The Matrix was an instant classic. It coated existentialist philosophy with sexy molten action, and struck a sonorous chord that still ripples through popular culture.
Twenty years later, the Wachowski siblings’ trilogy has as big a fan base as ever, and is set to receive an unexpected fourth instalment later this year, directed by Lana Wachowski.
The idea of The Matrix had existed in various forms for thousands of years, but this time, rather than being in a philosophy textbook to be read by students and academics, it was condensed into its simplest form and delivered to the masses by badasses in trench coats and dark glasses.
“What you know you can’t explain,” Morpheus told them, “But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life.” And they had felt it – the simple powerful thought that this world does not exist. For a growing number of people, that thought is attractive, terrifying, debilitating and disturbingly real.
A Glitch in the Matrix
A Glitch in the Matrix is a documentary on simulation theory and the people who believe it, directed by Rodney Ascher. At the film’s premiere at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Ascher commented on the irony that “a film about virtual life, made virtually, is now premiering the same way”. While it features an extensive range of playful animated sequences and interviews, there is no camerawork per se.
The Greek philosopher Plato is credited as one of the earliest to theorise something resembling simulation theory. In his Allegory of the Cave, we are asked to imagine people who were born in a cave, and have spent their entire lives there, chained in a fixed position so that they are only able to see the cave wall in front of them. As far as they know, the cave is the entire world. They couldn’t truly hope to imagine what lies outside the cave based on the strange shadowy shapes that flicker on its walls.
Two thousand years later, French philosopher René Descartes set out to discern which of his beliefs, if any, were beyond doubt, using a thought experiment in which he considered the possibility that all his sensory inputs were false manipulations by some omnipotent evil force or “demon”. It was his inability to refute that possibility that ultimately led him to his famous philosophical statement “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am).
These thought experiments are not supposed to prove that we are living in a simulation; they’re intended to show that we cannot be certain. However, A Glitch in the Matrix also features interviews with Swedish Oxford philosophy professor, Nick Bostrom, whose influential 2003 paper Are you living in a computer simulation? makes a far stronger claim.
The argument is essentially this:
Considering the age and size of the cosmos, it is extremely likely that life evolved elsewhere before it did so on Earth. Assuming that’s true, either all civilisations at our stage of evolution abandon simulation development or self-destruct before technological maturity; or we are almost certainly in a computer simulation.
Bostrom’s theory was taken seriously by the likes of pre-eminent cosmologist, Stephen Hawking; as well as illustrious astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson; and notorious cyber-boet, Elon Musk, who believes based on the rate of improvement in videogame realism, that “the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions”.
Elon Musk is the messiah for a certain kind of simulation theorist. Most of the interviews in A Glitch in the Matrix, are not with philosophers or astrophysicists, they’re with geeky American white boys in their 40s who Ascher found on gaming platform message boards. One of them is a pastor’s son, another is an ordained minister and another is a guy whose claim to fame is that he spent several years of his life doing nothing but sit at home playing video games.
These interviews, which alternate between thought-provoking and infuriatingly fatuous, are animated with game avatars so that the interviewees appear as metallic fantasy video game characters. Their anonymity is indicative of a deluded paranoia which will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an interview with QAnon believers – to them, the simulation hypothesis is just another exciting way to convince themselves and others that the world as we know it is a hoax.
Each of these men tells anecdotes of out-of-body epiphany moments in their lives – loneliness-induced acid-trips – which are supposed to be powerful but can be laughably inconsequential. One man claims that he realised he was in a simulation because he kept on observing slightly improbable “synchronicities” in his life. Another man thinks he’s in a simulation because people ignore him like non-player-characters (NPCs) in video games.
While the film does sometimes seem to take the guys interviewed a little too seriously, it’s also very clear that their beliefs are the result of paranoia and a sense of detachment from other people. They see themselves as the few enlightened ones, seeking truth, but for most, their belief in simulation stems from a choice to deny their often bleak realities by opting for a more exciting grandiose conspiracy. They are the ones who have taken the blue pill.
Only one of the animated talking heads seems self-aware. He tells an anecdote at the beginning of the film that inadvertently demonstrates one of the reasons why simulation theory is becoming more prevalent. Historically, our understanding of the laws of nature and reality have been fundamentally guided, possibly even limited, by the kinds of technologies we possessed. When aqueducts were the pinnacles of technology, the movement of liquids was thought to control our emotions and anatomical behaviour. When we invented the telegraph, we postulated that our bodies might be controlled by nerve impulses in an internal circuit. Today, most people frequently use various devices containing computers, particularly smartphones, and coincidentally, most of us conceptualise the brain as if it were a biological computer.
But more and more people are also spending vast amounts of time playing video games, some of which even require virtual reality headsets. When videogames become the greatest reference point in our lives, simulation theory becomes the most accessible way for us to interact with our reality.
Going a step further, the film hints at the link between simulation theory and schizophrenia. Each chapter begins with a clip of a lecture delivered in France in 1977 by prominent science fiction writer, Philip K Dick, most famous for film adaptations of his works such as Blade Runner and Total Recall. While he was a visionary writer, he also struggled with mental illness. By the time he delivered the lecture, he was resolute in the idea that his novels were not fiction, but recalled memories from his experiences in an alternate reality.
Philip K Dick may have suffered from what is described in the film as the “school shooter fantasy” – the idea that you have unique eyes to see what nobody else can, and everyone else is on autopilot. At the end of the film we hear a chilling, horrible first-hand account from Joshua Cooke, who, believing he was in The Matrix, murdered his parents, and whose crimes are the origin of a version of the insanity defence called “The Matrix defence”.
“Loneliness, isolation and trauma play heavily into the kinds of realities that people construct for themselves.” That’s the parting quote from the only female commentator in the film. It’s not coincidental that a lot of the loopy conspiratorial simulation theorists featured tend to be male video game-playing outcasts.
There is a compelling case for the simulation hypothesis. Interrogating the nature of your reality is fascinating and rewarding, so long as you are also able to critically assess your own perspective, like our self-aware talking head in the film: “I never want to get locked into the idea that this is all fake, if in fact the reason I thought it was fake is because it was an easier way for me to deal with the complexity of human existence. Is it possible that I saw everyone as these sort-of robotic humans walking around because I couldn’t figure them out? Because of a problem with my brain?”
And if simulation theory terrifies you, take solace in the fact that it doesn’t actually change anything about your life. What are the chances that you are in a simulation run by super-intelligent beings and there’s anything you can do about it? Due to the material nature of human perception, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to prove or disprove the simulation hypothesis, so there’s little to be done about it other than to be good to one another, enjoy the game, and hope that you’ll be taller in the next level. DM/ ML
A Glitch in the Matrix is available for screening on a variety of platforms listed on the Official Movie Website.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]
A candle's flame in zero gravity is round and blue.