Simulated Worlds and Rotating Spacecraft
A noted philosopher and historian looks at humanity’s obsession with futurism, our many flops at predicting future technologies, and the rise of “longtermism.”
Émile P. Torres
Apr 17, 2023
In celebration of Earth Month, MoMA’s Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment presents the inaugural entry in the Ambasz Essays, a new series of commissioned articles that explore how the built and natural environment intersect with topics like the climate crisis, resource extraction, environmental justice, and race and indigeneity.
It’s no secret that we aren’t great at predicting the future. In 1966, Time magazine declared that “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” Four years later, the famous MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky told Life magazine that within “three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being.” And Marty Copper, called the “father of the (handheld) cell phone,” confidently stated in 1981 that “cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.”
The Milky Way galaxy imaged using infrared light, 2019
In the longtermist view, the more people there are in the future, the better the future will be—a moral claim that’s contentious among philosophers—and hence these aren’t just predictions but imperatives. They are goals that humanity should set for itself; they constitute part of what it means to “fulfill our long-term potential” in the cosmos, according to Toby Ord, a leading longtermist who is also at Oxford.
Most people find this vision of the distant future rather bizarre, if not off-putting. I share that sentiment. However, given that many powerful figures—such as tech billionaires—are sympathetic with longtermism, it’s entirely possible that this is what our future will end up looking like. If so, the implications are profound. Consider first that virtual reality—not just the sort of virtual reality you might plug into through VR goggles, but a “reality” in which one is fully embedded as a digital being—would constitute the ultimate built environment. Within this environment, there might be wild animals, ecosystems, rivers, and forests, yet even these “natural” parts of the simulated world would be artificial. The distinction between natural and built environments might still make sense and be useful to people inhabiting this world, though both would arise from 1s and 0s in some underlying computer program. (For all we know, our current world is a simulation, in which case everything we call “natural” is really artificial anyway.)
In a simulated reality, there is almost no limit to the possibilities that could be explored. Consider that our world is defined by four fundamental forces, including electromagnetic and gravitational forces, and a rather short list of fundamental physical constants, like the speed of light. But there is no reason we couldn’t alter these to create wildly exotic milieus radically different from our own. Put differently, the universe itself would fall within the architect’s purview: rather than buildings designed for a particular environment, which is largely beyond our control in this world, the environment itself could be designed in tandem with whatever structures it might contain. If, for example, gravity were made weaker in a simulated world than it is on Earth, it could become possible to build skyscrapers much taller than the 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa—maybe 50 or 100 times taller. Altering other physical forces and constants could open the door to even more alien options. While buildings today are generally static over time—the Eiffel Tower, for example, retains the same shape it had when constructed back in 1889—simulated worlds could enable buildings to morph and evolve dynamically over time. An entire virtual city could cycle through different layouts, appearances, and styles, perhaps offering a unique combination for each day of the week.
The situation becomes even more mind-boggling when one realizes that inhabitants of simulated worlds might be radically different from us. This matters because the suitability of the built environment depends crucially on the beings that inhabit it. In our present world, each of us has our own unique psychological history. Our memories are entirely our own, even if formed during experiences with others, and the personality traits that define us are relatively stable across time. This needn’t be the case in a simulated world. As the sociologist James Hughes writes, digital beings would “be able to copy, share, and sell [their] memories, beliefs, skills, and experiences.” Personalities would “begin to bleed and blur,” and indeed “the most dramatic challenges to our social and philosophic world will probably come from hive minds and distributed selves.” What sort of world would an architect build for such beings? Indeed, what would it even mean to be an “architect” if one’s knowledge and skills could be copy-and-pasted from other minds floating in this digital soup of existence?
Émile P. Torres is a philosopher and historian whose work focuses on the ethical implications and potential causes of human extinction. Their forthcoming book is Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation.
Ten Minutes with Tricia Wang: On Web3
A tech ethnographer explains some key terms and ideas behind the future of the Internet.
Nov 15, 2022
A Conversation with Carlos Amorales on Apocalyptic Futures
The Mexican artist talks about migration, our relationship with nature, and finding the seeds of renewal amid catastrophe.
Carlos Amorales, Madeline Murphy Turner
Feb 5, 2021