Picture this: it’s late on a Sunday morning and you’ve slept in. You reluctantly lift yourself from the warm indent you’ve made in your mattress and shuffle sleepily toward the kitchen to begin preparing breakfast. Groggily, you pour orange juice into a glass and leave it on a table, turning away from it to tend to a stovetop of eggs and bacon. After popping a premature piece of bacon into your mouth, you turn around once more to face the table and nearly choke on said piece of pork: the glass is empty, sans OJ. Didn’t you literally just fill it? The carton of juice sits on the table, an image of a perfectly round piece of fruit with a candy-cane-colored straw shoved through its flesh mocking you. You run through possible scenarios in your head, trying to make sense of this citrus conundrum. Maybe you’ve finally lost it. But maybe not.
What if, rather than assuming you’ve finally fallen victim to the effects of sleep deprivation or some early-onset neurodegenerative disease, you’ve identified a glitch in reality? A fragment of the world as you know it, suddenly thrust under a metaphorical microscope lens, subject to investigation and all kinds of scrutiny. As you suspiciously poke at your “scrambled eggs” with a fork, you begin to ponder your own existence, too. A few slaps to the face later, you’re certain that physically, at least, you’re present. But present where?
For the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking intently about the concept of simulations. Specifically, I’ve been wondering, if I were presented with the opportunity to know if I were immersed in a simulation, would I choose to? And if I did, would I elect to have the nature of the “real” world, the one that exists outside of the simulation, revealed to me? Pop culture has informed us that the not-so-easy but oh-so-necessary answer to each of these questions is an unequivocal “yes.” In 1999, the Wachowski sisters gave us The Matrix, a sleek science-fiction action film that absolutely mind-fucked an unsuspecting late 20th-century audience: with groundbreaking special effects and unabashedly shocking visuals, the film is steeped in a deliciously sinister cyberpunk sci-fi tradition that exploded conventionally construed ideas of “reality” at their seams. With alabaster skin and a leather-heavy wardrobe, Keanu Reeves, as Neo, represents what is perhaps considered the most wonderfully aggressive cinematic plunge into the dark depths of simulation theory.
But beyond the film’s legacy of iconic longline leather trench coats lies a more urgent and unpleasant question: red pill or blue pill? The “red pill” represents a life-altering revelation, while the “blue pill” represents blissful ignorance—and combined, the dilemma they present lies at the heart of my simultaneous fear of and interest in simulations. Morpheus observes to Neo, “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” While my immediate inclination would be to pop a red pill without hesitation, I know it wouldn’t be that easy. Just like the comfort of remaining asleep in a warm bed, safely stowed under layered blankets and untouched by the biting chill of life’s responsibilities, the security of a simulated reality is terrifyingly tempting. Though the reality presented by The Matrix—millions of humans contained in podlike prisons riddled with translucent slime and wire, enslaved in a simulation by artificial intelligence as a method of harvesting bioelectric energy—is enough to make me want to go all Beth Harmon (à la The Queen’s Gambit) on those red pills, the idea that doing so might mean losing everything and everyone I love would be enough to stop me from swallowing them. One proposal is that potent hallucinogenic and psychedelic drugs like DMT are the “red pills” of reality, and are directly linked to simulation theory, as immensely intense and revelatory trips facilitate spiritual breakthrough experiences for many users, indicating a glitch in our own simulated reality that is otherwise unidentifiable.
Though conceptualizations of simulation theory date far back (think Plato’s Allegory of the Cave), University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum was the first to propose and popularize the notion. In an influential paper published in 2003, Bostrum argued an assumption that “we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” Most recently, simulation theory has gained significant traction on social media—specifically, TikTok has cultivated a burgeoning interest in simulations, following a video created by TikToker Heidi Wong. In the video, Wong references Bostrum’s simulation hypothesis, explaining the ostensibly inherent connection and borderline interchangeability between video games and simulations. Set against a backdrop of varying sci-fi images, Wong’s assured voice overlays heady and hypnotic synth music, which thrums in the background. She observes that, according to Bostrum, our reality may be nothing more than a video game in some futuristic society, in which later generations possess enormous amounts of computing power and are running a variety of simulations about their ancestors; hence, we are hypothetically living in one of the said simulations.
In my own life, I’ve internalized my closest interactions with simulation theory through my exceptionally vivid dreams and nightmares. For example, after making meatballs for dinner recently, I had a nightmare that a Meat Man, composed of heaping amounts of raw meat, was terrorizing my hometown. Yet despite the seemingly ludicrous notion of a hulking mass of ground beef wreaking havoc on a suburban landscape, the nightmare gave a great deal of credence: every detail of my hometown was impeccably accurate. My dream-self ran through my town with questionable confidence, as though I had been there many times before. While this could be attributed to a powerful memory, I suspect it might lend to Bostrum’s hypothesis that a variety of simulations are being conducted at once.
Despite the fact that I feel firmly rooted in the activity of my unconscious, these versions of reality are still disjointed and piecemeal, a kaleidoscopic array of emotions and actualities that feel simultaneously distant and near. The graphic nature of my dreams and nightmares allows me to feel wholly immersed in them, at once aware that they aren’t the “real” world, while also understanding that they very well could be. I feel a strong sense of potential for the parallel lives that I’m experiencing in other dimensions to somehow morph into my current one—it feels totally within the realm of possibility that a fissure may develop in the fabric of my “normal” world, eventually becoming wide enough for one of my other lives to enter and commandeer control of my current reality. This thought aptly encapsulates the frightening yet enamoring essence of simulations.
Like contemplating the existence of an afterlife, simulations are incredibly difficult and daunting to think about; yet they’re ultimately so intriguing that we can’t help but indulge our thoughts—in fact, we feel uncannily urged to. In The Matrix, Neo experiences a distinct sense of restlessness that ultimately facilitates his first meeting with Morpheus and the subsequent revelation of the Matrix. Perhaps this compelling feeling that leaves us so enraptured by the concept of simulations is what we should be paying closer attention to, learning to recognize in the mundane moments of our daily lives. Perhaps it is what is signaling us to notice a beautiful lie, sheathed in a carefully constructed illusion, lying latent, quiet, and lethal. And perhaps we may eventually reach the bottom of the rabbit hole, if we only know where to look along the way.
By Gabriella Ferrigine