Does any of this feel real to you?
Content warning: pessimism, sacrilege
Epistemic status: probably wrong but I just want to vent
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 by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.
Friends, it’s August. Another month has passed, spent juggling the lurid fantasy of lofty research dreams with a pathetic reality grounding their absolute silliness. To literally any outside observer we are indistinguishable from the next cryptoshit pitch decking their technopsychedelic utopia ("""Kn0w1eDg3!!!"""). Do they think that they’re different too? Are we all deluded? How would I even go about empirically separating us?
I just read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and it made me furious - jealous beyond words for a simpler time when “scientific progress” was tangible and we consistently uncovered illuminating new perspectives on the world that repeatedly brought empirical observation in closer alignment with explanatory theory. It’s easy to forget just how much we used to not know. And it’s hard to imagine how valiantly we must have fought for every shred, slogging through a fog of debilitating ignorance to grasp the knowledge we now take for granted.
Things... feel different now. This historical image of wild-west-style science bears almost no relation to “science” as I see it around me, in big mechanical institutions with degree requirements and impact factors. My anecdotal perception now is that academics are depressed and skeptical that their research connects significantly with the kind of progress that is culturally romanticized. They’re not really sold that they’re part of the same process they read about in history books. It doesn’t feel real, it even feels fake.
I think this pessimism often gets diagnosed as Imposter Syndrome, but it’s not the same imposter syndrome I felt in undergrad. There, it was about my personal competence as a student compared to my peers, where “being a student” is seen as a skill itself, measured by grades and internships. But this is different. I think it’s deeper. It’s a hopelessness about the world, not oneself. It’s a sense that we’ve collectively lost the plot, lost the capacity for progress, and are even starting to lose track of the very concept. It’s an existential despondency - a creeping suspicion that our entire generation is just going through some science-reminiscent motions. Science today produces clickbait and TED Talks and chips away at industry-incentivized optimization.
This feeling got the better of me last week and I bet my roommate that nothing will change in 50 years - that life as we know it will look pretty much the same. No AR glasses. No self-driving cars. No revolution. Climate change getting kinda bad but no real action. No fun CRISPR hacks. I had a sudden flash of depression where I saw, counter the dominant narrative, the last decade as pure technological stasis, with no solid hope anything actually moving.
We poured trillions of dollars into force-inventing a shitty knock-off of the computer from Star Trek and forgot about the post-war post-scarcity society. Ray Kurzweil says that in 26 years the singularity will detonate “ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light”, but I think everything will basically just keep happening the way it is. What’s going to change? Why would it change?
There have certainly been quiet decades in the past! One of the biases of history is underestimating the time between all the exciting events. So maybe the lack of progress since 2009 is less interesting than the widespread insistence that there definitely has been.
The assumption feels taboo to question! It’s uncomfortable to even consider! Progress is a western psychological necessity - the coherence of our modern narrative depends on steady, constant, abstract
PROGRESS. It’s what makes the world go round, justifies capitalism, and gives everyone a broad sense of purpose. The reason why “Cancer Cure Around Corner” sells is that it reassures us, and the reason why we never tire of it is that we want to be reassured. There must, above all, be progress.
In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard talks about this sort of defensiveness by analogy to religious icons: at first, symbols are introduced as representations of god. But the detachment they bring inevitably corrodes the reality of their referent as idols eclipse god as the object of worship. This leads to a curious sacred symbol obsession because they become the only thing hiding the unfaceable reality that there is no god at all. The simulated becomes the real. The same could be said of impact factor (as symbol) and progress (as god). Every Joe Engelbart at every SF Memex Meetup laments the way we share information online in screenshots and PDFs, but maybe the reason why none of their notetaking apps have any users is that chaos keeps the illusion going, and nobody can imagine it ending.
Here’s Baudrillard direct:
These would be the successive phases of the image:
It is the reflection of a basic reality.
It masks and perverts a basic reality.
It masks the absence of a basic reality.
It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.
... and I think most of what happens now is pure simulacrum. We’re a fake generation living a simulated life in a simulated time. Somehow the very possibility of new discoveries or new paradigms or truly new ideas seems precluded, and the old mechanisms that drove change have been hijacked and hypernormalized. It used to be about people and nature, but now I think it’s mostly about companies and institutions and structures. It’s the most boring possible dystopia. The vision of carving nature at the joints is fading from memory. Instead we stare at the precession of simulacra in a hazy post-paradigm paradigm.