This is Not a Simulation

The computer simulation hypothesis reveals how the American liberal elite questions everything except the insufficiency of liberalism itself

ASK a liberal who is to blame for Trumpism and guilt falls everywhere but on their own shoulders. From domestic election fraud to Russian foreign conspiracies, liberals have desperately fidgeted their way through every possible explanation for their seemingly inexplicable November defeat. The months since the election of Donald Trump have played host to a brilliant array of liberal delusions, a collective delirium that has led the American center-left to question everything—literally everything—except its own flawed ideology.

In fact, the search for an accurate theory that has nothing to do with liberal modes of thought stretches beyond the reaches of space-time. For luminaries like Elon Musk and the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, political disruptions such as Brexit and Trump’s presidency aren’t symptoms of the entropy-addled economic and social system known as neoliberalism. Rather, they are simply further evidence that we’re living inside of an advanced computer simulation created by aliens. Indeed, it is easier for the greatest minds in our society to imagine extraterrestrials developing this material world as a game than to conceive of any substantive change to the status quo. But it is the liberals who are the aliens, determining our brutal human reality by perpetuating destructive lies created and sustained entirely by themselves.

The “simulation hypothesis” officially dates to a 2003 academic paper by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, but its underlying appeal belongs to the realm of basement conspiracy theories. And while some of these theories, those presented as purely hypothetical, make for a worthwhile thought experiment, others exert a dangerous draw on minds starved for concise, all-encompassing explanations for inherently complicated phenomena, offering superiority and certainty to those who feel devalued in uncertain times—whether they’re technocratic elites or members of the dwindling working class.

With its hallowed academic origins and techno-philosophical underpinnings, simulation theory circumvents many of the commonsense doubts that disqualify less intellectually inclined claims of alien abductions, magic bullets, and a flat earth. It lends an air of seriousness to yet another pointless debate, one that steals thought and energy away from addressing materialist concerns such as wealth distribution, affordable-housing shortages, and access to basic needs like clean water. Whereas basement conspiracy theorists howl from the fringes of the internet, the relative respectability of simulation theory allows personalities like Musk and Gopnik to peddle conspiracy from the center outward, from the stages of Code Conference and in the pages of the New Yorker. Their inane positions are undergirded by rhetoric, visibility, and the benefit of the doubt afforded by cultural capital.

Given tech and media’s steadfast faith in technocracy, as well as a government comprising the best minds in STEM, it isn’t surprising that the simulation argument holds sway with the highest echelons of both industries. There has always been a common language of innovation shared by the arts and tech, a linguistic connection recently made literal by patronage projects like Amazon Studios. The art and the app worlds occupy similar spaces in the current American consciousness, generating products of suspect practical value but great cultural renown and mystique, from Banksy and Snapchat to Jeff Koons and Juciero. One reason why the simulation hypothesis is so attractive for both the tech industry and the media industry is that tech titans like Jeff Bezos are glorified as public intellectuals once were. A simulated reality would be the ultimate symbiosis of tech and media: Living in a well-written prestige dramedy as the endgame for all technocrats, no matter their field. Most technocrats already live in this constructed reality in gentrified New York City and San Francisco, that is, a faux-enlightened, luxury-condo hell.

Whether true or false, the simulation hypothesis changes next to nothing about life on earth, and therein lies the theory’s appeal for the liberal elite: it’s futurism without a substantially different future, progressivism sans meaningful progress, a flash forward to the end of history that bypasses suffering through the present. Simulation theory is the eternal continuation of the same system that entitles Elon Musk, a billionaire seventeen times over, to stop his factory workers at Tesla from forming a union. It empowers Condé Nast, the multinational media corporation who signs Adam Gopnik’s checks, to exist in a perpetual state of layoffs. Why would the few who benefit from this bankrupt arrangement ever want it to end? So far, the aliens that developed the simulation of this world have rigged the game in their favor.

In response to the confusion that surrounded the end of this year’s Academy Awards, when La La Land was presented with the Award for Best Picture that in fact belonged to Moonlight, Gopnik penned an article cheekily titled, “Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer Simulation?” Building on Joshua Rothman’s earlier New Yorker piece, “What Are the Odds We Are Living in a Computer Simulation?”, which examined Elon Musk’s regard for the simulation hypothesis with a degree of skepticism, Gopnik’s frenetic piece takes the analysis many steps further. He frames the Best Picture mishap, Trump’s election, and the New England Patriots’ improbable Super Bowl LI comeback as proof that something is amiss in our engineered reality. “There’s a glitch, and we are in it,” Gopnik writes. “Once this insight is offered, it must be said, everything else begins to fall in order.”

It should be noted that it was a clerical error at an award show, and not decades of unnecessary war, mounting inequality, or systemic violence that drove Mr. Gopnik to reconsider his reality. Even if he wrote the piece with his tongue firmly in cheek, the sentiment of liberal hopelessness that informs the writing reads as genuine, in line with the wishful doom saying that serves as catharsis for the performatively traumatized under Trump. You can hear this vacuous outrage echoed in the helpless online cries of “This. Is. Not. Normal,” which emanate from the same platforms that enabled Trump’s election in the first place. The winking dread of Gopnik’s piece tips its hat to that same liberal blind spot, conceding that while horrors did come to pass before Trump—“wars, plagues, Gilligan’s Island”—the “basic logic of the enfolding program seemed sound.”

America is already great,” as the prevailing delusion goes, and only stopped being so once Trump was elected and the ugliest aspects of America, suppressed during the Obama years, were made manifest. Because liberals have been living in a false reality—the illusory America of progress, equality, civility, and fairness—and now that they have a chance to address the horrors that this delusion ignored—mass deportations, extrajudicial drone strikes, and corporate overreach—they’ve chosen instead a wilder fantasy. They’ve chosen, in other words, to blame the aliens.

After reading “Did the Oscars Just Prove That We’re Living in a Computer Simulation?,” what begins to take shape isn’t the irrefutability of the simulation hypothesis, but the possibility that Gopnik and other liberals are amenable to its claims because they already lead a life that may as well be virtual. The promise of a false world appeals to these liberals because they occupy societal enclaves without material stakes, a pleasant fiction whose stability depends not on meaningful forms of artistic expression or civic engagement, but on the operational smoothness of award shows or the flakiness of croissants in the 16th arrondissement. For this class, a newfound faith in alien overlords is tied inextricably to a longstanding fear of unforeseen upheavals (such as class war) becoming the norm. The incrementalist imagination depends on an inability to envision radical societal change, sudden hard turns to the left or right, which makes recent history all the more destabilizing for liberals. Gopnik’s winking tone belies an evident fear. At the end of his article, he hopes that our alien masters will locate and fix whatever technical difficulties are causing these glitches, before plunging back into the superficial despair of someone whose life stands to not change at all. “Expect the worst,” he writes. “Oh, wait. It’s already happened.”

In Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” certain aspects of simulation theory, like the concept of nested simulations that suggests there is no way to prove the existence of a simulated reality, are used to tell the story of Quaid, a lowly clerk who pays to have false memories of a Martian adventure implanted in his brain. He cannot afford to pay for the actual trip, so he settles for a convincing, cheaper facsimile. As the purchased fiction becomes indistinguishable from his reality, Quaid learns that he is part of an intergalactic conspiracy wherein visiting aliens decide to spare the human race from enslavement after observing Quaid’s unheralded compassion. Today, with the colonization of Mars impending thanks in large part to Elon Musk, the dreams of alien game developers provide moneyed liberals with the same reassurance this implanted knowledge provided Quaid: a belief in an ordered moral universe, one fundamentally at odds with contemporary political chaos.

As Bostrom concluded in his original paper on simulation theory, “Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.” This is a fine, if speculative, tautology, but it fully misdates the origins of our current simulated reality, which is created by people in the now: the wealthy, educated, and influential liberals who ponder omnipresent alien influence while dismissing their own. Entertaining these present-future fictions only distracts from the imperative deconstruction of our present ones. Liberals are the glitch, and once you realize it, everything falls into order.