Liu Cixin's Postulate
There are many ideas about why it is that we find ourselves alone in our stellar neighborhood (and indeed, may find ourselves alone in the galaxy). The phenomenon itself is called the Fermi Paradox, which like all physical paradoxes is a bit of a misnomer. It's more of an oddity, really, given what little we know about the probabilities involved we'd intuitively expect the cosmos to look different than it does.
So: where are the intelligent aliens? Maybe they don't exist. Maybe we can't detect them. Or maybe, Liu Cixin argues, they're being sensible and are hiding.
As far as the imaginable range of technological capabilities goes (even without resorting to yet-undiscovered technology), we are probably not a very advanced civilization. Our culture is still young and always changing, the vast mass of our technology is less than a hundred years old. Assuming there is a lot that could still be discovered and improved over, say, the next thousand years, even the next million years, it seems reasonable to equate our developmental stage to that of a galactic fetus.
Civilizations with the relative capabilities of a fetus, should they find themselves in a dark and dangerous forest, would be well-advised not to make a ruckus - lest they attract the attention of predators. One may even argue that any civilization should stay quietly in hiding, because the relative might of galactic predators is likely to overwhelm anyone regardless of their knowledge or capabilities. It is, afterall, much easier to destroy than it is to build and preserve.
Any technological society who tries to contact other civilizations needs to weigh the benefits against the risks. In this kind of analysis, weighing unknown benefits against unknown risks, it is relatively easy to paint the risks as infinitely large. The main reason for this is that we do not perceive ourselves to be in trouble currently. It seems unreasonable for a welathy person to bet their entire fortune on a coin toss in exchange for an unknown reward, whereas a poor person could be seen as rational for engaging in such a gamble. Earth is not in enough trouble to roll the dice, it seems.
The Dark Forest argument is compelling on several fronts, some rational, some emotional, some ideological. It is an explanation for the emptiness in our skies: everyone is being reasonable and is hiding. It also fits in the current political climate, because it's an appeal to isolationism, and it paints the foreign as hostile by default. It also implies that, as humans, we must all fall in line without exception, or perish. On the cosmic stage, there is no room for exploration or whimsy, no friendship, and even an exchange of culture and ideas is worthless at best (and likely much worse than worthless).
One Coherent Force
Let's examine how such a dark forest would have to work. It is easy to imagine having one or two bad neighbors, but that is not enough in this case. If the dark forest hypothesis applies, it applies on a truly enormous scale - since we do not see any technological signatures even beyond our galaxy. The dark forest would have to extend for billions of light years around us. Without introducing new physics, this seems to rule out one single adversary, because no coherent force can be expected to threaten that much territory over these distances. Even a single large machine empire would not be enough to control such a vast expanse, because over the huge time frames involved, we would certainly expect defects and goal drift to result in local decoherences. Such local "unity failures" would then be detectable.
A Universal Psychological Principle
If one coherent force is not the source of danger in the dark forest, it will have to come down to many independent civilizations projecting the threat. Again, this would have to be a unified effect across the observable universe. Maybe given X civilizations in a volume of space, there are always Y% predators who all work and think the same way: exterminate everyone they see. Technically speaking, the risk of extermination does not even have to be 100%, it would just have to be sufficiently high so nobody risks sticking their neck out.
However, this scenario also has statistical problems. Even granting for a while the assertion that the prevalence of such predators is a universal psychological law that results in a perfectly uniform threat projection across the entire universe, it still doesn't quite work. We would still expect there to be local conflict. We would expect to occasionally see civilizations getting wiped out, no matter how careful they are, because staying hidden as a technological advanced society is thermodynamically improbable over long periods of time. Yet, we see no interstellar warfare. At the very least, the industrial support structures to enable these kinds of clashes should be detectable - maybe not in every case, but so far we see zero interstellar war machines out there.
Even if every single civilization is a predator, and the predators themselves are always careful to avoid detection, we still expect these attempts at stealth to go wrong occasionally. And then, the resulting fireworks should be visible.
A Forest Filled Exclusively with Small Rodents
If there are no interstellar wars, and we can detect no infrastructure in place for such wars, maybe the problem is not that all civilizations are predators, maybe the issue is that all civilizations see themselves as victims. Nobody ever gets hurt, but everyone is unwilling to risk exposure, because there might be predators. This scenario, too, suffers from improbability problems. We'd still expect to detect the occasional stealth civilization, precisely because it is very hard to have a lot of technology without at least giving off a telltale heat signature. A bigger improbability still is the fact that this model again requires every single civilization to be extremely disciplined, with absolutely no room for exceptions or accidents.
For the dark forest to work, every galaxy in our vicinity would have to feature at least one civilization-killing device. One might imagine a couple of ways to build such a device. The issue is, that anything we can come up with leaves a detectable trace. For example, imagine a gigantic hemisphere of mirrors in orbit around a star. A technologically advanced civilization might then direct a focused beam of sunlight anywhere in the galaxy to sterilize any planet.
To make really sure complete sterilization is achieved, we would want to send multiple beams from multiple angles for an extended period of time. Such mirror structures would be detectable, because even if they had a non-reflective mode, they would give off heat and occlude their host stars in particular ways.
This kind of device would certainly work to sterilize Earth. But they would have to know specifically which planet to target. Also this method is decidedly less useful at eradicating civilizations that are themselves spacefaring. The more spread out a civilization is, the harder it is to kill. These downsides render the death ray useless, at least by itself.
In order to supplement their phalanx of death ray emitters, a hostile civilization would need to employ high velocity guided missiles that can strike smaller targets and colonies. Those missiles would need to find all outposts and spaceships, and then correct their course autonomously to both evade countermeasures and to make sure they eradicate every single place that hosts life, which includes technological life with arbitrarily small heat signatures, such as dormant artificial intelligences. If this targeted eradication process went wrong only once, retaliation would be inevitable. This, again, would result in a detectable war. According to the data we have, none of this has happened anywhere.
There could be a sleeping drone in every star system, in every galaxy. It lies waiting on the outskirts, carefully monitoring every planet for signs of technology. Once it discovers a tech signature, it slams a giant asteroid into the planet and goes back to sleep. The problem with this is not that the amount of drones required is very high, because a self-replicating drone would easily find enough material to procreate pretty much everywhere in the universe, except maybe in the most metal-poorest of regions where lifeforms are unlikely to arise.
However, every single one of these drones would have to adhere to the program. We expect such drones to occasionally malfunction or even to mutate and become harmless, and they would likely pass these traits on to their offspring. If there was an inter-drone immune system prompting the original drones to destroy the mutated ones, soon there would be more warfare amongst the death drones than against the burgeoning species they are supposed to control. Furthermore, if such a drone was waiting in our solar system, it would likely have acted by now, since we may already be about to develop defensive options beyond its killing capabilities. If we ever venture beyond Earth, it will probably be too late to kill us with sufficient certainty.
A dark forest scenario remains an intriguing solution for immediate stellar neighborhoods, maybe even larger parts of galaxies. It is easy to imagine one or a few bad actors supressing technological civilizations within their reach. In such a small volume of space, the tech signatures of everyone involved are easier to hide, and probabilistic effects based on mutation and goal drift are surmountable. We'd also expect the time span between detectable events to be sufficiently large to explain why we have never observed any activity, and it's easier to imagine how a small number of potential victim civilizations would keep quiet over longer periods of time without anyone changing their minds about it.
However, as a large-scale solution to the Fermi Paradox, the dark forest falls down, and hard. Judged as a solution for the entirety of the observable universe, the dark forest is an exceptionally weak proposition that depends on several key factors having highly improbable and spacially uniform values. I'm tempted to chalk this up to the kind of intellectual handwaving that always occurs when a model is ideologically convenient. To be fair, I don't believe anyone is completely immune to such biases.
In final consideration, the hypothesis still has a place as a piece of the puzzle. It seems reasonable that there is not one single solution to the Fermi "Paradox", it is rather a combination of many factors, almost all of which drive the probability of encountering another civilization downwards.
Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds
(With that title I had originally hoped this would be about his Dark Forest hypothesis, but alas)
From this New Yorker article about the geopolitical stance of the most successful science fiction writer of our time:
When I brought up the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs - around a million are now in reeducation camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang - he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”
The problem is that he's not wrong, and I really do see this as a massive problem, he wouldn't even be wrong if the word "Chinese" would be replaced by most Western demonyms. It's a straight-forward, honest, and well-reasoned position. It's also despotic and dystopian.
The issue I see for the future of the entire industrialized world is that this particular brand of consumerized dictatorship is based on the lessons of hundreds of years of failed regimes, and in an evolutionary effect it seems "we" have now come up with a system that is both stable and totalitarian. It's an emerging system for the whole world, and the fact that no human on the entire planet can escape it without losing access to everything they care about, only enhances its stability.
This system is precisely tuned to offer us just enough so we do not mind what's being taken away. I'm personally no exception to this: I want a high standard of life and security as well. I want the luxuries afforded by consumer electronics and high technology. Through technology and international connectivity, I have more options for meaningful social interactions than ever before. The prospect of losing access to any of that if I ever act up against the system is a powerful mechanism that keeps me in line. Not that I ever brush up against the boundaries, mind you, because the system is well designed to appeal to my need for perceived autonomy: as long as I keep my head down, I'll be left alone.
Right now, in the West, the price of reasonable dissent is not very high. Yet. But you can already feel the thousands of little mechanisms working to discourage it. When I became active in protesting against the EU copyright reform, my first attempt at being political in decades, the game was so thoroughly rigged that I'll probably refrain from attempting to change the official narrative in the foreseeable future. Had protesting been actively discouraged by the government, I'm a bit ashamed to admit, I would probably not have shown up at all.
I'm struck by our collective inability to come up with a good alternative to this system. It seems to me this system is evolving on its own, and that development is synchronous world-wide. Sure, it's appealing to the powerful, who actively push it. But that's not what's driving it. I suspect it's the collective human spirit.
Discord is eating the (chat) world, in the same way that Facebook has eaten social blogging, and Google has eaten email.
I'm running a small site where people can play pen&paper-style roleplaying games together in small groups, featuring persistent channels and a wiki for each channel, in addition to the core dice rolling and chat functions (https://rolz.org for anyone who's curious). The site has survived the stunningly well-funded and abundantly feature-rich Roll20.net, because it's non-commercial and doesn't require user accounts. However, since Discord appeared on the scene, traffic has been declining massively and steadily.
Where we once had hundreds of groups online at a given time, it's now usually in the low 20s. At first, people kept asking for a Discord-bot version, and at least one user made one using the public API, and now Discord is pretty much the only game in town.
Meanwhile IRC is also pretty much dead, as many people have noticed in this thread. I still hang out in the #ludumdare IRC channel, but over the last two years that community has dwindled from hundreds of users during the Compo to maybe ten, and from dozens of users during the rest of the time to maybe 2 or 3 being online per day. While the LD Discord has replaced the IRC channel, it is also a lot less vibrant and social. It's now more a loose collection of mildly disinterested people who sometimes hang out in the same chat room, mostly unconcerned with each other. I wonder how symptomatic that is.
General Interference with Organizations and Production
Organizations and Conferences
- Insist on doing everything through "channels". Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
- Make "speeches". Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate comments.
- When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration". Attempt to make the committees as large as possible - never less than five.
- Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
- Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
- Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of advisability of that decision.
- Advocate "caution". Be "reasonable" and urge your fellow conferees to be "reasonable" and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
- Be worried about the propriety of any decision - raise the question of whether such action as contemplates lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.
- In meetings and general coordination, promote and lock in sub-optimal choices.
Managers and Supervisors
- Demand written order, policies, and "best practices".
- "Misunderstand" orders. Ask endless questions or engage in long correspondence about such orders. Quibble over them when you can.
- Do everything possible to delay the delivery of orders Even though parts of an order may be ready beforehand, don't deliver it until it is completely ready.
- Don't order new working materials until your current stocks have been virtually exhausted, so that the slightest delay in filling your order will mean a shutdown.
- Order high quality materials which are hard to get. If you don't get them argue about it. Warn that inferior materials will mean inferior work.
- In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that the important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers or poor machines.
- Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products. Send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not visible to the naked eye.
- When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.
- To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
- Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
- Multiply paperwork in plausible ways. Start duplicate files.
- Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.
- Apply all regulations to the last letter.
- In your function as a supervisor, act arbitrary and capricious. When addressing conflicts between your subordinates, always take the side of the one who was in the wrong.
- Towards your own supervisor, act boisterous and demand scope increases for your area whenever possible.
- To lower morale, take credit other people's work and blame productive colleagues for every mishap (real or imaginary).
- Make mistakes in quantities of material when you are copying orders. Confuse similar names. Use wrong addresses.
- Prolong correspondence with government bureaus.
- Attract undue regulatory or legal attention whenever possible.
- Misfile essential documents.
- Keep unnecessary paper copies of everything and insist on proper filing/archiving.
- Tell important callers the boss is busy or out of the office.
- Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.
- Misuse computer equipment and pretend not to understand as many things as possible without attracting undue attention to yourself.
- Open many tickets for IT and office equipment "problems".
- Work slowly. Think out ways to increase the number of movements necessary on your job.
- Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can. When you go to the lavatory, spend a longer time there than necessary. Forget tools so that you will have to go back after them.
- Even if you understand the language, pretend not to understand instructions in a foreign tongue.
- Pretend that instructions are hard to understand, and ask to have them repeated more than once. Pretend that you are particularly anxious to do your work, and pester the foreman with unnecessary questions.
- Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.
- Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.
- Snarl up administration in every possible way. Fill out forms illegibly so that they have to be done over. Make mistakes or omit requested information in forms.
- If possible, join or help organize a group for presenting employee problems to the management. See that the procedures adopted are as inconvenient as possible for the management, involving the presence of a large number of employees at each presentation, entailing more than one meeting for each grievance, bringing up problems which are largely imaginary, and so on.
- Mix good parts with unusable scrap and rejected parts.
General Devices for Lowering Morale and Creating Confusion
- Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.
- Report imaginary spies or dangers to the police.
- Act stupid.
- Be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible without getting yourself into trouble.
- Misunderstand all sorts of regulations concerning such matters as rationing, transportation, traffic regulations.
- Complain against replacement materials.
- In public treat enemy affiliates coldly.
- Stop all conversation when enemy affiliates enter a cafe or other location.
- Cry and sob hysterically at every occasion, especially when confronted by government clerks.
- Do not cooperate in salvage or recycling schemes.
- Make mistakes in routing so that information and materials will be send to the wrong place in the company.
After getting kicked off Youtube, the Blender foundation is now experimenting with hosting their own videos on a peer-to-peer network. The reason for the ban seems to be that Blender didn't enable ads on their content, so hosting their content for "free" was a money-losing proposition for Youtube. While it is debatable whether Youtube actually loses money by hosting popular videos ad free (considering how they still show ads on the video page itself, profit from the network effect and viewer retention that comes with the video, and are able to inject heavily monetized videos into the viewer's follow-up queue) or whether Youtube should maybe just force ads on every creator instead of just banning their channel out of the blue one day, none of these address the root problem.
The obvious answer to cancerous growths like Youtube are decentralized platforms - software and communication protocols that put users in control over publishing and consuming their own content. This idea is what the internet was initially built on. Email is (in theory) still a decentralized solution for sending messages. The original concept of the web itself is nothing if not decentralized, a collection of independent servers sending content to users and to each other over an agnostic network. However, these core design assumptions have since been eroded by technological and political realities. Networks are no longer agnostic. To even operate a public server, you need the support of several infrastructure companies. Operating a website is fraught with legal liabilities and potentially puts you in the crosshair of powerful adversaries both in your own jurisdiction as well as internationally.
Most crucially, just operating a web site is not enough. You need users to consume and interact with your content or platform. In the olden days, users came to and stayed on websites due to word of mouth, a holdover from the BBS days. Then came search engines, they were the first sign of big gate keepers entering the arena to control what users can and cannot see online. In modern times, search engines are also no longer the primary way to publish and consume content. Instead, we are using completely integrated and monolithic platforms. They host our content, and decide who sees it.
Given the obvious conflicts of interest arising from running these monoplatforms, it is no surprise that content creators and consumers are firmly at the very bottom of this new hierarchy that includes media conglomerates, monoplatform providers, their associated megacorp customers, and multiple governments. They have no say in how these platforms work, and they have no real agency to migrate away either.
While it is easy to see why the decentralized facilities of the web degenerated and consolidated over time, it may be less obvious why the modern attempts at decentralized content distribution are not taking off. Users may be latently dissatisfied, even temporarily outraged at some acute injustice, but no change in online behavior will likely occur.
Decentralized platforms exist, but they tend to be walled gardens themselves. Climbing those walls takes significant effort and technical expertise, and what lies on the other side is bound to disappoint: a wasteland bare of life and content at best, a hellscape frequented by violent extremists and criminals at worst.
Yet, the most pressing deficiency of free platforms and federated sites lies elsewhere. The core value proposition which the monoplatforms offer is missing: discoverability. There is no real alternative to the thoroughly optimized attention and suggestion algorithms that are driving the monoplatforms in a decentralized world. Part of the problem lies in how platforms like Youtube and Facebook tune their software: with unimaginable amounts of behavioral data on their users. No federated platform or small site can replicate that, even in principle.
When you're on Blender's new Peertube site, you have reached a dead end. There are no suggested links, no gentle reminders about other content you have missed this week, no engagement signals from your friends or like-minded peers. You might as well have clicked on a blog article. Peertube solves the problem of hosting the content very well, but it does not solve the nagging issue of a deficient user experience.
Algorithmically, this is an unsolved problem. A naive approach would be to alleviate the dead end issue by featuring content liked by the content creator you are currently visiting, and some decentralized sites do that. However, clout is a hierarchical phenomenon that prevents this from being useful. Sites like Blender are at the top of the clout pyramid and are unlikely to feature smaller channels, whereas smaller channels are very likely to feature larger ones. The graph network arising from this goes in one direction only and tends to have these dead ends. They may be highly relevant dead ends, but still. However, if you allow featuring links to travel down the graph, you suddenly have a big spam problem on your hands (one so big it could potentially make your network completely useless over night).
The more free a platform is, the easier it is for bad actors to manipulate. Even networks weighted on trust and clout mechanisms cannot make this problem going away. Decentralized platforms are pinned between a rock and a hard place, between being barren dead end wastelands and traumatizing hellscapes consisting entirely of shitposts.
Personal agents run by users, tasked with looking at and filtering content, AI systems with only one allegiance (to the actual user) seem like they would be a mandatory component for a solution, but it is less obvious how to make such a thing accessible or even desirable to an apathetic end user.
A Runaway Scenario
This is an issue the internet at large has. It is not only due to Youtube and its status in the web world, it is a sickness that lies at the core of Facebook, the greater Google, and all the other tech/media giants. It is a disease that is spread daily by all internet users, a contagion continuously hardened and improved upon collectively by an incidentally symbiotic ecosystem of legislation, policy, megacorp lobbyism, and pragmatic user behavior.
The internet is caught in a feedback loop that eliminates smaller non-corporate sites and protocols in favor of large quasi-monopolistic platforms who own and control all the content. It seems ironic that free user choice has been a significantly contributing factor to this phenomenon: the more people use a platform, the greater the value proposition of using that platform becomes. This effect is by no means limited to actual social networks. The data gathered by large platforms on user behavior, as well as the voluntary production of free content for those platforms play a critical role in crafting user experiences that compel even if you are not personally linked to the other users. User behavior in of itself, and secondary effects due to platform mechanisms designed to maximize the ability to advertise to these users, both continue to consolidate the grasp of megacorporations over the global information network.
At the same time, lawmakers are working hard on eliminating independent sites and restricting user-generated content. There are two constituencies driving these legislative endeavors. First, post-911 terrorism hysteria, aided by a general paranoia about crime and political unrest, has reached a point of societal habitualization where complete content control is now merely a self-evident and mostly unchallenged goal we strive towards. Much like the speed of light, this goal can never actually be reached, but we can certainly expend an ever-increasing amount of our civilization's energy to get arbitrarily close to it. The second constituency driving direct and indirect government support for big monoplatforms is the content industry, which currently enjoys a privileged position in many western countries: placed on a special rung above ordinary companies and citizens, they are in a position to deputize the legal system with increasing scope. As such, the amount of power this industry wields not only moves legislature to further increase that power over time, but also has a direct effect on the viability of small platforms and can to a large extent dictate the content policies of big platforms.
In cybernetics, a positive feedback loop is a reaction that amplifies itself going forward, a runaway effect that occurs when balancing factors are no longer able to bring the system back into homeostasis. There is not only one positive feedback loop currently driving large monoplatform adoption and small site atrophy, it is a whole network of runaway effects all going in the same direction.
When this reaction is complete, the internet and society at large will be substantially changed. It is not difficult to see how far this change has already progressed. At the same time it is very unclear what a workable alternative to this end state would look like, but the time to try altering this outcome is rapidly running out.
Tech billionaires are still looking for scientists to help them break out of the computer simulation that they suppose is our world. It’s difficult to look at this world view without taking the personal perspective of the believer into account, but let’s examine these claims on their own merits first.
Bostrom's Simulation Argument
Nick Bostrom is one of the first academics to popularize the idea of reality being faked with his classical simulation argument based on (his perception of) probability factors. His hypothesis is built on the idea that at least one of following assertions most likely describes the truth:
1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;
2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero
3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one
Critiques of Bostrom's Assertions
We presently do not have enough information to make any assumptions about the number or nature of human-level civilizations. Simulating ancestors seems like a very special case and seems like a quite unique motivation to run a simulation that contains self-aware entities. Other motivations to create or re-create human entities in silico have since been put forward, but are just as speculative and just as oddly specific, including the possibility of simulation as a punitive measure (Roko's Basilisk).
The final assertion about the fraction of all civilizations "with our kind of experiences" living in a simulation being close to one is largely based on the reasoning that the number of physically existing civilizations is vanishingly small compared to the number of possible simulated civilizations, ergo it should follow that we are probably a part of the majority. In reality, there is no data available that allows a viable statistical assertion about the relative numbers of such civilizations to begin with, nor does a statistical pseudo-anthropic argument necessarily yield facts about our universe.
The Bostrom scenario contains a number of implicit assumptions about the nature of a possible simulation, most notably that reality is being simulated for the sole benefit of humans, as opposed to a more generally simulated universal sandbox.
Popular Variants and Models
It's a Not a Single Hypothesis - It's a Spectrum
When the simulation argument is being discussed in public, the first point of confusion arises from the fact that there is no single coherent simulation argument in the first place. Whether by design or by accident, this is a subject where each participant in a discussion (as well as every member of the audience) erroneously assumes the topic revolves around their personal variant of the scenario. One might think this would be the first issue to address, or even that the nature of these differing personal visions might constitute the bulk of the discussion itself, but that assumption would be mistaken.
The possibility spectrum of potential simulated realities is mainly situated between two iconic extremes, which as a shorthand I will call The Matrix, and the Boulder Field, respectively. Between those two, and even beyond, there exists a range of possibilities but in my opinion they are culturally well-supported shortcut metaphors that reflect current thinking.
Possibility 0: The Null Hypothesis
As there is currently neither experimental nor observational evidence in support of any flavor of a simulation scenario, the default assumption should be that we are not inhabiting a simulation. Even if one were to consider the observation that the universe does share information-theoretical characteristics with certain types of computing systems, it still does not follow that the processes making up the workings of our universe have been willfully constructed by an intelligence. At the time of writing this, there is no known viable experimental approach to test any variant or aspect of this hypothesis.
Possibility 1: The Matrix
The Matrix flavor of simulated reality is unabashedly anthropocentric: in a supposed “real world”, we humans are either biological entities literally entombed in storage vats, or we are other beings with a different physiology which are nevertheless still imprisoned in a reality that is being simulated entirely for the purpose of containing us. In this scenario the rest of the universe doesn’t really exist - it’s just an illusion being projected into our minds on demand, in an effort to show us a plausible version of the world. The number of people that are actually “real” in this scenario could potentially be as low as one - the ultimate solipsist’s fantasy.
While the supposed Matrix’ machinery does operate on certain arbitrary rules, it is characterized primarily by its superficiality and prison-like character. The prisoners themselves could potentially be freed from this ruleset once they were to overcome their systemic conditioning, opening the possibility of an actual physical escape from the prison if they could somehow manage to break free from the machine sarcophagus containing their bodies.
Possibility 2: The Boulder Field
The Boulder Field metaphor on the other hand is an entirely different scenario, iconically and accurately depicted in an XKCD comic: the universe is a big array of data, being acted upon by a process that operates rigorously and tirelessly on fixed rules. This is a fundamentally uncaring process, and even if it were being operated by a sentient being, it might not even be aware of us living in the data.
If you are a Stephen Wolfram fan, you might envision this universe as a collection of cellular automata. Scientifically, there is no discernable difference between this simulation and the universe as we know it, and it’s typically only labeled a simulation depending on whether we consider the engine that processes this data a “computer” or not.
Living in a Boulder Field simulation means you are not a special being for whose benefit illusions are created; you are instead an entity that exists entirely and exclusively in the context of the simulated universe. With both your body and your mind completely residing inside this universal construct, you are not fundamentally different from an animal or any other natural process, as far as the computer doing the simulation is concerned. The Boulder Field is also substantially different from the Matrix in that neither you, nor your species, nor the world you live on, was likely put there by anyone intentionally. The concept of “breaking out” from this kind of simulated universe is meaningless, because in most variations of this scenario there is no external world where you could continue to exist. Our concepts of time and space would not necessarily have a workable analogue in the “real” world that houses our simulated universe.
Considering these two iconic extremes, it is apparent which one more closely resembles our observable universe. The Boulder Field is for all intents and purposes identical to the world we live in, to the point where it becomes moot to argue whether it counts as a simulation or not. It is not clear at this point if an experiment or observation could be devised - even in principle - to test whether the Boulder Field variant actually describes our universe.
The Boulder Field is unlikely to capture anyone’s fascination. If you are living in the Boulder Field, your best bet is to continue on the path of science and continue to discover ways to exploit the laws of nature in your favor. The Boulder Field commands no distinct cause of action. There may be a day when we discover some phenomenon that uncovers a basic fabric of reality behind our universe, but right now all we can do is blindly poke at nature and observe. One might consider high energy particle physics to be one of those frontiers where a vague glimpse at an underlying fabric is possible in principle, but so far no deviation from the expectations of the Standard Model have been found.
The Matrix on the other hand, is clearly the front runner as far as public imagination is concerned, because it deals with familiar and popularized fictional concepts. However, by virtue of its fakeness and the friction that results from the inhabitants having transcendental bodies, any Matrix-style system is constantly at odds with the universe as it is being observed by science. While it seems at least conceivable to keep the illusion up indefinitely, it is an uphill battle just waiting to be lost in an instant if the prisoner ever stages a successful exploit. One might argue that “they” should have given us a far simpler reality to experience if “they” really wanted to keep the illusion up in the long term, but such arguments are unlikely to dissuade a dedicated believer.
The Matrix concept would seem to bring with it an escalating amount of engineering difficulties that should hint at its improbability, yet it appears drastically more attractive to people because it does harmonize well with popular fiction culture. Apart from an intellectually incoherent series of movies detailing the setting, this conceit has other desirable characteristics making it a great mythology that moulds perfectly into the slots historically reserved for religious and spiritual thinking.
Motivations for a Matrix Belief
At this point one must consider the motivations of the believers as they relate to the nature of the simulation they are postulating. The Matrix appeals to people from all walks of life:
For the population at large, the Matrix features the prospect of meaningful resistance against a system designed to keep its denizens small for nefarious purposes, closely mirroring the experience of living in the modern world.
To the rich, successful person, the Matrix represents a validation of their perceived destiny and superiority. Having overcome all of the basic problems a contemporary human existence on Earth brings with it, a successful person will likely perceive breaking out of - or at least playing a fateful role inside - the Matrix to be the logical next-level achievement to target, an appropriate quest for a person who by virtue of inherent greatness can never fail, and who after having mastered this world must now extend their dominance to the next one.
The Matrix is the perfect religion for a wide range of human life experiences, and being a trope that is already saturated in contemporary culture makes it easy to get into. The bad news is you are living in a simulated prison, the good news is your kind is the most important component of the universe - and if you are a true leader, you can one day escape into the real world to take on your rightful place amongst the gods. Until then, it is all just a stage show designed for your consumption.
If the reasoning detailed above holds up, the Matrix is likely closer to what most people imagine a simulated reality to be. The call for scientists to come up with a way to break out only makes sense in the Matrix. By comparison, proving the existence of the Boulder Field would likely not yield a socially meaningful result. Proving the existence of the Matrix on the other hand would legitimize a number of ideologies we came up with over the centuries; these are ancient notions rooted in the human psyche's search for external meaning, explanation, and validation - but they are fundamentally at odds with our scientific understanding of the universe.
In closing, the Simulation Argument appears to be largely political in nature, or to the extent it is philosophical, that philosophy seems tainted by wishful thinking and projection of current social and religious ideas onto the supposed nature of the universe. In public discourse, it is deemed acceptable to substitute factual models and data with constructs that carry a higher perceived ideological resonance. In this climate, the Matrix variant of the hypothesis features a high degree of similarity to current social issues by not only providing a mythological framework for the nature of our disempowering existential experiences, but also offering the promise of an escape from oppressive mundanity that is equally as fictitious. To postulate the Matrix as a workable model of physical reality, then, should ultimately be judged as a Lysenkoist endeavor on a truly cosmic scale.