A few years ago, right before my eyes, a man with matted hair
created an artificial world, a simulation of swaying fernlike arches
rising off of an arabesque floor of maroon tiles and a tall red chimney
going nowhere in particular. This world had no material form. It was a
nether world that only two hours earlier had been a daydream in the
man's imagination. Now it was a daydream circulating on a pair of
Silicon Graphics computers.
The man donned magical goggles and climbed into his simulacra. I climbed
in after him.
As far as I know, this descent into a man's daydream in the summer of
1989 was the first time a human created an instant fantasy and let
others crawl in to share it.
The man was Jaron Lanier, a round guy with a mop of rastafarian
dreadlocks and a funny giggle, who always reminds me of Big Bird. He was
nonchalant about entering and exiting a dreamland and talked about the
travel like someone who had been exploring "the other side" for years.
The walls of Jaron's company's office displayed fossils of past
experimental magic goggles and gloves. The usual computer hardware and
software paraphernalia littered the rest of the lab: soldering irons,
floppy disks, soda cans, and in this case, ripped body suits woven with
wires and bejeweled with connector plugs.
Jaron's hi-tech method of generating visitable worlds had been pioneered
years earlier by institutional researchers including NASA. Scores of
people had already entered into disembodied imaginary worlds. Research
worlds. But Jaron devised a low-rent system that worked even better than
the university setups, and he built wildly unscientific "crazy worlds"
on the fly. And Jaron coined a catchy name for the result: "virtual
To participate in a virtual reality, a visitor suits up into a uniform
that is wired to monitor major body movements. The costume includes a
face mask that can signal the movement of the head. Inside the mask are
two tiny color video monitors which deliver the participant a vision of
stereoscopic realism. From behind the mask it appears to the visitor
that he inhabits a 3-D virtual reality.
The general concept of a computer-generated reality is probably familiar
to most readers because in the years following Jaron's demonstrations,
the prospect of everyday virtual reality (VR) became a regular staple of
magazine and TV news features. The surreal aspect was always emphasized.
Eventually the Wall Street Journal headlined virtual reality as "An
I must confess that "drugs" were exactly my first thought watching Jaron
disappear into his world. Here's a 29-year-old company founder wearing
an electrified scuba mask. While I and other friends watch soberly,
Jaron rolls slowly on the floor, mouth agape. He writhes into a new
position, one arm pushing against the air, grasping nothing. Like a man
possessed in slo-mo, he bends from one contortion to another as he
explores hidden aspects of his newly minted universe. He carefully
crawls across the carpet, stopping every so often to inspect some unseen
wonder in the air before him. Watching him is eerie. His maneuvers
follow a distant, internal logic, a separate reality. Occasionally,
Jaron disturbs the quiet with a yelp of delight.
"Hey, the chalk pedestals are hollow! You can go up inside them and see
the bottom of the rubies!" he squeals. Jaron himself had created the
pedestals topped with red gems, but when he imagined them he hadn't
bothered to consider their bottoms. A whole world is too complex to hold
in one's head. But a simulation can play out those complexities. Again
and again, Jaron reported back details in the world that he, the god,
had not foreseen. Jaron's virtual world was like other simulations; the
only way to predict what would happen was to run it.
Simulations are not new. Nor is visiting them. Toy worlds are a very
early human invention, perhaps even a sign of humanity's emergence,
since toys and games in a burial site are recognized by archaeologists
as evidence of human culture. Certainly the urge to create toys arises
very early in individual development. Children immerse themselves in
their own artificial worlds of miniatures. Dolls and choo-choo trains
properly belong to the microcosms of simulation. So does much of the
great art in our culture: Persian miniatures, painterly landscape
realism, Japanese tea gardens, and perhaps all novels and theater. Tiny
But now in the computer age--the age of simulations--we are making tiny
worlds in larger bandwidths, with more interaction, and with deeper
embodiment. We've come from inert figurines to SimCity. Some
simulations, like Disneyland, are no longer so tiny.
Anything at all, in fact, is a candidate for a simulation when it is
given energy, possible behaviors, and room to grow. We live in a culture
that is rapidly animating a million objects into simulations by
electrifying them with smartness. A telephone switchboard becomes a
simulated operator voice, a car becomes a tiger in a commercial, fake
trees and robotic alligators become a simulated jungle in an amusement
park. We don't even blink anymore.
In the early 1970s the Italian novelist Umberto Eco drove around America
visiting as many low-brow roadside attractions as he could get to. Eco
was a semiotician--a decipherer of unnoticed signs. He found America
trafficking in subtle messages about simulations and degrees of reality.
The national icon, Coca-Cola, as an example, advertised itself as "the
real thing." Wax museums were Eco's favorite text. The more kitsch-laden
they were with altarlike velvet drapes and soft narrations, the better.
Eco found wax museums to be populated with exquisite copies of real
people (Brigitte Bardot in a bikini) and exquisite fakes of fictional
characters (Ben Hur in a chariot race). Both history and fantasy were
sculptured in equally realistic and neurotic detail so that there was no
boundary between the real and faked. Tableau artists spared no effort in
rendering an unreal character in supreme realism. Mirrors reflected one
period room's figures into another time period to further blur the
distinction of real and not. Between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Eco
was able to visit seven wax versions of Leonardo's Last Supper. Each
you'll-never-be-the-same-afterwards waxwork tried to outdo the other in
degree of faithful realism to a fictionalized painting.
Eco wrote that he was on a "journey into hyperreality, in search of
instances where the American imagination demands the real thing and, to
attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." The reality of the
absolute fake Eco called hyperreality. In hyperreality, as Eco puts it,
"absolute unreality is offered as real presence."
A perfect simulation and a computer toy world are works of hyperreality.
They fake so wholly that as a whole they have a reality.
French pop-philosopher Jean Baudrillard opens his small book,
Simulations (1983), with these two tightly wound paragraphs:
If we were able to take as the finest allegory of simulation the Borges
tale where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed
that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where the decline of
the Empire sees this map become frayed and finally ruined, a few threads
still discernible in the deserts...) then this fable has come full
circle for us...
Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror
or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a
referential being, or a substance. It is the generation of models of a
real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer
precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that
precedes the territory -- PRECESSION OF SIMULACRA -- it is the map that
engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it
would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map.
It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there,
in the deserts which are no longer of the Empire, but our own. The
desert of the real itself.
In the desert of the real, we are busy building paradises of the
hyperreal. It is the model (the map) that we prefer. Steven Levy, author
of Artificial Life (1991), a book that celebrates the advent of
simulations so rich that we can only declare them alive, rephrases
Baudrillard's point this way: "The map is not the territory, but a map
is a territory."
However, the territory of the simulacra is blank. The absolute fake is
so obvious that it is still invisible to us. We have no taxonomy yet to
differentiate subtle types of simulations. Take simulacra's long list of
indistinct synonyms: fake, phony, counterfeit, replication, artificial,
second grade, phantom, image, reproduction, deception, camouflage,
pretense, imitation, false appearance, pretended, effigy, an enactment,
shadow, shade, insincerity, a mask, disguise, substitute, surrogate,
feign, parody, a copy, something bluffed, a sham, a lie. The word
simulacra is a word loaded with heavy karma.
The Greek Epicureans, a school of radical philosophers who figured out
there must be atoms, had an unusual theory of vision. They believed
every object gave off an "idol" (eidola). The same concept came to be
called simulacra in Latin. Lucretius, a Roman Epicurean, says you can
think of simulacra as "images of things, a sort of outer skin
perpetually peeled off the surfaces of objects and flying about this way
and that through the air."
These simulacra were physical, but ethereal, things. Invisible simulacra
emanated from an object and impinged upon the eye causing vision. A
thing's reflection assembled in a mirror demonstrated the existence of
simulacra; how else could there be two of them, and one so diaphanous?
Simulacra, the Epicureans believed, could enter into people's senses
through their pores while they slept, thus conveying the idols (images)
carried in dreams. Art and paintings captured the idols radiated by the
original subject, just as flypaper might catch bugs.
A simulacra then was a derived entity, second to the original, a
parallel image -- or to use modern words, a virtual reality.
In the Roman vernacular simulacrum came to mean a statue or image that
was animated by a ghost or spirit. Thus its Greek predecessor, the term
idol, crept into the English language in 1382, when the first English
Bible needed a word to describe the hyperreality of animated, and
sometimes talking, statues that were presented as gods.
Some of these ancient temple automatons were quite elaborate. They had
moving heads and limbs, and tubes to channel voices from behind them.
Ancient people were far more sophisticated than we often give them
credit for. No one mistook the idols for the real god they represented.
But no one ignored the idol's presence, either. The idol really moved
and said things; it had its own behavior. The idols were neither real
nor faked -- they were real idols. In Eco's terms, they were hyperreal,
just as Murphy Brown, a virtual character on TV, is treated as kind of
We post-modern urbanites spend a huge portion of our day immersed in
hyperrealities: phone conversations, TV viewing, computer screens, radio
worlds. We value them highly. Try to have a dinner conversation without
referencing something you saw or heard via the media! Simulacra have
become the terrain we live in. In most ways we care to measure, the
hyperreal is real for us. We enter and leave hyperreality with ease.
Take, for instance, a hyperreality that Jaron Lanier built months after
his first instant world. Not long after he was done, I immersed myself
in his world of idols and simulacra. This artificial reality included a
circle of railway track about a block in diameter and a locomotive about
chest high. The ground was pink, the train light gray. Other blocky
figures lay about like so many dropped toys. The shape of the choo-choo
train and toys were aggregations of polygons -- no graceful curves. Colors
were uniform and bright. When I turned my head, the scene shifted in a
stuttered way. Shadows were stark. The sky was an empty dark blue with
no hint of distance or space. I had the impression of being a toon in
A gloved hand -- roughly rendered in tiny polygonal blocks -- floated in
front of me. It was my hand. I flexed the disembodied thing. When I
mentally willed the hand into a point, I began to fly in the direction
of my finger. I flew over to the small train engine and sat on it or
above it, I couldn't tell. I reached out my floating hand and yanked a
lever on the train. The train began to circle and I could watch the pink
landscape go by. At some point I hopped off the train near an inverted
top hat. I stood and watched the train chug around the loop of track
without me. I bent to grab the top hat and the instant I touched it, it
turned into a white rabbit.
I heard someone outside the world laugh, a heavenly chuckle. That was
the god's little joke.
The disappearance of the top hat was real, in a hyperreality way. The
trainy thing really started and eventually really stopped. It was really
going around in circles. When I flew I really transposed a distance of
some sort. To anyone watching me on the outside, I was a guy stiffly
gyrating in a carpeted office in the same odd way that Jaron did. But
inside, hyperreal events really happened. Anyone else visiting could
corroborate; there was consensual evidence. In the parallel world of the
simulacra, they were real.