Are We Living in a Simulation? Bad Religion, Bad Media Combine in New Doc, ‘A Glitch in the Matrix’

Screen shot from the trailer for Rodney Ascher’s documentary 'A Glitch in the Matrix' (2021).

Brother Laeo Mystwood looks at the camera, his body obscured by a 3D avatar. He is talking about the many coincidences of his life and how they led him to believe that he’s living in a computer simulation. We all are, he says. It’s just probability. Additionally, only some of us are “real.” The rest of us are bits of superficial programming running to entertain, challenge, and provide background. Real players are code too, but they have the ability to program themselves and, to some extent, what’s around them. When those players move on in the game, in the simulation, the rest of us disappear, to save on processing power. It’s just IT best practices. 

This is Rodney Ascher’s 2021 A Glitch in the Matrix, due out this Friday, February 5. The movie has two distinct threads—the first, a documentary about simulation theory. The second, a crime docudrama about a domestic violence event that involved The Matrix. If the movie has a thesis it is most elegantly framed by Erik Davis, who says something like: the conditions of our collective existence are pretty weird, and hard to figure out. Maybe try some empathy and perspective.

In some ways this feels like just the right movie for our times. It’s about fractured and multiple felt realities, and the frustrated longing for some sort of shared cohesion or, at least, a shared sense of stability. It’s got a small cast, with “witnesses” like Mystwood shrouded by 3D avatars and “expert testimony” from academics filmed from their home offices. Video footage of Elon Musk appears four times; Neil deGrasse Tyson once. There is only one woman ever on film, academic Emily Pothast. At the time of this publishing she’s not listed in the IMDb credits. 

Let’s return to Brother Mystwood.

Mystwood realized we are actually living in a simulation after he used a sensory deprivation tank in “some guy’s apartment” in New York City. In some ways this might be all you ever need to know about simulation theory—at its heart it’s the idea that whatever we are we are not our bodies, and I wonder if it most often attracts those who don’t worry about the safety of their own bodies at all. 

This isn’t so strange in Western intellectual history. 

Simulation theory inherits a version of Western skepticism that depends on the separation of body and mind. The movie cuts between scenes of Plato’s allegory of the cave, Descartes’ skepticism, Harman’s “brain in a vat,” and Nick Bostrom’s “Are you living in a computer simulation?” The central idea is that the important part of ourselves is consciousness, whatever that means. The brain is the only bit of the body that matters, because surely that’s where the consciousness lives. 

When you combine this with the idea that only some people have real consciousness, only some people can program, while everyone else has a false, programmed consciousness, you get to the version of simulation theory Mystwood is playing with—he is the universe, the universe is code, his code is part of the important bit, it’s all a simulation, and he’s ready to play. And, importantly, the rest of us might not matter.

The language of programming in A Glitch in the Matrix is compelling and difficult. On the one hand, it is literal computer programming. On the other, intentional or not, the movie invokes the language of “deprogramming” that was common in mid-20th century American efforts to help “brainwashed” members escape the seeming abuses of new religions, known popularly (and pejoratively) as “cults.” Both meanings combine in A Glitch in the Matrix. Programming is bad, and to be programmed is bad. But becoming a programmer—a player who can bend and manipulate and interact with the simulation—is good. There’s a sense of superiority in being the programmer amongst the programmed. Of control, of power. “It’s such a school shooter fantasy,” Pothast warns, “you have the eyes to see what no one else can.” 

As the movie goes on we’re eventually introduced to Joshua Cooke, who reveals in graphic detail how he watched The Matrix a bunch of times before murdering his parents. We’re also asked to think about how the New Zealand shooter live streamed his actions, swaying the gun as if he was in a first person shooter game. Although not mentioned in the movie, I wondered about Grand Theft Auto and the dramatic rise of white supremacists using cars to attack protestors. If life looks like a simulation, like a first person shooter, Pothast explains, “you treat reality like [it is filled with] these dispensable bodies.”

Did The Matrix, along with the insiduous logic of simulation theory, “program” Cooke to murder his parents? The film asks us to wonder. We’re told that there’s such a thing as “The Matrix defense,” a form of the insanity defense, but Cooke doesn’t use it. Instead, the movie ends on a note about escaping solipsism through embodied human connection. A global pandemic was probably not the ideal timing for a release date. 

It’s a newish twist on an old narrative: bad religion and bad media make us bad. But the problems posed by simulation theory are not new ones—we’ve never shared a cohesive reality. Worldviews, structural systems, lived consequences—these have always been unevenly felt. And so the binary of my mattering and your not collapses into another one: I’m in the real world, and you’re not. Indeed, the movie asks us to think about simulation theory by posing exactly two questions: how does a simulation theorist deal with someone in a false world? How might we do the same?

This is an old problem in religious studies, and a boring one, because it spends all its time spinning out into who is metaphysically right and who isn’t. It ignores the very real and immediate consequences of the stories we’re telling in the meantime. In this case, A Glitch in the Matrix presents us with a story about how simulation theory fed into domestic abuse, but the terms of the conversation aren’t honest. 

As Dr. Megan Goodwin has shown, abuse doesn’t happen more often in marginalized religions; the discourse that tells us otherwise does so in part to protect long standing relations of power in the US that work to uphold the supremacy of certain forms of religion (white, protestant) over others. And, while robust studies of domestic violence and religion are few and far between, Dr. Juliane Hammer’s 2019 Peaceful Families offers us an important model for how scholars and activists might move the conversation forward productively. Similarly, the hand wringing about media content ignores the very real way in which media structures are abusive as well—just take, as an example, the rise in the use of smart homes and IoT devices in domestic violence cases

A Glitch in the Matrix inherits these bad religion/bad media discourses and spins them out into a dialogue about embodied empathy. It’s nice to think about, but ultimately feels like coming up short. If the topic is abuse, let’s ask better questions. We owe it to the 10 million underserved and understudied women and men who are abused each year. 

If the topic is simulation theory, what if, instead, we asked about the kinds of work this theory is doing, for whom, and how? What kinds of bodies and minds simulation theory upholds as normative and invisible? What if we wondered how this theory is working in and moving amongst Big Tech, who have a vested interest in keeping the very real material waste of technological worlds, of simulation, hidden? What if we asked how The Matrix, a movie that is absolutely about embodied experience, has become such a ready resource to be used to render the body so completely invisible that it is forgotten and rejected before the conversation even begins? What if we asked how simulation theory intersects with pumpkin spice lattes, and global economies? 

What if, my friends, we asked for two women experts in a movie, and not just one?