Simulacra or Surrogates?

Facebook reminds me of my commitments. I noticed there are a few birthdays today, I haven’t seen many of them in years, but I still must say Happy Birthday and leave a string of cake emoji’s. There are some other prompts too; it has been 5 years since I went to place X with person Y, I should share this memory. Somebody else has just downloaded the messenger app, Facebook reminds me this is a person I know and should send them a message. I barely recognise them, they were a friend at school but they look different now.

Off the top of my head I can remember about 5 birthdays, there are about 15 birthdays that I know the month but not the exact day. In the offline world it is my knowledge that creates a commitment. I know people’s birthday, who they are, what they look like. I might also know what type of cake or present they will enjoy. It is my knowledge of the person that creates a commitment. When I don’t have that knowledge, Facebook will step in, and create that commitment for me. Is that the same type of commitment?

Being able to ‘step in and create a commitment’ is very power. I had a letter from my MP, a supposedly handwritten note from her election campaign with a picture and a signature and everything. I think this was also to remind me that we have a commitment, all I really know is somewhere their office has got data on my address and name. Interestingly I had a ‘suggested post’ on Facebook from the other main candidate – someone I used to go to gigs with a long time ago! Facebook has used my data to try and remind me I have a commitment to him too.

Saying “Happy Birthday” on Facebook to people I haven’t seen in 18 years is a commitment generated by the data that Facebook has, otherwise I’d have no idea. A military friend (as in Facebook friend, or are they a real friend? I can’t remember) received this sponsored post:


Facebook reminds them of their commitment to armed forces! Funnily enough I didn’t get that sponsored message.

A (Real!) friend recently tried to describe a simulacrum to me. I still haven’t really grasped the concept yet, but I gather is that a lot of my favourite sci-fi authors wrote great books around the concept while taking acid. Especially a simulacrum is a imitation of a person or thing but it is not quite the original, Philip K Dicks books seem to explore this a lot. Do androids dream of electric sheep is the first book that comes to mind, but also Man in the high tower.

From what I can gather from some of the ideas behind simulacrum is there are different ways it can be represented – a basic reflection of what is real, a pervasion of what is real, a pretence or something that bears no relation. They become a truth in their own right, making it difficult to distinguish reality from the simulation. Is this commitment that Facebook says is important really important to me or is it in the interest of organisations that have my data to make them seem important. Or perhaps some ‘data-driven commitments’ weren’t important but should be? Perhaps they are commitments generated by a surrogate life that knows better? Who knows?

“Well, I’ll tell you,” he said. “This whole damn historicity business is nonsense. Those Japs are bats. I’ll prove it.” Getting up, he hurried into his study, returned at once with two cigarette lighters which he set down on the coffee table. “Look at these. Look the same, don’t they? Well, listen. One has historicity in it.” He grinned at her. “Pick them up. Go ahead. One’s worth, oh, maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collectors’ market.”

The girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them.

“Don’t you feel it?” he kidded her. “The historicity?”

She said, “What is ‘historicity’?”

“When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?” He nudged her. “You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”

“Gee,” the girl said, awed. “Is that really true? That he had one of those on him that day?”

“Sure. And I know which it is. You see my point. It’s all a big racket; they’re playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it’s the same as if it hadn’t, unless you know. It’s in here.” He tapped his head. “In the mind, not the gun. I used to be a collector. In fact, that’s how I got into this business. I collected stamps. Early British colonies.”

The girl now stood at the window, her arms folded, gazing out at the lights of downtown San Francisco. “My mother and dad used to say we wouldn’t have lost the war if he had lived,” she said.

“Okay,” Wyndam-Matson went on. “Now suppose say last year the Canadian Government or somebody, anybody, finds the plates from which some old stamp was printed. And the ink. And a supply of—”

“I don’t believe either of those two lighters belonged to Franklin Roosevelt,” the girl said.

Wyndam-Matson giggled. “That’s my point! I’d have to prove it to you with some sort of document. A paper of authenticity. And so it’s all a fake, a mass delusion. The paper proves its worth, not the object itself!”

“Show me the paper.”

“Sure.” Hopping up, he made his way back into the study. From the wall he took the Smithsonian Institution’s framed certificate; the paper and the lighter had cost him a fortune, but they were worth it—because they enabled him to prove that he was right, that the word “fake” meant nothing really, since the word “authentic” meant nothing really.

“A Colt .44 is a Colt .44,” he called to the girl as he hurried back into the living room. “It has to do with bore and design, not when it was made. It has to do with—”

She held out her hand. He gave her the document.

“So it is genuine,” she said finally.

“Yes. This one.” He picked up the lighter with the long scratch across its side.

-Philp K Dick, Man in the high castle