I Won’t Watch No Reruns

Read the full blog post at Notes from 21 South Street.

After the box office success of their 1999 film The Matrix, the Wachowski siblings released in 2003 The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions and plunged their moviegoers into short-lived existential crisis. That same year, British philosopher Nick Bostrom carried The Matrix‘s threat out of movie theaters and into philosophy departments, publishing “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” Looking at the past growth of computing power, Bostrom raises the possibility that we are living in a simulated universe generated by an extremely powerful computer, which in turn might itself exist within yet another simulation, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. This skeptical worry along with a few related variations have come to be known as “simulation arguments.”

Philosophers often compare Bostrom to Descartes, arguing that the simulation argument is simply the dream argument — “Are we living in a dream?” — outfitted in the silicon trappings of the computer age. The similarity, certainly, is difficult to overlook. In a similar vein, we can view Dan Ashwood’s Repeat Viewings as a nineties-era refashioning of Bostrom’s skeptical worry. RV records the simulation argument with a camcorder and plays the tape over and over again until the video itself becomes damaged by the VCR. The acts of re-collection, re-membering, and re-vision are themselves caustic, slowly corroding what they attempt to preserve. In Ashwood’s animation, the anxiety underlying Bostrom’s simulation argument deteriorates and falls away. The characters’ existential angst lies not in the fact that they live in a simulated reality, but rather in a general question of nostalgia: Is it worth satisfying? Is our wistful affection for the past an act of violence that we should avoid? Or are the lines of static that gradually obfuscate our favorite videos like green lines of code, shimmering with the promise of meaning?