We humans are fantasy engines. Evolution, wanting to make us as successful as possible, fills our thoughts with what we wish we were.
Those dreams could be that of a beautiful princess, a savage warrior, or a powerful superhero. These all make sense because they represent pinnacles of reproductive fitness. Everyone wants to be irresistible, or all-powerful, or a super genius. People don’t fantasize about being normal.
You can confirm this by exploring any fantasy you might have or know of.
Want to be a superhero? Why? What would you do? Be honest with yourself and play out your best superhero fantasy. You’ll quickly find that everything giving you a rush of enjoyment is fundamentally primal and child-like.
Do the same for sexual fantasies, romance, being a world conqueror, princesses, or whatever. In virtually every case you will find a base emotion at the foundation, as they’re all simply manifestations of the underlying desire to dominate, control, be worshiped, or be important.
Just as evolution has programmed us to want.
What we can also see is that many of our normal, non-fantasy desires and aspirations take exactly the same form. We want to be attractive and have high salaries and have our names mentioned. These are the real-world versions of those same desires being played out in regular life.
But for many that’s not enough. Whether they are happy with their station or not, millions of people supplement their regular lives with books, movies, and games. And what are these if not ways to tickle those same evolutionary desires for being better than we are?
So we live our normal lives in a nerfed version of these aspirations of greatness. Then we daydream about being the coveted girl, or the heroic man, and then we go home and experience alternate realities where those things do happen.
We are fantasy engines.
The remarkable part of this is that technology will soon make these things possible in nearly all the ways that matter.
When we experience something giving us power or prestige in a way that evolution wants of us, we feel a surge of pleasure and accomplishment, and all of that happens in the brain.
And when we read a good book, or watch a movie, or play a video game—where we put ourselves in the position of the heroine or hero—we are stimulating the same (or at least extremely similar) parts of the brain. Somewhere in the structure of our minds we’re able to know the difference, but if you look closely, memories of what you did 15 years ago and memories of what Harry Potter did are uncomfortably similar.
Technology allows us to supplement our experiences in increasingly richer ways. First it was books. Now it’s 3D movies. And soon it’ll be direct interact with the brain, until eventually we’ll be able to create supplemental experiences that rival and surpass those offered by reality in both duration and enjoyment.
This is simply a matter of transparency into, and control over, the brain.
But let’s go further still into the future—into a world where we can not only create stimulation of the brain, but where we can model and define the laws that govern a given environment.
Given enough horsepower in our modeling hardware and software, we will be able to craft entire worlds, complete with laws of physics, planets, peoples, societies, and…well, everything we know of reality today. The startling thing about this is that we don’t even have to create it in reality; we only have to create it real enough to be experienced by a human through manipulation of their experiences.
So, let’s say they’re on a spaceship traveling to some other world at Warp 7, and they choose to stop on a nearby planet. We could simply make that world for them as they do so, and unfold the environment and people and interactions as they happen.
Companies will sell various forms of this technology as superior alternatives to reality. You’ll be able to create your own universe where you are destined to be the most beautiful queen in the world, worshiped by all, and you’ll play through that adventure from a very young age all the way through.
You’ll pay to go through the best ones, where you tell someone what kind of life you want to have, with the type of look you want, how you want the opposite sex to react to you, and maybe you want to have a red bike as a kid. But the rest is left up to the world designers (who are quite famous like the directors of today) who will build you a storybook experience.
Same for heroes or villains or athletes. You’ll be building your own ideal existence, and then immersing yourself within it. It’s not fundamentally different than what we do now. We’re just doing it in the privacy of our own brains, or in unsatisfactory form at our day jobs.
But the idea is the same: produce experiences in the brain that create the maximum amount of adventure, fulfillment, and sense of accomplishment as determined by the fundamental programming of evolutionary biology.
This also raises the interesting question of whether or not we’re already in one of these. If we think that technology usually moves forward, often accelerating in its pace, then who’s to say that we haven’t already built many of these simulations? And who is to say why this couldn’t be one of them?
In any case, one challenge will be enabling these things without interference in others’ happiness. The other challenge will be realizing that all fantasies being created are based on the primitive nature of the being crafting them. This means that as you remove their deviant and/or primitive natures the rush of pleasure received when satisfying those desires then goes away.
What then will we be left with? What is pleasure if not just the sating of a desire? It would seem that our very identities are tightly wrapped with these strange passions given to us by evolution, and that removing them would in many ways remove us as well.
But I didn’t come here to fret over that. I came to ponder and convey the seeming fact that anything that any human has ever wanted will soon be possible with technology. We’ll be able to be our own masters of a universe—be that kings or maidens or Beyonders or Supermen.
The interesting part is that it won’t really be that different from what we have today. It’ll be our same fantasies from our daydreams and our books and our video games, just brought to the level of our true experiences in the brain.
So whether we’ve actually created new realities and placed people in them according to the parameters of the desired environment, or we simply maintain that perfect illusion for subjects is a distinction without a difference for the one having the experience.
For them, they could actually have their own universe, or they could be a brain in a jar strapped to a computer. Either way it’d feel precisely the same.
We are fantasy engines, forged by evolution to try to feel as powerful and attractive as possible. And technology’s advance is taking us inevitably toward accomplishing just that—giving us all the opportunity to become true superheroes and princesses.
- Here is the simulation argument, by Nick Bostrom.