Y Combinator is perhaps the most well known Silicon Valley startup incubator. Its president is a 31 year-old named Sam Altman, the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile this week and who, along with Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, has developed a nonprofit called OpenAI, “whose goal is to prevent artificial intelligence from accidentally wiping out humanity.”
Though, if Altman is correct about something else, some form of artificial intelligence is actually what’s responsible for humanity in the first place.. For, Altman (and Musk) subscribes to the idea that reality as we understand it is merely a highly sophisticated computer simulation. In other words, humanity may already be a form of artificial intelligence.
As it happens, the tech magnates of Silicon Valley are not alone in wondering what reality really means, or where it might begin or end. Nor are they even the first to posit that the reality in which we have always understood ourselves to inhabit can be simulated with an uncanny familiarity. For most of us, that realization came near the turn of the century, with the introduction of reality TV.
Since that time, this genre of popular programming has been blamed for all sorts of societal ills — from increased narcissism and celebrity worship, to moral debasement. This year, it is being accused of something much worse: the undercutting of democracy, via a man who has, in retrospect, been primed for reality TV his entire life, Donald Trump.
Back in March, TIME magazine set out to explain “how reality TV took over U.S. politics,” primarily via the injection of a ratings-obsessed, crowd-pleasing, ringmaster celebrity television star, but equally through the marriage of news and entertainment and its constant behind-the-scenes access. Everything, the argument has gone, must now share the spectacle of reality TV, or it will fail to grab attention. But in recent days, the idea that there is a different version of reality at play has begun to feel less related to the accentuated reality of reality TV, and instead to something a bit more sinister.
Early in the first presidential debate, Trump and Hillary Clinton argued over American trade deals, specifically, the Trans Pacific Partnership. “You called it the gold standard. You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it’s the finest deal you’ve ever seen,” Trump shouted. “And then you heard what I said about it and then all of a sudden, you were against it.”
“Well, Donald,” Clinton replied. “I know you live in your own reality — .” She was interrupted by audience laughter.
Even a few weeks ago, the idea that Trump’s outsized pronouncements and megalomaniacal tendencies might be symptoms of a total separation from what most would consider reality was still kind of funny. Yet, in the ensuing days and weeks — and particularly since Trump’s vile comments about women, uttered into a hot mic ten years ago, were released, and other women have publicly spoken about alleged assaults — the question of Trump’s reality is more relevant.
Because what Trump has been presenting with increasing regularity are not just inaccuracies, but fantasies.
For example, Trump as alleged in recent days, on numerous occasions, that the entire election is “rigged” and that his supporters should be on the lookout November 8th for suspicious activities. It’s important, he told a crowd in Pennsylvania “that you watch other communities, because we don’t want this election stolen from us.”
On Thursday, Trump delivered a speech in West Palm Beach, Florida, in which he warned of a “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political elites.”
A few minutes later, he alleged that Bill Clinton’s unplanned meeting this summer with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in Phoenix was really set up for the former president to assert influence over the outcome of the Justice Department’s examination of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Trump then suggested that FBI director James Comey, whose department found no charges should be laid in the affair, had been similarly leaned on.
“This is a conspiracy against you, the American people, and we cannot let this happen or continue,” Trump told the crowd in Florida. “This is our moment of reckoning as a society and as a civilization itself.”
Friday, Trump suggested that allegations made by two women in the New York Times that he had made unwanted, aggressive sexual advances on them, was a story rigged by Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim, a Clinton Foundation donor.
In short, this is has gone beyond simply seeing things differently. This is no longer, if it ever really was, a disagreement on policy in which both sides begin on a shared basis of accepted fact, or even on one in which details of the facts are in dispute. This is something else.
“Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis… two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation,” Tad Friend writes in his New Yorker profile of Sam Altman. “To Altman, the danger stems not from our possible creators but from our own creations.”
It has been said many times that reality TV created Donald Trump as we now know him. That seems true. After all, who has personified the genre more? Who has lived the reality TV life more? Given that we, collectively, allowed reality TV to be created in the way it has been, the argument goes that we have now received what we were ultimately, unknowingly, seeking: the purest distillation of the genre presented in the most spectacular way.
We think that all we did was create a stage for him. But it is possible we did more than that.
Reality TV is blamed for a lot of things, but that for which it is most guilty, before widespread broadband access could be blamed, is further legitimizing and, for the first time, popularizing the idea that there is always more going on behind the scenes than is shown. This idea has now become the cultural subtext of the 21st century. All that has followed — Alex Jones, 9/11 Trutherism, Sandy Hook Trutherism, Birtherism, and the like — has held this as its central tenet. Reality TV didn’t create conspiracy theories, but it helped confirm the suspicion of artifice. It revealed for the first time to the masses how the illusion is created, how things are staged.
It could be that what reality TV has contributed to 2016’s presidential election is not its superficial attributes like its outsized personalities, its entertainment value, or even its drama. Rather, what is being brought to our attention via this election is that we have become the unwitting creators of something much more complex than a mere platform. We have created an alternate universe.
And now that simulation is trying to present itself as reality.