Skip to content

The Wonders of Man in the Age of Simulations.


THERE IS NO DOUBT that simulations—along with computing clouds, neural implants, and digital enhancements—will change the experience of being human. But will it threaten human creativity and endanger human freedom? Is humanity, itself, under threat?

Perhaps the gravest danger that simulation and the Singularity pose is the increased capacity for human beings to lie to others and to themselves. As Lanier writes, “No one in the pre-digital cloud era had the mental capacity to lie to him- or herself in the way we routinely are able to now.” It is counterintuitive, but the “limitations of organic human memory and calculation used to put a cap on the intricacies of self-delusion.” Now entire professions rely on vast quantities of information beyond the power of any human to comprehend or to process. There are layers upon layers of abstraction between facts and what we see—and each layer of abstraction can be manipulated, culled, directed, and spun by human as well as non-human intelligences. While facts have always been mediated through language and culture, increasingly, everyday experiences are encountered through systems, technologies, and processes that are immune to human comprehension. Confronted with competing realities, facts fade in their impact and we are ever more comfortable in a web of competing ideologies.

No thinker has explored the modern disempowerment of facts as has Hannah Arendt. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt showed how the alienation of 20th century individuals elicited a desire to escape reality and a demand for consistency. Unhappy people will choose to believe radical fictions that promise consistency and purpose over the decay and disaster of real life. A lying world of consistency is, Arendt saw, more adequate to the needs of the human mind than the vagaries of reality.

Twenty years later, in Truth in Politics, Arendt expressed shock that “highly respected statesmen,” like Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, had been able to “build their basic policies on such evident non-facts as that France belongs among the victors of the last war and hence is one of the great powers, and ‘that the barbarism of National Socialism had affected only a relatively small percentage of the country.’” She was exasperated by the way that Stalin re-wrote the history of the Soviet Revolution to exclude the accomplishments of Trotsky and others. The political activity of lying, she saw, denies facts and creates alternative realities. In denying and creating, the political liar acts to change the world, to make reality anew, so that it conforms to our needs and desires.

What Lanier, Turkle, and Arendt show is that the realm of abstractions and simulations allows for the preservation and extension of fictions in ways heretofore unimaginable. Even when facts that contradict a fiction exist, those facts can be eliminated. That is the power of simulation.

Whether or not the Singularity occurs and whatever our technological future will bring, we are confronted by the possibility of a simulated world without facts and devoid of truth. It is one thing to lie to others, but quite another to lie to oneself. Once all standards of truth and honesty fall prey to the simulacrum of simulation, humanity will finally be freed to live in a world fully of its own making. If that happens, we will come finally to understand the wonders of man, in all his ambiguity.

Roger Berkowitz is director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Ethical and Political Thinking and associate professor of political studies and human rights at Bard College. The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, his first book, was recently republished in paperback. The Arendt Center’s 2010 Conference, Human Being in an Inhuman Age, featured both Ray Kurzweil and Sherry Turkle. The webcast is here.


More: Roger Berkowitz, “Lost in the Loneliness of Anti-Social Networks” [a review of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together; The Fortnightly Review, 26 January 2011].

Jaron Lanier, “The First Church of Robotics” [The New York Times, 9 August 2010].

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *