Proof that we live in a simulation


I’m sitting hunched over on the edge of my bed, staring intently at a friend of mine who’s halfway through. He explains why renewable energy hasn’t taken hold in America, saying “the rich and powerful haven’t figured out yet how they’re going to make money from it.” A group of my friends gathered in my dorm. It’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday and the last thing we want to think about is our impending final exams. Instead, we distract ourselves with conspiracy theories, saving our critical thinking for articles we need to write later. It’s almost like we’re hosting our own episode of “The Joe Rogan ExperienceI laugh to myself. The conversation moves on and my friend remarks, “Here’s a thought: do you think we’re living in a simulation?”

It’s not the first time any of us in the room have heard this a. The theory that we live in a simulation, an artificial reality generated by code, is a speculation that permeates our contemporary popular culture. You, the reader, have probably had a conversation very similar to the one I just described.

For many, this theory is more than just a pseudo-philosophical thought you have in the shower. It’s a theory that’s explicitly and strongly perpetuated in the media – in everything from our movies to our slang. In today’s world, we describe the highlights of our lives as “main character moments” and we refer to people who we refuse to believe exist outside of our lives as “non-characters.” playable” (NPC). Last year, “Free Guy,” a film about an NPC who discovers his reality is nothing more than a video game, explored the line between artificial intelligence and human consciousness. Plus, Elon Musk’s many legions of fans are familiar with his talk about the statistical probability that the world we live in is the work of mysterious intergalactic programmers. As he puts it, the probability that we live in the original and therefore unsimulated reality is “one in billions”.

Certainly, simulation theory offers a solid answer to how our universe came to be. For a concept that we still understand so little, it becomes much easier to understand the birth of the universe when explained as the push of an “on” button. Unfortunately, so far it seems no one has recommended trying to “turn it on and off again”. Nevertheless, the simulation theory is a modern creation myth that offers a causal explanation – a reason we are here in the first place – that is also relevant to the technology-dependent world we live in.

However, when I consider the possibility that our reality is simulated, the question I ask is not “are we living in a simulation?” but rather “do I live in a simulation? Much like Guy from “Free Guy,” I’d hate to think I’m not the main character in this simulated reality. And while philosophers and physicists might seek more empirical methods to get to the bottom of the cosmic mystery, I, as a casual meditator, look to the abnormal in my own life as evidence. The unnatural, of course, being none other than the app we all know and love: TikTok.

In the countless hours I spent browsing TikTok, I came across quite a few videos that I didn’t like. For example, about a month ago I watched a TikTok on my For You page with a caption that said something like, “So you were looking for this video?” And would you believe it – I had indeed been thinking about TikTok content the other day.

Granted, “this is the video you’re looking for” is a fairly common caption on social media. But in the part of my brain that oversees conspiracy theories, the idea that TikTok knows what video I’m looking for only bolsters the evidence for the theory that the world is a simulation. How else could an app on my phone know my thoughts or read my thoughts? It can’t just be a coincidence.

While it’s fun to imagine there’s a conspiracy behind TikTok’s apparent telepathy, the reality is that I have no evidence of a simulation and plenty of evidence of my very real brain. and very human, who simply recognizes a pattern between the events in my own life and the things I observe online. But I recognize that whenever a weirdly specific TikTok pops up on my For You page, it seems too specific to just be a coincidence. So what’s really going on?

Rather than the world being a simulation, the insidious conspiracy is simply that social media algorithms are designed to exploit the part of our minds that looks for patterns. It’s not just social media, however. The Google search engine is notorious for providing biased search results.

Some days it can seem like everything I encounter online is designed to accommodate my confirmation bias. As Ben Smith writes in The New York Times, TikTok is “surprisingly good at reading your preferences and steering you to one of its many ‘sides,’ whether you’re interested in socialism or Excel advice or sex, conservative politics or a specific celebrity.”

Clearly, there’s a logical explanation for the frighteningly accurate TikToks popping up on the For You page. In a blog post published by TikTok, the company explains how it uses a “recommendation system” to personalize the user experience. The post claims that the system recommends content “based on the interests you express as a new user and adapting to the things you indicate you are.” not also interested. Behind every new video that appears on a For You page is a calculation based on past decisions made by the user, such as watching a video until the end or following a creator immediately after viewing their content.

TikTok also acknowledges that the “recommendation system” creates an echo chamber, the result of the algorithm showing users only one “side” of its platform. To mitigate this, the company claims to deliberately mix new and diverse content among the most familiar videos. Perhaps that explains why users often head to the comments section to ask how they got to “MLB TikTok” when they’re more used to videos of the latest dance trend.

Ultimately, however, the algorithms that structure the digital realm have the power to fuel a conspiratorial mistrust of the world. I’m not afraid of the fact that I can live in a simulation as much as I’m afraid of an algorithm knowing me so well that it perpetually feeds me exclusively the content I want, reaffirming my world Vision, my values, my political philosophy until I was truly blinded to reality. And yet, like most people my age, I continue to browse TikTok and enjoy the brief distraction of the myriad jokes and trends.

I so want to believe that TikTok is harmless fun. I mean, if the videos exploding on the app can be seen as a glimpse into the collective interests and pleasures of the human population, there may be beauty in discovering what makes us all smile. Yet when TikTok proudly boasts that no two For You pages are the same, I can’t help but think that social media platforms’ highly personalized algorithms encourage an individualized mindset that breeds speeches such as “Main Character Moments” and “NPC”. The same mindset that made me believe that if the universe was a simulation, I was at the center of it.

I recently heard someone ask, “What do the billions of zeros and ones on your computer say about you?” If someone had access to those billions of zeros and ones, they might know what videos to recommend to me or what products to advertise to me, but would they really know to know me? When I’m scrolling through TikTok, on the surface, I’m looking at other people’s content. But in the code behind the algorithm, I’m just looking at myself. Or rather, I’m looking at a computer’s best guess who I am. It’s the superpower of TikTok. In TikTok, I exist in a simulation where everything revolves around me. I guess Elon Musk was right after all.

Columnist Connor O’Leary Herreras can be reached at [email protected].


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