Earlier this year international physicists and philosophers gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to debate the theory that life is in fact a computer simulation.
The moderator of the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, Neil deGrasse Tyson, put the odds at 50/50 that our entire existence is a programme on someone’s hard drive and that we are simply characters in cyberspace.
It is not a unique suggestion. The Matrix films borrowed from it and in 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that members of an advanced civilisation with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors and that we might be that simulation. As an idea it is an extension of the work of 17th century philosopher Rene Descarte who wrote about a ‘Great Deceiver’ tricking us into thinking the physical world was real.
Of course, it is probably just nonsense, although if we imagine for a moment that the genius computer programmer designing our existence is currently very drunk or in a mood akin to that of 11-year-old boys – when they draw glasses and a moustache on photos of the Queen – then all of a sudden the world makes a tiny bit more sense than it otherwise does.
Because let’s face it. Things have become so ridiculous – for example, the imminent presidency of Donald Trump – that ‘sarcastic space aliens’ is as good an explanation as any. There is something almost reassuring about the idea that our program has malfunctioned – not only in that the reality it designs is lacking in the supposed internal monitors known as reason, morality or good taste, but also in the fact that we were programmed to believe we had free will or at least capacity to act even though we choose not to.
A report from The Cavell Nurses Trust earlier this month offered up some pretty astonishing insights into modern nursing life. One of them – 42.5% of nurses have a physical or mental health condition expected to last longer than a year – is close to my heart because it is something I have researched and written about over a long time. Nursing makes nurses unhealthy. Professionally, institutionally, collectively, we don’t care, because it seems we can’t afford to and because we believe that if we break nurses they are replaceable.
Another finding is that nurses and midwives are almost twice as likely as the average person to be unable to afford basic necessities. Choosing to nurse appears to invite an increased risk of poverty and ill health.
I don’t understand why we tolerate this. Nursing is littered with rallying calls from so-called leaders, which amount to no more than a ruffling of the hair and a vacuous ‘you’ve all done very well’. Meanwhile the act of nursing, its social value and most importantly the people who do it, are marginalised, denigrated and punished, to the point whereby nursing will becomes less available and nursing over a long period of time invites ill health.
I suppose I can understand the economics of it. If you are an accountant and you want to save money drive the value of nursing labour down. But I can’t understand the selective powerlessness of the profession. The apparent acceptance. The lack of outward facing anger.
Unless of course it is all a programme malfunction. Or an experiment of some sort. Or our version of ‘reality’ is a prototype and further down the line the programmer will get it right. Or sober up. And in that reality we’ll drop fewer bombs. And listen to fewer fools. And nurses will be able to afford shoes and not experience chronic ill health. I think we need a reboot.
Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer and author.
Follow him on Twitter @markacradcliffe