I saw that movie in 1999. It was fantastical. I knew it was SciFi, but I couldn’t deny that it could have been a self-aware picture of our reality: living in the Matrix.
Putting that remote possibility aside, I think we might be walking into a version of the matrix, one that we create as our personal decisions clash and mingle in our social interactions.
Here’s what I’m thinking…
Skies on fire are coming: Atmospheric warming (the result of retaining green-house gases and the driver of climate change) means more energy in the skies, and thus more energy to dissipate via lightning and stronger storms. Will the future bring skies on fire? “We don’t know who struck first, us or them, but we know that it was us that scorched the sky.” — Morpheus, in The Matrix. There’s a very interesting discussion of whether The Matrix, which takes place in the future, is actually a prediction based on our current polluting habits, which are burning the skies and thus making outdoor life uncomfortable, via heat, storms, angry people.
The point: We are burning up the earth, so perhaps we will retreat into a Matrix
Machine control: The 1 Percent (more properly, the 0.1%) have ridiculous wealth, and thus power (via corrupt institutions), meaning that a lot of us lack control we think we have. I’m sure some people are living 100% free, and I feel about 80% free, but I think that many people — people in debt, with poor health, and/or insecure from any of a dozen fears — these people are somewhat controlled by the 0.1 Percent. How many people or countries does this apply to? I’d answer in the negative by saying where it does NOT apply: In maybe a dozen countries with 500 million citizens, where politicians work for citizens rather than the rich. For the other 6.7 billion people in the world (including Americans), control is lacking.* This reality, I think, underlies some of the attraction of video games and social media. Those “apps” allow people to “succeed,” via (own paced) effort and (algorithmically-stimulated) skill.**
The point: Lost control is more acceptable when you have some other means of feeling in control, and the virtual worlds deliver that feeling.
It’s sustainable: As more citizens escape into AI landscapes, there is less pressure on resources, which is good for the planet’s recovery as well as making it easier to maintain the Matrix. It also makes life better for the 0.001% who are paying for all this, via universal basic income [for people plugged into the Matrix]. Turning from fiscal to ecological sustainability, we know that water, food and shelter will be very basic due to exhausted waters, soils and air. Habitats will supply recycled wastewater and lab-grown food in a personal space of 4m2 (40 freedom units2). Small habitats reduce costs and footprints. Since nobody will need to commute, vacation or move (why bother when you live online?), many transportation resources will also be saved. Note that people will not necessarily physically plugged in (like in The Matrix) but mentally so.
My one-handed conclusion is that a large percentage of the world’s citizens are mentally checked out or preoccupied by fear and need to survive. These people will be happier checking into the Matrix of fantasy internet lives. On the “supply side”, the increasing need to live in climate controlled spaces, eat and drink manufactured and purified food, and lack of options due to inequality makes moving into the Matrix more attractive. I see a lot of zombies walking around these days, lost in their fantasies. Will they opt in — or have they already?
* George Orwell’s 1984 is ever more relevant: “The crucial issue was not that Trump might abolish democracy but that Americans had put him in a position to try. Unfreedom today is voluntary. It comes from the bottom up.”
** Note that those apps also take more of our time, leaving us with less time “out of the bubble,” which is a crucial input to working with the complexities of people — and thus why it’s not always the point to get your way.
Addendum (13 Jun 2023): Apple’s “Vision Pro” brings us another step forward.