A Copy Without an Original

The Simulacrum is never what hides the truth -- it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.

--Ecclesiastes

Baudrillard died in 2007. Around the same time, in late 2006, I was starting a job that would primarily entail working on a simulacrum, not actually knowing anything about it beforehand. Oh, I did know a bit about recursive programming, a concept to which I was introduced in an algorithms class in college. A fascinating concept, I decided. But recursive programming seemed, to me, to be a particularly unreliable method, in practice. And my biggest takeaway from this course was the realization that this practice was the likely cause of many years of frustration in dealing with defective software that I had thus-far experienced, in life. So I had mostly left it to experts, since then. And the open source software community made that an easy thing to do. But at this job, I would have to go ahead and put that knowledge into practice. And I think I did a fairly good job of it, all things considered.

Because this job, I learned early on, required the creation of an impossible object -- a universal user manual covering all possible combinations of a broad range of custom-built industrial equipment. Sounds pretty idiotic, I know. But I was tasked with creating this impossible object, by my boss. And, since my boss also happened to be my father, simply telling him that this was, in fact, impossible and that he was an idiot for requesting it, clearly wouldn't do. So, instead, I went ahead and devised a process for getting as close to realizing it as humanly possible.

And, to do that, I created what (I recently learned) Baudrillard would have called an 'imaginary' of this simulacrum. The simulacrum, in this case as in every other, is real. It really exists. It is the universal user manual that my boss envisioned for the myriad equipment he was building, despite the lack of any actual standards or design processes being in place that would have enabled this document to have been created. There were standards, of course, in his mind. He knew of one, and only one, way of creating every piece of equipment requested -- the correct way. But these standards existed nowhere else. So my task was to infer them. And, in order to do that, I had to first create, in the minds of my co-workers, the imaginary that this simulacrum was actually possible, in order to get them to go along with me and to help me create it.

My work involved two major components: a program capable of creating custom user manuals from a detailed set of specifications, and a feedback loop between the project managers responsible for designing and building each instance of this equipment, and me, the creator and user of this program. Now, at this point, those of you who are programmers will object that this is not, technically, an example of recursive programming. And it isn't, obviously. But the creation of impossible objects, sometimes, requires a bit of thinking outside the box. So this was more like an exercise in recursive programming, not of computers, but of the people around me. And this loop, instead of refining or sorting a set of arbitrary data in computer memory, refined the arbitrary collection of equipment that these engineers and their customers imagined and created, and sorted it into general categories for which user manuals could easily be made.

It took a year or so to get everything working well enough -- more reliably than a room full of monkeys on typewriters, at least. And, by the second year, I was ready to declare it a major improvement over previous methods, and a general success. It was a success, from my perspective, and from the perspective of customers, undoubtedly. But I don't think the project managers themselves ever quite got used to what I had done, even though their active participation (and any work required) lessened considerably, ending up near zero, over the course of development. The quality of most products was increased, as well, by the imposition of this guided, consensus-based standardization process. Yet even though they were objectively better-off by the entire exercise and the new arrangement, they were nevertheless ill-at-ease with it. And, even though when I left I gave a detailed presentation explaining how all of it worked, I don't think they continued to use it after that. They returned to believing that the imaginary of the universal user manual was not only possible, but actually existed.

In Simulacra and Simulation, there is a section discussing the simulacrum and science fiction. In it, Baudrillard lays out three general forms of simulacra. Each of these simulacra is realized, in a sense, by an 'imaginary'. The first imaginary, corresponding to the first order of simulacra, is the utopia, a return to living in harmony with nature, to an idealistic past that never existed. The second is the technocracy, striving for a sci-fi future that we can hope will be better than the present. And the imaginary of the last simulacrum is that of virtual reality, of a totally simulated environment having no connection to past or present, or even to reality whatsoever. The progression of each of these, Baudrillard points out, when fully realized, entails a lessening of a dimension of "distance" or space between the inhabitant and the imaginary environment itself. The first, the utopia, is seemingly far away (an island in the middle of nowhere, perhaps). The future technocracy is closer, tantalizingly within reach, and often entailing just a simple extrapolation of current trends. The third simulacrum of a virtual environment, when realized, is basically right upon us, so much so that even ascertaining its existence becomes difficult if not impossible.

Bitcoin Island is an imaginary of the first order of simulacra, a faraway utopian dream, a return to nature and a copy of an original that was never realized. Bitcoin the software itself is an imaginary of the second order, a technical marvel promising a sci-fi future that will be more distributed, more egalitarian, more economically efficient and more meritocratic than the present, and a copy (again) without an acknowledged original. Both of these are, in fact, illusions, yet at the same time profound truths. They could not be simulacra otherwise. But what is the third? Baudrillard did not have an answer. Thirty-five years ago, he said that culture was just at the dawning of this new paradigm of the third imaginary of simulacrum. Science fiction and futurology were giving way to the information age, and to virtualization. So he didn't know what the realization of this simulacrum would be; but he knew it would be difficult to recognize, once it emerged.

I think I may have stumbled upon it. The simulacrum of the virtual environment, of pure information, can be detected in the feedback loop deliberately set up between the inhabitant and the programmer. This, the programmer, is the missing element, in each imagined realization of simulacra. The programmer must exist in all of them. In the utopia, the programmer is God, or nature herself, which created humans to live in maximal harmony with the environment, and thus with each other (or so we imagine). In the technocracy, the programmer is the wise leader, the philosopher king or the benevolent dictator who arranges the future society (with scientific precision) in a manner that ensures the most good, for the most number. Again, that's how it works, in theory at least. Thus, by extension, in the totally simulated virtualization, the programmer will be found as the apparent personal attendant of each individual, directly managing the feedback loop between infinite desire and its subsequent realization, and doing so in a way that refines, that both sorts and automates this fulfillment in order to always anticipate future demand, but which also refines the individual himself and improves him, against his unconscious, if not also his conscious, will. The programmer of our virtual simulacrum is therefore the banker, the entertainer, the servant, all in one, of the passive and oblivious 'consumer', to be simultaneously predated and improved thereby -- in this totally simulated environment.

And, again, the "distance" between the inhabitant and the programmer, and the feedback loop between them, becomes progressively smaller from the first simulacrum to the third. In the utopia, the programmer is seen only over the span of generations, as the consequence of evolutionary pressure. It may even seem nonexistent, for much of the lives of the inhabitants. But this is deceptive, for when it rears its head, the programmer acts irreversibly and without remorse. It is a seemingly vengeful and unpredictable god. In the technocracy, the programmer is the competent, faraway government bolstered by advanced technology that makes its presence lightly-felt. Yet we know it is there. We expect to see and share in its achievements regularly. It becomes closer, and more personal to us than the cold uncaring natural world ever was. But by the time we reach the virtual environment, the programmer is ever-present. So much so that we quickly adapt to its presence, and learn to ignore it, paradoxically. The programmer is built-in to the subconscious cues all around us, in our simulated present. It is an integral part of the artificial interactions, the inverted power relationships, we have with others on a daily basis. We believe the banker is our servant, when he is in fact our master. We believe the television shows are free products, when the product is in fact us. We believe, even, that our spouses are our faithful, devoted partners in the enterprise of child-rearing, when in fact they may not be. The programmer of our virtual reality is very near, indeed.

By this precession of simulacra, we become ever more dependent upon the programmer, whom we recognize less and less, and to whom (even at the same time) we become physically closer. And if we ever wish to rectify this situation, to escape from this condition, we must traverse the simulacra therefore in reverse order, going from the synthetic, virtualized present, to the fantastical sci-fi future, then finally back to the utopian, naturalistic past, thereby regaining a degree of separation from our programmer, at each step.

Notice that this was the path taken by Dorothy and her archetypical friends in the Wizard of Oz, as well. In order to escape the wicked neighbor and the nomadic fortune-telling magician who were haunting her simple Kansas farm, she had to first travel to the technocratic Emerald City before returning to her restored and newly-appreciated pastoral utopia.

By this concept of the precession of simulacra, Baudrillard provided a simple inductive argument for the existence, not just of the god of the utopia, Nature's God, but for the god of the technocracy, the dictator, and for the god of the simulation, the programmer. These types of arrangements don't just spring into existence, ex nihilo. They require a power imbalance. They require a masking of that power imbalance, whether deliberate or through simple ignorance. And if the simulacrum is to be maintained, then that power imbalance, and the position of the programmer, must be maintained as well. The ignorance of its existence must be maintained.

Now, let's take this concept of the precession of simulacra through the three orders a bit farther down the rabbit hole. George W. Bush is a Connecticut-born son of a politician, a CIA spy and probable opium kingpin. But when he ran for the presidency, in 2000, he pretended to be a simple Texas rancher, driving his pickup-truck around his property, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, and removing brush, by hand. This was a deliberate political strategy, created by Karl Rove. And it was also the creation of an imaginary of the first order of simulacra, the naturalist utopia.

When Barack Obama ran for the presidency, in 2008, he promised a bright future of hope, and change, and free healthcare, and free smartphones, and racial harmony. He was a Vulcan, logical and well-spoken, a Harvard professor, half-black and half-white, communist yet responsible, Muslim and Christian simultaneously, a perfect model of racial and religious harmony in the bright technocratic future. He surrounded himself with tech leaders from Silicon Valley, and wowed them with his ability to answer questions of algorithm selection. By this, Obama was the creation of an imaginary of the second order of simulacra, the sci-fi technocracy.

You can guess where this is going, by now. Donald Trump, like his predecessors, is a copy without an original. Except, in his case at least, he did have an original -- my grandfather Donald Dees. Trump is his double. And the double is without an original because it is always a degraded copy. It is a bright and shiny, luminescent image of the individual, much of what we imagine ourselves to be, and instantly-recognizable as such, even as it repulses its original by its obvious flaws. Just as "Benjamin Lawsky" appears as a double who believes that Bitcoin requires a license to use, Trump manifests a double of a Scottish property owner who proudly displays his clan name on all of his property, yet simultaneously believes in eminent-domain abuse and property theft. A degraded copy, meant to usurp its double (in the Tlonic sense), in the minds of those capable of recognizing him.

Baudrillard said "when the double materializes, when it becomes visible, it signifies imminent death." This was a reference to the ancient Egyptian religion, the same religion which is being actively practiced on my family today, by New York Jewish bankers (Kabbalists, ultimately, practing a pharaonic religion of hyperdimensional imperial control) intent upon finalizing the theft of my ranch.

But it's not just for me, ultimately. Baudrillard described the third order of simulacra thusly: "simulacra of simulation, founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game -- total operationality, hyperreality, aim of total control." And it is this simulacrum of simulation into which the United States is now entering. The US government fully intends, in the near future, in the words of Donald Trump, to "do cyber better."

In conclusion, I must stress that in order to escape this imminent operational virtualized simulation, we must (all of us) first go to the sci-fi future of Bitcoin, and then back to the naturalistic past of Bitcoin Island, of Liberland, of the Dees Ranch, or of some similarly imagined utopia. Good luck.

Last Updated on 02/19/17