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What is meant by Simulcra Levels?

by Chris_Leong1 min read17th Jun 202016 comments

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Simulcra levels are a concept that have seen a lot of play on Less Wrong. I suspect that different people are using these concepts in slightly different ways, so I thought it might make sense to ask a question to provide a central location for recording these theories and helping people disambiguate. For this reason, I don't think that there should be a single answer, but rather multiple answers. If you propose a theory, I'd suggest ideally providing a descriptive title or label.

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So... I started out thinking this didn't make sense as a question to ask right now. But I've now re-read the original post and gotten a clearer sense of what goals Benquo had for the Simulacrum Levels model, and how some of the newer posts have diverged.

It seems like Simulacrum Levels were aiming to explore two related concepts:

  • How people's models/interactions diverge over time from an original concept (where that concept is gradually replaced by exaggerations, lies, and social games, which eventually bear little or not referent to the original)
  • How people relate to object level truth, as a whole, vs social reality

The first concept makes sense to call "simulacrum", and the second one I think ends up making more sense to classify in the 2x2 grid that I and Daniel Kokotajilo both suggested (and probably doesn't make sense to refer to as 'simulacrum')

Benquo's original essay uses the example of Bullshit Job Titles, wherein (paraphrased from original)

First, some people are called "managers", because they manage people.

Second, companies have started offering managerial titles to employees as a perk so that they can benefit from the desirable side effects, lessening the title's usefulness for tracking who's doing what work, but possibly increasing its correlation with some of the side effects, since the good (i.e., effective at producing the desired side effects) titles go to the people who are most skilled at playing the game. 

The system is wireheading itself with respect to titles, but in a way that comes with real resource commitments, so people who can track the map and reality separately, and play on both gameboards simultaneously, can extract things through judicious acquisition of titles.

Third, the system starts using titles to wirehead its employees. Titles like "Vice President of Sorting" are useless and played out in the industry, interviewers know to ask what you actually did (and probably just look at your body language, and maybe call around to get your reputation, or just check what parties you've been to), but maybe there's some connotative impressiveness left in the term, and you feel better getting to play the improv game as a Vice President rather than a Laborer. You're given social permission to switch your inner class affiliation and feel like a member of the managerial class. Probably mom and dad are impressed.

Fourth, some of the practices from world 3 are left, and it's almost universally understood emotionally that they don't refer to anything, but there's nothing real to contrast them with, so if you tell a story about yourself well enough, people will go along with it even though they know that all the "evidence" is meaningless.

I actually kinda liked... um, Chris Leong's Summary, making a similar point but at a somewhat broader worldview level:

Baudrillard's language seems quite religious, so I almost feel that a religious example might relate directly to his claims better. I haven't really read Baudrillard, but here's how I'd explain my current understanding:

Stage 1: People pray faithfully in public because they believe in God and follow a religion. Those who witness this prayer experience a window into the transcendent.

Stage 2: People realise that they can gain social status by praying in public, so they pretend to believe. Many people are aware of this, so witnessing an apparently sincere prayer ceases to be the same experience as you don't know whether it is genuine or not. It still represent the transcendent to some degree, but the experience of witnessing it just isn't the same.

Stage 3: Enough people have started praying insincerely that almost everyone starts jumping on the bandwagon. Publicly prayer has ceased to be an indicator of religiosity or faith any more, but some particularly naive people still haven't realised the pretence. People still gain status from this for speaking sufficiently elegantly. People can't be too obviously fake though or they'll be punished either by the few still naive enough to buy into it or by those who want to keep up the pretence.

Stage 4: Praying is now seen purely as a social move which operates according to certain rules. It's no longer necessary in and of itself to convince people that you are real, but part of the game may include punishments for making certain moves. For example, if you swear during your prayer, that might be punished for being inappropriate, even though no-one cares about religion any more, because that's seen as cheating or breaking the rules of the game. However, you can be obviously fake in ways that don't violate these rules, as the spirit of the rules has been forgotten. Maybe people pray for vain things like becoming wealthy. Or they go to church one day, then post pictures of them getting smashed the next day on Facebook, which all their church friends see, but none of them care. The naive are too few to matter and if they say anything, people will make fun of them.

Chris Leong's conception is useful because the original "prayer as earnest expression of faith" thing is in fact built on falsehood, and in demonstrates how the notion of a Copy of a Copy Simulacrum process applies to things other than objective truth.

These are both notably different from Zvi's most recent conception wherein Level 3 specifically means "words are incantations that tell you what team you're on." 

"What team you're on" is a specific, narrower type of Level 3. 

Stage 3 Bullshit Job Titles aren't really about what team you're on, they're about how the system has corrupted the concept of job titles, in a way that isn't really about anyone's team. (there might be other things going on in-tandem with the bullshit job titles that are about what-team-you're-on, but someone calling themselves Vice President of Sorting doesn't really tell you much about their worldview or alliances, it's just The Incantation That Refers to Someone Who Sorts)

So...

I think some high level disagreement I've had with Simulacra-as-a-concept is the way "Simulacra" and "How People Treat Object vs Social Reality" have gotten conflated. 

In particular, I think we are long past the point where the original "object level reality" got simulacra'd away for much of society, and it's not very useful to track overall. But it does make sense to track ascending simulacra levels of specific object level maps (such as job titles), which do get corrupted over time. 

"The evolution of Moral Mazes" is an interesting case where it's a domain more specific than "all of society" and less specific than "Bullshit Jobs". It does map fairly well onto both the "simulacra as general corruption of original map" and "simulacra as 'physical vs social reality' distinctions". But, I think it makes most sense to have a map of Moral Mazes that is just optimized for being a Map of Moral Mazes. 

I think there are also useful maps to build of how society overall has ebbed and flowed in how "simulacra-y it is", but the Simulacra model feels more murky than helpful to me.

My answer:

Consider a 2x2 grid. On the top row we have "naive deontological strategies." On the bottom row we have "consequentialist strategies." On the left we have "Truth." On the right we have "Teams."

Level 1: Top left: Naive deontological + Truth = You assert the statement if you think it is true, and not otherwise.

Level 3: Top right: Naive deontological + Teams = You assert the statement if you identify as part of the team associated with the statement, and not otherwise. (In some cases the statement is associated with being part of any team other that a certain team, i.e. the statement roughly means "I'm not part of team X." In this case you assert the statement if you identify with some opposing team, and not otherwise.)

Level 2: Bottom left: Consequentialist + Truth = You assert the statement if you desire your listener to think you think it is true, and not otherwise. Lying is a special case of this, but you need not be lying to be doing this.

Level 4: Bottom right: Consequentialist + Teams = You assert the statement if you desire your listener to think you identify as part of the team associated with the statement, and not otherwise. (Or, the corresponding thing in case the statement is anti-team-X.)

I haven't thought this through that much or compared it to the "primary texts" so I would bet that my interpretation is at least somewhat different from that of others.

There's an obvious tendency for communities operating at level 1 to devolve into level 2, and from 3 to 4.

There's a less obvious tendency for communities operating at level 2 to devolve into level 3, or so people claim, and I find this somewhat plausible.