Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Screenshot: The Matrix

The Matrix couldn’t dream up the internet of 2018

Screenshot: The Matrix

Infinite Scroll is a series about the increasingly blurry lines between the internet, pop culture, and the real world.

In 2003, the same year both of The Matrix sequels were released, the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom published an article called “Are you living in a simulation?” It was the height of Matrix fever, and also the second Bush era, so it seemed like a good time to disassociate from reality. Bostrom’s thinking, loosely speaking, went like this: In just a few decades, video games have gone from a few lines on a screen to massively complicated photorealistic worlds with weather patterns, physics, artificial intelligence, and so on. It’s reasonable to think that in another chunk of time, these simulations will be indistinguishable from reality, and that computers could be built that would simulate the processes of a human brain. If humans ever are to be able to create such a thing, they won’t do it once—they’ll do it over and over again. And if those simulations are to run long enough, eventually they will be able to create their own sub-simulations. This means that there would be one “real” reality and a seemingly infinite number of simulations, all full of thinking creatures that believe they’re in a real world.

As Bostrom sees it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re living in a simulation. But it does set up one of three possible fates for humanity:

  1. Humans will go extinct before being able to develop such simulations.
  2. Humans will eventually develop this hyperreal simulation technology, but will choose not to employ it, for moral reasons or whatever.
  3. Humans will stick around long enough to make all of these simulations, in which case the odds are pretty much astronomical that we are in one.

In the intervening years, his theory has prompted both serious philosophical responses and amused investigations by more mainstream publications. Last year, a panel moderated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson considered the question at length before rejecting it, in part because, as the Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall said, “I don’t know why this higher species would want to simulate us.” The panel’s conclusions lead to numerous headlines like our own—“Sorry, Elon Musk: We’re not living in a simulation after all”—because the Tesla founder has, over the years, become the most famous proponent of Bostrom’s theory, and also because he is fun to be mean to.

These debates always have the air of sophistry to them—in one video of Musk discussing the topic, he demands, multiple times, that we identify a single flaw! in his argument—and yet the so-called “simulation theory” has proven remarkably resilient in the pop-culture imagination. I’ve always suspected that the reasoning for this is deeper than its Muskian lack of flaws. It seems to pop up more and more online with each year, always in response to some new outrage or controversy. It’s almost like we’re quietly hoping that it’s true—that we’re driving not toward an apocalypse, but a soft reboot.

To be clear: I don’t think that we’re living in a simulation, and I don’t think that many of the people out there who make jokes about it do, either. But once you start looking for it, it’s all you see, in popular culture and the real world. It has defined almost all major science fiction produced in this millennium, forming the theoretical and narrative backbone of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Rick And Morty, and Westworld, to name a few, as well as the entire filmographies of Christopher Nolan, Satoshi Kon, Charlie Kaufman, and post-millennial David Lynch, to name a few more. Rappers are obsessed with it, citing it more than any movie since Scarface. The peer-reviewed debates of Bostrom, Musk, and so on are the hard-science corollary to a much softer-science take on the same idea, the notion of a subjectively determined reality forming a connective thread between feel-good prophets like Tony Robbins, Rhonda Byrne (of The Secret), and Joel Osteen. Since the 2016 election, the notion that Americans are living alongside each other in vastly different versions of reality, thanks to Facebook’s personalized newsfeeds and the rise of fake news, has become a sort of overriding moral concern of our time. Congressional enquiries have been held.

Go looking for a starting point to the whole thing, and you’ll find it everywhere, too—from the 1973 Rainer Werner Fassbinder film World On A Wire to the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who in 300 B.C.E. dreamt of being a butterfly, and when he woke up wondered whether he was a man who dreamt of being a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamt of being a man. The Matrix isn’t the origin of any of these ideas, but it is the popular entry point to them. As a film, it’s a marvel of synthesis—wrapping up all these influences plus Descartes and Yuen Woo-Ping and early ’90s rave culture and a zillion more—and it’s a marvel of exposition—making their slow reveal feel fucking fun. It is explicit and intentional in connecting the Matrix with the internet (they reach it through a phone line) and with a dream. Neo’s first hint of this vast artificial world’s existence is the text prompt on his computer screen: “Wake up, Neo…”

This seems like a good point to step back and admit that there are a lot of balls in the air here: the real world is The Matrix which is the internet which is a dream. It never quite feels that muddled in the movie, though, which orders the reveals into a clear superhero arc, a gradual awakening that ends with our hero soaring like Superman directly at the camera. There’s a lot of talk in that first movie of the rabbit hole—yes, another metaphor to toss into the mix—which serves as a clear-cut entry point for all the heady simulation stuff. Go down the rabbit hole; learn the truth about reality. But when the time comes to take the plunge, it comes via one of the film’s bespoke contributions to pop culture, and which may be its most enduring—and toxic—meme.

I am speaking of the red pill.

In the movie, it refers to a choice offered by Morpheus early on: take a red pill to unfold a fantastical journey into the truth, or take a blue pill to return to a state of blissful ignorance. Today, it has an entirely different meaning, thanks to one of the most terrible corners of the entire internet. Originally founded in 2012, the Reddit forum r/TheRedPill bills itself as a combination locker room and self-help group, a place where men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and “involuntary celibates” can discuss, with uniquely obsessive analytical rigor, how to have sex with women. It lacks the glibness and thirst for outrage of other parts of the so-called “manosphere,” instead trading in earnest affirmations of self-worth, hacks to game dating-app success rates, and anecdotal social psychology (“high-value people are ‘bigger’ and therefore ‘draw’ lower-value people to them.”). It’s peppered with forum-specific jargon like “comfort test” and IOI (indication of interest), as well as floridly written success stories so transparently fictional that they’d be cute, were they not also dripping with sexual malevolence.

When Neo takes the red pill, he learns that his reality is actually a simulation designed to keep humans docile, an invisible power structure that, by the end of the film, he will learn to bend to his will. For neo-Redpillers, however, taking the red pill means accepting that the world is secretly controlled by women, and that by understanding this they will be able to transcend that power structure and get laid more frequently. It’s a rhetorical jump that co-opts the language and framework of the oppressed for the oppressor, a provocation so delicious that conservatives have since taken “redpilling” to mean anybody’s shift to the hard right. “Red pill stories” are a sort of reactionary coming-of-age trope online: YouTube is rich with videos of teens earnestly proclaiming the moment they cast aside the shackles of conventional progressive thought in favor of white nationalism or libertarianism. They aren’t being radicalized, by this framework; they’re being freed.

It’s tempting to castigate them for misreading the movies, and in a lot of important ways, they have. It’s a series about a diverse team of freedom fighters tearing down oppressive power structures. It was written and directed by a pair of trans women, a fact that has caused no small amount of hand-wringing among the Neanderthals of the men’s rights movement; Lilly Wachowski has even cautiously allowed that her films can be read with their identities in mind, turning it into a parable for transcending binaries. And yet the structure of that first film also maps cleanly to the narrative of the extremely online political firebrand. It is an almost achingly universal story at this point: of someone awoken by some internet truth-teller, joining an army of true believers, decking their various avatars out in the roses and Pepes of their calling, and warping the very structure of the internet to cohere to it. It’s easy to see this in your most woke friends or extremely patriotic uncles, but it’s also something that the invisible hand of the attention economy conspires to make of all of us. Outrage equals eyeballs; engagement equals money. Even if you’re not going to war, you’re still clicking.

The internet can sometimes feel like a dream, created to cohere to our individual needs but still wildly out of our individual control. One imagines old Zhuangzi again: Did we dream up the internet, or did it dream up us?

The Matrix was released in March 1999—the glorious height of the first dotcom bubble. America was online, we just couldn’t figure out what to do there yet, so we made Geocities webpages, planting flags in the ground. It was a shimmering, terrifying, endless possibility space, destined to create a revolution in communication, publishing, commerce, entertainment, sex, and human thought. The Matrix is a pure product of this time, promising transcendence and self-creation on the other end of the phone line. It’s Silicon Valley techno-utopianism rendered leather-clad and cool.

Today, of course, everyone hates Silicon Valley. The list of contemptible names—Bodega, Juicero, Uber, even old Elon Musk—masks a much deeper distrust of these onetime saviors. In just the first few weeks of 2018, the internet has overflowed with information about how to consume less of itself—various detoxes and methodologies, exhortations to delete social apps, insiders washing their hands of its largest platforms. Last year, on paternity leave, I checked Twitter for the first time in a few days, found myself instantly swirling in a vortex of weird subterfuge and professional antipathy, and immediately deleted the app. I have not looked back. Facebook has even bowed to this public sentiment in 2018, changing its all-important algorithms to make time on the site more pleasant. My feed consists almost exclusively of Dogspotting posts now; I’m not sure if this means they’ve succeeded.

The internet is not the mysterious and possibly magical possibility space of 1999 anymore; every last inch of it has been colonized and monetized, we are connected to it constantly, and we hate it. It has crashed into the real world, and it looks less like self-actualization and more like chuds chugging milk on a Shia Labeouf livestream. The simulation theory is a reaction to this—a means to cope with and make sense of the internet. It’s a cultural reaction to advances in technology that we weren’t (and couldn’t possibly have been) ready for, a way to narrativize, order, and laugh at the preposterous notion of living and also being online. There’s no clearer example of it, to my mind, than the story of the red pill. In a film series about how the internet could smash binary power structures, we extracted the only binary offered—red or blue, ally or sworn motherfucking enemy. The Matrix’s ideas about the power of self-creation on the internet were correct, in other words, but the result is a lot messier than predicted.

Next time: Let’s talk about video games, which are the closest thing we currently have to a real-world simulation.

Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Columbus, Ohio.