Reality Simulations, the Uses of Calling Congress, and More: Recommended Reading


Here at Flavorwire, we pride ourselves on not only writing excellent content, but also keeping an eye on other great writing from around the web. This may be a predominantly arts/culture-centric website, but given the immediate gravity of U.S. politics, we’ve been focusing this outward-looking post on indispensable political writing, as well as the occasional culture piece.

Beyond the social examinations of the historical La La Land/Moonlight announcement error, a rather reaching speculative scientific one by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik was published this week; he seems to have gotten wildly stoned one evening and decided the Oscars snafu alongside a surprising Super Bowl and Donald Trump’s presidential win serve as proof that we’re a.) living in a universe simulated as an experiment by another civilization and b.) that there’s a “Loki” among them messing with things:

There may be not merely a glitch in the Matrix. There may be a Loki, a prankster, suddenly running it. After all, the same kind of thing seemed to happen on Election Day: the program was all set, and then some mischievous overlord—whether alien or artificial intelligence doesn’t matter—said, “Well, what if he did win? How would they react?” “You can’t do that to them,” the wiser, older Architect said. “Oh, c’mon,” the kid said. “It’ll be funny. Let’s see what they do!” And then it happened. We seem to be living within a kind of adolescent rebellion on the part of the controllers of the video game we’re trapped in, who are doing this for their strange idea of fun…The thesis that we are in a simulation is, as people who track such things know—my own college-age son has explained it to me—far from a joke, or a mere conceit.

Gopnik’s right: the idea that we could be living in a simulation is one that scientists and philosophers legitimately consider, but as Jesse Singal saliently points out in a piece in New York Magazine, it seems a bit of a stretch to use mistaken envelopes from the Oscars, sports shockers, and even the legitimate awfulness and craziness of Trumpism as proof, when there are so many previous examples of harrowing, reality-quaking awfulness:

When you look at recent history, it’s just very hard to come up with a case that our current smattering of unreal events is sturdier proof of a simulation thesis than all the 20th-century horrors Gopnik gestures at but doesn’t name: two world wars and the Holocaust and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and starvation in the USSR and the Khmer Rouge and the Cold War and all the rest. Not that conflict or loss of life should ever be seen as normal, but this was consistently weird carnage and near carnage. A military superpower built a vast and horrifying machinery of death to rid Europe of a religious minority, and mostly succeeded. For decades, the two reigning superpowers pointed enough nukes at each other to turn the planet into an uninhabited glass marble several times over, and if not for several instances of coolness in impossibly tense situations, we’d all be gone. The Khmer Rouge raised the bar on human atrocity in countless ways, but its crimes are so drowned out by all the other bloodshed from that century that most people don’t know the first thing about it.

Quartz, meanwhile, spoke with a Harvard physicist who’s a simulation skeptic to see if “the La La Land/Moonlight kerfuffle had swayed her on the simulation argument”:

“At this point, we cannot prove that we do or don’t live in a simulation,” she wrote in an email. “More to the point, there is no reason to believe that we do. However, we can pretty much be sure that people will do amazing things and they will also mess up in spectacular ways.” Randall brought up another point: Whether the system in question is a movie awards show, or democracy itself, it’s a lot easier to believe that we’re helpless cogs in the machine than people with the power to fix that machine.

And if you want to get into a more detailed, less-Oscars-centric piece on the whole “living in a simulation” theory that parses its philosophical implications and paradoxes, Jonathan Rothman’s piece from the New Yorker last year is a good read.

Georgina Voss reports for the Atlantic from the “SXSW of concrete,” or, officially, World of Concrete, a five day convention in Las Vegas devoted to the material. She looks at the history of the concrete and masonry industry in the States, and where it sits in the American present:

Trump paved his pathway to the White House with pledges to build roads, hospitals, and, of course, a “great great wall.” So now I’m staring at riding trowels in an effort to answer what I soon realize is not an easy question. How do Trump’s high-octane and often contentious campaign promises sit with the people who will actually be doing the building?

Also for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf highlights some of the many inconsistencies in what Trump has said about Russia and members of his administration, noting that the “major obstacle” of getting to the truth — even if the truth is that there’s really not much to be revealed at all beyond innocuous meetings and phone calls — “is Trump’s untrustworthiness…He is a frequently mendacious man, and many of his associates possess the same deficiency in character. I do not know if the many untruths Trump and his team have uttered on this subject are making them appear guiltier than they are or obscuring a shocking reality.” He continues:

One can imagine non-nefarious explanations for all of these meetings. USA Today’s writeup of the Cleveland RNC event makes it sound especially innocuous. But they inevitably create suspicion when they directly contradict bygone untruths told by the president and his team; follow Manafort and Flynn resigning over matters related to Russia; concern a president who will not release his tax returns; and dovetail with a dossier that alleges alarming ties between Trump and the Kremlin. Look again at Trump’s words from his press conference: “I have nothing to do with Russia,” the president said. “To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.”

The New York Times reports on Uber’s use of a program called Greyball, which it claims was implemented to perplex authorities in areas where Uber’s presence had been resisted (“or outright banned”) by government officials. Mike Isaac writes:

The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials. Uber used these methods to evade the authorities in cities such as Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China, Italy and South Korea…At a time when Uber is already under scrutiny for its boundary-pushing workplace culture, its use of the Greyball tool underscores the lengths to which the company will go to dominate its market. Uber has long flouted laws and regulations to gain an edge against entrenched transportation providers, a modus operandi that has helped propel it into more than 70 countries and to a valuation close to $70 billion.

You probably see posts on social media urging you to call Congress in order to voice a complaint about some aspect of the current American government. (Flavorwire likewise has a column that’s often devoted to easy courses of action like this.) But with so many terrible decisions being made on the daily, it’s easy to wonder how much these calls can actually do. The New Yorker posted a fantastically informative piece by Kathryn Schulz earlier this week responding to that exact question:

In normal times, then—which is to say, in the times we don’t currently live in—calling your members of Congress is not an intrinsically superior way to get them to listen. But what makes a particular type of message effective depends largely on what you are trying to achieve. For mass protests, such as those that have been happening recently, phone calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention. E-mails get the message through but are comparatively swift and easy for staffers to process, while conventional mail is at a disadvantage when speed matters, since, in addition to the time spent in transit, anything sent to Congress is temporarily held for testing and decontamination, to protect employees from mail bombs and toxins.