Easy Chair — From the December 2018 issue

The Silicon Mystique

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If I’m having trouble sleeping and feel like spinning my wheels in the dark, I like to meditate on the simulation hypothesis—the idea that we’re living inside a kind of game running on a computer in the future. First put forward by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom and embraced by many notable thinkers, it may be the most incredible idea conceivable, representing some sort of formal limit to the mind’s capacity for being blown. Artists and poets have long imagined that the world may be a dream or an illusion, but dreams and illusions are human, natural things, and profoundly familiar to us in some ways. A machine-based, multidimensional deception contrived by beings we may never meet, for reasons we may never know, which they may choose to turn off at any time, as mysteriously and arbitrarily as they turned it on, feels decidedly stranger. It feels, if anything, a bit demonic.

Still, the simulation left me cold the first few times it was explained to me. Despite being metaphysically destabilizing and existentially humiliating, the idea felt oddly flat, inert. It seemed to lack the resonance and bite of older cosmological conceptions: Shakespeare’s crowded stage, brimming over with lust and vanity and violence; the spiritual wilderness of Bunyan, with its many crooked paths and single straight one; even Einstein’s great temple of laws and forces, perfectly just and indifferent. Instead, the simulation was a computer game, something like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, but with immeasurably better graphics and richer, subtler scripts. It would be quite a technical achievement to mount such an all-encompassing digital show, but other than that, so what?

My main problem with the simulation was that knowing about it didn’t change much. In fact, it didn’t seem to change a thing. After the first “aha!” wears off, you’re left with a model of reality that exactly matches the world around you, except you understand that it’s phony. What are the moral implications of this world picture? None that I could see. Should the young be told about the simulation, assuming we decide that it likely exists? I could think of no good reason for it. If the kids got the truth before age twenty or so, they might quit school, or at least not go to college. Why study what doesn’t exist? And if they were told before age thirty, they might not mate—why drag others into the whole cartoon?

Once I realized how boring the simulation was, what most interested me about it was its fan base. And fan base seemed like the right term, since the tech and science types who originally told me about it seemed to be rooting for it. Not only did they find the simulation hypothesis provocative or intriguing or illuminating, they apparently found it inspiring in some way. It made me wonder if they were insane. Did working with computers from early childhood turn people against reality itself? Did it cause them to value the fake more than the genuine and prefer the imitation to the original? Remember, these weren’t philosophers or poets, who’ve always taken pleasure in freaking themselves out about existence. The simulationists were rationalists. They were the ones whom the rest of us trusted to check our math, dismiss our superstitions, and recover our lost data. And this was where their rationalism had led them?

The question that kept me spinning late at night was not whether the simulation was real, or how it worked, or why its masters bothered with it, but what made it so attractive to certain intellects—and formidable intellects at that. Why, for example, was Elon Musk a simulationist? Musk believes the likelihood that we’re not living in a simulated world is only one in billions. Was that belief related to his success in any way? What, if anything, did he get out of it? Perhaps it brought out the competitor in him. Perhaps his drive to invent was sharpened by knowing the world itself was consciously designed and engineered. Or maybe the concept had freed him by dispelling his fear of death. Whatever it was, Musk’s worldview sure seemed to be working for him. He had succeeded Steve Jobs as our leading practical futurist and visionary billionaire. But unlike the ­iPhone, which had merely transformed the world, Musk’s signature product—a smart electric car—was part of a plan to save it. Musk confused me. Why would someone who doubted the world was real labor so hard to see that it survived?

Maybe Musk was confused, too. Signs were emerging that he might be going mad.

Sometimes an individual in crisis seems to stand in for a culture in crisis. I’m thinking of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who was reading William Blake one day in 1948 when he heard a voice and had a vision. The world became numinous, sacred, filled with meaning, and Ginsberg and his work were changed. He grew wild, radical, ecstatic, and his view of booming postwar America darkened. Around the same time, in a nice, clean kitchen somewhere, an American housewife was chopping an onion for a casserole recipe her mother had given her, when she suddenly realized she was miserable—not just down, depressed, or blue, but miserable. And she didn’t know why, for her problem had no name until Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and called it just that, “the problem without a name,” and showed it was everywhere, while persuasively arguing that it needn’t be.

When Elon Musk’s notorious crack-up started over the summer, it struck me that we might be witnessing something more than the nervous collapse of a stressed-out overachiever. Of course, I have no direct knowledge of Musk’s mental state, but his behavior seemed like the early signs, miniaturized and personalized, of a technological crisis of faith. Not a cyclical slowing of enthusiasm, but an actual fit of dread similar to what the Beat poets, and soon the multitudes, felt and expressed concerning atomic weapons.

Musk’s symptoms were minor when viewed in isolation. They seemed on the surface to tell the story of a socially awkward engineering genius who’d exhausted himself steering great commercial enterprises through volatile economic times. He’d become impetuous and erratic, tweeting about confidential business matters and making apparently unfounded sexual allegations against a stranger in another country. He responded aggressively to reports of union-busting and unsafe working conditions at Tesla factories. He spoke in an interview about his insomnia and his possible overuse of Ambien. He took acid and tweeted while he tripped, according to a loose-lipped celebrity houseguest of undetermined credibility.

The LSD detail became more plausible when Musk appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience, a live-streamed podcast popular with nonconformists (and conformists who wish they weren’t), and seemed to offer a cryptic tribute to psychedelic mushrooms. He also took a quick puff on a blunt, releasing a photogenic cloud of smoke and making a strangely mesmerizing expression of something like impish, pensive bewilderment. Watching the show, I caught a sad note in how he related to the macho Rogan, a stand-up comic and mixed martial arts commentator who boozes on the air. Musk seemed terribly hungry for his approval, and seemed to glow a bit when he received it.

On the podcast, Musk repeated his warnings about the dangers posed by artificial intelligence. He professed to be less frightened than in the past about the destruction that machines might wreak when they achieve that fateful combination of godlike acuity and autonomy, but his newfound calm sounded more like resignation. He’d tried to warn people about AI, including the country’s leaders, but no one had listened to him, he said, implying that he had done all he could do and wished to focus now on other concerns. Would Steve Jobs have admitted defeat like this? On anything? How ironic that Musk was clearly a pessimist by temperament, as his businesses were intensely forward-looking. To use an expression from sports, Musk seems to play with pain. Serious, chronic, existential pain. And, increasingly, he’s letting it show.

Mark Zuckerberg, one of Musk’s few peers as a new age tycoon, doesn’t appear to play with pain at all, and I doubt he’d be capable of hiding any. He plays, as I see it, with fear. The fear of being caught carrying out a colossal bait and switch, where the bait is wanting to connect with others and the switch is becoming a supple data-puppet of advertisers. Zuckerberg masks his fear with the appearance of compassionate good-citizenship. He cares. He listens. He listens as he cares. Musk doesn’t bother with this act. He makes cars and shoots rockets into space while quietly fretting about our mass enslavement to digital minds. He’s a person—that is, not merely person-like, the way Zuckerberg and other tech titans are, with their guru rhetoric and their insistence on being photographed running, biking, walking on the beach, and casually talking to groups of smiling colleagues, just as real human people do.

Perhaps Musk’s humanity is the reason that he cracked, exposing the great secret of his cohort: that none of them know where they are leading us, and some have the strong sense it’s nowhere good. The titans’ customers harbor these doubts, too. I can’t think of a single friend who isn’t trying to limit her phone use in order to re-engage with more important things (her children, for example, or her career). Most people I know have deleted a social media account recently, often the one they’re least addicted to but sometimes the one that has them by the throat. What’s more, almost all the journalists I work with communicate more cautiously than ever, not only in confidential, factual matters but also when expressing their opinions. They assume that their words are being overheard, or at the very least recorded and archived. Thank you, Verizon. Thank you, Google. The world is a smaller place because of you, and we are smaller too, in many ways.

Ihave no way of knowing what’s troubling Musk, but it seems to be troubling him more than it once did. It’s been just over a decade since the great unveiling of the ­iPhone, and, finally, the excitement that ensued—brilliantly sustained for years by peekaboo introductions of new features—seems to be waning. Technological progress may not be as irresistible as the marketing departments made it out to be. I realized this one afternoon at Costco while pushing my cart along an aisle of cutting-edge TV sets. The images they displayed were so sharp that they appeared grotesque. The colorful birds featured on the screens looked monstrous and alien, like cockatoos from Jupiter. It seemed unlikely that I’d get used to them, and possibly unhealthy to do so.

If it’s true that Musk uses mushrooms and LSD, it would appear he’s a seeker at some level, eager for revelations and breakthrough insights. He’s driven to touch the very farthest edges of what he believes is a fake universe. His reckless acts of self-expression may also have an exploratory motive: he may want to see what happens when one acts abnormally. For him, fucking up may be a form of research, like conducting a stress test on a concept car. Can it run on three flat tires? Let’s see. Will the government force him to step away from Tesla if he announces it’s worth more than Wall Street says it is and claims to have a buyer who agrees? Drop some acid, tweet, and let’s find out.

Musk’s behavior looks to many like a disintegration, but I’m holding out hope that it’s the next stage of an awakening. Transformations are rarely pretty at first, particularly ones that liberate a person from the confines of beliefs and attitudes that everyone else is still afraid to challenge. Ginsberg’s beard looked funny on him for years, and then one day it seemed like the next best beard to God’s. And Friedan, whom I used to see interviewed on TV, appeared jarringly homely to me at first—before she seemed impossibly beautiful, in a way that made others seem more beautiful too.

Musk’s struggles may someday appear like the birth pangs of a new perspective toward ourselves, our machines, and the prospect that we are enveloped in a reality that we can neither alter nor escape. Maybe Musk’s agitation is him kicking in the womb, rattling the prison bars. His gloom may come from knowing that he can’t break free, because there is no exit from the mind, or none that the mind can imagine—not the sane mind. That’s why I’d like to think Musk is going crazy: as an experiment and a protest. He might get out or he might not, but at least he will have struggled, and that’s the best a prisoner can do.

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