TMW #177 | The dangers of a simulated web

Jun 2, 2024

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The dangers of a simulated web

What happens to marketers when the Internet empties itself of people? 

The Matrix wasn’t a movie; it was a documentary. That’s what countless conspiracy theories say about what the classic movie starring Keanu Reeves represents in the digital age. A story about a person who leaves the digital world only to find himself in a dystopia ruled by machines is a great metaphor for the web in 2024. 

In academia, Nick Bostrom calls this the “simulation theory”: The idea that it’s entirely possible that an advanced human race could create the virtual world in which we now live. In his now-famous essay, “Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?”, he makes his argument, much to the critique and derision of others: 

“Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. 

Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.”

I think that the Matrix parable – and Bostrom’s arguments – that our world is nothing but a simulation, is half correct. If you invert it and posit that the internet itself is what’s simulated, then what becomes clear is that all the same issues of a simulated world apply to the web. 

The virtual world is the one that’s populated with mostly machines, and the physical world is flourishing with (mostly) humans. An inversion of a hypothesis is always a good way to think about its implications. What if the web is mostly machine-generated? 

This essay is about an existential problem facing marketers and advertisers: Will there be any humans on the web in years to come? Or are we facing a mass depopulation in favor of AI agents and bots? What’s left if nobody is around to see your brilliant marketing campaigns, or buy your stuff? 

I argue that a simulated web is a very likely possibility, and with the rising popularity of Generative AI, LLMs, and artificial agents, it’s something marketers should prepare for.

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