The Matrix - Simulacra and Dystopia

Topics: Artificial intelligence, Human, Virtual reality Pages: 5 (1736 words) Published: October 8, 1999
© 2001 by Daniel du Prie

Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where our bodies live. (Barlow, 1996)
You've been living in a dream world Neo. This, is the world, as it exists today: Welcome to the desert – of the real. (Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix)
From Plato's "Charmides" to the Wachowski brothers' "The Matrix" (1999), there is a tradition of writing in Western literature, which thinks about and imagines the city as either a utopia or a dystopia, or both. I believe that what such imagining allows us is to do is locate ourselves within a type of dialectic of the best possible or worst possible outcomes that our own historical conditions may lead us to. By imagining utopian and dystopic cities we are alerted to the ethical and moral implications that constantly changing social structures, always under continual sway by developments in technology, hold for communities in cities. Visions of dystopia and utopia function as allegories of contemporary society – of the particular historical moment of society in which a particular utopian or dystopic vision is produced. They historicise given moments by alerting us to and imagining the possible implications caused by technological change. Most of all, they historicise by reminding us of the fact that ours is just a given moment – things do not stay the same.

Jameson (1992: 11) notes that, "If everything means something else, then so does technology." Particularly in an era where technological change is so very rapid, and where traditionally accepted notions about the position and function of the subject in a community or society have come under sustained attack, visions of dystopia and utopia ask just what technology might come to mean for us, in an age where living in diverse city communities challenges the dominance of any single meaning.

"The Matrix", like a number of contemporary science-fiction films (eg "Bladerunner", "The Terminator") deals with themes of conspiracy, paranoia, the loss of privacy and the dissolution of human society in favour of a technology that has become supreme in its own right. Their space of action is within the city. In both "The Terminator" and "The Matrix" humans have lost out to artificial intelligence, which, soon after having been invented, quickly becomes malevolent and takes control of itself at the expense of human society. The implication seems to be that two different sentient, intelligent types of beings cannot possibly share this world together – one has to go, and it is inevitably the carbon-based humans which end up as the inferior life form.

Where "The Matrix" really fascinates though is in its rupturing of what we know as reality. In "The Matrix", the artificial intelligence (AI) has devised the ultimate conspiracy theory – where reality itself is nothing but a collectively dreamt conspiracy set in contemporary urban society. The story goes that when AI went bad, humans "scorched the sky" in order to deprive the AI of its power source, ie, the sun. Deprived of its power, the AI then came across the very novel idea of using humans themselves as its power source. In order to get (almost) perfect compliance, the AI constructed a virtual reality: a perfect replica or simulacrum of life in the city in 1999, put the humans to sleep and plugged them in. In the ‘real' world it is actually the late twenty-first century. Humans lie peacefully unaware of their actual condition in endless rows of artificial wombs, digesting the liquefied remains of the dead, functioning as so many billions of Duracell batteries for the AI (it's fascinating to consider the types of images and ideas corporations will desire to have their product placed with!), in a landscape that looks like it was taken right out of an H. R. Giger painting. This wholly computer generated simulation of reality, functioning to pull the wool over the eyes of the human race, is...

References: in Text

  • Barlow, J.P. ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace ', available at

  • Durham, S. (1998) Phantom Communities: The Simulacrum and the Limits of Postmodernism Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  • Jameson, F. (1992) The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  • Levery, D. L. (2001) ‘From Cinespace to Cyberspace: Zionists and Agents, Realists and Gamers in the Matrix and eXistenZ ' Journal of Popular Film and Television 28 (4): 150-162.

  • Miller, E. D. (2000) ‘The Matrix and the Medium 's Message ' Social Policy 30 (4): 56-61.


  • Jordan, T. (1999) Cyberpower: the culture and politics of cyberspace and the Internet London: Routledge.

  • Schmid, W. T. (1998) Plato 's Charmides and the Socratic Ideal of Rationality Albany: State University of New York Press.
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