Simulation derives from the verb to simulate, that in the Oxford Dictionary is defined as follows:
- Pretend to be, have, or feel.
- Imitate or counterfeit.
- Reproduce the conditions of a situation for other scopes such as training.
- Produce a computer model.
A simulation, then, is an artificial reproduction that is more or less resembling of something else, of another sign in the world of things. This implies that simulation rests on the existence of reality and cannot exist without a reference.
According to French critical theorist Jean Baudrillard, the world has become composed exclusively of simulations. These simulations exist in layers, therefore the element of the real they originally resemble to is no longer retraceable. As a consequence, reality is mediated by simulation, suggesting that the knowing subject access the real only through simulations of it, that are named simulacra. Simulacra refer to the layers of simulation present in the world: they grow and multiply themselves so constantly that a distinction between true and false is no longer possible. Simulation is an historical process towards the modification of the real into a total simulacrum, named hyperreal.
Another reading of the concept is given by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze agreed with Baudrillard about the simulacrum being an empty sign that signals the destruction of the original reality. In Deleuze’s opinion, the simulacrum is so perfect that there is no need of retracing the original, of which existence grown irrelevant. When the work of art is viewed in such a way, the consequences are not negative as in Baudrillard’s prevision of the death of the real, but it opens the way to new possibilities of interpretation based on sensation rather than on meaning. “Signs are not about the communication of meaning but rather about the learning of the affects, perceptions, and sensations to which we can be subject” (Kelly ed., 518). Simulation here is a process that affects our experience rather than the signification of the original reality: simulation denies the privileged point of view of the original and affirms the relevance of the object viewed, the value of which is beyond the fact it is an original or not. In this way, the hierarchy between original and copy falls and the relations we establish with the object is focused on sensation rather than on ideas.
Both conceptions of simulation work in the specific context of Virtual Reality. As my aim is to create a theoretical framework enabling a reading of new technologies going beyond the over simplistic vision of technoscientific progress as deteriorating the organic and human hegemony over the inorganic – considered as true and real the former, as fake and artificial the latter – simulation in this toolset is both a pervasive and unavoidable process of estrangement from the real but works also as a concept and an instrument to think beyond the longstanding hierarchy of truth.
By use of digital labour, Virtual Reality simulates real stimuli that are increasingly perfectionating themselves – suffice thinking that tech companies are now perfectionating VR headsets and wearables that produce scents and activate the senses of smell during VR experiences. Simulated sensations, though, are not denying the physical realm: they are inviting us to perceive and react to them in order to create a new range of sensations, values and experiences that can easily be integrated into our vision of the world without clashing with what we have already got in touch with. Content is now to be found on the surface level – into the realm of experience rather than the discursive communication and construction of truth. This is also the reason why the way the medium affects us is incredibly relevant today, as it is in the specific configuration of the relation between medium and user that the message lies.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations, Translated by Phil Beitchman, Paul Foss and Paul Patton, Semiotext(e): Los Angeles, 1983.
Kelly, David. ed. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics V.1, Oxford University Press, 1998.