Simulacra Levels Summary

For More Detail, Previously: Simulacra Levels and Their Interactions, Unifying the Simulacra Definitions, The Four Children of the Seder as the Simulacra Levels.

A key source of misunderstanding and conflict is failure to distinguish between combinations of the following four cases.

  1. Sometimes people model and describe the physical world, seeking to convey true information because it is true.
  2. Other times people are trying to get you to believe what they want you to believe so you will do or say what they want.
  3. Other times people say things mostly as slogans or symbols to tell you what tribe or faction they belong to, or what type of person they are.
  4. Then there are times when talk seems to have have gone strangely meta or off the rails entirely. The symbolic representations are mostly of the associations and vibes of other symbols. The whole thing seems more like a stream of words, associations and vibes. It sounds like GPT-4.

One can refer to these as the simulacra levels as a useful fake framework for understanding this. When looking at talk, one can ask what level or levels a statement or discussion is on, and which ones people care about in context. One can also ask about the level a person, group or civilization most cares about. That is also how they default to understanding new talk.

This concept has important details that are difficult to understand. The posts linked up top offer discussions of four definitions that all point at the same dynamics. Each is stronger at capturing different elements.

As a more concise alternative, this post gathers together the most vital information.

First, the more straightforward definitions from 2020.

The Lion and Pandemic Definitions

The lion definition asks what each level means by ‘There is a lion across the river.’

Level 1: There’s a lion across the river.

Level 2: I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.

Level 3: I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.

Level 4: A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus-grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

The pandemic definition changes the statement to ‘There is a pandemic heading our way from China.’

Level 1: “There’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”

Level 2: “I want you to act as if you think there might be a pandemic on our way from China” while hoping to still be interpreted by the listener as meaning “There’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”

Level 3: “I wish to associate with the group that claims there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”

Level 4 (old version): “It is advantageous for me to say there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”

Except no, that’s not quite right. The key issue with the lion and pandemic definitions is treating Level 4 as if it has motivations and does things for logical reasons. One can think strategically about level 4 implications but those operating on Level 4 mostly not only don’t do this, they have lost the ability to do so.

Therefore, the real situation more like:

Level 4 (new version): “It feels like the thing for me to say here that there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”

More abstractly:

Level 1: Truth. Attempt to accurately share and describe physical reality.

Level 2: Manipulation of Perception. Lies. Attempt to shape perception of reality, so that others will act on that perception, without regard to whether it is true.

Level 3: Association. Attempting to change perception of one’s social position and alliances, rather than expecting anyone to act upon beliefs about physical reality. Requires maintaining some plausibility of the underlying physical claim.

Level 4: Manipulation and Intuition. Occasionally a strategic attempt to manipulate Level 3 dynamics. More centrally and commonly, a combination of intuitive attempts to manipulate associational dynamics and vibes, and adaptation executions that have abandoned any logic and all links to the underlying physical reality.

Or alternatively: Level 4: What GPT-4 would say.

Next, the original, symbolic definition.

The Symbolic Definition

Next the original version, from the 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, which I will call The Symbolic Definition. This approach misses key elements of level 3: Its core relation to association and coalitional politics.

Level 1: The Simulacrum of the Real: a perfect copy that is a reflection of the real.

Level 2: The Simulacrum of the Model: a copy that no longer corresponds to the real, but references a representation of the real.

Level 3: The Simulacrum of the Hyperreal: a copy that is a product of the media, and has no basis in the real

Level 4: The Simulacrum of Simulacra: a copy that becomes autonomous, and no longer refers to any notion of the real at all.

Or, also in the original:

Level 1: It is the reflection of a profound reality.

Level 2: It masks and denatures a profound reality.

Level 3: It masks the absence of a profound reality.

Level 4: It has no relation to any reality whatsoever.

Or I would say it either this way:

Level 1: Symbols describe reality.

Level 2: Symbols pretend to describe reality.

Level 3: Symbols pretend to pretend to describe reality.

Level 4: Symbols need not pretend to describe reality.

Or another way:

Level 1: Symbols accurately describe reality.

Level 2: Symbols inaccurately describe reality.

Level 3: Symbols claim to describe reality.

Level 4: Symbols no longer claim to describe reality.

Or more simply:

Level 1: Truth.

Level 2: Lies about Truth.

Level 3: Lies claiming to be about Truth.

Level 4: Post Truth.

A concrete example suggested by Michael Vassar:

Level 1: A court reflects justice.

Level 2: A corrupt judge distorts justice.

fLevel 3: A Soviet show trial conceals the absence of real Soviet courts.

Level 4: A trial by ordeal or trial by combat lacks and denies the concept of justice entirely.

The Four Children Definition

Finally, the Four Children definition is based upon the first known recognition of this phenomenon: The story of four generations at the Seder table on Passover.

While in no way religious, The Four Children definition is high context to the Jewish experience and Passover ceremony, and relies on many details that many readers won’t know. If you don’t have and don’t want to explore that context, it won’t be useful and can be skipped. If the idea intrigues you, I highly recommend exploring it. It’s pretty great.

Level 1: The Wise Child. Asks for an accurate model.

Level 2: The Wicked Child. Asks what your model cares about.

Level 3: The Simple Child. Asks what things symbolize.

Level 4: The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask. Literally does not know how to ask.

Some Contrasts

Level 1 vs. Levels 2+3+4: Truth vs. Untruth

Level 1+3 vs. Levels 2+4: Authentic vs. Inauthentic

Levels 1+2 vs. Levels 3+4: Facts vs. Politics

Levels 1+2+4 vs. Level 3: The Agent vs. the Drone

Levels 1+2+3 vs. Level 4: The People vs. The Lizards

A Cast of Characters

L-None: The Nihilist says some things, then eats at Arby’s.

L-1: The Oracle speaks the truth, even if their voice trembles.

L-2: The Trickster says that which causes beliefs that cause the actions they want.

L-1 and L-2: The Sage says only true things that don’t have bad consequences.

L-3: The Drone sings songs and carries signs, mostly saying hurray for our side.

L-1 and L-3: The Lawyer says the true things that comprise the best argument for their position.

L-3 and L-4: The Politician ignores the object level and only considers politics.

L-4: The Lizard trusts their instincts and does that which creates or captures power.

L-All: The Pragmatist balances impact at all levels they are aware of slash care about when deciding what to say. 

Notes on Levels

Level 1

Level 1 is straightforward. Cherish the people, groups and moments you can spend here. This is where truth is sought. This is where doers get things done.

Level 2

The key misunderstanding of level 2 is to think of it as necessarily consisting of lies, or that which is not.

What makes level 2 distinct from level 1 is not whether the statement is true, but whether or not you care whether it is true. A level 2 statement is meant to impact someone else’s level 1 model based on how you expect that to cause them to act. More often than not, this involves using mostly or entirely true statements – the truth is the best lie.

What makes level 2 distinct from level 3 is that you expect your target to attempt to use your statements to build a model of the world and act accordingly. Whereas at level 3 there is no expectation that your statements will be used in this fashion, with the statements instead primarily indicating where and with whom you wish to stand.

Level 3

The central reason we needed new definitions, other than clarity, is because the Symbolic definition misses the essential nature of Level 3.

In particular, the Symbolic definition fails to notice Level 3’s concern with symbolism and associative implications.

This is a fundamentally new game being played, but it still bears a relationship to the physical world. The plausibility of the underlying Level 1 claim must be maintained. If one has gone against physical reality sufficiently that the Level 2 claim defending the position is sufficiently Obvious Nonsense, such claims can still be successfully called out. This causes the coalition and those backing the claim to lose face.

The transition to level 4 comes when people and coalitions no longer lose face for having their Obvious Nonsense pointed out, or even choose Obvious Nonsense intentionally to show they hold sufficient influence to get others to copy it.

Level 4

The central reason to retain the Symbolic definition is it illustrates the nature of Level 4 in a way the newer definitions fail to do on their own.

Level 4 is often seen as having the same relation to Level 3 as Level 2 has to Level 1 (4::3 2::1). This can be helpful as a metaphor, but is only part of the picture.

The other part, its alien nature and opposition to logic and complete indifference to physical reality, wants not to be seen. It is important to see it.

Operation primarily on level 4, either as an individual, organization or civilization, causes one to lose contact with both physical reality and the ability to use reason.

A common mistake is to assume that most level 4 (and levels 2 and 3, but most importantly level 4) activity is selfishly motivated. This is not the case. Most operators who are primarily at level 4 are going with the vibe and what seems like the thing to do, executing adaptations that have long since lost their connection to any desired physical outcome. They have often lost their grip on reality and logic sufficiently that they have lost sight of what it would even mean to be selfish.

Synthesis

These different definitions are all grasping at different elements of the same central concept. They serve as alternative intuition pumps. Use whatever combination of them is most helpful to you, exploring previous posts in detail to the extent you find that useful.

Every statement and every action is, to some extent, communicating and having impact on all four levels at once. In any given time and place and interaction, a different subset of the four levels will be dominant. Sometimes care is given primarily or only to one level. Other times care is given to multiple levels, or even all four at once. Similarly, sometimes people are paying attention to some level(s) while ignoring or not caring about the others. Mismatches cause misunderstandings and failures to communicate.

True masters of communication are aware of all four levels at all times both when talking and when listening, keenly aware of the implications, often offering statements with multiple intended meanings on different levels.

Over time and in the absence of existential physical danger, overall conditions tend to pass through the four generations. Each level tends to ‘wins in a fight’ against the previous one. Thus the overall ‘simulacra level’ will trend higher over time. We go from truth, to distortion and manipulation, to symbolism and association and social games, to non-logical word associations, going with vibes and implicitly conspiring against other strategies.

Then the lack of connection to reality causes reality to smack us in the face sufficiently to, hopefully, reset the process and allow a new focus on ground truth.

If you know which levels someone is operating on, you can better interpret their statements and actions, and know in what ways they can be trusted. There is discussion of such archetypes in Simulacra Levels and their Interactions.

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15 Responses to Simulacra Levels Summary

  1. Matt C. Wilson says:

    Offering up:

    Levels 1+3+4 vs. Level 2: Intrinsic goals (truth, victory, power) vs. instrumental goal (direct deception/manipulation)

  2. Brockenborings says:

    Level 1: Truth.
    Bugs Bunny
    Level 2: Lies about Truth.
    Pepe Le Pew – (This one doesn’t seem right. Yosemite Sam, maybe?)
    Level 3: Lies claiming to be about Truth.
    Chuck Jones’ Daffy Duck
    Level 4: Post Truth
    Tex Avery’s Daffy Duck

  3. magic9mushroom says:

    You didn’t put a “continue reading” on the main page, so the entire thing shows. Was this intentional?

  4. Crackpot says:

    Notice that mathematics is not at level 1.

    Arithmetic is mostly in level 2; set theory is somewhere between 2 and 3. Calculus, and proofs, are generally in level 3. Higher order proofs tend to be level 4.

    • Crackpot says:

      To expand on this, which I realize is unfortunately vague:

      Level 1 is a map intended to help you make sense of reality.
      Level 2 is a map intended to help you make sense of a map of reality.
      Level 3 is a map intended to help you make sense of a map of a map of reality.
      Level 4 is skipping ahead to “a map intended to help you make sense of maps in general”, I think on the basic assumption that there are at most three levels of recursion.

    • Chivesoclock says:

      I think this is just wrong. Or at least it’s distorting the concept so far that it no longer has meaning.

      For example, why is arithmetic level 2 and yet using words to convey meaning isn’t? And if both of those are level 2, then is any form of communication level 1?

      • Crackpot says:

        For a competent communicator, using words to convey meaning is (usually) necessarily level 2, because the exercise of structuring a communication is an exercise in modeling the mind of the person or persons you are communicating to, and evaluating what changes your communication will create in those minds (where “inserting a concept”, that is, communicating something, is a change). Effective communication is fundamentally an act of manipulating mental states. (Effective listening is, in a significant sense, a level 3 operation. You’re running a mental model of somebody who is mentally modeling another person – where that “another person” is their conception of you, which, critically, is not actually you.)

        For an incompetent communicator, using words to convey meaning can be level 1; if you think words have specific meanings, that a given communication -means- a specific thing, then it is probably fair to describe such communication as level 1. Level 1 communication is communication without reference to a theory of mind; it is not morally superior, it is not in any sense closer to reality. “Reality” is just an excuse for why you shouldn’t have to do this difficult thing; physical reality is not physical reality, it is a particular person’s -map- of physical reality, and what Zvi calls “level 1 communication” is not a morally superior way of thinking or communicating – it is just a conversation between two people whose maps of reality are sufficiently similar that they require relatively little effort or translation.

        Which is, actually, to be treasured, Zvi is quite right about that! When somebody knows you well enough to know what you mean, without you having to put an extreme amount of effort into being understood, it is wonderful. However, it does not in fact represent any kind of moral superiority.

        Arithmetic, however, is in a fundamental sense an alien brain that you are running a mental model of. Maybe it is part of your map of reality, but I doubt it; rather, you’ve just gotten used to translating between languages, so used to it that you don’t notice how it fails; that a four foot length of wood made by attaching a one foot piece of wood and a three foot piece of wood, is not in fact identical to a four foot length of wood made by attach two two foot pieces of wood – that is, (1+3=4) does not equal (2+2=4) in reality, and, noticing that, we can notice that, in reality, 4 does not equal 4. If you’re constructing a support beam, and you think that (1+3) and (2+2) and (4) are equivalent, you run the risk of being quite surprised.

        • Basil Marte says:

          I think I have two main disagreements with this.

          1) The loss of detail is not specific to arithmetic. When an engineer describes a part (whether to a manufacturer or an erection crew), they can choose between a variety of standard description tools: an axonometric drawing, multiview projections, a text/numbers description (“4 ft 2×4 on edge”), etc. None of these say anything about e.g. the grain of the wood. In all of these cases, most information about reality is omitted by what is, theoretically, a routine deliberate choice, trading off between the length of the message, a judgment call that the layout of the grain doesn’t matter that much for structural strength, the practicalities of breaking the fungibility of lumber, etc.

          That people sometimes choose an inappropriate tool for the task, or use a tool wrong, is not conceptually different from someone trying to drive a nail with a screwdriver, or hitting their finger with the hammer. That said, it may well be the case that numbers/arithmetic is involved not just frequently, but disproportionately so, when people make a mess of this sort by neglecting to represent some kind of information, sometimes called “the color of bits”. Luckily, this sort of error is not limited to cases involving reference to the world, but also happens in purely mathematical contexts (“losing an assumption” and e.g. dividing by a term that may be zero).

          2) If a map/atlas includes a legend of what each type of symbol stands for, or the people talking to each other take some time away to define their terms, versus (at least on the first attempt) trusting that the other party will figure it out in parallel with the contents of the communication isn’t a distinguishing feature between levels 1 and 2. The examples with engineering are to a large extent instructions, thus they have a large level 2 aspect. Maps on the other hand are the typical example where the creator largely does not know or care what specific problem the user is trying to solve, thus they mostly try to provide accurate information, within the sort of constraints mentioned in 1) (including “user experience”).

          There are, of course, exceptions:
          – military facilities deliberately omitted, displaced, mislabeled, or the whole map slightly warped (level 2);
          – maps of fictional locations, crafted with attention to plausibility (level 3), including “paper towns” put on real maps to catch copying;
          – “maps” drawn for the purpose of decoration, with no attention to plausibility (level 4). If a coffee mug has a map on it, most people (at least those who aren’t massive nerds) will not even care if it has a river flow in a loop, never mind try to navigate based on it.

        • Crackpot says:

          The issue is not with the loss of detail, the issue is that the loss of detail arises from one person (let us call them the communicator) eliminating “erroneous”
          information, where “erroneous” is defined with respect to -their- purposes.

          You describe this as “routine”. Which – yes, it is. That’s pretty central to my point: We all engage in this behavior. If you, in an argument, present studies which support your point, and neglect the studies that oppose your point as being a needless distraction from what is actually important – you’re doing the same thing.

  5. dtsund says:

    My own attempt at another definition:

    Level 1: Truth.
    Level 2: Deception of others.
    Level 3: Deception of self.
    Level 4: Denial that “truth” is a meaningful concept.

  6. Carl says:

    I think what you describe as level 4 might better be named “level infinity”. This would allow a more natural definition of level 4 as “deceptively signaling about group affinity”. I suspect most people jump directly to infinity from level 3 (or even level 2), but there are some who spend time at what I’m calling level 4.

    • Eric Fletcher says:

      There is no distinction between accurately and deceptively signaling group identity.
      “I am a member of HYDRA” could be Level 1 or Level 2, depending on truth value and intent. “Hail HYDRA” is a mouth noise that people in HYDRA often make, and observers will think you are a member if you make it. That could be a Level 2 deceptive action (Captain America in the elevator), or Level 3 signaling. And then you have a bunch of people at ComicCon saying “hail HYDRA” to each-other as a Level 4 meta-reference to nothing.

      Basically, deceptive signals about group ID are Level 2.

      • Carl says:

        I agree with how you describe your examples, but that’s not quite what I was talking about. To go back to the lion-and-river example, consider someone who says “there’s a lion across the river” in order to signal membership in the anti-river-crossing faction while actually belonging to the pro-river-crossing faction and not knowing or caring if there is an actual lion. That’s what I’m proposing as level 4.

  7. On what level or levels was Boudrillard himself operating? If this was all part of a broader Marxist cultural critique, are we wise to take it all at face value?

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