Over the past two decades, human ingenuity has made it possible to create all kinds of fakes and simulations that are so realistic it is getting hard to distinguish many of them from what they imitate. The process is already so far advanced that, today, a substantial part of our surroundings are made up of objects and images and people that appear to be something other than what they are. There are sugar substitutes and Elvis look alikes; Sy Sperling hairpieces and replicas of great art; soy burgers and false teeth; female impersonators and artificially colored food; lip-sync artists who pretend to be vocalists and television commercials that are disguised to look like talk shows.
In addition to all the things that now simulate the appearance of other things, there are even a few products of human ingenuity that are intended to simulate the appearance of nothing at all, such as contact lenses and Stealth bombers. These stealth-like objects are hidden in their environment, creating the illusion they aren’t there.
The sheer number of simulations that now exist and their realism is inevitably changing not only our surroundings, but our psychology and behavior. One of the most important changes can be found in the fact that we now routinely experience simulation confusion, in which we mistake realism for reality and think some of these fakes and simulations really are what they imitate. We experience simulation confusion when we receive an advertisement in the mail that is disguised as an official notice, and, at first, fall for it and assume it is an official notice. And we experience simulation confusion by accident, rather than by other people’s design, when we make a telephone call and speak to a voice on the other end of the line, only to realize a moment later that we are talking to a recording on an answering machine that reproduces the qualities of a live voice.
There is no question how so many simulations came to fill our surroundings. They are made possible by technology as well as by human ingenuity, and they are being brought into existence to fill a multitude of needs and desires. In many instances, simulation has become the great substitute: Almost anything we can’t get, or can’t get conveniently, from the world as it is, we now seek from fakes and imitations, whether replacing missing talent or missing hair, and the more realistic technology can make the fakes and imitations, the more they satisfy our desires.
Simulations provide the military with new and more effective forms of camouflage. Simulations make it possible for children to collect their own imitation children, in the form of lifelike dolls that imitate an increasing number of human behaviors. And simulations provide all kinds of opportunities for consumers to enjoy the taste of sugar without the calories, to enhance attractiveness through cosmetics, to own replicas of works of art and to experience the fictional characters and situations provided by the imitation realities of television and film. In the kind of economic and personal calculations that go on today, the simulation is often more appealing than the original. For example, homeowners who would like the benefits of a watchdog without the bother now have the option of buying Radar Watchdog, a home-security device that plays barking sounds whenever someone approaches the house. In place of a dog, they get bark masquerading as bite.
As a result of these ingredients – technology, human ingenuity and our own needs and desires – we have created a society in which much of the culture and politics, as well as the economy, is geared toward mass producing, and consuming, simulations. It is a society in which many simulations are intended to be mistaken for the real thing. But it is also a society in which simulations that were never meant to be misleading often end up being mistaken for what they resemble, by accident, thus making simulation confusion, like pollution and traffic jams, another unintended, and toxic, byproduct of technology.
Fortunately, as simulations extend their reach, we are developing new survival skills that help us to unmask illusions. Perhaps the most important of these is the growing body of laws requiring that simulations be labeled or clearly marked to avoid confusion. Imitation and toy guns, for example, were becoming so realistic that they caused a number of problems, including some of their owners being shot by police officers who mistook the imitations for real firearms. In response. there is now a federal law which many officers say still doesn’t go far enough – requiring that imitation and toy guns have orange plugs in. the barrels or other visible markings to warn others that they are simulations.
We are also adapting to simulations in other ways. Techniques have been developed to unmask fake photographs, and most of us are learning from experience how to spot telltale flaws in otherwise convincing illusions. One might say that humanity is involved in a game of catch-up: Every year simulations are becoming more convincing, and every year we are getting better at not being fooled.
Our attempts to avoid confusion are also generating a new problem: We increasingly suspect the real and the authentic of being fake. We are thus witnessing one of the many ironies of the age of simulation: Fakes are being mistaken for the real thing and the real thing is in danger of being mistaken for a fake.
But all the issues that surround simulation take on their true significance only when one realizes that advances in transportation and communications make it possible to send simulations around the world. As a result, we are developing a global civilization in which it is now possible to confuse people en masse.
Perhaps the most disturbing example of the use of simulations to confuse millions of people can be found in contemporary political campaigns. As the news media have long recognized, the consultants who manage contemporary campaigns use all the illusions of theater, television and advertising to influence voters. They stage campaign events for the benefit of television news, allowing candidates to play carefully scripted roles, surrounded by props and sets. And they use all the image manipulation and editing techniques of television, to create campaign commercials that portray the candidates and the nation in ways that bear little relation to reality.
One of the more brilliant metaphors for the way simulations are being used to manipulate the public was devised by Stanislaw Lem, a Polish science fiction writer, in his novel The Futurological Congress. Lem portrays a future civilization in which humanity sees an illusory world not through a television screen but directly through its own manipulated experiences. A pharmacological dictatorship is secretly spraying drugs into the air that cause everyone to hallucinate a world of luxury, personal health and modern convenience when, in fact, society, the environment and people’s actual physical integrity are in a state of collapse.
In effect, Lem portrays the greatest act of simulation fraud in history, in which humanity has been trapped in a kind of psychological stage set in order to cover up the end of the world. Unable to perceive their true situation, people are helpless to change events. At the end of the novel, the main character, who believes he is marooned in this world of collective madness, comes to his senses and the reader discovers that this future society is, itself, nothing more than the character’s hallucination. (Of course, by the end, the reader has no way to be sure that the character’s discovery that he has been hallucinating isn’t itself a hallucination.) Thus Lem allows the reader to learn firsthand what it is like to be deceived by appearances.
Lem’s novel points to one of the central principles of contemporary life: The ability to manipulate simulations is a form of power and the inability to see through simulations is a form of powerlessness. Those who manipulate appearances, today, exercise power over those who are taken in by appearances.
Fortunately, it is also possible for millions of people to be in on the unmasking of simulations, which is what happens every time television news programs expose the way candidates stage events. The same technology and human ingenuity that are causing simulation confusion are also providing us with ways not to be fooled – for those willing to search for the truth behind appearances.