Goodbye Reality, For Real!

Welcome to the synthetic multiverse

“We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us.”

Jorge Luis Borges, from The Garden of Forking Paths

Reality, as we knew it, has ended. It wasn’t a catastrophic event; rather, it was a slow and grinding process. We’ve all fantasized about escaping reality at one time or another; now it seems to have quietly escaped us.

Until recently, the idea of a single—and shared—objective reality made sense; it served as an existential anchor for our collective human experience and provided orientation in terms of scientific truths about the natural world, as well as a psychological safety net. You could, in fact, argue that the defining quality of reality was precisely that there could be only one—because otherwise, where would that leave us? Surely, by definition, reality must be singular—the polar opposite of anything unreal—and must cease to exist when it becomes plural.

This monolithic view of reality, however, is now under assault and crumbling fast.

‎ ‎ ‎ Design by Eala Mardell and Midjourney

‎ ‎ ‎ Design by Eala Mardell and Midjourney

The cognitive case against reality

Neuroscientists have long wrestled with “the hard problem of consciousness,” unable to explain how certain processes in our brains translate into a vivid interior life and the sensation of “first-person reality.” At the same time, philosophers from Kant to Berkeley, as well as contemporary quantum physicists, have challenged the view that there is an objective world independent of what we perceive. The quantum physicists claim that the observer alters what’s observed; objects exist in a certain state and position only because we’re watching them. As science writer Amanda Gefter sums up neatly in Quanta Magazine: “While neuroscientists struggle to understand how there can be such a thing as a first-person reality, quantum physicists have to grapple with the mystery of how there can be anything but a first-person reality.”

Cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman agrees with the quantum physicists. In his 2016 book, The Case Against Reality, and in his subsequent work, he opposes the idea of an objective reality: “Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects,” he contends. “Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.” In other words, everything we perceive is just one grand illusion created by our sensory apparatus. Reality is a simulation of our own making that lets us construct a coherent experience of the world and, more simply, helps us function.

Along similar lines, the philosopher of mind and consciousness David Chalmers argues in his 2022 book Reality+ that we cannot know with absolute certainty that we do not live in a simulation. This unsettling supposition assumes at least two realities: the original and the copy; the self and the mirror; the physical world and the metaverse. Both are real. Both aren’t.

Everything is true and not true

From classics such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth to modern movies such as The Truman Show and The Matrix, literary fiction and film have long portrayed simulations and alternative worlds. Aditi Khorana’s Young Adult novel Mirror in the Sky relates the discovery of an alternate planet Earth inhabited by a population of doppelgängers with a history that differs from our own. No matter how sci-fi or outlandish, stories like Khorana’s have proven compelling because they hold up a mirror to our own world and help us consider our contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies. We gaze up at these fantastical societies and contemplate their strange customs and mores, but our attention is ultimately pulled back down to earth. We know the real subject here isn’t doppelgängers or aliens; it’s you and me and everyone we know.

These days, we can’t be so sure.

Take Barbie, a movie that refuses to land anything, anywhere. It’s a supposed magnum opus made of micro-memes that we are forced to make sense of ourselves because no one else—not Barbie, not Ken, not even director Greta Gerwig—will do so for us. There once was a time when we would exit a movie theater and have an animated discussion about whether or not we’d liked what we’d seen. Oppenheimer, a nostalgic film, much more linear and simple-minded than Barbie, caters to this tradition. Barbie, however, doesn’t give us this option anymore. It gives us all the options. It’s the most feminist and the least feminist movie of modern times. Everything is true and not true at the same time. Everything is right and wrong. Oppenheimer talks quantum; Barbie is quantum: Everything Everywhere All at Once. Things only mean something as long as we pay attention. Like a Russian doll, Barbie promises to reveal new levels of meaning with every layer, only, ultimately, to reveal nothing.

Barbie impresses upon us very bluntly that what we want is not only to “know what we’re made for” (the metaphysical underpinning of Billie Eilish’s closing song) but also simply to feel something that seems real. Whether that something is actually real might be beside the point.

‎ ‎ ‎ Design by Eala Mardell and Midjourney

‎ ‎ ‎ Design by Eala Mardell and Midjourney

Doppelgängers and mirror worlds

In her new book Doppelgänger, Naomi Klein observes that the far-right and conspiracy-theory camps cater perfectly to this desire. They don’t need to get the facts right as long as they nail the feelings, she writes. She uses her own uncanny double, Naomi Wolf, a former leftist writer turned alt-right icon, with whom she is often confused, as a ploy to travel down the rabbit hole into the “mirror world” of Steve Bannon and the likes. If theirs is a mirror world, she wonders, hers—as in, the world(view) of the left—might be, too. So what is real?

On an optimistic note, Klein concludes that understanding the mirror world makes us more aware of our own role in it. But she also cautions against the secular god-like creators of Silicon Valley who have found in Generative AI the most effective way yet to impose their reality on us.

The writer, film producer, and scholar Jonathan Taplin shares Klein’s concern. In his new book The End of Reality, he argues that Musk, Thiel, Zuckerberg, et al are forcing an “alternate autocratic reality” on us from which there will be no escape. Taplin believes that this cohort’s idea of “transhumanism”—the desire to overcome our natural human limitations by merging us with technology—is naive to the point of absurdity, culminating in a utopia that beggars belief. “AI and robots will do most of the work, and a significant portion of the population will sit at home, living a fantasy life in the Metaverse, subsisting on government-paid crypto universal basic income, which would cover your broadband bill and your Metacoin micropayments for all the concerts and clubs you attend virtually,” he writes.

The term “fool’s paradise” comes to mind.

AI and the synthetic universe

Last week Meta, the company behind Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, announced it was bringing AI-generated bots to its platforms, a pivotal next step towards “synthetic minds” or “synthetic media.” Generative AI is already being used for user research, with “synthetic users” as substitutes for real people and focus groups. Now Meta will populate its applications not only with a general-purpose digital assistant (Meta AI), which helps users with information and instantly-generated images, but also with replicas of actual celebrities— Kendall Jenner, Snoop Dogg, Paris Hilton—and possibly ordinary people soon, too.

Meanwhile, OpenAI has introduced voice and image-based interactions with ChatGPT, clearly aiming for the bot to assume more personality and become “a synthetic companion not unlike the real people you encounter during the day, only smarter, more patient, more empathetic, more available,” as tech journalist Casey Newton characterizes it. He foresees that Meta is going “to place its AI characters on every major surface of its products. They have Facebook pages and Instagram accounts; you will message them in the same inbox that you message your friends and family. Soon, I imagine they will be making Reels. And when that happens, feeds that were once defined by the connections they enabled between human beings will have become something else: a partially synthetic social network.”

Ultimately, all media, traditional and social, may become “synthetic reality.” In these early days, the difference between authentic and synthetic may still matter, but down the road, it will become irrelevant. Welcome to what Meta calls a “universe of AI.” Movie actors, meanwhile, are still on strike to ensure they’re compensated fairly for having their faces replicated infinitely by AI; and Hollywood writers, until recently, had been doing the same to protect their own creative processes.

So far, Generative AI has been a mirror world, too: a simulation of a reality shaped by digitized human language and expression. This convention, however, will erode as Large-Language-Models (LLMs) begin to draw from their own creations—a phenomenon described as “generative inbreeding.” With access to past and real-time, and a fast-improving probabilistic outlook on what constitutes meaning, LLMs may soon even be able to “see.”

By increasingly generating its own solipsistic cosmos, AI will become a reality-maker of its own, independent even of its libertarian masters. Over time, it seems inevitable that its representation of reality will evolve further away from our convention until it’s not even a representation anymore but simply a new reality. The power dynamic will be reversed with AI no longer trying to replicate human things; instead, it will force us into mirroring it.

‎ ‎ ‎ Design by Eala Mardell and Midjourney

‎ ‎ ‎ Design by Eala Mardell and Midjourney

Enter the polyreality

As we say farewell to the one objective reality we used to believe in, we witness the rise of the “polyreality,” an entangled web of many parallel, interdependent realities, nestling in multi-layered experiences and many alternative meanings, compounding each other, with increasingly blurry borders between them.

Calling it ‘The Matrix’ would be too simplistic. The polyreality contains tech-enabled mixed reality applications (virtual and augmented reality) that already seem somewhat retro-sci-fi. At the same time, it is so much more than a “seamless blend of virtual and physical worlds,” to cite the marketing language Meta uses to describe its vision of the “meta-reality.” The polyreality transcends the metaverse: it is not just a mirroring or extension of the physical world but a more radical collapsing of real and virtual worlds into co-existing states of presence, some generated by humans, some by AI.

The polyreality is like The Truman Show on acid, the simulation of a simulation of a simulation, a game whose rules we no longer understand. The territory has outgrown the map. The territories have outgrown the maps. Cause-and-effect explanations no longer suffice. In the polyreality, the only option is options, the only meaning is meanings.

In the polyreality, not only can we no longer tell the difference between human and artificial intelligence, real and unreal, and truth and fiction, but we can also no longer find value in doing so.

Exit strategies: Madness is the method

The only way out of the polyreality is to cross a line, to hack cracks into the traps of a complex system through which to escape. These cracks are essentially transgressions, outbursts of violence or micro-aggressions, extreme actions; they are the irrational, the breaking of taboos, the scandal, the outrageous statement, violations of the unwritten, implicit laws, or even the explicit ones.

They are the moments when we lose it: Taylor Swift fans screaming their lungs out singing the bridge to “Cruel Summer.” Airline passengers yelling at flight attendants. Road rage. The Octoberfest mania. The recent TikTok call for an organized looting of retailers on London’s Oxford Street, acted upon by hundreds of rioters IRL. Or the Union Square chaos after two popular Twitch/YouTube streamers announced they would give away free gaming consoles, leading to riots the police can hardly control (which happened in New York City on August 9).

In these complex times, simplicity is in high demand. Take the astounding viral and commercial success of Oliver Anthony, the American singer-songwriter who sings about the woes of the working class, playing his semi-acoustic guitar, only accompanied by his two dogs. After his song “Rich Men North of Richmond” assumed Billboard’s pole position, he was co-opted by both political camps in the U.S. And yet, beyond this partisan struggle, Anthony's message remains resonant and clear."

This also explains the posthumous veneration of the late Sinead O’Connor. She was a truth-to-power speaker who personified an immutable, absolute, simple truth that was rooted in her interior reality. Off-academy philosopher FT told the New York Review in an interview:

“The locus of intellectual courage isn’t factuality, it’s oppositionality—an interior relation of conviction rather than an external condition of falsifiability. Unfortunately, …that kind of interior conviction can easily be mistaken for irrationality or even madness to an outside observer.”

Madness is the method in the polyreality. Post-humanist philosopher Bayo Akomolafe, who’s writing a book about autism and cancel culture, makes the case for madness—the unintelligible—as the only appropriate response to an increasingly complex environment of emergent, non-linear, unintelligible properties that leave us with little to no agency.

For those of us who are too timid for madness, there are two other choices:

One is to create our own small worlds-within-worlds within the polyreality by curating our relationships and gatherings, the games we play, the books we read, the movies we watch, the information we access, and the homes we live in with the utmost care. Curation (stemming from the Latin word for “care”), no matter how small, is the ultimate bulwark for creating authenticity in a synthetic world of systemic confusion.

The other choice we have is to create—write, paint, design, compose, perform, or sculpt, with or without the help of AI—in order to do what we humans have always been good at: seeking the truth.

Tim Leberecht

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