The first Matrix movie introduced a generation of sci-fi fans to an ancient philosopher’s saw: What if your entire reality were a deceit? Two decades on, the film’s plot—free-thinking renegades attempt to expose the lies behind an oppressive system—is as timely as ever, but its conceptual premise feels almost quaint. The technologies that have emerged since then do indeed raise the question of what is real, but now they do it in ways that are stranger than even the movie predicted, if rarely quite as sinister.
Your day-to-day reality is an increasingly synthetic experience: Computerized voices inhabit your smart speakers, deepfakes bring dead movie actors back to life, and AI-generated artworks go for eye-watering prices at auction. The simulacrum is extending into food too: Supermarket shelves already contain countless vegan substitutes for meat and other animal products, and before long “real” meat, grown in a lab, will join them. You can inhabit virtual realities and augment your physical one with virtual characters (Pokémon Go), street signs (Google Live View), or furniture (Ikea Studio). All your social media profiles may be real, but does any of them reflect “the real you”? The same question goes for the profiles you can’t even see—those stitched out of data held by credit card companies, shopping sites, or search engines. Each one is a virtual version of you that influences your physical life and, if there are errors in the data, makes you out to be someone you’re not. And now, everyone is suddenly talking about building this thing called “the metaverse.”
In short, things are already weird, and they’re going to get a whole lot weirder really fast. So we decided to use the release of The Matrix Resurrections as a springboard for a special issue of WIRED exploring the future of reality—one in which the question is not “What if we’re all living in a simulation and don’t know it?” but “What happens when we’re living in a simulation and in reality simultaneously, and we know it, but we have trouble telling them apart?” In which case, it doesn’t matter whether you take the red pill or the blue one: We’re all going down the rabbit hole either way. —THE EDITORS
More from WIRED’s special series on the impact of the Matrix franchise—and the future of reality
This article appears in the December 2021/January 2022 issue. Subscribe now.
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