Farhad Manjoo: Yes, we are living in a computer simulation

(John Amis | AP) In this Feb. 13, 2020, file photo, Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks to the media in regards to the novel coronavirus, while standing in front of a map marked with areas having reported cases, inside the Emergency Operations Center in Atlanta. In the United States, the nation with the most pandemic deaths, the reporting of vital coronavirus case and testing data is not keeping pace with its speedy spread. Public health officials nationwide lean too heavily on faxes, email and spreadsheets, sluggish and inefficient 20th-century tools.

I was flying recently from Los Angeles to Temuco, the largest city in the Araucanía region of Chile, when I got to thinking — as one inevitably does during globe-spanning flights — about the fallacy of maps.

In a way that is relatively novel in human history, people today are constantly bombarded with abstract representations of geography. Consider the red and blue of the polarized American electorate, the first-person view of a GPS navigator, and the blistering crimsons and oranges of global coronavirus hot spots.

One understands, intellectually, that maps are mere representations, and that they may conceal as much as they illuminate. In “real life,” states are neither red nor blue nor in any other way homogeneous; borders, in most places, do not exist other than in our minds, as the virus has made so tragically obvious. Yet when one experiences the world primarily through the mediated interfaces of our pocketable screens, such distinctions tend to fall away. We live inside this digital world; it’s as real as anything else.

Believe it or not, these insights occurred to me while playing a video game. Microsoft has just released a new version of Flight Simulator, an institution in the gaming world that made its debut in 1982, back in the primordial age of video games. The update was released this week, and Microsoft provided it to some journalists and Flight Sim enthusiasts as a preview version weeks ago. It’s meant to show off the what’s possible in computing — in particular, how the increasing fidelity of virtual worlds might alter how we understand the “real” one.

Of course, I was not actually flying from Los Angeles to Chile; the last time I took a real airplane trip was in January (to make matters worse, it was to Newark, New Jersey). Yet my in-game epiphanies about the misleading nature of maps and borders were quite real, and they are a testament to how unusually deep a digital experience Microsoft has created.

The tech giant has done something uncanny here: It has created a virtual representation of Earth so realistic that nearly all sense of abstraction falls away. What you are left with, instead, is the feeling of actually being there — in which “there” is just about anywhere, from London to Seattle to Patagonia and every point in between.

Everything in Flight Simulator is meant to be as close to the physical Earth as possible — the buildings, the airports, the avionics, the airplanes, and even the weather. If you set the game to fly a Boeing 787 Dreamliner from San Francisco to New York right now, you will experience wind of the same direction and intensity that a pilot taking off from San Francisco would feel right now. You will see other planes in the sky just where they are in the sky right now; you will see houses (maybe even yours) and other landmarks of the same size, scale and color as they exist in wood and steel. And you might, as you flit about the globe, feel the same sense of nervous terror and excitement that you did when traveling someplace new back in the Before Times, when we weren’t all grounded by contagion.

Flight Simulator is, technically, a video game, but little about it is explicitly designed to be fun. Though it does attract an avid community of enthusiasts, playing this game can be quite complicated and expensive. The best and most realistic experience requires an extremely powerful computer and lots of peripherals, which are meant to ape real airplane controllers. The game is currently so big and gangly that you’ll suffer through lengthy load times and more than a few bugs. (Microsoft says it’s aiming to fix these.)

But the new Flight Sim is more than a technical achievement or a marketing demo. I found it to be most compelling as a preview of a new kind of digital experience. In a way that I have never before felt from a piece of software, the game plunged me into sustained meditations on the permeability between the real world and the online one — and it offered me some hope of a more realistic kind of online life in the future.

At the moment, much of what happens online seems to be diverging from what happens offline. The digital world is, as we have seen, lousy with alternative facts and harebrained theories that have little bearing in fact. It often feels like society is being shaped by the algorithmically defined sensibilities of online echo chambers and anonymous bots and trolls rather than the nuanced ideas of living and breathing people.

It’s not just social media that distorts reality. As a lot of parents and kids have recently discovered, online education is an unsatisfactory simulacrum of a real world classroom. Today’s virtual office is convenient, but it’s flat and emotionless. The Zoom audience at the Democratic National Convention? It was gimmicky, I thought, with something crucial lost in the transition from a raucous convention hall to our webcammed living rooms.

The new Flight Sim suggests a different model of digital interaction, even if you have no interest in flying a plane. Until now, we have had to make do with abstract fictions online; from The Sims to Fortnite to the fake friends and tossed-off Likes of Facebook, our understanding of digital life is as a computer-generated realm stretched and shaped merely to approximate reality.

But now, computers can give us something different — a view of the world that is more real than the one we can see outside, a picture that illuminates our understanding of reality rather than hides it under abstractions.

I am not saying that such a view will cure all of society’s problems; but if we want to understand the world as it actually is, isn’t it better to use tools that depict it that way, rather than to delve deeper into the fakery of our present digital dystopia?

Farhad Manjoo | The New York Times (Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.