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From Sci-Fi to Reality: The Matrix as a Mirror of Our Screen-Centric World
Exploring the parallels between the cult classic and our screen-dominated reality
The Matrix portrays a grim future in which people’s minds are trapped in a computer-generated simulation while their bodies are harvested for electricity to power robotic metropolises. Similarly, modern society’s dependence on technology is not only tangible — our reliance on mechanized means of production for our sustenance and standards of living — but also intangible. Indeed, our growing dependence on digital mediums for subsistence and leisure makes the dystopian future portrayed in The Matrix bear an increasing resemblance to our reality.
The deepening human-machine dependence
From electricity and refrigeration to transportation and medicine, modern standards of living depend on machines. Similarly, in The Matrix, the residents of Zion — humankind’s last surviving colony on what remains of Earth after sentient robots usurped control — rely heavily on machinery to survive. As Hamann, a senior council member, notes during a conversation with Neo, “I like to be reminded that this city survives because of these machines.”He gestures toward the vast underground apparatus recycling Zion’s air and water supply, “I think about all those people still plugged into the Matrix and when I look at these machines, I can’t help thinking that in a way, we are plugged into them.”
Neo challenges Hamann’s characterization of the human-machine relationship, “We control these machines, they don’t control us…If we wanted, we could shut [them] down.”While it is true that the machines keeping Zion alive are created and operated by humans and are no more sentient than our kitchen appliances, turning them off is not a viable option. Zion’s survival depends on the machinery just as much as the machinery depends on Zion for its continued operation.
The parallels between the survivors living in Zion and modern society are undeniable but hardly surprising: they both share the same basic needs and necessities such as air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat. More striking are the parallels between our reality and the Matrix-conjured virtual world and its inhabitants.
From online dating to remote work, success in our personal and professional lives increasingly hinges on what happens on-screen.
As the boundary between digital and analog worlds becomes increasingly blurred, these similarities are growing stronger. We have come to rely on the Internet for navigation, banking, communication, and more. Moreover, from online dating to remote work, success in our personal and professional lives increasingly hinges on what happens on-screen.
Even our idle time is spent online: streaming shows on Netflix, watching short-form videos on TikTok, listening to music on Spotify, and countless other forms of digital entertainment. Leisure time used to be active, involving physical interactions with others or with our environment — in the ‘real’ world. Now, however, much of our interactions are digital, taking place in a virtual world.
According to a study by Nielsen, the average American adult spent almost 12 hours on-screen in 2019— nearly three quarters of their waking hours. More recent studies suggest that screen time has continued to increase around the world, partly due to the lasting effects of the Covid-19 lockdowns.
As a result, we have become more passive — a culture of readers rather than speakers, spectators rather than direct participants. This shift is a natural consequence of having much of what we do, think, and feel transpire via a digital medium, such as our smartphones. We might as well be plugged into those devices like the unwitting masses in The Matrix.
More than science fiction
The parallels between our reality and Wachowskis’ imagination are more than figurative. Every product catering to our digital cravings runs on vast data centers, each consuming as much electricity as a small town. In the United States alone, data centers account for approximately 2% of the country’s total electricity usage,equivalent to the energy consumption of almost 7 million people.
It is the users’ time and attention — hours of their lives every day — that pays for the data centers’ maintenance and energy bills. We call them “server farms,” but it is the users whose time and data are harvested, making screen-glued netizens eerily reminiscent of the Matrix-plugged souls serving as robotic batteries.
The human-machine dependence is mutual — in the movie and the real world alike. Though subjugated, humankind in The Matrix becomes the lifeblood of the robotic world. Machines grow, harvest, and recycle human bodies in vast dystopian farms as their sole source of electricity. Humans are to machines as agriculture is to humankind. Agent Smith, a sentient program designed by the Machines to keep order in the Matrix, even refers to humans as “crops.”
We call them “server farms,” but it is the users whose time and data are harvested, making screen-glued netizens eerily reminiscent of the Matrix-plugged souls serving as robotic batteries.
Modern society’s digital pastimes have a similar dependence on their users. The more time we spend interacting with digital entertainment products, the better they get at catering to our cravings. Netflix learns to recommend the types of shows we prefer; TikTok fine-tunes its videos to match our fancy; Spotify adapts its playlists to mirror our music taste. The data we produce through our interactions is the fodder for the recommendation algorithms powering these platforms.
The userbase of digital platforms is vital not only to their proper functioning but also to their very survival. There would be no Netflix or Spotify without subscribers and no TikTok or Instagram without the ad revenue made possible by their vast audiences. The history of the Internet, however brief, is littered with corpses of former social media giants that suffocated as their userbase dwindled: MySpace, Friendster, Vine, and many more met such untimely demise. Those that survived, such as Yahoo or AOL, are mere shadows of their former selves.
The Machines operating the Matrix are comparably reliant on their ‘userbase.’ When human crop yields declined in the wake of the ceasefire Neo made possible, it caused an energy shortage so large that Machines turned on each other. General Niobe, humankind’s new leader, retells the events following the human-machine truce: “Nothing can breed violence like scarcity. For the first time, we saw Machines at war with one another.”The strife for survival in the face of scarce resources echoes the fierce competition among digital giants for our time and attention.
Red pill or blue pill?
To maximize user engagement, the Internet is shaped by our desire for instant gratification and sensationalism over meaningful, in-depth content. It is a mirror of our desires, not aspirations. Sensationalist, clickbait headlines attract more eyeballs than balanced journalism.Users’ attention is drawn to tabloid, tragedy, and mindless content such as cat or dance videos in an endless dopamine-driven feedback loop.
Similarly, the Matrix is created not as an ideal world — free of war, famine, and disease — but as one its inhabitants desired, with all the good and the bad that comes with the human condition. Agent Smith observes, “I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
Comparing Smith’s observation to the kind of online content that draws the most views and the highest engagement, it is clear that it applies equally to the present-day Internet. It is a reminder that we must be mindful of the content we consume and the role it plays in shaping not only our online spaces but also our perception of reality and each other.
Unlike the denizens of the Matrix, who are connected to the digital simulation unknowingly and without consent, we have a great deal of agency over how we spend our time. No one forces us to download TikTok or watch Netflix; we do so by choice. We choose to engage in passive consumption, often over reconnecting with old friends, going to the gym, or doing any number of other activities we, deep down, know we should be doing instead.
In the near future, technologies under active development today may bring humanity ever closer to The Matrix. Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s chief executive, makes no secret of his company’s ambition to create a ‘metaverse’ where many of our real-world interactions would be made possible through virtual reality with an ever-increasing fidelity.That we would enter those worlds by donning a virtual reality headset rather than by plugging a cable into our nape like Neo or Trinity would become an increasingly meaningless distinction.
As technology continues to penetrate ever deeper into our lives, we must reflect on our digital habits and consider the implications of our increasing dependence on our devices. Screen time should enhance our lives, not hinder them. Like Neo confronted by Morpheus in The Matrix’s most iconic scene — a colorful pill in each hand — the choice is ultimately ours.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003), directed by Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski.
The Matrix (1999), directed by Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski.
Matrix Resurrections (2021), directed by Lana Wachowski.
Robertson, C.E., Pröllochs, N., Schwarzenegger, K. et al. (2023). “Negativity drives online news consumption.” Nature Human Behaviour.
The Matrix (1999), directed by Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski.
Wagner, K. (2021). “Zuckerberg Says Facebook’s Future Lies in Virtual Metaverse.” Bloomberg.