A philosopher explores the nature of reality using “The Matrix” and other science fiction as thought experiments

The universe of “The Matrix” is an illusion constructed by malevolent godlike AIs. Nothing in the Matrix is real. But we might also think of objects in a simulation as real, but digital rather than physical.

On Ars Technica, Jennifer Ouellette interviews NYU philosopher David Chalmers, author of the new book, “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.”

Exploring mind-bending questions about reality and virtual worlds via The Matrix

Chalmers:

I partly got into this about 15 years ago through watching my five-year-old nephew play with SimCity. He built up the city and the environment and all the people. Then he said, “Now, here’s the fun part,” and he just set fire to it all, sent in earthquakes and tidal waves. I thought, “OK, now I understand the Old Testament God.”

Even if we’re living in a simulation, if I stub my toe, the pain is real.

The metaverse already exists, and it is very old

The metaverse has existed since the invention of language and art.

The metaverse is the universe of information the human race has been building for 200,000 years, beginning with the emergence of modern homo sapiens in Africa. Our ancestors began to make drawings by daubing red ochre on cave walls, and probably had language and other modern behavior too. They began to build the metaverse then, an information architecture that exists outside any individual mind, in illustrations or speech that was memorized and shared between people and from one generation to the next.

Writing accelerated the construction of the metaverse, emerging 5,000 years ago and providing a much improved means of preserving and communicating information. Writing started with financial records, records of transactions, and laws and administrative orders by political leaders. That is the principal form of the metaverse today.

Of course, computers accelerated the development of the metaverse even more. You exist both in the real world and the metaverse. The metaverse you is your financial, employment, and criminal history, the records of your interactions with governments and most businesses. If you’re stopped by the police, or try to take out a mortgage, or you need lifesaving medical care that costs as much as a new car or house, your metaverse version is as important to your life as your physical self.

Wars are primarily fought in the metaverse. “Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics” has been attributed to Gen. Omar Bradley. (More quotes about military logistics here) Logistics is the science of getting bullets, uniforms, vehicles, guns, food, shelter, and all other essential equipment from the real echelons to the front, where soldiers can use them. Logistics require a whole lot of record-keeping. Logistics happen in the metaverse. It’s been said that World War II was won with the typewriter.

Those of us who work and socialize primarily through screens, and did so even before Covid, live much of our lives in the metaverse.

The recent talk about the metaverse, with virtual reality and avatars, is just the latest step in a journey that’s been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Personally, I’m skeptical that people are going to want to live large parts of their lives with their eyes covered by screens. But it doesn’t matter. The metaverse is already here, and it’s nothing new.

Why do we work so damn much

Hunter-gatherers worked 15-hour weeks. Why don’t we?

The Ezra Klein Show:

“James Suzman is an anthropologist who has spent the last 30 years living with and studying the Ju’hoansi people of southern Africa, one of the world’s enduring hunter-gatherer societies. And that project has given him a unique lens on our modern obsession with work.

“As Suzman documents in his new book, ‘Work: A Deep History From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots,’ hunter-gatherer societies like the Ju’hoansi spent only about 15 hours a week meeting their material needs despite being deeply impoverished by modern standards. But as we’ve gotten richer and invented more technology, we’ve developed a machine for generating new needs, new desires, new forms of status competition.

“So this is a conversation about the past, present and future of humanity’s relationship to work and to want. We discuss what economists get wrong about scarcity, the lessons hunter-gatherer societies can teach us about desire, how the advent of farming radically altered people’s conceptions of work and time, whether there’s such a thing as human nature, the dangers of social and economic inequality, the role of advertising in shaping human desires, whether we should have a wealth tax and universal basic income, and much more.

“Historically speaking, we live in an age of extraordinary abundance. We have long since passed the income thresholds when past economists believed our needs would be more than met and we’d be working 15-hour weeks, puzzling over how to spend our free time. And yet, few of us feel able to exult in leisure, and even many of today’s rich toil as if the truest reward for work is more work. Our culture of work would be profoundly puzzling to those who came before us.”

The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that technology and productivity would advance so far over the next century that his grandchildren would be able to work 15-hour weeks to fulfill all their material needs and wants.

Keynes was half-right. We have far surpassed Keynes’s bold technology predictions. And yet we work longer hours than ever before.

Why?

Klein and Suzman say we work so hard because the economy isn’t just a machine for filling needs — it is, equally importantly, a machine for creating desire.

People in Keynes’s time didn’t spend money on iPhones or streaming media subscriptions or health insurance.

To find people working 15-hour weeks, you have to look backwards — tens of thousands of years backward — to hunter-gatherer societies.

The hunter-gatherer secret is that they’re not enhancing productivity. They’re regulating demand. They share wildly and freely. If you have something, somebody else can ask you for some and you are required to give it to them. Accumulating too much was considered bad form. Bad for the community.

Hunter-gatherer societies proved extraordinarily resilient, carrying the human race on foot from a small spot of Africa to every continent, from the hot deserts to the Arctic.

Of course there are almost no hunter-gatherer societies left today, and so you might argue that our civilization is far superior to that model. And yet hunter-gatherer cultures dominated for 300,000 years, while all of civilization has only lasted a bit more than 10,000 years — a very small fraction of that time. And it’s unclear how much longer civilization will last.

Can we achieve the best of both models?