Well, are we living in a simulation?

Thanks to TikTok (and capitalism) the argument that our reality isn’t real is more compelling than ever.

If you’ve been anywhere near TikTok recently, you’ve likely come across one of the 65 million videos under #simulationtheory — which riff on whether or not we could be living in a simulation. While the majority poke nihilistic fun at how weird the simulation has been feeling lately, many of the clips tend to strike a note between flippant and foreboding: a TikToker “clocks in to play remote worker simulation for eight hours a day”, another warns scrollers that their reality is not what it seems, recommending various books and theorists so that you too might “escape the matrix”.

Of course, doubting one’s perception of reality is nothing new. In fact, the simulation question has been a conversation point for centuries with deep roots in Western and Eastern philosophical traditions: from Plato’s cave allegory to Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly dream. But the idea that we could all be virtual beings living in a giant computer is a comparatively new one. The argument, popularised by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom in a 2003 seminal paper, goes like this: if even one civilisation develops the ability to simulate conscious beings, then they can create literally billions of civilisations that are simulated because all you need is more computing power. If that’s the case then statistically speaking, the likelihood of living in a reality that is not simulated is, well, extremely slim.

Considering how far we’ve come — from the very first 1972 table tennis-themed arcade game Pong, to highly-detailed, contemporary video games like Call of Duty and The Last of Us — the idea that we could one day create complex simulations doesn’t seem all that implausible. It’s why billionaire, Tesla founder, and Grimes dater Elon Musk puts the probability that we’re not in a simulation at about one in a billion, and why the popular science magazine Scientific American published an article back in April titled “Confirmed! We Live in a Simulation”, alluding to the fact that “we already have computers running all kinds of simulations for lower-level ‘bits of intelligence’ or algorithms”.

So what does this say about the “reality” that we are living in? Perhaps it is all just a high-resolution video game and you, the reader of this article, and I, the writer of it, are all non-playing characters. Or perhaps it is closer to the reality imagined in The Matrix, where AI machines have taken over and uploaded us into computers. Or maybe the widespread meme-ification of this previously traditionally fringe debate (and, to some extent, the increased acceptance of pro-simulation arguments) says something more insidious about the society we live in.

“We already create simulations, right?” says Isabelle Boemeke, a fashion model and nuclear energy influencer who believes we are living in a simulation, on the uptick in simulation theory interest. “Movies are simulations. Video games are simulations. We already create these alternative universes, and in the last couple of years people have been quarantined in their homes living in them.”

Through endless Zoom drinks, Animal Crossing meet-ups, live-streamed approximations of gigs, exhibitions, and classes, we’ve all had a taste of what it’s like to exist virtually. Moreover, a significant number seem to enjoy the flavor, with 67% of children saying their favorite way of communicating with friends is online, according to data collected by Natterhub, online safety and digital literacy agency in 2021. As Facebook — sorry, Meta — is currently plotting to suck us further down the internet rabbithole by co-opting the concept of the metaverse, you do wonder how much of a choice virtual interaction in 2021 is after all.

Thomas Webb is a digital artist who’s recent solo exhibition, Daddy, what was real life like? explores these societal shifts. In one of the artworks, “Genesis Documentation 2021”, he rewrites the genesis story from the perspective of a programmer writing a simulation. “Maybe it’s not so much that we’re in a simulation, but more that we’re so good at building simulations,” he says about the piece’s meaning, which features a coded cross that trades God for a programmer, heaven for clouds, earth for the simulation and creatures for AI. “It’s a metaphor for how we’ve gotten to a stage where we can adequately build simulations and AIs so advanced that you feel like you’re playing God.”

As someone who has developed video games that have been played by 40,000 people — including Louis Vuitton artistic director Virgil Abloh — and is currently building his own metaverse, World Wide Web3, he knows firsthand how easy it is to play virtual God, and why so many people are questioning how ‘real’ their online selves are. “Nothing is willy-nilly, people aren’t just doing stuff because they’re like, ‘oh, I want to make money,’ or ‘I just believe in this new thing now. Just look at the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, which showed how easy it is to manipulate mass public opinions via social media.” At this stage, it is abundantly clear that a small group of digital elites control the parameters, algorithms, and features of the virtual worlds that more and more of us are spending the majority of our time in.

For TikToker Jonny Kellar, the rise in simulation theory adherents is due to one of the most prevailing real-world simulations of the last 200 years: capitalism. “We shouldn’t really be living our lives according to this excess we find in capitalism, and people oftentimes are like, ‘oh the world is fake,’ rather than looking at the system critically, and being like, ‘The reason why I feel the world is fake is that the way in which we live is a façade,’” he says. “We shouldn’t be living the way we are, we’re separating ourselves from nature and alienating from our labor, so when we overproduce all day, the only thing we can do is consume, and the cycle repeats over.”

What Jonny is talking about here is Marx’s alienation theory, which prescribes the inability for the worker to determine their life, have control over the conditions they work, or control over what they create as a dehumanizing consequence of capitalism. Jonny believes this concept is the reason simulation theory has become so relatable for many, and equally, why it is so problematic. It’s a sentiment shared by labor journalist Sarah Jaffe, who explores worker exploitation under capitalism in her book Work Won’t Love You Back. “People realized that their bosses don’t care if they die,” she says on the pandemic’s reckoning on our relationships to work. “We’re still in the midst of this ongoing global catastrophe that has killed millions of people, yet you’re supposed to go back to work or keep working from home like nothing has changed. Of course that feels surreal, of course that feels like a completely bonkers thing to have to do that will make people question what’s real and what matters.”

A report published in the Institute for Economic Affairs recently found that nearly 80% of millennials blame capitalism for the housing crisis, while 75% believe the climate emergency is “specifically a capitalist problem”. With so many people learning about the shadowy mechanics of the system, it’s no wonder many are realizing past behaviors are not how they would independently choose to live their lives, but have been predestined for them.

With so many people waking up to the issue, surely we’ll be able to break out of the capitalist matrix? “In reality, many people read anti-capitalist discourse online, but they don’t actually see it in the real world,” Jonny says of the multitude of anti-capitalist memes and TikTok content. “They are just seeing it in this two-dimensional world, and when things are two-dimensional, they aren’t actually happening in the real world,” he continues, pointing out the irony that the same platform that is educating people on the issue is also worsening it. “All of these things are distractions from you really working on you,” the artist Webb concurs, arguing that the dopamine hits that come with following popular trends and going viral keep us locked into these harmful, alienating cycles.

Whether or not we can prove that reality is a simulation, the pandemic has certainly normalized the idea of living in one. If coronavirus has given us anything, it’s a harsh light shone on the facile system the Western world is currently operating under, forcing us to act and live in ways that aren’t aligned with our humanity. The solution to these feelings, unfortunately, isn’t to make a TikTok about it.