Preserving external checks

April 5th, 2010

Before delving into the final chapter of Simulation and Its Discontents by Sherry Turkle, I wanted to take a moment to compare her writing to another’s.  Throughout this book, Turkle has been describing the ambivalence or outright hostility toward simulation technology from, of all people, MIT scientists, engineers, and architects.  She also reports that some at MIT embraced the new technology, perhaps without an appropriate dose of caution.

These stories — of a student who failed to include accurate elevation measurements or an architect who failed to double-check the computer-drawn foundation before it was poured — reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness.  A major theme in that story is how the lack of “external checks” can allow the most civilized people to engage in unspeakably savage behavior.  Indeed, one of the characters most admired by Marlow, the narrator, is a man in the Congo region of Africa, who manages to keep his white linen suit pressed and clean in spite of the heat, humidity, lack of proper laundry facilities, or a society that really cares at all about personal appearance.  Marlow surmised the man must have “internal checks.”

It strikes me that the problem of simulation is that it removes the external checks of physical reality.  It seems real, but engineers can design a beautiful protein molecule that couldn’t possibly exist in our world.  In the virtual world, that fact not only escapes notice — it seems irrelevant.

Although Turkle continually recounts stories of failure and potential dangers related to the use of simulation, I don’t believe she is suggesting we cast away the technology.  Instead, we should recognize the power of the tools we use.  We should maintain discipline and put checks in place ahead of time so that the virtual world we experiment in will not eclipse our experience of what is real.