The Technium

As If

[Translations: Japanese]

We are heading into a domain where we create things “as if” they are something else, in imitation of them. Then we improve and deepen the fake with layers of more “as if” until it actually become something else.  Our creations go from “as if” to “is.”

Our artificial systems, built to imitate natural ones, primarily work in the realm of as if.

• Second Life is a computer generated environment which surrounds a visitor with visual and sensory 3D details so that the visitor feels “as if” they are visiting in an alternative reality.

• The economies in Second Life, or World of Warcraft, or any other virtual world exhibit many (but not all) the traits we find in the real economy so that it appears “as if” it is an actual economy.

• Computer viruses replicated, adapt, infiltrate, and spread in patterns nearly identical to biological viruses, “as if” they were biological themselves.

• Robots are “as if” beings that we engineer to become more and more “is.”

What does it take to move a manufactured system across the “as if” threshold into the realm of “is?”  The answer is the long list of skills that will dominate the coming century.

The desire to cross the line is as old as Pinocchio. If a puppet acts “as if” it were a boy, and his creator can make him more and more boylike, at what point does the puppet really become a boy? The underrated Spielberg movie AI asked this question in a tear-jerk way from the point of view of an extremely realistic robot boy – a modern Pinocchio. The movie’s answer to the riddle of “when does ‘as if’ become is?”  was: when the boy could earn the love of a mother.

“As if” operates like a simile, which is an explicit type of metaphor. We could say that Second Life is an immersive metaphor. Or that a flight simulator is an interactive metaphor. That Disneyland is a theme park metaphor. That computer viruses, virtual economies, reality tv shows, and warrior bots in games are all high tech metaphors.

Modern life is a fount of as-if technologies. As Jean Baudrillard showed in his book “Simulacra and Simulation“, hyper realistic fake creations flood our lives, and even rise to the apex of culture. Disneyland is nothing but a hyper-real simulation of a theme park as if it were small town. It succeeds so well in this as-if-ness that it has gone from being as-if to is. It is a fake so real, that it is hyper real. It is now something in itself – Disneyland – that other things aspire to fake. There are in fact many fake Disneylands.

I have a friend, Adam Savage, co-host of the Mythbusters, whose hobby is creating models of famous Hollywood props. (He is not alone in this obsession. There is an entire subculture of prop copiers.) Adam spent several years working on his off-hours to make an exact copy of the Maltese Falcon which starred in the movie of the same name. The prop in the movie is a contrived imaginary sculpture that looks nothing like the original gem, but Adam wanted to re-create the prop and not the original. So he spent an insane number of hours tracking down photographs of the prop, scanning them, sculpting, and eventually casting a duplicate of the “original” prop. He was obsessively making an original copy of a fake, because the fake (the movie prop) was itself hyper-real; it was no longer “as if” but something in itself.

Themaltesefalcon3 Sz175

The rather loony levels one can descend in faking fakes should not distract us from the real problems of ascertaining what is real and what is metaphor. A real problem in law is, what counts as sex? You would think that in this most physical of all encounters there would be no question of what was real. But is simulated sex real? Is the metaphoric rape of one artificial avatar by another avatar in a virtual world, virtual or real? Is it a real assault, a real crime? This was the famous question posed by a real legal case about an online game. The answer is not at all obvious.


One solution to this ever more common dilemma is offered by Mel Slater, a virtual reality researcher. Slater repeated a classic psychology experiment in Second Life. In imitation of Stanley Milgram’s famous study of obedience, Slater had authority figures order Second Life volunteers to “torture” other avatars with lethal electric shocks. He concludes “Our results show that in spite of the fact that all participants knew for sure that neither the stranger nor the shocks were real, the participants who saw and heard [the victim] tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioral and physiological levels as if it were real. Or in other words, Slater says, “If you respond as if it were real, then it is Presence.” Presence means experientially real.

Simulations for rehearsing architecture spaces, or designing electronic circuits, or previwing demolition explosions and chemical experiments all are built with the metaphor of realistic actions. Pilot simulators, and virtual simulators for training submariners, police, soldiers, surgery, or for operating big machinery – all these work by eliciting real behavior from the metaphor.

Metaphors become real when we act as if they are real – whether or not we intellectually “believe” they are real.  This behavioral definition of “real” means that metaphors are tools.

In this way the role and power of metaphor is rising in our culture. Our modern digital world is a metaphoric world. We make things real by first constructing them as a metaphor, an “as if” type.  Then we slowly deepen the metaphor, adding more layers of meaning and realism, until metaphor slowly passes whatever invisible barrier lies between the real and fake, and it becomes “is” — it becomes “real.”  Pinocchio is at last a real boy, earning the love of his mother.

We have made as-if realities, which someday may be felt as real. We are making as-if communities, as-if democracies, as-if intelligence, as-if life. One by one, we are moving all existing entities into the as-if realm, and then we’ll pump them up till they cross that Pinocchio line and are indistinguishable from real.

Human society as a superorganism is an ancient metaphor. For thousands of years, humans have looked at human society and seen it “as if” it were an organism. At least since Aristotle the king was seen as society’s head, armies as the supercreature’s armor, miners and farmers as the digestive organ, buildings and bridges as the skeleton. Two thousand years of invention and industrialization have only deepened the parallels of this metaphor. Now it is impossible not to see human society as the dominant superorganism on the planet, consuming resources and growing.

Scientific astronomy and photography have recently extended this metaphor even further. When NASA took a self-portrait photograph of the whole earth in space, the “as-if” single organism was expanded to include the entire planet. Tribes and ethnic races bled into one “family of man.”  We also learned that the DNA code of all living creatures is widely shared so that all biomes and ecosystems are distantly related to humans. There is but one life in this as-if superorganism. Even the clouds and geological plates are now seen as part of this metaphorical single planetary superorganism, called Gaia. It is far far larger than humans, but certainly including us. In the new metaphor the whole planet and everything living and inert on it behaves “as if” it were a living organism.

Finally, in the past century, the planetary superorganism metaphor evolved to include intelligence. Multiple layers of telephone trunk lines, satellites orbiting non-stop, cell towers spaced across the globe, transoceanic cables weaving the continents, microwave antenna ringing the shores, and the internet’s web wrapping the globe have awaken in many people a new metaphor: the world looks “as if” it has a global brain.

In fact we are beginning to act as-if there was a global brain. We ask Google expecting it to know the answers to all our many questions. We assume a global awareness: if something happens in Mumbai, we are certain we’ll be able to know about it instantly. We expect this brain to be on, 24/7, feeding our awareness, educating and entertaining us. We currently view it as “our” brain, our collective brain, and that is how we act towards it  – even though it is a metaphor.

In this Age of Metaphor, love will be the signal of real. One of the ways we will know when a thing has passed from “as-if to is” is when it earns unalloyed love from humans. When a virtual place wins the kind of full-blooded love that a real place on Earth wins. When a toy pet earns the same love as a breathing pet. When a synthetic actor earns the same love as a human movie star, when a virtual economy incites the same passion as the larger economy, when a global superorganism gains the same affection as a hamster.

Then it will no longer be as-if and it will just be.

  • RobertJ

    Your article starts out talking about how we subjectively judge real and fake, then it ends with the planetary super organism as a constructed metaphor. Improved subjective experience is very different from real technical progress, as fake chess-playing robots and chatbots testify to. But your focus is on evolving the planetary superorganism _metaphor_. As in other postings, I perceive that you have an agenda which you only reveal implicitly.

    Society as a superorganism is an old metaphor, used successfully by hindus in India for instance, a metaphor of castes as body parts kept people in their place, facilitating suppression and social order. Your purpose I’m sure is more benign, but what is your purpose for the superorganism metaphore? Is this a new faction in the academic wars, a worldview that put computer engineers and the numerati in a favourable postion? Is it veiled market liberalism with its abolishment of centralized control and borders? In your article titled “Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism” I commented with the opposite conclusion, that it’s a veiled description of the virtue of collaboration and mutual dependency to an audience that prefers to think of themselves as independent individuals. There’s a story of a movement here, which is begging to be written. By someone with more insight than me I might add :-)

  • Julien Frisch

    Most of the things we see and do are “as-if”. The as-if-ness of our world is intrinsically human.

    The idea of society in general is based on the notion of “as if”. We behave as if we were citizens of a country. We read books and feel about them as if their stories were real. We paint on the walls of caves, and our ancestors feel as if our reality still would exist. We exchange paper money as if it had a real value. (We go to church as if god existed.)

    The as-if-ness is nothing new, it just becomes more obvious due to the technological development. That’s all.

    Maybe this is the essence of being human: We can live “as if”.

    Julien Frisch – Watching Europe

    • @Jullen: I feel you are right and agree. As-if-ness is old and pervasive. But it is now becoming animated via technology in a new way. Maybe we should say, technology amplifies the power and shift of as-if.

  • Tom Guarriello

    Kevin, I think you will find the writings of the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger of great interest. His work is called the philosophy of the as-if and formed the foundation for the psychological writings of Alfred Adler. Many of your thoughts here resonate with those of both of these thinkers.

    Check out Vaihinger’s Wikipedia page:

    • @ Tom Guarriello: Thanks! I had never heard of Vaihinger; off to explore him….

  • Luke

    A wonderfully intriguing post. I understand that intellectual property began to be recognized in 16th century Jewish law and now enjoys real value, though we still seem somewhat more willing to infringe intellectual property rights than physical property rights. Similarly, I wonder if other things lose their “as if” value. For instance, I believe we’re less vigorous in our protection of personal reputation, of marriage, of ‘virtue’. I don’t intend to moralize through these examples, only to point out that we’re less threatened by the loss of these things that we once were; perhaps an interesting corollary.

  • Ivo Quartiroli

    It’s just the mind’s business to replicate, project and simulate reality, as many spiritual teachers says. We can call it maya. We can even develop feelings and love for artificially created realities as we can with people. We can develop object relations with anything. But the passage from “as if” to “is” needs much deeper transformation. Both “as if” and “is”, as I read in this article, belong to the same level. In the “as if” state we are aware of the simulation, while in the “is” state we consider them as part of ordinary reality. However, the inner attitude doesn’t change. In both cases we are looking at reality from the same point of view.

    Though, the nature of “is” does exist, but it does exist beyond our mental constructions, is real and is Presence, not just what our mind thinks “is” is. We can recognize the “is” when we ourselves become Presence, beyond the ordinary spectacles of the mind.

  • Ryan Somma

    Wonderful post! I think it does a great job of addressing many of the questions your “A New Kind of Mind” post raised.

    An interesting revelation this essay has given me, as an environmentalist, concerns human love of the Earth. The Gaia Hypothesis has gone from a New Age frivolity to a fairly accepted Scientific Principle, percieving the Earth holistically as a living organism.

    The problem is that humans still only see their locality or nation. Until the human race “loves” our planet as a single living thing of which we are all a part, environmetalist philosophies will not gain mindshare.

  • Af2008

    As with memory, simulations present emerging properties according to the shape of organizations. Those properties are those responsible for the difference between reality and fantasy.
    Just like a lone molecule of water is not actually water and a group help to redefine the concept.

  • Tom Crowl

    Great perspective. The evolution from “as if” to “is” provides a lot of light on those questions regarding identity and mind.

    In a previous comment I hypothesized that in terms of Identity, you might say the sponge’s separate identity arose concurrent with its component cells’ specialization and the presence of cellular apoptosis.

    In other words, when it began to behave “as if” it were a separate identity!

    Still not a whole lot of “mind” going on with the sponge but its a bit more conscious and thoughtful than its components, and has a clear identity.

    Can we scale this up?

    Any analogies to Us, Gaia or Government?

    Like how to build a Socialism 2 or Star Trek Federation as opposed to some lame Borg Collective!

    For instance, if the hypothesis that larger Identities are CREATED from an “AS IF” via an ability to induce specialization and/or apoptosis in its components…

    Then both Governments and Gaia qualify! Or at least its worth thinking about.

    The next question is the special role of SELF-Consciousness in an Evolving Identity.

    You know, like “Where are we going?”

    Which brings me to Political Theory.

    The Question is what qualities in the group decision making process…

    (see Hillis at )

    allow for Scaling big-time…

    WITHOUT a decay in Identity for the Individuals composing a larger Identity?

    In other words…
    Which way to the Federation or a Socialism 2?
    And NOT the Borg Collective!

    I believe this is an actually vital question… and is now timely, which requires conscious (as opposed to passive, let the chips fall where they may) attention and has practical solutions.

    Eyal’s concepts regarding a distributive network are an essential part.

    The Fundamentals of this are multiple nodes with capacity for speech and association through a network with special charactericstics of Motivation ESSENTIAL in large-scale societies.

    Prototype for U.S. legal conditions at

    Let me know if I’m nuts cause I’m starting to worry!

    And regarding Gaia, I agree its an identity. But I don’t believe self-conscious. So that means it’s up to us to help!

  • irspariah

    The ones that do not buy into the “as if” world have serious problems, don’t they? Or maybe it’s the creators of this fantasy that are the ones who are threatened sufficiently to respond with the ever increasing viciousness being displayed with increasing frequency. Bizarre idea, lashing out against those who insist on actual reality rather than accepting a sloppy model of it.

  • JoseAngel

    Apart from Vaihinger, Erving Goffman’s “Frame Theory” would seem to be relevant to the issue to how we manage levels of reality, and realities embedded in realities. Goffman’s view is close to symbolic interactionalism, which would claim that there is no absolute truth in the object itself—whether real or “as if”—but only the kind of truth which is created and managed in a process of social communication. Which leads us to the question, of course, of which social communicative processes are more widespread, powerful, sharable… In that sense, bodily reality is (and probably will always be) more sharable than virtual reality.

  • Tom Crowl

    Tying in your piece in the Current Trends section on the question of a possible breakup of the USA…

    That this problem arises at all, I believe, is precisely because of a failure of larger levels of representation (As-If’s) to make decisions…

    …without a decay in identity for the indiviuals composing it.(So the group’s “Is” weakens). And that’s even if it’s leaders are trying their best… it’s the subjective belief that is determinant.

    (BTW, this dynamic of weakening group identification sets up a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop of cynicism and hypocracy between leaders and followers which seems strangely familiar)

    In opposition to this is can be argued that hierarchical forms of control can be quite effective and unfortunately attractive. I would argue that while at one time that may have been true it no longer is, nor can it be for more than a short period of time.

    This is because as information availability expands and system complexity and vulnerability increase… the importance of attention to systems for consensus on expanding levels is required.

    This is, in fact, in most cases more vital than the quality of the decision itself which I belive Hillis misses as a factor in the scaling issue. Bad decisions will be tolerated where even good ones won’t be depending on the intensity of members identification with the group.

    This is illustrated in obvious form by the “Ultimatum Game” in Behavioral Economics which says there will always be a good number (thank you lordy!) who won’t go for a raw deal and would just as soon tip over the table as accept it!

    So its a question of creating for individuals a needed appendage for ACTION in the decision making process within the commons so as to increase identification… and, as a result… responsibility.

    Hence Chagora!

    From Iqbal Quadal, founder of Grameenphone of Banglagesh:

    “If concentration of power has contributed to poor governance, the solution must lie in dispersing power… ICTs empower from below while devolving power from above, resulting in a two-pronged attack on abuse of state power that has left so much of the world’s population languishing in poverty… ICTs can be the means to both freedom and development by blindsiding obstacles to both.”

    From Iyal Sivan’s “The Connective”

    “The Connective refers to the global culture emerging as a result of the proliferation of information technology.

    A connective refers to a distributed network made up of voluntary participants, organized around a specific interest or context, with each member seeking to achieve an individual goal.”

    Capabiity REQUIRES New Methods for New Landscapes!

    Embrace the Swarm and Let GO at the Top! as Mr. Kelly has famously said and its true!