[Sundance Review] 'A Glitch in the Matrix' is a Fascinating Exploration of Our Perceptions of Reality
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” -Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.5...
...Humanity has been reckoning with how best to understand what it means to live in the world for, quite literally, as far back as any of us can remember, back and back to before the recording of history. When the world writ large seems too big to conceptualize, we narrow our focus to the one thing we all purport to understand on the deepest level—ourselves—and work our way outward. Entire schools of thought have been built on the backs of trying to understand the lived experience and, for better or worse, they have served to both unite and divide us. But even as they divide, there is something inherently connective about them. The shared language of uncertainty we’re all trying to mold into something we can make sense of is in large part what director Rodney Ascher’s Sundance Film Festival documentary A Glitch in the Matrix is all about. Beyond that, it asks us to consider the implications of what it means to live in a world bursting with so many different perceptions of reality and how our views might shift if we were presented with the possibility of reality-as-simulation.
Told through a series of interviews with experts and real people who have seriously considered the what-if exercise that the reality in which we live is little more than an intricately vivid simulation a la the Wachowski Sisters’ 1999 phenom The Matrix and laced with author Philip K. Dick’s personal considerations of the simulation theory and how it affects his writing and way of thinking, A Glitch in the Matrix is fascinating and terrifying all at once.
Philip K. Dick, whose work of alternate realities and possible futures has been adapted into some of the biggest science fiction cultural touchstones we have, is also known for being…a rather unusual character himself. He articulated his belief that we’re living in a digitally created artificial world back in 1977 and was dismissed as mad—until about 20 years later when The Matrix posited the same idea in a more visually palatable format. Nowadays, of course, in a world awash with technological connection and—thanks to an ongoing pandemic—not a whole lot of the in-person equivalent, the consideration that we’re living in a world made entirely of code and tech is hardly a stretch. We barely even think about it because society’s development has for so long relied on the idea that you either have the newest tech, or you’re left out entirely. This “natural” progression has been sort of the way we’ve grown to understand ourselves and our place in the world the further along it goes, but it has some complex social considerations of its own. What of the people who can’t afford the most modern hyper-computer, where do they land? Isolated outside the social matrix, missing out simply because they have no other choice? To hear most of the interviewees in Glitch explain it, they may be either experiencing life outside the Matrix—in a world of nothingness and profound absence—or they may be inside with no idea of their positions.
The people interviewed in Glitch come from rather disparate backgrounds. There are scientists, ministers, teachers and, in one perhaps necessary but shocking case, a man who murdered his family, in part thanks to a fascination with the world and ideas behind The Matrix. Despite their differences and regardless of the amount of religion in their histories, those who believe in the within and without of a Matrix-like construct experienced their awakening to this idea in what they articulate as an incredibly spiritual experience. The transcendental “gone-ness” of realizing humanity is nothing more than bits of code is explained in language laced with ideas from all manner of religious sects, most notably Buddhism’s concept of higher understanding of the self-fostered through disconnection from the material and physical worlds.
The film opens with the idea that we’ve been developing our understanding of how our minds and bodies function through the lens of our ever-developing technologies, from humors as liquids flowing through us, to electrical pulses to explain nerve responses, to our brains as computers, so it fascinates me that the understanding of the world as simulation manifests most regularly as a kind of awakening that has very little base language in science and acts more as a bridge between these two concepts—science and religion—that have caused such division among us. Yet the most important idea posited in the film, and the one explored in the most depth, has less to do with the actual awakening and more to do with how we handle this awareness. If we’re truly in a simulation, what sort of impact does this have on how we see ourselves? What does it mean for how we treat others? Are we real entities inhabiting a false world and seeking connection with other real people, or are we all little more than scripted characters in the universe’s game? Does living in a simulation negate the need for genuine connection? Each perspective offered in Glitch has a different shade of answer to these questions—some of which are bound and meant to make viewers uncomfortable—but taken together they provide a fascinating picture of just a few of the possible perceptions of reality out there. We each experience a reality unique to us, the only thing providing us with an understanding of a singular world is that we go around proclaiming it must be true and we must be living in it.
There have been plenty of conspiracy theories about multiple realities and timelines and the shifting nature between them, and plenty of media reckoning with those ideas. The Mandela Effect is perhaps the one we all recognize. It’s the idea that we remember something from the past that is now, presently, erased and untrue, like the Berenstein/Berenstain Bears, the opening “magic mirror on the wall” lines to Snow White, or indeed even when and where Nelson Mandela died, to name a few instances. Some of these could probably be chalked up to false memory spread among the masses—say something enough times to enough people and it will become a truth to some. Super-computer or not, our brains are just as fallible as any other part of us. But some of them have physical proof of difference, and what of that? I am by no means a conspiracy theorist and considering absence rather than presence as the truth of the world has potential to send me spiraling into existentialism, but what a testament to the heart of humanity that, even in a world rife with alternate presents fluctuating around us, the one thing we desire and need the most is understanding and connection in as many forms as we can get it.
By Katelyn Nelson