Do we sometimes think reality is a simulation?

Just occasionally someone asks a question which opens up a whole new line of thought. Lydia Reeves Timmins has an essay in the August edtion of Presence which argues: “Theres no reason the increasingly common confusion regarding what is “virtual” (i.e., mediated by technology) and “real” (i.e., nonmediated) should operate in only one direction. Confusions in which nonmediated experiences are mistaken for mediated ones are increasingly likely”. This helped me to pull together several threads which this blog has been exploring recently.

In other words, Ms Timmins argues that we have grown accustomed to people accepting virtual experiences as real, or nearly real. What we need also to accept is that people may be unable to tell if some real experiences are real or virtual.

There are perhaps two reasons for this confusion. One is that the technology is getting much better. You couldnt sit in an old Link Trainer and think it was a real aircraft: you may be able to do so in a modern flight simulator. Visual displays, audio technology, interactivity, etc., are all improving at staggering rates.

The second is that simulations extend the range of our experience. Ms Timmins draws most of her data from internet surveys and from peoples comparisons between real life and films. (Shes not English so she calls them movies, but no-ones perfect.) People who have seen dramatic or beautiful scenes report that it felt like watching a film or a TV programme. Few of us have really seen gunfights, plane crashes or violent death: almost everyone has seen them on films, TV or computer games. So when we see them in real life, the common reaction is “it was just like a TV film.”

She also refers to the phenomenon of simulation sickness – in which trainees in, say, flight simulators, suffer from motion sickness (citing a report by David Johnson about it). One suggestion why this happens is the sensory conflict theory: that our brains expect certain sensations to go together: eg if our balance alters, the horizon will also move. (Which is why people are seasick when they are inside a cabin and cant see the horizon – their balance alters but their visual frame of reference stays still, and the brain cant reconcile this.) Logically, this problem ought to diminish as simulations become more realistic.

An alternative explanation for simulator sickness is Postural Instability Theory – the idea that e cant maintain postural control in unfamiliar situations, and therefore become sick.

The cure for both sensory conflict and postural instability is, of course, to familiarise yourself with the situation – which is why you gradually grow used to the motions of a rough voyage, but then feel disoriented agan when you step on to dry land.

Ms Timmins argues that it is familiarity (or lack of it) which makes other situations seem real or unreal. I think this goes beyond motion sickness. The visual and obvious aspects of the simulation may ring true – but more subtle aspects such as its world view, its underlying model, or even its segmentation of reality may vary from what our brains expect. This was clearly the case with the business simulation I blogged about earlier: nobody thought it was realistic. Equally we may become so used to the mediated representation that we are confused if real life is different. (How many people these days play Solitaire games on Windows? and how many of those have actually played the real Solitaire with actual playing cards? Hands up those who thought the Windows version is the real Solitaire?)

Familiarity with a simulated world grows with practice. People who spend many hours playing a MMORPG may come to know it as well as their real life: it may even lead them to commit actual murder. People who use the bizarre electric shock belt on the Virtra systems combat simulator are learning how to reduce their sensory conflict with a simulated world, but I doubt if they learn much about combat.

Ethically, as well, if I grow used to killing people through playing Marine Doom, does this reduce my sensory conflict if I ever have the chance to kill a real person? As one comment on this blog argues, people in games are more ruthless than in real life: how long will that last if we all play games?

Ms Timmins adds: “An important and overlooked consequence of this trend is an increasing confusion from the other direction, in which “real life” seems to be mediated. People will have more and more trouble distinguishing reality, and some may not even appreciate that there is a difference. It will get harder for people to trust their own senses and judgment and it will be more difficult to impress people with non-mediated experiences.”

Shes not alone. Linda Stone advanced a related argument: the nature of our attention to signals is changing. We dont expect real life to look the same as we used to. Sherry Turkle discusses an object-relations psychology in which the objects are not Kleinian ideas but actual hardware or software objects. Im not sure if this is a cause for gloom or for excitement. I suppose Baudrillard would see it as gloomy; Kurzweil as exciting.

As for the view that it will be difficult to impress people with non-mediated experiences, well, yes. People are starting to act like comic-book characters now – eg Bruce Lee, or Parcours. I find it personally impossible to listen to music on headphones whilst walking around the streets – I have a sensory conflict – but I seem to be one of a minority. Maybe the future holds mixed experiences – mediated plus non-mediated packaged into one?

Maybe I should just get out there and hug a tree – except Ive got a website to write (guess what, its a simulation…)

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