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The tsunami in Japan: Reality versus simulation

In an age when sophisticated new technologies enable engineers, architects, medical doctors, physicists and molecular biologists to simulate virtually everything that their respective disciplines pertain to, from building designs to protein molecules, the Japanese tsunami comes as a cruel reminder that there is, after all, something real out there. And this “something” sometimes behaves in a manner that demonstrates in no uncertain terms its intransigence in the face of continued attempts to reduce it to just another object for manipulation on a computer screen.

Almost 10 years ago, inhabitants of Manhattan, New York, looked on in disbelief when the two giant towers of the World Trade Centre imploded, one after the other, in an eerie resemblance of the scene in the film Independence Day, where the Empire State building collapses under the onslaught of a hostile alien attack. The difference was, of course, that the WTC collapse was real, and no matter how many times it was replayed on television, “Ground Zero” was there for everyone to see in case they did not believe the actuality of the event. It dealt a blow to Baudrillard’s contention, that we live in an age of “hyperreality”, of “simulacra” which have taken the place of the real.

Small wonder, therefore, that there is something almost unreal about seeing the images of the wall of water flattening everything in its way on the North-East coast of Japan, almost as if one expects it to obey the logic of simulation, instead of the logic of reality. In the 1930s people ran out into the streets of New York in response to the realistic radio-dramatiSation of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, fully expecting to see alien ships in the streets. But it was only a simulation, at a time when the latter — simulation — was not yet pervasive in society. By contrast, with 9/11 and the recent tsunami, what people saw on television screens resembled the all-too-familiar simulation-images of scenes of destruction encountered in cinema and television, and yet, it turned out to be terrifyingly real.

These thoughts are cast into perspective by Sherry Turkle’s work on simulation in her book, Simulation and its Discontents (2009). She contrasts an older generation’s skepticism about simulation and its promises, given their attachment to a less obviously mediated contact with the materials and objects of their fields of inquiry in architecture and physics, with the infatuation, on the part of the younger generation, with simulation in all its guises. The computer was viewed by many of the older generation as a tool which, despite some useful computing functions, would lead students and scientists alike away from reality, to their detriment. Today, by contrast, architecture students find it hard to imagine how skyscrapers could have been designed in the 1950s without the use of a computer and the appropriate design software. Her research has led her to the point where she issues a warning, however (pg 7): “Immersed in simulation, we feel exhilarated by possibility. We speak of Bilbao [probably a reference to Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, sometimes called the most complex building ever designed, with the help of computer-simulation], of emerging cancer therapies, of the simulations that may help us address global climate change. But immersed in simulation, we are also vulnerable. Sometimes it can be hard to remember all that lies beyond it, or even acknowledge that everything is not captured in it. An older generation fears that younger scientists, engineers, and designers are ‘drunk with code’. A younger generation scrambles to capture their mentors’ tacit knowledge of buildings, bodies, and bombs. From both sides of a generational divide, there is anxiety that in simulation, something important slips away.”

The almost unimaginably destructive power of the tsunami that followed in the wake of a major earthquake off the coast of Japan is, just like 9/11 before it, a very concrete reminder that it is indeed the case that something “slips away” in simulation, and that this “something” has very real effects on our embodied selves. No matter how much the smoothness of a simulated world may seduce one — for example the virtual world so enticingly depicted in the online game World of Warcraft — it should not have the effect of making one ignore the claims of the gritty, real world. By all accounts, however, this is precisely what occurs in the case of many of the aficionados of WoW, who become so enamoured, or addicted, to the game that they tend to ignore the demands of the real world to the point of losing their jobs and families.

It is not difficult to understand why this happens. Turkle rephrases the architect, Louis Kahn’s famous question, “What does a brick want?” to read: “What does simulation want?” and answers that, at one level, it wants immersion, which is a prerequisite for actualising its full potential. The downside of this is, as one can easily gather from the enthusiasm of students and practitioners of various stripes, that it is easy to fall in love with it, and difficult to take sufficient critical distance from it to be able to doubt it. As Turkle observes (pg. 7-8): “Simulation makes itself easy to love and difficult to doubt. It translates the concrete materials of science, engineering, and design into compelling virtual objects that engage the body as well as the mind … Over time, it has become clear that this ‘remediation’, the move from physical to virtual manipulation, opens new possibilities for research, learning, and design creativity. It has also become clear that it can tempt its users into a lack of fealty to the real … The more powerful our tools become, the harder it is to imagine the world without them.”

And, one might add, the harder it is to deal with the shape and the aftermath of events that issue from forces that humanity cannot control. Perhaps because advanced technology has enabled humans to simulate and manipulate virtual entities, the sight of houses, cars and boats being swept away by an irresistible mass of water is even more disturbing than it might have been in the absence of such technology. In the process, however, the imagination is recalibrated, as it were, to regain a purchase on a reality that has become less compelling of late, as a result of the pervasiveness of simulation.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.