You’re Living Inside a Media-Induced Delusion


We are beginning to suspect that we ourselves are nothing but images.

In the 20th Century, social critics such as Guy Debord and Theodor Adorno looked upon the innovations in communication technology that emerged after the second world war with fear and skepticism. Adorno, combining psychoanalytic theory with traditional Marxism, argued that what he called the Culture Industry was reshaping the inner life of the working class, producing a passive mass society with strong authoritarian tendencies.

Adorno wrote: The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu.

Later, the French radical Guy Debord took this critique further, suggesting that the power of the image in the electronic age had replaced the power of labor time. While in the 19th and early 20th centuries, social relations were directed by the production of commodities and the competition in the market, in the new society, our lives were controlled by what he called the Spectacle. As he put it, the spectacle was not merely a collection of images broadcast on television, projected onto screens at the cinema, and populating the interiors of magazines and the surfaces of billboards, but rather it was a way of life, a Zeitgeist. As he put it: The Spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.

Today our communication technologies have developed to the point that this idea that we are living in a world directed by images no longer appears to be adequate. Rather than being merely directed by images, we are beginning to suspect that we ourselves are nothing but images. Or, to be more accurate, some of us suspect that we are destined to become, or already are, nothing more than a series of zeroes and ones stored within a computer.

The billionaire CEO of the social media website Twitter, for example, once wrote,

The strongest argument for us being in a simulation is the following – that 40 years ago we had pong like two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were. Now 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year, and soon, we will have virtual reality or augmented reality.

If this argument from Musk to make sense, we’ll need some background information. We’ll need to take up the full argument as it was originally proposed by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom. Bostrom argued that if we imagine that computer-run simulations of reality may one day reach the point wherein they are indistinguishable from reality, and we speculate that computer-generated personalities within this simulation are conscious beings, then it is likely that in the course of all of time the majority of conscious entities will be simulations. Given that, for these simulations, the difference between reality and simulation will be impossible to discern, we must then ask ourselves, what is the likelihood that we are simulations. Bostrom goes on:

If we don’t think we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of simulations of their forebears. In the context of this argument, Elon Musk’s argument that we are living in a computer simulation makes some sense. Further, his determination to create virtual reality and experiment with uploading people’s minds into computers can be understood as well. He is attempting to prove that he himself, along with everyone else, is very likely to be a computer simulation already. However, we should note what the consequences of this proposition that we are all computer simulations might turn out to be. Specifically, we should try to think this proposition all the way to the end. What would the idea that our consciousness is determined by and consists of computer programming turn out to mean epistemologically and ontologically? What would it be possible to know from within a computer simulation, and what sort of beings would we have to be?

To begin with, simulation theory is not ontological at all. That is, it does not propose that the simulation is real but rather that the empirical world we perceive is merely an appearance and that the true reality is altogether different from what we believe about the world. We think we see a table, but according to Musk and Bostrom, what we are experiencing is a computer language, a program, a secret code:

Consider this joke or put-on. Consider how Sacha Baron Cohen irritated the late cultural commentator Andy Rooney in August of 2004. Ali G: Let’s talk about some mistakes that has happened or has not happened. Has journalists ever put out tomorrow’s news by mistake?

Rooney: How do you know what the news is if it hasn’t happened yet?

Ali Gi: Yo, but if there was something that was well important, like a plane crash wouldn’t you report that a day early?

While Ali G’s question is absurd, there is a way to imagine reasonable justifications for it, especially if we turn to another interview with Andy Rooney, this one from 1982 on Late Night with David Letterman, for context. David Letterman: Are you besieged by folks looking for autographs? Andy Rooney: I don’t understand giving autographs[…]Why would any idiot want my autograph? […] Why can’t they be satisfied with what I write? Why do they have to get to know me and touch my tie?

David Letterman: You experience a lot of tie-touching, eh?

Andy Rooney: What does that give them?

David Letterman: Maybe something to talk about at Burger King?

Now, in a final effort to provide a metaphor for the idea I’m driving at, consider this quote from the 1976 film Network. Here the news anchor Howard Beale is imploring the audience to stop trying to be like the people they see on television. You people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even *think* like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! *WE* are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF…

Let’s imagine that Howard Beale was wrong. Let’s say that movies, television programs, Youtube videos, TikToks, and pornhub scenes are real in the philosophical sense. if we were to take these various media images up as the substance that structures reality, as the necessary universal truth that is more important than we are in our contingency, then it would make sense that people would want to touch Andy Rooney’s tie. It would even make sense that journalists could report the news in advance. After all, if what’s on TV is real, then that means that at least a good part of reality is planned out in advance or already exists before it appears to us. Television consists of programs, after all. Just like a computer simulation. When a being from that higher dimension, from this reality of television, appears in the flesh when he comes down amongst us when he shows up at Macy’s, then touching his tie or getting an autograph is a way to participate in the miracle.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the radical theosophist Rudolf Steiner believed in the Akashic records. This was a secret realm where all the events in the universe, past, present, and future, were recorded. The essence of reality was, according to Steiner, contained within these records. It was something like the force from Star Wars or like the computer code that produces virtual reality. It was both the record of everything that existed or would exist, and it was the power that set the whole universe in motion.

Along with absurd jokes, the occult notion of a universe constructed out of images, symbols, and Akashic records, can produce an excessively enjoyable paranoia. Still, the idea doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. Like nearly every other ontological explanation of the world, it falls apart due to fundamental incongruities and contradictions within the concept itself.

To start on the practical level, if we were to imagine that the world was following a script that was secreted away in another dimension, that the world was supported by or was essentially the same as this script, then we’d have to imagine that the script contained itself along with the secret spiritual dimension that contained it.

In a previous essay, I wrote about Slavoj Zizek and the problem of postmodernism, I mentioned the term “spurious infinity.” And I quoted from Paul Fry’s lecture on Derrida’s essay, “Structure Sign and Play.” Fry claimed that Derrida’s critique of Saussure’s structuralism was a critique of all structures and did not just apply to the specific sort of structure Saussure believed he had proven determined meaning in any and all linguistic systems. Fry said:

I look at structure, and I say it has a center. What I mean is that it has a center. I mean a blanket term, a guiding concept, a transcendental signified, something that explains the nature of the structure, and something else also, which allows for limited free play within the structure. At the same time, the structure has this kind of boundary nature, it has boundaries.

But then, according to Fry, Derrida tells us that the center is both a center and not a center.

It is both that which organizes the structure and also something that isn’t qualified to organize anything because it’s not in the structure. It’s outside the structure.

For Derrida, all meta-structures are like the Akashic records in that they are both the very substance of the universe, and the secret occult truth, hidden from view and residing in some outside realm, that explains and gives meaning to the universe.

The conspiracy theory called Project Blue Beam is another example. The story goes like this: The CIA or maybe the Elder Council of Zion is planning to overturn and abolish Christianity. To achieve their goal, they are working with aliens from another world, receiving the technology necessary to create holographic simulations that can pass themselves off as real, indistinguishable from the real thing. The plan is that the world government will stage an event that will include the appearance of flying saucers in the skies of earth. They will stage the landing of a holographic saucer on the White House lawn and convince the world that space angels are real. They will convince the world that the aliens are the true Gods. But, for this trick to work, there must be REAL aliens. To stage the simulation of a miracle, there has to be a real miracle that resides outside the staged event. The aliens, according to Project Blue Beam conspiracy theorists, are both fake and real, appearances and substances. Just like any other center that structures reality, the aliens reside both within and without. To return to the beginning, Guy Debord argued that the world was mediated by images and that the people in it had become inert spectators. He argued that, under late capitalism, or in a world turned upside down, the true is a moment of the false.

However, if we are to understand Debord’s argument, we have to know that it is an inversion of Hegel’s claim that the false is a moment of the true. For Hegel, our mistakes, our false beliefs, were part of a process of self-discovery leading to the absolute. Each mistake, when recognized, would dissolve itself and set us in a new direction. In this case, we can see that the idea that we are living in a simulation is a repetition of older occult notions, a revision of older systems of metaphysics. It repeats a Neoplatonic conception of reality wherein there is a realm of pure ideas, or some sort of logocentric code, that sets up the world of appearance. But that logocentric code would either need its own code to appear or it would have to be its own code.

This self-contradiction in simulation theory is dissolved when we consider what assumptions remain unexamined. For Bostrom’s suggestion that we are living in a simulation to make sense, we have to accept that computer programs can be conscious, that these programs can be a site wherein virtual reality appears and is perceived and at least partially understood by some sort of subjectivity. And at this point, we can see that what appears to be a description of what’s beyond us, about the nature of the objective world, only leads us to consider ourselves. What are we apart from the objects of our perception, objects rendered by the code? What is it to be conscious, alive, and aware?

We have already become objects of our own understanding, even if we do think of ourselves as being not very different from Qbert or Zelda.

And what this means is that, even if Debord is right and we are passive, inert objects directed by the ideology of the spectacle, even if we are programmed, we are also the programmers. We are the center, the force inside and outside the system.

Douglas Lain is the novelist behind Bash Bash Revolution, the podcaster behind the Diet Soap podcast, the former editor of Zer0 Books, and the CEO of Sublation Media.