Arjen Mulder 1 Jan 1999

Trancemedia: from Simulation to Emulation

Buying an Opel Kadet and converting it into a Saab, a Mini Cooper, an Alfa Romeo Guiletta Sprint Veloce, a daf truck, a city bus, a Smart and a Trabant, but also into a child's scooter, a tricycle, a Solex, a Harley Davidson, a moped and a mountain bike. Figuring out which faith you were brought up with, in which belief system you developed your consciousness, and then embracing Islam and Buddhism too, and animism, the mother goddess, the Free Presbyterian Church and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, the Pentacostals, winti, voodoo, Greek Orthodox, candomblé. That is emulation. You buy a generic pc and run on it not only all preceding, existing and future programs for pcs, but also all versions of Apple and Atari with their specific possibilities, everything for PlayStation, Nintendo, Vectrex, Gameboy, arcade and fruit machine of yesterday and today: all hardware from all times, and what it was, is and will be capable of.


The entire digital universe consists of ones and zeros, and it can therefore be conjured up in its entirety on a single computer. The reason different types of hardware exist is because the economic boundaries between the different computer companies were translated into the material carriers. Emulation is translating those chance digital segments back into one universal code that runs on any hardware. Given: you possess a historically developed nationality, culture, package of genes - with that, you possess the only necessary means of taking in all cultures, all nationalities and the total gene pool, from virus and amoeba to primate and whale and the whole plant kingdom besides. It's not multiculture but metaculture. It's downloading consciousness. If you know one language, you can learn a second, a third, and the more you learn, the more relaxed you are. The bigger your memory. What was destiny becomes appreciation. You have no free choice in who you are at the first moment of self-awareness, but you have it in who you become, and where. There is no excuse any more for any sort of provincialism, not even cosmic provincialism: this is Earth, our place to be the universe. Act accordingly.


The content of a new medium is the previous medium, so goes one of Marshall McLuhan's aphorisms of the 1960s. Yet new media derive their right of existence and power of persuasion from the fact that they seem to make possible a more direct perception and experience of the extramedial reality than all previous technological equipment. As soon as a new medium comes on the market, it exposes its predecessor as just-a-medium, while itself it is more than that, namely an open window on the world outside. Photography is nice, but film moves. Film is nice, but television is live. Television is nice, but the Web is interactive. Every new medium attempts to deny itself as medium and at the same time show up all other media as medium and nothing but medium. Every new medium wants to be transparent, invisible, and everything else is opaque. With new media, you look through them to see reality; with old media, you see only their mediality, their technological limitations.

But by claiming direct experience for itself and reserving mediated experience for the other machines, every new medium inevitably also evokes a sense of the mediality of all media, the realisation that all media, including the new ones, have nothing more to offer than a game with signs. New media, too, only represent other, older media. You only understand what's new about new media once you know the old ones through and through. The reason virtual reality can seem more authentic than film is because the viewer in the three-dimensional virtual environment inherited film's single point of view. That's recognized as authentic.

Older media, by contrast, claim that you can only have authentic experiences with media that offer their users a view of reality as well as insight into their medial functioning. This dual consciousness is what is now called authentic; singular consciousness is naïve, blind. What is real, all old media argue, is not something outside the media, but contact with the media. Nothing else exists. Every experience is mediated. You can only believe in the extramedial, you cannot perceive it. If you don't believe in it, then you know that only medially produced perceptions exists.

The empire of the media is dominated by what Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin call 'the double logic of remediation'. Remediation is the representation of one medium in another - for example, film in vr and television on the Web - but unlike Marshall McLuhan's classic adage suggests, it works on two sides: for example, notice the window aesthetic of the Web in tv news programs, where two talking heads in separate frames appear on one screen, while behind them a hazy space can be seen. Every new medium remediates previous media, but all previous media can in turn remediate all later media. Film relays vr - moreover, vr exists chiefly in films - see Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days.

All media that have existed up to now are being pulled into the digital domain, though not in their original form, but as ones and zeros and what you can render with them on a screen. And all analog media which continue to exist undiminished are being penetrated by reverse digitality: not only in the form of special effects or, more concretely, chips, but most of all in the realisation that if someone uses an older medium, it's for nostalgic reasons (the Lenny Kravitz effect). Nothing anywhere escapes digitalisation. The computer is not a multimedium, but a metamedium: a collection that contains all other collections. Except itself.


The term 'simulation' was introduced around 1980 by Jean Baudrillard to record what was happening to the media which until then had been regarded as realistic - television, radio, film and photography (he wasn't talking about the traditional media). Though they claimed otherwise, all these media have nothing to say about reality: They are solely about themselves, how they work, their own functioning on the level of individual and crowd. People don't get fascinated by the media because they can pick up so much exciting information from them, but because those media cause an ecstasy, a sometimes anaesthetic, sometimes stimulating intoxication, including hangover and withdrawal. As long as you act as if what you see on the tube is real - in the sense of really-happened or -happening - you can use it to create the strangest dramas and surprises, in your internal psychological mechanisms as well as in the external social mechanisms you're a part of.

When you see someone on television starving to death on a crowded street in Calcutta, you can derive the most terrible feelings of guilt and devote your whole life to renunciation and remorse, or good works here for the victims there. But you can just as easily distil a cynical attitude to life from it, something like: that's too bad for them; good thing we have it better over here. Or you can consume it as a contemporary horror film. Or change channels. The reaction to what is shown is not a function of the images broadcast, but part of the game you, as viewer, choose to participate in. The power of mass media is that they can make whole crowds crazy enough to react in a certain way. This could be seen recently with Kosovo: in the Netherlands the military furor led on the one hand to mass fundraising actions for the refugees, and on the other to mass support for the nato bombings (78 percent of the population, according to pollsters).

Baudrillard repudiates the usual idea that you can use media to get informed. You can let them stimulate you, but what's 'really' going on anywhere, no one knows. For as soon as media appear somewhere, you are made part of their sign-play and (unambiguous, universally recognizable) reality disappears. Nothing and no one corresponds to itself in the media. The only thing real in the contact with media is how we fill in that contact, insofar as the media fail to preprogram it. Believe in nothing, is Baudrillard's advice: neither in simulation that disguises itself as reality, nor in reality that presents itself as simulation.

In the medial empire everything is merely sign and, as such, exchangeable. The other, the 'radical otherness' of the unknown is effaced by the media, levelled into signs-and-only-signs. Nothing differs from anything else any more. Monotony, that's what the world process has come to at the end of the twentieth century, says late 1980s postmodern cultural criticism. Only this raises doubt: doesn't something still exist that both corresponds solely to itself - and thus is totally extramedial - and differs completely from everything else - thus is absolutely exotic? Something that's impossible, unfathomable and inexpressible, but no less inspiring for it? The seductiveness of this doubt keeps the faithless going.


The reason the viewer understands what's on screen is because television uses the narrative techniques of radio, film, newspaper, telephone conversation, novel, novella, poem, etc. You must always already know how media work before you can use them. As Antonio Gramsci wrote in the 1920s, people understand each other because they think about it the same way. And they think about it the same way because they learned to use the same media in the period that they developed their consciousness. It is therefore not possible to make each other think differently through argument. You can persuade, with verbal violence. Or with physical violence - that is also enlightening. But learning to look at and think about reality in a certain way is in fact so much a part of your upbringing that tracing where your thoughts and perception come from is impossible. And then suddenly, to your great surprise, you recognize them in others, your peers: the liberating discovery and the discovering liberation of 'your generation', of the crowd you belong to.

As soon as you acquire self-awareness, your consciousness of how the world functions and what you are doing in it, is completely crystallised, as much as that self-awareness presents itself as doubt, confusion, desperation - in short, adolescence. Antonio Gramsci insisted that the social class in which an individual grows up preprograms his or her consciousness. Marshall McLuhan believed that the media with which that consciousness develops will determine how and what it can see and think and know and feel. How things really are, I wouldn't know. What is clear is that there is always something that comes before what you know, and that it's what came before that makes it possible for you to know something in the first place: Maybe no more than that what came before was nonsense. Or that you know nothing.

Since media say nothing about an objectively existing reality, but only make clear how other media inform us about how other media inform us about how other media etc. inform us about something they call reality, all information that you come upon in the media is a function of those media themselves. You can call information all that which you understand: Then it is everything which orders itself according to a rule you know from other media. You can also call information that which you do not understand, what is improbably, as Vilém Flusser defined it: Then information is everything that orders itself in a different way than you know from other media. On the Web, then, only that which is not literary, not photographic, not filmic, not televisual, etc., is informative.

You can also call information that which differs from everything it is surrounded by, and at the same time gives the impression of touching something outside the whole medial construction in which it appears. As Gregory Bateson defined it in the 1970s: Information is a difference that makes a difference. Or as Jean Baudrillard said: Everything exists, but some things manage to appear. The drawback of these formulae is that the only thing in a medium which gives the impression of touching something extramedial is that which creates a simultaneous experience of the content and the form of that medium - what I called 'double consciousness' above. The extramedial is itself a medial effect. Information does not exist, or more precisely, there is no information without media - information is simulation.

But if media only tell us something about their own functioning, you can also say that reality itself is touched in no way whatsoever by those media. Thus, insofar as something 'absolutely exotic' exists on Earth or in the cosmos, it is reality itself. This is the insight mystics have had to deal with from time immemorial, for better or for worse. A mystic swears off all media, with the goal of being overwhelmed by something so enormous that it would never fit in any medium in the first place. You can only love God, says the mystic, if you assume he is nobody: If he were anyone, he would no longer be extramedial, since everything on Earth is individual, personal, 'somebody'. God is that which is not present in the world.

This explains why mystics can only have their experiences after the fact: Only after the meeting with the not-present is over are they present themselves again to experience anything. When William Gibson wants someone in his cyberspace novels to make contact with the god in the computer network - with Information, in Gregory Bateson's definition - he makes the hacker in question undergo brain death. Afterwards people make up stories about what could have happened during that mental absence. Only when we are dead do we experience reality. But even about that, hardly anything can be said through media, and what was real is destroyed. Put another way, the idea that media contain only simulacra and no facts or real information is also a way of using those media to cause the strangest dramas and surprises in your internal and social mechanisms. Only when you believe in nothing any more do you see that belief is all that exists.


When Socrates argued long, long ago that the only thing you could know was that you knew nothing, he formulated the knowledge principle at the foundation of all the thinking that has been touched upon above. A philosopher can know hardly anything about how thinking works, but nothing about what that thinking is said to be about. For a philosopher thinking is only about itself. The more you know, the more you understand that knowledge about what knowledge is scarcely exists, and the more you understand that what you thought you had knowledge about - reality, or an aspect or element of it - will always elude you. As if human bandwidth is too small to let in all the information in the world, however many computers you connect it to.

I do not believe that it is possible to achieve a new insight. On the terrain of knowledge there are for humans only a handful of fundamental attitudes, a couple of belief systems, from the very first spark of self-awareness until the last one finally goes out, and those fundamental attitudes endlessly recur in history, always in another medial wrapper. It is the short memory of generations that keeps giving people the brief feeling of exploring something new. On closer examination everything always turns out to have been thought of before, simply because thinking is only possible within a few structures. The long memory of a philosopher made Martin Heidegger argue at the end of the 1950s for 'stoicism' with respect to technology: However many new machines appear, they will not change the structures of knowledge, of thinking. Technology is useful, but not real. At least for thinking.

An individual may not be able to change those few structures of knowledge, but s/he is capable of making all possible belief systems her/his own, however much you must tell them apart to be able to know them. In other words, all knowledge may be simulation, but the different forms can be emulated on one knowledge carrier, in one individual or one close-knit group of individuals. That is why reading and rereading all your life will continue to be worth the trouble, probably necessary, and that is why you will stay tuned in to media until your last glimmer of consciousness. Emulation keeps you from getting stuck in one epistemological programme, and stoicism from becoming complacency, a combination of arrogance and indifference.

Where fundamental innovations are possible is in the domain of experience. Maybe not so much as you would like, and maybe at a rate of speed closer to that of biological evolution than social revolution, but still. Human experience, unlike our capacity for thought, is not a structure, but a relationship: the relationships within the complete package of human capacities. (Human, yes, but animals, plants and things have them too.) In succession, those capacities are, to name them again: mind, feeling, will, aesthetic preference or taste, imagination, memory, conscience, self-awareness, sensory perception, instinct and intuition.

All these eleven faculties can probably be structured separately in just a few ways, as I have already indicated with respect to knowing. But the combination possibilities of these eleven capacities are inexhaustible, because they are in continuous movement, in the making if you like. Sometimes gradually, then shockingly: development takes place in reaction to external stimuli, whether through a desire (a deficit in yourself that you want to fill), or through a seduction (a surplus outside yourself you want to get lost in), or through persuasion and violence (a force from without that pushes its way in), or through medial programming (a force from within that pushes its way out). Or other ways unknown to me. Shifts, transformations, renewals can always be observed. I am no longer what I was, though what I know is still the same. The more I understand that I know nothing, the greater the chance that the radical other, the absolute exotic, the extramedial - what I have just modestly called 'external stimuli' - will find it worth the trouble to touch me, to invade me. And to transform everything I have stored inside me into, well, what? Simulation? Art?


To make art, to be able to recognize something as art, you must start from the postulate that there is a world outside the media which can exist without them. And which sometimes presents itself, like vertigo, in what is then a work of art. Everything exists, but some things succeed in appearing. And when they appear, they do it in an image - and only if they appear can we speak of an image, only then has something that otherwise would have remained visual noise become image. An image is something that shows itself while you do not believe in it, simply because you had not yet come upon the idea that you could.

That is how you get art: You don't so much throw all your philosophy and knowledge and convictions and opinions and sensitivities overboard to experience a wild inner transgression - as Georges Bataille imagined it in the 1940s - as notice that you don't need any philosophy, cohesive world view or even opinion at all. As soon as you lose interest in yourself, things become interested in you. And once you have attracted the attention of objects, it's the end of the shelter you thought you'd found behind your simulations.

But when you embrace the postulate of 'objectively existing reality', you implicitly acknowledge the existence of media as a sphere which has nothing to do with the extramedial, as an environment with its own rules and concerns, its own pleasures and horrors, its own histories and futures. A sphere of which it is useless to demand that it tell us anything about anything other than itself, about the world outside it, just as you cannot ask the outside world to teach us what media are. Media, considered as an autonomous sphere, are not out to inform; what they create in their users is not informedness, knowledge or insight, but transport, ecstasy - hot or cool - hypnosis. Trance.

A trance is the stimulation of a biosystem in which no consequences can be involved except that system's getting lost in itself. The biosystem (the media user, reader of books, watcher of television, gameboy, techno dancer, photography fan, museumgoer, radio listener) becomes fixated on his or her own functioning, that through the influx of an external energy achieves a state that the system never could have achieved on its own. In trance the biosystem (the relationship between its eleven faculties) becomes a medium itself, an autonomous game with signs, impulses, vibrations. Temporary balances, shifts, reorderings, new temporary balances: Trance is a form of concentration, on what is happening inside. And it feels great. We use media not out of a 'desire for immediacy', as Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin call it, a desire for a direct experience of something we are not. We want to experience ourselves as we are not. And differently every time.

The term 'mass media' is no longer applicable. These days media rarely call up a crowd as Elias Canetti described it, the human mass in which individuals conquer their fear of contact and push against each other in the same direction, seeking mass release. Older media like concerts, operas, speeches, plays, and football games still generate crowds, complete with cheering, standing ovations, pushing toward the stage. Very occasionally a theatre full of people will applaud as a film's credits roll, but movies actually always aim to transport viewers individually. During pop concerts a band sometimes manages to transform the whole house into a crowd: singing along, winning an encore, storming the stage. But in the whole postwar media landscape, from radio and television to all the digital media, the point is to serially create a trance - sometimes in gigantic masses of people at one time: huge dance parties where tens of thousands of young people, all intently revolving on their own axes led by djs and vjs, go off on individual trips without touching each other.


Simulation: it looks like something real, but it is not. It is a copy without an original, as Baudrillard defined it, an imitation of something that is not real. The attempt to interpret the complete content of all media as simulation, however, will never come to anything, because the real itself remains inextricably present in the concept of simulation, albeit in negative form. Every time you deny reality, you signal that it has obviously sufficiently surfaced to have to be suppressed again. Remediation is a more sophisticated term. In teleoperations - remote surgeries - you must assume that what the surgeon at point B sees on his screen really exists at location A, where the person to be operated on is under anaesthetic. What is shown is therefore not a simulacrum. But it is a remediation, of the television image. Because the surgeon knows how to watch tv, he is able to read the image he is operating on, with serious consequences for the very concrete patient a few hundred miles away. Thus the surgical image is about how live images on a screen function as well as about something that really exists. It does not look like something real, but it is.

One actually rarely runs across a pure simulation. Something that thrusts itself forward as 'just media' is almost always propaganda in one way or another (for a politics, a product, a lifestyle). Simulations in pure form, however, are precisely the content of emulation. The economic boundaries between the various hardware companies did not arise out of the characteristics of the computer medium, but out of historical circumstances: from ego-tripping to the drive to earn money. Emulation breaks through these artificial borders and thus discontinues the economic and cultural history of the computer medium.

At the same time emulation is the only means the computer has of safeguarding and unlocking its own history, now that one antique carrier and format after the other is disappearing. Emulation of all earlier hardware and software is the only form in which computer history can be written on the computer. No social or financial reality outside the computer appears in this history; only what the computer itself can do is admitted.

Classical historians object to this. The social, cultural, political, commercial reality that determines the form and content of a medium, they say, are just as much a part of that medium as its technical characteristics. This argument is true if you regard reality as the inextricable counterpart and partner of simulation. But that is not the only possible way of thinking, as I have suggested above. It is not the simulation-reality antithesis that is interesting, but the simulation-trance duo. If something causes a trance, then it is simulation. If you do not make use of a medium in order to become informed by it, but to create an intensity in yourself, you have left the paradigm of reality-simulation de facto and moved to the practice of simulation-trance. The play with pure signs generates blissful concentration on the other inner self. Emulation is the manner in which the posthistoric computer generation keeps its trances available in order to experience them all, to be able to keep becoming them all. All of them: Not only the trances of games, no, all the trances of media, cultures, religions. When you no longer believe in the claims of real history, then the dancing starts.

translation laura martz