Pixelated phone with space emerging from the screen
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I sit hunched over the edge of my bed, eyes focused intently on a friend of mine who is mid-lecture. He is discussing why renewable energy hasn’t taken hold in America, asserting that, “The wealthy and powerful haven’t yet figured out how they’re going to make money off of it.” A group of my friends have gathered in my dorm room. It’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday and the last thing we want to think about is our impending final exams. Instead, we distract ourselves with conspiracy theories, saving our critical thinking for the papers we will later have to write. It’s almost as if we’re hosting our own episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” I laugh inwardly. The conversation moves forward, and my friend remarks, “Here’s a thought: do you guys think we live in a simulation?”

It’s not the first time any of us in the room have heard this one. The theory that we are living in a simulation, an artificial reality generated by code, is a speculation that pervades our contemporary popular culture. You, the reader, have probably had a very similar conversation to the one I just described. 

To many, this theory is more than just a pseudo-philosophical thought you have in the shower. It is a theory that is explicitly and heavily perpetuated in the media — in everything from our movies to our slang. In today’s world, we describe the highlights of our lives as “Main Character Moments” and refer to people who we refuse to believe exist outside of our lives as “Non-Playable-Characters” (NPCs). This past year “Free Guy,” a movie about a NPC who discovers his reality is nothing more than a video game, explored the line between Artificial Intelligence and human consciousness. Moreover, the many legions of Elon Musk fans are familiar with his discourse on the statistical likelihood that the world we live in is the handiwork of some mysterious intergalactic programmers. As he puts it, the probability that we live in the original and therefore unsimulated reality is “one in billions.”

Admittedly, the simulation theory does offer a solid answer to how our universe came to be. For a concept that we still understand so little about, it becomes much easier to wrap one’s mind around the birth of the universe when it’s explained as the pressing of an “on” button. Unfortunately, so far it seems that no one’s recommended trying to “turn it on and off again.” Nevertheless, the simulation theory is a modern-day creation myth that offers a causal explanation — a reason why we’re here in the first place — that is also relevant to the technology-dependent world we live in. 

However, when I consider the possibility of our reality being simulated, the question I ask isn’t “do we live in a simulation?” but rather “do I live in a simulation?” Much like Guy from “Free Guy,” I would hate to think that I am not the main character of this simulated reality. And while philosophers and physicists alike might seek more empirical methods of getting to the bottom of the cosmic mystery, I as a casual ponderer look to the unnatural in my own life as evidence. The unnatural, of course, being none other than the app we all know and love: TikTok.

In the countless hours I’ve spent scrolling through TikTok, I’ve come across quite a few videos that did not sit right with me. For example, about a month ago I watched a TikTok on my For You page with a caption that read something like: “So you’ve been looking for this video?” And would you believe it — I had indeed been thinking about the content of the TikTok just the other day. 

Admittedly, “this is the video you’re looking for” is a pretty common caption on social media. But in the section of my brain that oversees the conspiracy theories, the idea that TikTok knows what video I’m looking for only builds evidence for the theory that the world is a simulation. How else would an app on my phone know my thoughts or read my mind? It can’t just be a coincidence.  

While it’s fun to imagine that there is a conspiracy behind TikTok’s apparent telepathy, the reality is I have zero proof of a simulation and plenty of proof of the existence of my very real and very human brain, which is simply recognizing a pattern between events in my own life and the things that I observe online. But I do concede that whenever an oddly specific TikTok pops up on my For You page, it feels too accurate to just be chance. So what’s really going on?

Rather than the world being a simulation, the insidious conspiracy is simply that social media’s algorithms are designed to exploit the part of our mind that looks for patterns. It’s not just social media, though. The Google search engine has been known to provide biased search results

Some days it can seem like everything I come across online is engineered to fit my confirmation bias. As Ben Smith writes in the New York Times, TikTok is “shockingly good at reading your preferences and steering you to one of its many ‘sides,’ whether you’re interested in socialism or Excel tips or sex, conservative politics or a specific celebrity.” 

Evidently there does exist a logical explanation for the frightening accuracy of the TikToks that appear on one’s For You page. In a blog post released by TikTok, the company explains how it uses a “recommendation system” to personalize the user’s experience. The post contends that the system recommends content “starting from interests you express as a new user and adjusting for things you indicate you’re not interested in, too.” Behind each new video that pops up on a For You page is a calculation based on prior decisions the user made, like watching a video all the way to the end or following a creator immediately after seeing their content. 

TikTok also acknowledges that the “recommendation system” creates an echo chamber, a result of the algorithm showing users just one “side” of its platform. To mitigate this, the company claims to deliberately intermix new and diverse content amongst the more familiar videos. This perhaps explains why users will often head to the comment section to ask how they arrived at “MLB TikTok,” when more accustomed to videos of the latest dance trend.

Ultimately though, the algorithms that structure the digital realm do have the power to nurture a conspiratorial distrust in the world. I am not scared by the fact that I may live in a simulation so much as I am scared of an algorithm knowing me so well that it perpetually feeds me exclusively the content I want, reaffirming my worldview, my values, my political philosophy until I am truly blinded to reality. And yet, like most people my age, I continue to scroll through TikTok and enjoy the brief distraction that the myriad of jokes and trends provide. 

I want so badly to believe that TikTok is harmless fun. I mean, if the videos that blow up on the app can be taken as an insight into the human population’s collective interests and delights, there may be a beauty in discovering what makes us all smile. Yet when TikTok proudly boasts that no two For You pages are alike, I can’t shake the feeling that social media platforms’ extremely personalized algorithms incentivize an individualized mindset that breeds discourse like “Main Character Moments” and “NPCs.” The same mindset that would let me believe that if the universe was a simulation, I was at the center of it. 

I recently heard someone ask, “What do the billions of zeroes and ones on your computer say about you?” If someone had access to those billions of zeroes and ones they might know what videos to recommend to me or what products to advertise to me, but would they really know me? When I scroll through TikTok, on the surface, I am watching other people’s content. But in the code behind the algorithm, I am just watching myself. Or rather, I’m watching a computer’s best guess at who I am. This is TikTok’s superpower. In TikTok, I exist in a simulation where everything is about me. I guess Elon Musk was right after all.

Statement Columnist Connor O’Leary Herreras can be reached at cqmoh@umich.edu.