Simulation, Alienation, and turning 25

May 28, 2020 // Tom - philosophy

I’m writing this a couple of days before my 25th birthday. It’ll be my first, but hopefully last, birthday during a global pandemic. A pandemic which has stripped the fat off the bone of our society. Mass unemployment, a largely ineffective government, and no end in sight. Fortunately, I am able to work from home, allowing me to continue to live at relatively the same level of comfort I enjoyed pre-pandemic. If anything this pandemic has made me more bored than usual; where I would go out to a bar and share a drink with my significant other on any given Friday, we’re both stuck inside. We do better than most, cooking new recipes, watching old movies.

Despite this, there’s always the drone of anxiety in the background. Like a soft ringing in one’s ears, quietly reminding you that all is not well, there is pain and suffering in the world, well, more than usual. As a sufferer of your garden variety anxiety, my coping method usually involves trying to breakdown and understand where the source of my anxiety comes from and begin to mitigate it. After some self-reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the two basic source of my anxiety come from alienation and simulation and upon reading more philosophy, specifically Marx’s theory of Alienation and Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra.

Alienation

You’re most likely reading this semi-coherent rant of mine during your leisure time. Maybe between meetings, on the bus on the way home from work, or maybe before you’re about to go to bed. Any time that you aren’t “on the clock” for is considered leisure time, where you’re free to do whatever you please until the next time you work.

I spend my time at work developing software which is property of my employer. I do not retain the intellectual property rights of the work I create, much as the wood worker or auto worker never truly owns the products they create. I largely have control over how I can implement something, even creating new products from scratch, if it fits the business needs at the time.

I signed the offer letter, I’m complicit in my own destiny. I genuinely enjoy my co-workers and the projects I work on, I have options to seek employment elsewhere if I feel the need to. However, I consider myself to be in the very small minority of workers who are in high-demand sectors. The majority of the workforce are tied to their employers, they need to earn money to live, they need the health insurance, as paltry as most employer’s plans are. These workers are alienated from their time, providing work that they have to do, not work that they want to do.

Workers such as myself, in the “Professional-Managerial Class” are largely isolated from alienation. Most have a legitimate sense of fulfillment when working, I certainly do. Certainly, I am alienated from my free time by my job, but I am also paid a living wage to do so. Such that my time spent outside of work isn’t occupied by a second job, or caring for a family. In the tech industry we love to talk about “burnout”, we can go on for hours talking about how it’s bad, how to recognize the signs, etc.

The world runs on burnout, every job considered essential today burns out people faster than any startup can. I cannot imagine being a grocery store cashier, or janitor in a hospital. I simply do not have the mental fortitude. These people must be protected at all costs, for they are the backbone of our modern society, the common laborer who ensures the lights stay on and the food is grown and the people don’t get sick.

Why is it that these people most alienated from their time by their employment? Why aren’t the people who perform these critical jobs better rewarded for their labor? A garbage man does as much as a nurse to prevent disease from spreading through out communities after all. What money they do make is limited by their time to enjoy it.

What happens when we all experience that alienation? Certainly, I am still experiencing less alienation than the essential worker, however, it gives me hope that we can all build solidarity as a working class to rid each other of the alienation we all face. We’re alienated from our friends and family by social distancing and travel restrictions. We’re alienated from our most basic desires to freely do what we please.

Until a vaccine is released, we’ll all be made aware of our restrictions. To save the communities we live in, we do it willingly. Limiting how often we go out, wearing a mask to protect ourselves and the ones around us. I have never felt a more powerful urge to talk to my neighbors and get to know them, because I feel we all have a strong connection via our shared experience under a pandemic.

It gives me great hope that we’ll all be a little kinder to each other, that this experience will cause us to think twice about what we say, what we do, how we vote, knowing that we’re all in the same boat. Every day as we are forced to deal with our own alienation, I hope we can learn to recognize the alienation of others.

Simulation

Our senses are the only way we interact with our world. Our perception, the combination of all these senses, is wholly unique. You’re most likely sub-vocalizing the words you’re currently reading, feeding information into your cortex to process the literal into the abstract. It’s unfortunately a lossy process, the ideas in my head will require more explanation and exposition to communicate to you, than is required for me to think it up.

Even worse, I’m projecting my inherent bias into this presentation of thoughts and ideas. I’m assuming you at least read English, that you can understand abstract ideas, and that you can see the words on this website. You then project your own reference frame and mental models to understand the ideas I’m trying to communicate.

How can we ever experience truth if our perceptions of truth might be skewed, especially if our perceptions are all unique? Can we gain the same experience from reading about certain events on the news or do we have to be personally involved to get the full experience?

As most people do, I read the news, specifically corona virus news these days. I see the long lines and empty shelves in videos and news reports. I understand it to be reality as presented, even though it’s only a reflection of true reality. It’s an approximation expected to be taken as truth. I can walk to the store and truly experience the feeling, the nervous energy, how quiet my local grocery has gotten, the generally sullen feeling in the air. For those of us who are able to work from home, our experiences are through the lens of mass media. They present a projection of the real world we readily accept.

Simulation of reality isn’t just limited to mass media, we simulate birthday parties with our friends over video call, hop on a training bike to get some exercise in, and play video games to escape from the anxiety of the times. Now more than ever we are looking to reclaim some sense of normalcy.

This cannot be sustained forever, just as the same document photocopied a thousand times becomes unrecognizable, so does the initial experience we sought to simulate. Our media becomes more and more detached from reality, our interactions with friend and family become commodities for social media companies to capitalize on, and so on.

This adoption of simulated reality is largely accelerated by the actual world outside. It’s strange to go shopping with a mask on, or to constantly be worrying about who coughs and how far away they are from you. We’ll retreat back to simulated normalcy, trying to scrape together enough meaning from how things used to be. My only fear is that we will never want to return to the world post-pandemic, that the changes to society will be too great. That we’ll try to plaster over the holes and gaps blown open these past few months with fake ideas and imagery evoking emotions of a time in the past.

The only way is forward, the only way is to embrace the problems this pandemic has laid at our feet. My hope is that we persist, making the world a better place, instead of holding on to the thin fa├žade which covered up the pain and suffering in our world previously.