The Precession of the Simulacra

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Edge on 1 January 2012

Having discovered much too late in life that the many things I had taken for granted as pre-existing conditions of the universe were, in fact, creations and ideas of people, I found Baudrillard’s “precession of the simulacra” to be an immensely valuable way of understanding just how disconnected from anything to do with reality we can become.

The main idea is that there’s the real world, there’s the maps we use to describe that world, and then all this other activity that occurs on the map—sometimes with little regard for the territory it is supposed to represent. There’s the real world, there’s the representation of the world, and there’s the mistaking of this simulation for reality.

This idea came back into vogue when virtual reality was hitting the scene, and writers called up Baudrillard as if we needed to be warned about escaping into our virtual worlds and leaving the brick and mortar, flesh and blood one behind. But I never saw computer simulations as so very dangerous. If anything, the obvious fakeness of computer simulations—from arcade games to Facebook—not only kept us aware of their simulated nature, but called into question the reality of everything else.

So there’s the land—this real stuff we walk around on. Then there’s territory— the maps and lines we use to define the land. But then there are wars fought over where those map lines are drawn.

The levels can keep building on one another, bringing people to further abstractions and disconnection from the real world. Land becomes territory; territory then becomes property that is owned. Property itself can be represented by a deed, and the deed can be mortgaged. The mortgage is itself an investment, that can be bet against with a derivative, which can be secured with a credit default swap.

The computer algorithm trading credit default swaps—as well as the programmers trying to follow that algorithms actions in order to devise competing algorithms—this level of interaction is real. And, financially speaking, it has more influence over who gets to live in your house than almost any other factor. A credit default swap crisis can bankrupt a nation as big as the United States—without changing anything about the real land it refers to.

Or take money: there’s the thing of value—the labor, the chicken, the shoe. Then there’s the thing we use to represent that value—say gold, grain receipts, or gold certificates. But once we get so used to using those receipts and notes as the equivalent of a thing with value, we can go one step further: the federal reserve note, or “fiat” currency, which has no connection to gold, grain, or the labor, chickens and shoes. Three main steps: there’s value, the representation of value, and then the disconnection from what has value.

But that last disconnection is the important one—the sad one, in many respects. Because that’s the moment that we forget where things came from—when we forget what they represent. The simulation is put forth as reality. The invented landscape is naturalized, and then mistaken for nature.

And it’s when we become so particularly vulnerable to illusion, abuse, and fantasy. For once we’re living in a world of created symbols and simulations, whoever has control of the map has control of our reality.