The Real and Virtual Cycles of Evolving Life

Austen Wigglesworth
New York University

Citation information: Wigglesworth, Austen. 2017. The real and virtual cycles of evolving life. The NYU Student Journal of Metapatterns, volume 1, issue 1. Available at:


As technology develops at a seemingly exponential rate, computing is becoming increasingly able to accurately simulate the real world. By looking though the lens of evolutionary dynamics, one can observe the binary between technology and art: as technology develops, art media evolve, and with them, methods of human communication. In this paper, I first extend the binary between art and technology to a binary between reality and virtuality, using science-fiction and speculations on the future of technology as examples. Then I make the argument that reality and virtuality do not exist as a binary, but rather as a gradient.


For this paper, I will be using Tyler Volk’s 1995 book, Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind, as a framework for thinking.1 Chris Buskes, in his 2012 essay, “Darwinism Extended: A Survey of How the Idea of Cultural Evolution Evolved,” argues that human culture is a dynamic system which evolves as a result of cumulative selection processes.2 This idea extends through the many branches of human culture, including technology. Since the beginning of human civilization, and especially since the industrial revolution, the sphere of technology has fueled the way humans are able to interact with each other and their environment. I put this sphere of technology in dialogue with the sphere of art, creating a binary that shows that as technologies evolve, art media develop, and this fuels the human ability to communicate (figure 1). This discussion leads me to another binary, which is significant to both realms of technology and art: the binary between the real world and virtual simulations of the real world.

Figure 1. The binary between art and technology: the evolution of technology fuels the development of art. Source: the author.

I begin my exploration of this real and virtual binary by looking at Philip K. Dick’s 1968 science-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which proposes a world in which pieces of reality are replaced by machines that simulate real life.3 In a moral, empathic debate which blurs the line between human and android, the novel concludes with the sentiment that even if a life is artificial, it can carry the same emotional significance as any living being. Extending this sentiment, I begin to blur the border that exists between the real and virtual binary. Hans Moravec, in a 1998 essay titled “Simulation, Consciousness, Existence,” proposes the idea of simulations on such a large scale that they can not only simulate our entire physical reality, but also consciousness itself.4 With reality and virtuality no longer existing as exclusive realms, the binary between real life and technological simulation can be considered a gradien.5 I will conclude my paper with a discussion of how these technologies can become tools for human growth and the development of understanding.

Cultural Evolution of Art and Technology

The engines of propagation, variation, and selection influence the affairs of humankind. We collectively develop ideas and passions, tools and inventions, arts and languages. Chris Buskes6 argues that human culture is a complex, dynamic system, which is influenced by cumulative selection processes just as species are through biological evolution. Agricultural technology created the space for civilization to grow; the industrial revolution gave form to the structures of the modern world; computing has lead to the globalization of culture. For human culture, however, Buskes notes that “genes do not make the difference, accumulated culture does.”7 Going on to speculate about the future of human culture, he discusses the idea that humans may be reaching a critical point in our cultural and cognitive evolution, fueled by the “seemingly ongoing technological and digital revolution…The construction of this new, virtual niche might have a profound and irreversible influence on the future course of human evolution.”8

The impact of the evolution of technology can be seen immediately in the ways in which humans communicate through art and media. As technology changes, art media are able to access larger and differently diverse audiences than those of the past; now, with the rise of virtuality and computing, communication is changing once again. The printing press leads to the mass publication of literature and periodicals; audio recording allows for the standardized distribution of music; video recording gives birth to the film industry; telecommunications bring television and radio to the masses; computer generated design and the internet add layers to the media that we know and to our ability to socialize. Art, in its many forms, has often been used to simulate pieces of reality, whether though recordings or speculations. As technology evolves, the human ability to communicate begins to change—we become able to bypass physical distance and even time, and with the internet are able to communicate instantaneously with humans across the globe. The evolution of technology fuels the development of art, and this binary is moving towards the simulation of the entirety of the real world.

Simulating a Piece of Reality

To extend this discussion of the binary between technology and art to a discussion of the real and virtual binary, it seems fitting that I use a piece of art, in the form of a novel, which speculates on the future of technology. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?9 opens with a striking binary: in a post-nuclear-war world, pieces of reality are replaced by simulating technologies—in the forms of mechanical animals, kept by humans as pets, and androids, which are mechanized humans that exist nearly indistinguishable from actual human characters. Electric animals can be fitted with disease circuits to make them die like real animals, androids can be implanted with false memories to make even themselves believe to be human. Following the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty-hunter who hunts androids, the novel takes readers on a journey though a moral debate of the significance of simulated life.

At the beginning of the novel, Rick holds an opinion towards the androids one would expect of a person whose job it is to “retire” the machines—he states that, “A humanoid robot is like any other machine; it can fluctuate between being a benefit and a hazard very rapidly. As a benefit it’s not our problem.”10 Cold and calculating, Rick views the androids not as having any sort of life, and simply as machines. In order to prove a being is an android, the bounty hunter must perform an empathy test to measure the “humanness” of the suspect; as the novel progresses, Rick also goes through his own sort of empathy test—he begins to have feelings for the androids, and in his mind the boundaries between the binary of human and android begin to blur. By the time he retires the third android out of the six he is assigned to terminate, this confusion is reaching its peak: he notes that, “Luba Luft [an android] had seemed genuinely alive; it had not worn the aspect of a simulation…So much for the distinction between authentic living humans and humanoid constructs.”11 Rick encounters androids who wish they were human and display empathy like any living person, androids who have been implanted with false memories to think they are human, and humans who act as cruelly as machines that were programmed to exist without empathy. In the midst of his existential crisis, Rick falls in love with an android, responding to her statement that she is not alive with, “Legally you’re not. But really you are.”12 As opposed to his original sentiment that androids were at-best machines, Rick’s human empathy has accepted the androids as living beings. The novel concludes with the sentiment that even if a life is artificial, it can carry the same emotional significance and empathic devotion as a real being, and the purpose behind the life is genuine.

Reality and Virtuality: Binary or Gradient?

Philip K. Dick’s novel creates a disruption in our ability to create a distinct binary between what is real and what is virtual, and makes it seem as though if there is a real emotional significance tied to the simulated object, there is no significant difference. On the Metapatterns Wiki Site, Jeff Bloom outlines the idea of a gradient. Rather than a binary existing as a pair of distinct and often opposite end points, the metapattern of the gradient “refers to continuums and shades of gray rather than rigid binaries of black and white.”13 The difference between reality and virtuality may exist as a gradient. Hans Moravec, in 1998, published an essay titled “Simulation, Consciousness, Existence,”14 in which he scientifically and philosophically debates the idea that our entire existence could already be a simulation. He writes:

Computer simulation, like a telescope for the mind’s eye, extends mental vision beyond the nearby realm of simple mathematical objects to distant worlds, some as complex as physical reality, potentially full of living beings, warts, minds and all. Our own world is among this vista of abstractly conceivable ones, defined by the formal relationships we call physical law as any simulation is defined by its internal rules.15

Moravec takes the idea of virtual simulation to the largest scale: not only can our physical reality be simulated, but our entire living consciousness can be as well. Where, then, does the border between reality and virtual simulation lie?

Perhaps it does not exist at all. We already use our phones and personal technologies in an android-like way—for many people, their cell phones feel like extensions of themselves. Children will often treat inanimate or mechanized objects with the same emotional care they use to treat living beings. This gradient of mixed-reality will become more prominent as technology continues to evolve with human culture. If physical reality is already a simulation, virtuality is entirely real; if this kind of simulation is a technological possibility in the near future, humanity may experience an existential crisis in the vein of Rick Deckard and truly question what it means to be alive. By allowing us to step into distant worlds, and to experience them as if they were real, the evolution of technology is allowing us to cycle between our real and virtual lives and is giving us the agency to understand the role we have in the cosmos.


Although speaking about virtual simulations as if they were real may feel like speculative science-fiction, the dynamic evolution of technology is constantly changing the ways in which we interact with the people and the world around us. In science fiction and popular media, there is a fear that these technologies will lead us down the wrong path. Horror stories of humanity falling into enslavement by machine overlords, or humans abandoning their real lives to stagnate within a virtual world, fed and sustained by automated tubes, or even images of a technological apocalypse creep in the back of our imaginations. If we limit the use of simulations to a tool for exploration and discovery, however, it is my hope that technological simulations of entire realities will allow us to grow, to develop our understanding of life and nature, to find new discoveries, which progress the well-being of us and the world, and to create new possibilities for what it means to be human. We will be able to use the technological ability to simulate reality to step into a distant reality, and by using the human power to observe and learn more about the world we live in, we will ultimately take this knowledge back to our everyday lives.

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