promises of a better world; the nonstop happy endings of movies and television in which we pretend to become the selves and societies we dream of; in the drama of TV news which gives us the illusion we are participating in great events as we identify with people who stride the world stage; in the happy-face cyber-joy of Disney; and, to some degree, in the sci-fi promises that we can transcend time and space and the mundane, we see so many efforts to offer us stand-ins for the genuine achievement of the true self and better world we know should exist. All create lifelike renditions of people, places and situations that we will mistake for something authentic or that we know is fiction but that, in every case, help us hide from essential truths, while also offering us controlled bits of truth that play to our deepest desires, which is much of what makes them seem interesting. Many of these creations have a good deal that is worthwhile in them. The happy endings they offer us are the sigh of the oppressed creature.But, like the simulation room in "The Veldt" many offer us an easy replacement for a genuine life.
In the last year, I have also developed a deeper appreciation of the degree to which computers are at the center of everything described above. While I knew early on that we would use computers to fabricate images and simulations and to run forms of automation, I only became acquainted with the Internet a year ago and paid only the slightest notice to cyberpunk. As a result, I had no appreciation of what was taking place on the web and failed to comprehend the degree to which much of the the arena of simulation would be on computer screens connected in a worldwide network. With this recognition, I can now better answer a question that mystified me -- how might malevolent simulators draw people into invented worlds that are mistaken for something genuine. I saw fairly early on that they were doing this with television. But now it is obvious that the AOLs and other sites are also an important arena in which something like this will take place, since they allow for interaction and virtual forms of travel, thereby enhancing the realism and expanding the rewards. As television and computer images become immersive, in the near future, we will find ourselves seeming to navigate inside the 'sites" we now view on screens. We will find ourselves in a truly human "world" in which visual metaphors masquerade as reality and in which faithful and phony depictions and avowed fantasy images and graphics are blended together in an interesting and unholy mix. And these sites will be designed and concocted, often by corporations, the news media and political groups (which are increasingly the same thing), to influence our view of the world. As more and more communication and interaction takes place this way, we will find ourselves inside sensory environments based on simulations of three-dimensional space and fabricated images, that convey meanings and draw us into stories which play to our fantasies and fears and desires, in order to sell us something and impress particular ideologies and ways of viewing things on us. Efforts to socially construct reality, which have always relied on the creation of stage sets or, at least physical settings, along with costumes, performances, narratives, and so on, will now be able to craft perfect, lifelike environments for us to move through and live inside, which are designed to influence our perceptions and behavior.
Today, of course, the simulations I have been trying to understand have become pervasive, surrounding us with phony everything. And we have gone through a social learning process as ideas about simulation have begun to enter mainstream thought. Ideas that seemed odd or fantastic to people a decade or more ago are now the cliches of contemporary culture. Terms such as "virtual" and "invented reality" are repeated endlessly and with little thought. Meanwhile, Sherry Turkle, in her book Life on the Screen, has now provided the first stirrings of a legitimating philosophy for a society fixated on acting out fantasies. In her view, the self is a collection of fictions that we can act out and construct in computer fantasies.Since the world itself may not be real or knowable, it has no privileged status when compared to our inventions.
In addition, as noted above, at least on the Internet, we are witnessing a new, but still restrained, willingness on the part of news organizations to expose the manipulations of the media companies and to show how they shape rhetoric and stories and design pages to trick and influence us. AOL and Microsoft are early recipients of this critical coverage. But it seems likely that it will continue to expand its scope.
At the same time, in my own little invented world, the posting of my essays on this site has resulted in a wider dissemination of my ideas, as teachers have begun using some of the essays in classes and various academic sites have linked to them. My ideas still aren't widely known. But at least they are known.
In any case, my theory of "simulation" has long since broken free from that confining idea. It is a theory of representation and meaning, self and technology, true and false forms of power, ethics and desire, which keeps coming back to essential distinctions between what is true and false, and authentic and contrived. It is a theory that is based on the idea that we can do detailed interpretations of the creations of culture, examining them as sensory and physical objects, meanings and stories, expressions of fantasy and ideology that depict things as good and bad, and forms of action. And we can examine the psychological processes they set forth in us, such as the way depictions of characters arouse our identification or the way happy endings provide us with a sense of hope. In the process of creation, all of these elements are put into cultural objects, including novels, recited stories, dramas, many paintings, movies, television, themed and fabricated environments, movie rides, virtual realities, computer and video games, advertisements, political speeches and performances, written and televised news stories, and Internet sites, including this one. The term representation-work describes the process by which all of this is put into play in the act of creation. Through interpretation we can then unravel many of these elements and open them to our view and understanding. What we find is our selves and our inherent desire to become our true selves beyond the illusions of cultural and personal neurosis and contrived information.
These efforts at interpretation are inherently political since they allow us to expose the manipulations of the age, even as we also expand people's understanding of themselves and the culture. In an age (like all ages) in which the ability to create false appearances is essential to the exercise of power, the willingness to interpret the meaning of appearances and expose the elements of their construction is a way of standing up to the misuse of power.
But it also has to be said that these efforts at interpretation are part of a larger movement in history in which we are learning how to make the physical world, nature, society and mind transparent to our view and understanding, and open to our control. Similarly, we are learning how to make government and other institutions transparent, so they will be open to greater democratic control.
Freud's belief that through interpretation we can unravel the elements of the dream-work that creates our nighttime fantasies and his belief that through interpretation and working through we can make the unconscious conscious and replace some of the irrational Id with the more adult and rational ego, is a description of one aspect of the gradual expansion of intelligence and the informed will as it goes about replacing the obscure world with more of itself. Using the tools Freud and others gave us, we can understand the process of representation-work and translate the meaning of our representations, so we understand our selves. Using the tools of the physical science, it appears we are also on our way toward understanding the process of "reality-work" or "nature-work" by which the physical world is spun out from basic elements. Since nature produced us in the course of evolution and since it seems that our minds are part of nature (embedded in and produced, in some fashion, by the brain), these two processes aren't separate. In learning how to read the book of culture, as this site is trying to do, and learning how to read the book of nature, as science is trying to do, perhaps in the end we will discover something larger than ourselves. And we will discover we are reading the same book.
In the shorter term, these growing abilities raise a number of questions that this site keeps coming back to -- if we are learning how to read the book of the culture and mind, and the book of nature, how will we use our new power? Put another way, if we are refashioning the world in our own image, what aspect of ourselves will it be modeled after? And as we learn to mimic the products of nature-work or reality-work with our simulations, how will that change us and our world?
That anyway is where my version of the age stands today. Collected here are substantial excerpts from my essays on all this, which will provide an organized overview of my ideas, mostly as they relate to a somewhat expanded definition of simulation. Some are older, some more recent. Some are more simple and some offer a more nuanced play of theory. What readers will find here is a way of viewing contemporary or "postmodern" society that is itself modern rather than "postmodern", based on the idea that we are real selves in a real world and that we can use the power of thought to understand both self and world and expand the realm of our freedom as a result. It is a philosophy that consists of so many footnotes to science fiction, particularly the space romance, Star Trek, which told the story of how the ego and informed and ethical self, in the guise of Kirk and crew, went about opening up the obscure universe and turning it into a vastly enlarged arena for civilization. Like many works of contemporary fiction (and nonfiction), Star Trek tells multiple stories in disguised form about America and Greek heroes, and about, mind, family, birth, society and the self. And like many of the works of fiction and nonfiction in our culture and in all culture, it tells the story of our own selves, as we face obstacles and inducements to regression, on the path to something larger and more interesting and better, which was part of us all the time. It's heroes, as they learn to say no to false paradises, to shortcuts to power, and to the misuse of power, are our better selves. By identifying with them we get in touch with an essential part of our selves.
But then all fiction tells this story. Through our stories and other cultural creations, and in our daily interactions, as well as in the ongoing monologues, we perform these issues for ourselves on the stage of awareness. What we are telling ourselves over and over is that the individual's task and society's task are the same -- it is to mature beyond our state of symbiosis with, and subordination to, parents, culture, society and all those in power, so that we achieve a new level of individuation and independence, instead of endlessly reliving the dependence and rebellions of childhood in different forms. It is about beginning to escape from our shared immersion in an illusory worldview and story lines spun out of our own minds and manipulated by others for their own ends, so we can begin to take greater control of our lives. This is the essential message. We speak and speak and speak and wait for ourselves to hear it. The good news is that we are enhancing our ability to both speak and listen.
By way of final comment, I should note that most of my ideas about the way the multiple meanings of fiction express our desire to undo our fallen state, which is my most recent work, and most of my ideas about the way the news media creates stories that are forms of action, aren't included here. But readers will find those on other parts of the site. Although some of the ideas expressed here now find common currency in the media and although some people will continue to find my ideas a little too interesting for their own good, I believe that many readers will still discover in these writings a way of viewing our culture that captures some of the essential truths of the age.