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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why We Built the Simulation

How what began as a classroom history software turned into something much more grand—and terrifying.

DISCLAIMER: This is all imaginary, but that doesn’t mean it’s frivolous. If we don’t imagine new worlds, we’ll be stuck with the crummy one we’ve got.

The simulation was originally little more than an educational tool, a way of making history a bit more compelling for a generation that had been raised on apps and games. Version 1.0, released by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC, which had been revived by the Second New Deal), was literally called A Simulated History of Earth and anyone could download it for desktop or mobile, though it was slow and buggy on a phone. 

Essentially, the program looked like an isometric “sim” video game, though because the user couldn’t change anything and there was nothing to “play,” it was more like a film or diagram. Opening the software would reveal a big globe with a timeline, a search bar, a zoom in/zoom out tool, play/pause/stop/fast forward/rewind buttons, and closed caption/spoken word options. 

The user could punch in any time in history, go to any place on Earth, and see what was happening there at the specified time. It was no more complicated than a SimCity or Civilization, the difference being that it was designed by educators to show everything we know about what actually happened on Earth at any given time. So if you went to 12th century Paris, you could watch the early portions of Notre Dame cathedral being erected. If you went to what is today Mexico during the 15th century, you could see the mighty Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, reconstructed as accurately as possible. (You could also see it destroyed by the Spanish.) Pick any event—the Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1529, Hannibal crossing the Alps in 218 BC, and if you went to the right part of the Earth on the exact right date and time, you could watch little pixelated figures act it out.

The Simulated History of Earth, even in its rudimentary version, was fun to spend hours poking around. It gave a much better appreciation of how exactly historical events unfolded in space and time. One could watch Kennedy’s limousine snake through Dallas before passing fatefully in front of the Schoolbook Depository, or see the buses pull in and the crowds assemble for the March on Washington. Because every historical moment was displayed, not just the highlight reel, it was possible to watch the cleanup of the March on Washington or the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination as well, which could be unexpectedly enthralling. The billions of actors on the world stage all enacted the great drama before your eyes.

Perusing the Simulated History, one is struck by just how exceptional and rare the events we lump together as “history” are. If you dump your cursor at any given place at any given time, not much is happening. People are depicted waking up, going about their business, eating, chatting, laboring, and going to bed. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for and exactly where it happened to see anything truly momentous. Show up at 4:00 p.m. for an event that happened at 11:00 a.m., and you’re out of luck. You can see, if you drag the map away from the scene, just how many people missed it or didn’t know about it. If you can pinpoint the Boston Massacre, you can watch it (and there is of course, a tool for helping you find all the “important” stuff), but if you go two blocks away, you’d see people completely unaware that the Boston Massacre is going on. 

But the Simulated History’s virtue is that it puts things in perspective. Kings and emperors and dictators and presidents are tiny little figures, declaiming from pixelated balconies, and they appear almost comical. The entire piece of software is like a digitized representation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” as human beings strive for greatness and quickly disappear. You can watch them be born, grow up, die, decompose, and be forgotten. You can see complacent people totally unaware of the forces about to destroy them—I once watched a full week of life in Pompeii in the lead-up to Vesuvius’s explosion. 

One of the problems in building the Simulated History was that we actually know hardly anything about history. We know a great deal about “notable” people’s lives, but most people who have lived have not had their day-to-day activities tracked and logged. Even with a famous person, say, Ralph Ellison or Lucille Ball, we might know that they attended a particular awards ceremony on a particular day, but we don’t know what time they got up on November 5, 1952, or all the people they talked to and what exactly they said, or what those people did with the information and what consequences it had. We do not know if they tripped over their cat at breakfast time and it caused them to leave the house five minutes later which unleashed a string of events that would ultimately result in two divorces, four marriages, and a death that would not otherwise have occurred. The “butterfly effect” can be speculated upon, but it is impossible to map out the consequences of any given butterfly on any given event.

MECC did what they could. A team of historians and research assistants at the University of Minnesota began to compile records of everything that could possibly be known for certain about everything that has ever happened, and exactly where and what it looked like. The Simulated History, in creating a picture of events, necessarily had to speculate when filling in the gaps between the data points. We know approximately how many soldiers Suleiman the Magnificent brought to the Siege of Vienna, and approximately what they would have been armed with and what they would have worn. We do not know what each of their names was or how they styled their moustaches or where and when they went to the bathroom, but the Simulated History builds an approximation of these things that is consistent with the known facts.

Thus, it could be the case that much of the Simulated History is not accurate. Perhaps Paul Revere was not wearing that outfit in reality. MECC gave him what he might have been wearing, accurate to the period. But not a single thing depicted in the Simulated History is known to be inaccurate—that is to say, every piece of data we do have is faithfully represented, and only the areas where the truth is unknown are filled in speculatively. The end goal of the Simulated History was for every single thing we do know to appear in the software, and for a completely consistent story to be told, hewing as closely to reality as possible.

This necessarily involved a staggering amount of effort. At the beginning, when MECC confined itself to showing the evolution of life on Earth (from the primordial ooze to the hominids) and the crucial events of world history, there was nothing groundbreaking about the project from a technical perspective. But in its successive iterations, as its designers sought to make it richer—and to leave no known fact un-depicted—it became epic in its scope. 

Because every human life that has ever been lived needed to be depicted, exhaustive research had to be done. Copies of every memoir, biography, and collection of papers ever published were obtained, a vast team compiling each known date, place, and activity. The makers tried to collect every photograph ever taken, and figure out exactly where and when it had been produced, so that frequently a stone or a toy or a Coca Cola bottle could be made to appear exactly where it was at the time it was there. This did mean that the Simulated History might have a more accurate depiction of your grandmother’s wallpaper—if a photo of it happened to find its way into the data—than the Battle of Hastings. Such is the consequence of the fragmentary recordkeeping of ages past. 

All objects in the program had to come from somewhere and go somewhere, meaning that when a Coca Cola bottle did appear, one could trace that individual bottle from its creation to its destruction, seeing the raw materials that made it, their locations, and every part of the industrial process. Not every one of history’s soda bottles has been tracked from moment to moment, of course, so the Simulated History simply had to construct paths through spacetime for each object that were consistent with the known historical record.

Where accounts conflicted, an international panel of historians was convened to produce a “best approximate theory” of what actually occurred, which could be represented in the simulation. (It was decided early on not to depict alternate possibilities, because—amusingly, considering what the software became—this would be “too complicated.” However, because it was an open-source public project, game developers created interactive versions where one could play out different alternate histories by tweaking some small factor or other, or re-fighting a historic war to a different outcome. The original, though, was always scrupulously committed to never depicting a known falsehood.) Every field of study had to be exhaustively mined for the information it could reveal about the past: the laws of physics had to apply exactly to the Simulated History, the biological processes of plants and animals had to occur exactly correctly. The whole ecosystem had to function. Slowing down to real time, one could watch individual animals stalk and eat other animals. Speeding up, one could watch the evolutionary process at work. If you wanted to watch the dinosaurs go about their lives, you could spend years of your own life directly observing years of theirs. (Each individual dinosaur for which we have a fossil record, of course, was replicated in the simulation.)

Every word of every book ever written eventually had to be incorporated into the Simulated History, of course, because each book is a fact from the past. This caused considerable copyright trouble, as might be expected, until the establishment of the universal free knowledge database under the socialist world government, after which it was possible not just to watch any film ever made within the program, but to attend any particular screening of that film that had ever been known to occur. Likewise, if one wanted to go and sit through the entire Woodstock festival in 1969, one could watch a tiny simulated Jimi Hendrix play the guitar early in the morning, the actual soundtrack imposed atop it. This was true not just of historically famous concerts, of course, but of all concerts that had been recorded. Those that hadn’t were replicated with a representative set list of the era and genre. This meant that new music that might possibly have existed was created specially for the project—if we did not know what kind of solo Miles Davis had played on some particular night, because there was no record of it, a panel of the world’s top jazz trumpeters were convened to create a representative audio clip showing what, according to the best available knowledge, he most likely sounded like. (The Simulated History did have an option for users to see exactly which of its parts were based on fact and which were carefully-constructed conjecture using the tools of all the sciences. There was even a spectrum of “certainty layers” that one could apply or remove, showing, for instance, all that was known with 99.9 percent confidence, 80 percent confidence, etc., and which data was used to substantiate any given part of the simulated reality’s claim to authenticity.)

As I say, early versions had rudimentary graphics. A city would look something like this, even fully zoomed-in:

Eventually, MECC introduced new camera angles, reducing the eerie “view from nowhere” quality that had made watching history unfold look something like watching ants in an ant farm. By version 3.0, the lives of the Plains Indians looked like this: 

Here was ancient Rome:

Over time, the graphics were refined. Historical figures were no longer featureless. Photorealistic reconstructions were made from known records. Here, for instance, was Vincent Van Gogh as he appeared in the Simulated History:

10 years into the project, then, the Simulated History was more than an animated textbook. It was an entire fully-populated virtual world, albeit one where all of the outcomes were known in advance and every living entity followed an exact predetermined path. It was teeming with virtual earthworms and virtual fungi and the rise and fall of virtual civilizations. 

The Simulated History turned out to have some deeply disturbing qualities, too. MECC’s commitment to complete accuracy meant that it had to recreate death, bloodshed, and abuse as realistically as possible. If one’s great-grandfather had died during the Vietnam war, one could find him and watch his entire tour of duty, second by second (as far as it could be known from available historical records) up until the moment of his gruesome death. Every crime that had ever occurred would be realistically depicted. The highs of human life (the Moon Landing, every mutually enjoyable sex act ever engaged in, etc.) were depicted, but so were its darkest points, meaning that the most disturbing horrors imaginable could be found within the program. If humans had done it, it was shown. 

The more realistic the Simulated History became, the more it became obvious that it could cause serious problems. Children’s access to it had to be seriously restricted, as it was possible to stumble upon deeply traumatic images and sounds. There were serious privacy concerns, too, especially when it came to the depiction of people still living. Its status as a public project gave MECC vast powers to access personal data, and MECC was, in some instances, able to triangulate known facts and depict things about a person that they had never disclosed—for instance, acts of infidelity that had been conclusively deduced were shown, and if photographs of the participants had been obtained, any member of the public could watch anyone else’s prior indiscretions. MECC had originally intended the program to be as current as possible, meaning that it would show everything up until the present moment and be updated in real time. But this essentially made it a real-time tracking device for every living thing on Earth, since anyone who knows where you were a second ago knows almost exactly where you are now. 

At a certain point, then—and this was around the time it became colloquially known just as the Simulation rather than A Simulated History of Earth—the program had to be taken offline and maintained as a top-secret archive under the control of the World Recordkeeping Organization. Those who wished to access it needed to submit formal written requests, and permission was granted only to researchers who could show that their work satisfied a “genuine public purpose,” that their request was “narrowly limited in scope” in terms of the material desired, and that it would not cause “undue negative social consequences.” Naturally there were mountains of litigation over precisely what these legislative terms meant. 

The Simulation had essentially become both a Library of Alexandria and a replica of the universe in one. (For, naturally, the rest of the Universe eventually had to eventually be incorporated into the program.) The map was the territory; it aimed to be precise down to the atom. Everything that could be known or seen was part of it. To have had full access to it would be to see things as God, to achieve a staggering approximation of omniscience. 

It was not complete omniscience, of course, because there was no way to incorporate people’s inner thoughts. Dreams and feelings were absent, one only saw their external manifestations. But unless one could be someone, one lacked crucial data about their reality. Thus MECC was constantly trying to find ways to create simulated first-person experiences, so that anyone could be anyone. There was a fundamental inaccuracy, it was thought, to presenting history through a third-person perspective. The Simulation had been criticized as “behaviorist” because all one could see was people’s behaviors; the sounds they made, the actions they took, their inputs and outputs. The workings of the human mind were portrayed biologically (one could zoom into a skull and see the brain at work) but at the level of conscious experience they were left mysterious. 

In its effort to incorporate inner lives, MECC revolutionized sociology and psychology, even as it was ostensibly designing what was still referred to frequently as a “glorified video game.” Its “human conduct and thought” sub-team, working out of the Mayo Clinic, developed a new way of understanding how thoughts are formed and either acted upon or discarded. The predictive power of the new system was so great that, from a few brain scans and a questionnaire, one’s responses to a series of life situations could be predicted with 90 percent accuracy.

As the human beings in the Simulation were programmed to act according to these uncovered algorithms that successfully predicted thoughts and conduct, the Simulation was often impressive in predicting future events. Its understanding of mass psychology was so great that it correctly forecast the results of nearly all of the world’s elections, from the local to the global level. Less and less data needed to be fed into it, because from everything it knew about the world already it could anticipate much of what was to come. People began to talk of the Simulation being a real-world Laplace’s demon, and its success in anticipating what people said and did was thought to give credence to the view that free will was an illusion. 

The Simulation was so close to resembling an artificial world that some even held the position that it was one, that because the human mind was ultimately “just a computer” itself (and free will was an illusion), then the closer the computer program came to replicating human mental processes, the more we could say that the people in it were “actually” sentient. Had we become gods ourselves? Had we created life? And when the people in the Simulation made their own Simulation (as of course, they were predestined to), would it not give credence to the theory that we ourselves were less likely to be “real” than just one of the many layers of the Simulation?

All of this was hotly debated in the early days, but it turned out to be rubbish. The human mind was not “just a computer.” A simulated person is a person only in the way that a painting of a person “is” a person and no level of complex programming can make a computer “really” feel pain any more than a photograph can feel pain. The mistake was one of anthropomorphization; because the programmed patterns resembled people, we attributed qualities to them that actually arise from human chemistry and biology. 

Free will has also not turned out to be obviously an “illusion.” The Simulation is good with elections, but no amount of machine learning or “extremely big data” (as the phenomenon of trying to plug absolutely everything into it was referred to) could get around the fact that much of what humans do is unpredictable. If the Simulation predicted you would do something, you could just do the opposite, and often you did. Its inaccuracies simply could not be fixed, and the lack of progress over a period of decades has suggested that without recreating physically the universe, no amount of “knowledge” (i.e., representation or correspondence) could turn a painting of a person into a person. 

This is, in some ways, comforting. There is still very serious discussion about the social risks of having developed such a thing. I shudder to think what might have happened if the Simulation had been produced before international socialism, and some ambitious power seeking domination had obtained it—it may have been more dangerous than any nuclear weapon. Some see it as proof that too much knowledge is a bad and harmful thing, and advocated for its destruction. This is a fringe position, however, and the Simulation has been accepted as a feature of life on Earth, with the constant improvement of the Simulation being a worthy research endeavor (nearly 40 percent of new Ph.D. graduates join the project, since it has room for all disciplines). 

Was it wise to build the Simulation? I do not think the question is worth asking, because in retrospect it seems as if it was inevitable. The combining of the physical and social sciences was destined to happen sooner or later, the desire for an integrated model of all knowledge was going to be foundational to the further pursuit of knowledge (for I have not even commented on the many ways in which the Simulation itself has advanced the sciences and humanities by making all known facts instantly accessible and creating the best possible working model of reality). Here it is, we have done what was always going to be within our powers, and thank God we have managed to keep it from wreaking serious damage. It is just one among the earthly “superpowers” we have obtained in a few centuries, from electricity to interstellar travel. All we can hope is that successive generations continue to use it wisely. 

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