Glitches in Matrix,
or why we trust reality
We know that everything has a scientific explanation and that coincidences are explained by the law of large numbers, but admit that you were flabbergasted too at seeing the picture of the same person duplicated on the same street, of the car with an identical medium behind or the T-shirt with a print that is repeated on the seat of the person wearing it. The idea is so widespread that it has become a meme: “a glitch in the Matrix”. Google it and you will get dozens of lists on Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post. This game, this light and mundane obsession, says a lot about our fixation on popular culture, about the currency of certain references (a 16-year-old film!), about digital literacy and about how much we enjoy a good story. But it also hides (and there goes my hypothesis) a greater concern: the one implying that the world is a lie, a papier mâché setting and that, if we look quickly through the corner of our eye, we’ll manage to spot its seams.
It’s the same indescribable feeling that we get with a déjà vu or with one of those dreams with minimal premonitions that end up coming true (once I anticipated that there would be a remake of The Evil Dead; beat that one, Oracle at Delphi!). The world, for a moment, stops working and mistakes that before took supernatural forms now imitate IT language and synthetic images: invisible walls, repeated objects, clipping, textures that don’t work properly… Our current ghost stories take these shapes. We see Cosmos, read sceptic blogs and take the piss out of show Cuarto Milenio, but at the same time we grasp that there is something not quite fitting in the puzzle of reality.
This suspicion can’t be silenced. Philosophy has thought about it since the days of Plato’s cavern, Descartes’ evil demon, Russell’s problem of other minds or Putnam’s brain in a vat: they all come to say that knowing reality without the influence of our perception is impossible; and that who knows what might be on the other side of our senses. We could be living in a bad videogame and not have a clue. Epistemology is a nasty trick.
Pop culture, a distant, but very cool, relative of philosophy, has portrayed this distress in more or less clear ways. And no, Matrix isn’t the best of them, and it doesn’t have the best glitches either. It’s a well-known fact that the Wachowskis’ movie was inspired by texts on the artificial such as, for example, The Invisibles or Dark City. On the first one, an excellent and mad comic book by Grant Morrison, our universe is a hologram created by the collision of another two, and only some characters can see reality and jump between the different planes. In Alex Proyas’ Dark City, the world is reconfigured every night in order to experiment with its subjects, like a giant lab managed by Others, these Them who are at the same time demiurges and stagehands and who design the mise en scène of our lives.
In both Matrix and The Invisibles or Dark City (and its cousin, The Truman Show), the main question of awakening as the last goal is central. Our reality is a construct, but there is a truth to it we should aspire to know in order to be free: fictional reality versus real reality. In this sense, their discourse becomes close to the conspiracy theories so popular in the nineties: there is always a manipulator in the shadows, a master hand, someone pulling all the strings. Power tries to disorient us with what Baudrillard called “simulation”, a copy that pretends to be an original version. This awakening, thus, is not so much metaphysical as it is political: reality is still there, at the other side of the imposture, and the glitches in the Matrix reveal the trick. Find the glitch, fight the system.
Although these proposals are a sign of a very modern unrest (we live in the era of suspicion), their dependence upon a villain seems too simplistic. Let’s go a bit further. We can go down a step towards virtual worlds with no final boss, like the ones depicted in Abre los ojos or eXistenZ, which we enter willingly although we don’t know it, or even to digital worlds that are interwoven with ours and expand it, like the ones portrayed in Serial Experiments Lain or Ghost in the Shell. In all these heirs of literary cyberpunk, awakening works in the opposite direction: it’s not about retrieving the real reality, but about connecting our minds to a digital network thanks to which we transcend our humanity and reach a sort of post-human illumination. Virtuality is no longer fictional reality, but elevated reality. The glitch is now a HoloLens brand, the sign of social cyborgs in Black Mirror. Don’t fight back. Embrace the glitch.
We can go even one step beyond. If we keep on advancing with our suspicion in mind, thinking about why we want to spot glitches in a bus stop, we’ll find the author who best explored reality’s deformities: Philip Kindred Dick, writer, philosopher, schizophrenic, paranoid, drug addict, genius, and possibly contacted by aliens. In seminal stories such as We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, The Man in the High Castle or the vast Ubik, K. Dick tested reality using technology, mysticism, mental illness, drugs, metaphysics, and even oneiric or quantic perspectives. We can’t trust our memories, know whether reality is a computer simulation or even make sure we’re still alive. “I like building universes that fall apart”, he wrote in his essay How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. And then he added: “Nothing is real”.
At the end of the day, the more modern science advances, the stranger and unstable everything seems. If in the quantic world things can exist and not exist, be here and there at the same time, why couldn’t be a duplicated cat staring at himself? Strange science (Lovecraft already warned us about it) has given birth to one of the most beautiful and poetic concepts of our times: the fabric of reality. A glitch shows that reality isn’t solid, but a mere fragile fabric that can be folded and perforated, that when fails it causes all the passengers in our train to have the same face or all cats to move in unison.
As if he wanted to contradict Leibniz (“Why is there something instead of nothing?”), K. Dick asked himself “what is real?”, and admitted: “you’ll see I have been unable to answer this”. For Dick, glitches don’t reveal a trick or a possibility of transcendence, but rather something more distressful: an unsolvable enigma. The only thing we know for sure is that they’re there. The glitch is, indeed, metaphysical, almost zen. The glitch is a kôan.
Following this path, and getting back to Baudrillard, we see that the fabric of reality is not a simulation but a simulacrum; not something hiding the truth, but a truth hiding that there is nothing under it. It’s very possible that behind a glitch there is nothing, or even worse, that there is only a nothing reality. Finding a glitch is admitting the existence of the void. Let’s celebrate it, then, not to be free or elevated, but to accept that life is but a dream, and dreams are but dreams. And every now and then they fail and reveal the secrets of space and time by duplicating cats lying down on the corridor and, hey, at least we have a laugh!