Reality is a Virus

And like a virus, its spread is virulent and random—and something that will define the 2020s.

PHOTO VIA ALEC LUHN ON TWITTER

This morning, I woke up to a tweet from journalist Alec Luhn containing the above image.

In it, a pro-Navalny protester in Russia marches wearing what is all but unmistakably an homage to the ‘Q Shaman,’ the much-documented, now-apprehended, vegan and horned antagonist in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

I haven’t been able to get the image out of my head all day. Since 2017, the QAnon conspiracy theory umbrella has capitalized on essentially every other notable conspiracy theory—among them ones that were amplified by the Russian government-supported organizations.

QAnon may consist of debunked and disproven conspiracies, but that doesn’t make the millions of adherents to the digital religion any less real. It doesn’t make their beliefs any less motivating; it doesn’t make the actions they take as a result any less tangible. In other words: how much or little these realities are based on provable facts has little bearing on their impact in the world.

Meanwhile, the Alexei Navalny saga has hit its own fever pitch, with the anti-corruption Putin opponent—who was poisoned by Russian spies and then evacuated to Germany for treatment—being arrested under dubious pretenses upon return to his home country. Protests have broken out, and you can get a sense from the thread below how well that’s going:

Witnessing a pro-Navalny (by proxy Anti-Putin) protester wearing the garb of one of the most notable icons of the most pervasive conspiracy community in the world—itself fueled by Putin’s own government—that was a potent pretzel indeed.

I can’t speak to this protester’s motivation or beliefs, but what I can speak to is that this instance is a signal that transcends irony. It points to the way simulations are transmitted in an era of ubiquitous, instant communication: virally, as memes. This state of “pathological reality” means that realities can spread far beyond the “goals” of whoever propagated them in the first place. Moreover, these realities are fungible—they can be subdivided and taken as parts, divorced from the broader “body” of the respective reality. I’ve taken to calling these little pieces of reality “simules.” They’re units of simulation replication, carrying the notion behind the gene and the meme into a more deeply digital age.

Clearly, the Q Shaman simule has already drifted into meaning something “more” than Jake Angeli and Far Right American ideology. It’s a powerful example of this type of permutation, but as our lives (continue to) become increasingly virtual, this “simule drift” will extend from spectacle-worthy adaptations to local communities—among friends, families, and colleagues.

Right now, it may be easy to write this off as something that results from heated ideological division, and of course that’s true. But even in moments and places where the climate is proverbially cooler, this viral spread will define the future of reality.

That’s all for today! But lots more soon—be sure to leave a comment and subscribe to stay up-to-date in the evolution of reality.

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