Reading zvi’s post about Simulacra Levels opened my eyes about different intentions when communicating. Now I see them everywhere.
Even though I knew the concepts intuitively, I had no real labels for them yet. Introducing labels for categories that can be classified helps a lot when attempting to think about them and their more nuanced aspects.
- Simulacra Levels
Even though there are slightly different definitions of Simulacra Levels, I’ll mainly be using the understanding from zvi’s post. The way I see it, it explicitly introduces useful nuances the others attempt, but don’t fully succeed at describing.
What follows is my understanding of these four levels. If you notice and errors or inconsistencies, feel free to tell me by writing a comment or mail.
Simulacra Level classify communication based on the reason why the communication takes place in the first place. While there are four levels described, it does not mean that they are exclusive. In fact, I would argue that it is rare that we communicate with only one intention.
Intentions can be conscious or unconscious. In most cases, it is still possible to identify the primary reasons for communication with enough information about the context.
Again, communication and especially perception do not happen at just one level, usually more than one is actively involved at any point.
Level 1 - Sharing Information
Truth is about perception, and what we believe shapes what we perceive. ― Alan B Jones
At the first level everyone is primarily concerned about the truth (or what we believe to be so) about the object level. The goal is to convey information we know, but the other party is not aware of yet, but should be. The only thing we want to do is to convey information.
Example:1 After having been close to the river you saw something yellow through the bushes, most likely a lion. So you warn others by saying “There’s a lion across the river”. You saw the lion across the river, and you want others to be aware of it - lest they get careless or attacked.
Required Context: Being aware of information that we deem relevant to know for others.
Goal: Conveying information about reality to others, sharing knowledge.
Level 2 - Expecting Action
It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place. – Henry Louis Mencken
Communication on the second level is all about how others will react to what we tell them. While we care about what we think to be true, we care more about the actions others will take based on the information we tell them. So instead of telling them the truth, we might intentionally mislead others. This depends on what the goal is, and how much we care about not misleading others. If the actions other people take are all we care about, then words are just a tool. It does include lying, but telling the truth is also part of it, as long as it helps your narrative.
Example: You have ventured across the river and found something valuable, but you want to keep it to yourself. So you tell the others that “There’s a lion across the river”, expecting that this will prevent most people to go there. It could have been more than one lion, everyone should just stay away from across the river.
Required Context: Others might interfere with something we want.
Goal: Getting others to act in a way that will improve chances of executing our plan. Can include having them join you do something.
Level 3 - Group Membership
Conformity is the only real fashion crime. To not dress like yourself and to sublimate your spirit to some kind of group identity is succumbing to fashion fascism. ― Simon Doonan
While there is still truth to be found at the third level, it is more ‘by accident’ rather than intentional (it’s impossible to be wrong about everything). In fact, the goal is to publicly signal membership of a group identity, or push a certain political agenda, for signaling purposes. Some elements of the agenda are bound to be true and the best course of action, while others would still have room for improvement. Of course, admitting to it would defeat the purpose.
Here, more context than just ‘other people’ is required. Group identities need to be established sufficiently, and need to have a public following.
It’s important to note that beliefs don’t come alone. Group identities are bigger ‘packages’ of beliefs, and believing in just one is usually taken as an indicator that you believe in the other parts as well - which tends to become essentially true at last. Additionally, group identities tend to form automatically, starting out with seemingly random attributes. After all, every cause wants to be a cult.
Example: There are two political factions1 in the camp you live in; one saying that the being across the river is a tiger, the other that it is a lion. By saying “There’s a lion across the river” you signal group membership with one of them. There are individuals in each group who claim to have seen the respective animal. The weird people excluded by everyone (but depended upon, since they are smart) say that they might both exist, or that it might have been a different animal altogether. But since you are now a member of the ‘lion’ group, these questions do not concern you anymore. Welcome.
Example: You are a student and member of a political party at a university, with a big focus on renewable energy. The latest thing your group managed to do is to write a proposal forbidding your university to continue investing in non-renewable energies any further. This proposal is now discussed in the highest committee. During the discussion, someone mentions that this would effectively forbid the university to repair an university hospital gas power plant. Not just them, but also buying new fuel for the emergency generators. Instead of backing down, you double down: it’s overdue, and it’s their problem to solve. The goal was only ever to signal group membership, since everyone would have jumped on the opportunity to improve the proposal otherwise.
Required Context: Established group identities with a narrative.
Goal: Publicly signaling group membership, or pushing for an (political) agenda.
Level 4 - Politics
Our exchanges always seem to turn into whatever he wants them to. ― Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox
In an environment similar to Level 3 (Social Reality), Level 4 is all about manipulating your environment for your own gain. Port of it is making it look like you care about those around you, and helping them. While you might earnestly do so, it is inevitable that you need to manipulate2 other people’s perception about you to be able to help them in the first place.
It is all about stating things in a way so that they sound the way you want them to be. A common application is making it sound like not supporting something is the same as being against it - e.g. you must be a democrat if you don’t like Trump. It usually includes invalid generalizations and stereotypes, preemptive conclusions and untrue implications. But; It was never about truth in the first place. The only goal is to modify others’ perception of a subject, particularly for your own gain.
Example: There are two political parties in the camp you live in; one saying that the being across the river is a tiger, the other that it is a lion. When running for the leader of the lion faction, “There’s a lion across the river” is simply supposed to make you sound good for the lion-people listening. You might earnestly believe some of the things they represent, but you repeat the others, just to get their support. You don’t know if they are true, nor do you care - it’s your job to make them true, to get their vote, their support. You need them to think that you support what they want you to support for them to support you.
Example: Let’s say you are in a discussion with someone else. She liked the concept of universal healthcare, but you are opposed to it. So you tell her that “it’s communism!” It doesn’t matter that it is actually unrelated, the only goal is get her to think worse about it.
Required Context: Group identities are established and have groups actively following them.
Goal: Making people think about something in a certain way.
Misunderstandings are bound to occur when trying to communicate with someone, and you both have different intentions for the communication. One might be signaling group membership while the other person attempts to find a truth. It’s likely that in the end, neither will have achieved their goal. It’s not that it’s impossible to find common ground, just a whole lot harder. Even more so since multiple levels could be active at the same time, or interleave with other intentions.
People still care about objective reality on levels one and two, whereas someone intends to convey information on level one and intents to get people to act in a certain way on level two. Level three is all about making your ideological position well known, and at level four someone has a primary intention of manipulation. These levels can mix, e.g. Writers should be a primary mix of one and four - striving for something true and instilling new concepts in others.
I would recommend you to read the original post if you are looking for a deeper understanding, including archetypes spanning over multiple levels.
2: In this post, I intend for ‘manipulation’ to be seen as a neutral act. Simply talking to someone manipulates them in one way or another. Heck, you reading this manipulates you. If you want to help others, it is necessary to convince them that you are their best choice, or at least the best they can get.