My head is spinning… I feel like that gif of Alice and Wonderland falling down a rabbit hole without end. Why, you may ask? Well, I have just watched A Glitch In The Matrix, Rodney Ascher’s documentary about simulation theory.
Now, this isn’t the first time that Mr Ascher has scrambled my brain. Room 237 - his documentary about the many theories and “hidden messages” that may (or may not) exist in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining - also made my head hurt. But in a good way, you understand.
I confess that I knew little about simulation theory before watching this film - apart, that is, from what the Wachowski sisters taught me in their 1999 sci-fi classic, The Matrix. As a result, I was fascinated to learn more about the various beliefs surrounding the idea that we are all living in a computer programmed reality.
Using a speech from prolific author, Philip K. Dick, and a variety of sci-fi movies (including several key moments from The Matrix itself), A Glitch In The Matrix dives into the science, philosophy and conspiracies behind simulation theory. Like in Room 237, we spend much of the film in the company of ‘believers’. Their physical identities are masked by digital avatars - making their stories all the more startling.
I loved hearing the arguments in support of simulation theory. Did you know that deja vu is actually a glitch in the matrix? Have you ever wondered if life’s synchronicity is evidence of a simulation programming error? I actually haven’t. However, it is fun thinking about this stuff… up to a point.
Simulation theory stops being fun when it stops being a theory - when it starts, for some people, to become reality. Ascher explores what happens when people begin to see life as nothing more than a computer game. He examines - using shocking clips of computer games showing 'people' being thrown off buildings, mown down by vehicles and pushed off cliffs - how this can corrupt their view of the world and lessen the value of human lives.
One of the avatars in A Glitch In The Matrix considers Richard Russell’s comments after he stole a 76-seat passenger plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, despite having no piloting experience. We watch incredible footage (set to haunting music) of Russell flying close to the ground and looping the loop. When air traffic control questioned his flying ability, Russell said that because he played video games “I know what I’m doing a little bit”.
Ascher does not explore this story further and we do not know if Russell's actions were influenced by simulation theory. As he died in the incident, we will likely never know. The point is that the truth - whatever that is - would not stop believers from interpreting his comments to suit their own arguments.
Looking for validation, believers find it in a variety of places - from their own experiences, the words of Philip K Dick (and Elon Musk) and the research that has been undertaken by philosophers, mathematicians and other academics. What feeds this theory is the fact that, while we cannot prove that we are living in a computer programme, we cannot disprove it either.
In A Glitch In The Matrix, Ascher talks to Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom, author of the 2003 statics-based article Are You Living In A Computer Simulation? The article uses probability theory to suggest that, in a simulation hypothesis, we are more likely than not living in a simulated world. Bostrom's work is, of course, part of a long line of philosophical thought experiments including Descartes's evil demon, Gilbert Harman’s brain in a vat and Plato's Cave.
Artist and historian, Emily Pothast, has written about Plato’s Cave and its relevance to simulation theory and other aspects of digital communication. She discusses her unsettling conclusions in the film and highlights the dangers of simulation theory. If you believe that the humans you see are just “pod people”, she cautions, “you get into a place where you treat reality like these are digital, disposable bodies.”
Joshua Cooke is a case in point. Cooke, who shares his story in the film, became obsessed with The Matrix. He believed that, like Neo, he too was living in a simulation. What this belief inspired him to do is extremely disturbing. Cooke is here to set the record straight. Real life, he warns, is not like a movie - “real life was so much more horrific.”
Ascher acknowledges our growing sense of anxiety by asking Bostrom if the simulation argument makes him feel at all uneasy. Submerged in his thought experiment for so long, Bostrom is rather taken aback by this question. Unsurprisingly, he can offer us no soothing answers.
However, Bostrom does note that simulation theory makes the “general notion that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy” quite compelling. “This sense that we are possibly very, very limited in our understanding of what the heck is going on,” he adds. Perhaps ignorance is bliss after all.
Thanks to Ascher’s documentary, I am now slightly less limited in my understanding of what the heck is going on with simulation theory. While I thoroughly enjoyed my trip down this rabbit hole, A Glitch In The Matrix was a pretty unnerving and paranoia inducing experience. Computer programme or not, I am now more than happy to return to my base reality.
A Glitch in the Matrix is released on 5th February 2021 on VOD platforms and Dogwoof On Demand. The film will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 10th May 2021.