Cognitive Science

Cognitive Science

Thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures


The simulacra, to which Baudrillard refers, are the signs of culture and media that create the reality we perceive: a world saturated with imagery, infused with communications media, sound, and commercial advertising. These simulacra of the real surpass the real world and thus become hyperreal, a world that is more-real-than-real; presupposing and preceding the real. In this world apathy and melancholy permeate human perception and begin eroding Nietzsche's feeling of ressentiment.

Nietzsche addresses the concept of simulacrum (without using the actual term) in the 'Twilight of the Idols'. He notes that most philosophers, by ignoring the reliable input of their senses and resorting to the constructs of language and reason, arrive at a distorted copy of reality. Hyperreality.

Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Where Plato saw two types of representation — faithful and intentionally distorted (simulacrum) — Baudrillard sees four:

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality. [Good appearance or representation]
  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality. [Bad appearance or representation]
  3. It masks the absence of a basic reality. [Plays at being an appearance where there is no model. A copy for which there is no original]
  4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. [No longer in the order of appearance at all, but of simulation. A copy that is neither authentic nor fake]

Baudrillard’s early semiotic study found that today’s consumer society exists as a large network of signs and symbols that need to be decoded. It is form this that he formed the basis for the work, 'Simulacra and Simulation', which furthered this idea that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is a simulation of reality. Here, Baudrillard recounts a story by Jorges Luis Borges that tells of imperial mapmakers who makes a map so large and detailed that it covers the whole empire, existing in a one-to-one relationship with the territory underlying it. It is a perfect replica of the empire, and so the citizens of the empire now take the map, or the simulacrum of the empire, for the real empire. The map eventually begins to fray and tatter, but the real territory under the map has turned to desert and all that is left is the frayed map as a simulacrum of reality.

In our culture, Baudrillard argues that we take ‘maps’ of reality television and film as more real than our actual lives. These simulacra or hyperreal copies precede our lives, such that our television friends may seem more ‘alive’ to us than the real person playing that character. He also began studying how media affected our perception of reality and the world. Here he found that in a post-modern media-laden society we encounter “the death of the real”, where one lives in a hyperreal realm by connecting more and more deeply with things like television sitcoms, music videos, virtual reality games or Disneyland, things that have come to simulate reality. He argues that in a post-modern culture dominated by TV, films, the Internet and media all that exists are simulations of reality, which aren’t any more or less ‘real’ than the reality they simulate.

As such, Baudrillard points to the process of simulation in which representations of things come to replace the things being represented, and that the representations become more important than the ‘real thing’. The massed collection of these simulations has resulted in the condition of hyperreality, where we only experience prepared realities such as edited war footage or reality TV and the distinction between the ‘real’ and simulations has collapsed.



Simulation vs Simulacrum

Simulacrum is not a copy of the 'real', but becomes truth in its own right, aka the hyperreal. Simulacrum is not a representation of anything but itself.

Simulation is a copy of the 'real', but the distinction between ‘reality’ and representation is masked. Consequently, it becomes truth, aka the hyperreal. Unlike representation, simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is a system. "Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum."


While the conviction that the world is a VR game can certainly be chalked up to fringe psychosis, such mad beliefs can also be interpreted as  dreamlike symptoms  of a more pervasive cultural pathology. Data-gloves and head-mounted video displays are visible symbols for a much more  immersive “virtual reality”:  the ersatz electronic environment of images and data that embower our body-minds and social spaces. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard diagnosed this condition as a mass infection by the hyperreal, which he defined as a social, political, and perceptual organization based on the dominance of technological simulacra. Like an ontological virus, the hyperreal invades and destroys the older frameworks for understanding the real. Replacing it with a new order of reality, based on simulation. In 'Simulations' (1983), Bau­drillard argues that Disneyland is the Mecca of this hyperreal civiliza­tion: an environment that is neither authentic nor fake, a copy for which there is no original, and the paragon of social control by “anticipation, simulation, and programming”. In Baudrillard’s deeply apocalyptic view, the mass media have become a kind of orbiting strand of DNA that “mutates” the real into the hyperreal, eroding any space of authentic resistance and establishing the absolute dominion of the society of the spectacle.

Baudrillard’s apocalyptic theories can be read as highbrow science fiction, and in the realm of SF, his basic ideas, to say nothing of Marshall Applewhite’s, aren’t so novel. The idea that virtual technologies are instruments of social control can be traced to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel 'Brave New World', in which “feelies” allow the slave society’s drugged and genetically engineered populus to “experience” the sensations of actors projected on a large screen. Perhaps the greatest SF novel of such demiurgic media control is Philip K. Dick’s 'The Three Stig­mata of Palmer Eldritch', written in 1964. To escape the dismal toil of their lives, the human colonists on Mars while away the hours with Perky Pat Layouts, miniature dollhouses complete with Pat and Walt, svelte figurines resembling those postwar archetypes Barbie and Ken. After gathering together in their hovels, the colonists swallow an illegal drug, Can-D, which “translates” them into Pat and Walt’s Baywatch-like lives for a  painfully brief spell.  Some colonists view the virtual trip as escapism; others interpret it as a religious experience in which they lose the flesh and “put on imperishable bodies.” A satellite radio station owned by Perky Pat Layouts orbits Mars, emitting a stream of ads for new Perky Pat accessories, while the DJs deal Can-D on the side. Even psychic powers are exploited for commercial gain, as “pre-cogs” work­ing  for PPL use their gifts to predict which new accessories will score with the colonists

As the SF critic Peter Fitting points out, 'Three Stigmata' paints a pic­ture of a  world where "the liberatory potential of the media and new technologies has been completely debased [watered down]" [Peter Fitting, 'Reality as ideological Construct', 101].  This world is not light-years away from us. Already networked computer games, theme park rides, and VR entertainment centers seek not merely to distract or enter­tain, but to immerse us in new, concocted realities. These virtual tech­nologies are on a collision course with Hollywood’s dream factory; in this sense, Star Trek's holodeck can be seen as the entertainment indus­try’s own holy grail. Many Hollywood blockbusters already aspire  to become theme parks of a sort, either through roller-coaster-like effects (Twister) or by constructing  stylish  worlds  that viewers want to stick around in (Batman). Moreover, we are encouraged to bring chunks  of these worlds home with us by buying up licensed icons and relics: dinosaur mugs, Godzilla caps, Star Trek uniforms, 007 Visa cards. Most children’s programming now fuses merchandise and imaginative experience  so  thoroughly that kids (and their parents) must purchase action figures, clothes, and slimy substances in order to "play.”  Even the PPL “pre-cogs” in 'The Three Stigmata' reflect the sophisticated demographic techniques that market researchers, trend forecasters, and PR flacks now use to anticipate what images and styles will capture the nomadic flows of consumer desire.

The crew of the Enterprise always manage to emerge unscathed from whatever psychological or metaphysical disruptions the holodeck intro­duces  between  real  and  virtual  life.  But the Trekkers in Heaven’s Gate did not make it out of their own pocket universe alive; indeed, their otherworld was so immersive that it did not just reconfigure primary reality according to a religious delusion; it annhilated that primary reality. As Baudrillard’s own work suggests, the simulacrum has an apoca­lyptic power. By manufacturing a multiverse of virtual realities, simulation can end the world simply by throwing the stability of all worlds into permanent crisis. As Jay Bolter points out, digital worlds wreak havoc with traditional Western metaphysical assumptions about the nature of creation 

“The programmer-god makes the world not once and for all but for many times over again, rearranging its elements to suit each  new  program of creation. The universe proceeds like a program until it runs down or runs wild, and then the slate is wiped clean, and a new game is begun" [Bolter, 'Turing's Man', 187-88).

Applewhite and his crew checked out because they felt that Terra’s reboot was imminent, or at least that the game was growing dull. The cult’s trigger signal was an old prophetic standby: the comet in the sky. But even this ancient cosmic clod was touched with the infectious power of the hyperreal. Mopping up after the suicides, investigators found a downloaded picture of Hale-Bopp still glowing on the cult’s  computer screens, an image originally constructed with the state-of-the-art percep­tual technologies of high-tech satellite astronomy. But the nature of the image had changed as it passed through television, newspapers, maga­zines, and the World Wide Web. For one thing, Hale-Bopp picked up a shadowy “Companion” as it hurtled through the electronic universe: a blurry doppelganger described and photographed by inept astronomers, but transformed into a spaceship by the robust imaginations of the UFO fringe. In other words, Hale-Bopp became a simulacrum, a virtual real­ity, and by the time it arrived on the terminal screens of Rancho Santa Fe, the image had exploded into a blazing sigil of posthuman yearning and millennial angst, emotions that inevitably pick up the alien call. The comet became harbinger again: a logo of the latter days, a great swoosh in the sky, a portent of a culture that can’t stop cracking up.

 - Erik Davis ('Techgnosis')


David Cronenberg's film 'eXistenZ' engages the concept of the simulation and presents us with a vision of the future in which impression is valued over content. The film follows the first experience of a bodyguard uninitiated in the world of virtual reality videogames with a new product created by the videogame designed he was hired to protect. Speaking directly to Baudrillard's concerns, the film leaves the viewer uncertain as to when the characters are in a virtual world (see: virtuality) and when they are experiencing the real. The self-referentiality within the film, with its framing of a virtual reality videogame inside of another videogame, portrays the simulated world as not only tied directly to the experience of emotion and sensation, but as a world in which logical action is rewarded and meaning sublimated. Any moral or allegorical conclusion that could be drawn from what appears to be the film's initial conclusion, that simulations create a system which precipitates its own demise, is invalidated by a further expansion into another reality in which the real videogame designer is congratulated for having created a really fun game. The simulation in the film is reduced to the status of a ride or a contest, containing its own rules and raising the status of the videogame to deific proportions. The port into which the gamepods are plugged (directly into the player's spine) becomes a metaphor for desire and oblivion in its simultaneous recollection of sexual intercourse and intravenous drug use. This is the realm of the simulation, a process whose responsibility lies only in what it makes us feel.  - Devin Sandoz, 2003