I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what is real–and not just because of the paradoxes of the pandemic or even the completely divergent narratives of January 6. The topic of reality is hot in pop culture this year. From literary books like France’s huge hit The Anomaly to TV shows like Manifest, movies, and even nonfiction and the news, what is real seems to be the question on everyone’s mind the and the consequences of answers to this question couldn’t be more relevant.
Enter two stories that take us on an exploration of what is real. The new movie The Matrix: Resurrection brings fans on a very meta journey down the rabbit hole of the real exploring the future of our metaverse, while the weighty book The Dawn of Everything uses history to row us back to the past–and blow up everything you thought you knew about ancient history and the evolution of human civilization.
The Matrix cannon is all about reality–what is it, who controls it, and do you really want to live in reality anyways? Questioning the nature of reality is hot in science fiction–and science–as rapid advances in technology and in scientific theory push the boundaries of what we call reality into decidedly unreal places. With billionaires colonizing the moon and planets and AI debating its own sentience, ideas from the early trilogy of the matrix have migrated into the real world.
Meanwhile, looking back can be just as trippy in reshaping our idea of who we are and what we can become. It turns out we have trouble identifying the reality of the past as well. In The Dawn of Everything, authors Graeber and Wengrow take on antiquity and blow up our ideas about the development of humans. The idea of the noble savage, the linear rise of civilization, and the progressive development of culture are myths of the present. So much of our ideas about how humans have lived oversimplifies the complex and messy many pathways that led us to this moment.
Knowing what is real is the current challenge of our time. Is the virus a threat or a weapon manufactured by jaded governments to control their sheeple? Was the insurrection a failed coup or a successful social media selfie challenge? Is the world ending or does it just feel like we are getting shaken apart by the spin cycle of climate change? Your answer will determine what side you are on–anti-vaxxers or Pfizer Puritans, crazy right or crazy left, deniers or zealots.
We think of reality as constant and stable–a real world is predictable with clear rules, constraints that guide process and change. In truth, reality is more an agreement we make with each other about what is happening, and what is possible. The fact of the matter is that no matter how many facts we have or what matter we can see feel and sense, it is we–using judgments and meaning-making–who ultimately decide what is real. Given that we have to use meaning-making processes and our own subjective judgments reality is decidedly less constant, stable, and universal than we may think.
This seems counterintuitive. We can’t just wish away the physical things that surround us, can we? Either a tree exists or it does not–if you decide it doesn’t the tree is no less real, right? But when we scratch below the surface of common sense, there is much more going on. What we perceive is a reflection of our own processing. We humans don’t all see things the same, and of course animals all have a different way of seeing.
Even the tree that seems so solid is –well–not. The atoms that make up the tree are zipping about, with enough space between for particles and waves to pass through. What seems solid to our eyes is riddled with gaps. What seems constant to our mind is only a slice of all that is happening and of all that could be perceived or filtered out.
Now, this is really going to bake your noodle: what if it is all simulated? As described in The Matrix: Resurrections Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Theory asks us to choose between two statements that cannot both be true. Either you think that there is no intelligent life in the universe more advanced than ours that would be capable of creating simulated worlds or you are living in a simulation. It seems crazy: of course, you are not living in a simulation–are you? How would you know? And do you believe that there is no other intelligence in the whole universe? If there was, do you believe that they wouldn’t want to create their own worlds? That seems unlikely when we humans spend lots of time simulating worlds–from the Sims to Clash of Clans to the Metaverse, simulating the world seems to be one of our favorite pastimes. And if they could simulate realities they could make trillions of realities–all indistinguishable from the original. So can you really say that we stand alone and unique in the whole known universe?
Reality is determined by our meaning-making, and that means that we can have as many realities as we do people to perceive it. There is no one reality, but instead what we consider the real world is actually what is perceived together by us. We could have a billion realities, or we can change what we think is real in just the blink of an eye. The stability that we depend on is but an illusion. And it is an illusion that we are increasingly able to construct from the ground up.
Take the Metaverse (TM)–we think no one will mistake the fake world of Zuckerberg for the real world that we live in–but we said the same things about the internet. Many of you remember life before the internet: we argued about whether speech on the internet was real, or if filtered images could be as compelling and true to us as ones in our material world. Turns out, the online world has become in many ways more real–more consequential, more able to shape our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be true, right, and beautiful, than the physical world that we live in.
We stand poised on the next leg of the journey. The Metaverse endeavors to create worlds more able to fill our senses, to submerge us wholly in a sensory experience, and to make that world an important place for meaning-making. If we enter the Metaverse and it becomes a place of greater consequence and salience than our material world–which let’s face it isn’t the best place to be right now–why wouldn’t we choose to live in this place?
We don’t need to go to the outer reaches of the universe to bend reality. We like to think that our human history has been a straight line from tribes and bands to the glittering technological masterpiece that is our present world. But we couldn’t be more wrong. Humans have been on the planet for hundreds of thousands of years–much of which we know almost nothing about. What if ancient people were not simple-minded creatures marching steadily from farming to the fruits of capitalism, but instead experimented with a freedom different from the flag-waving nationalism of our present?
Increasingly, archaeology and anthropology show evidence that humans have lived in a myriad of different ways, creating economies that were not based on exploitation, living a freedom we can barely imagine in our own ‘advanced’ world. In The Dawn of Everything, we learn more about the Indigenous Critique, where Indigenous thinkers in the Americas gasped in horror at the exploitation and abuse that Europeans took for civilization. Far from living in ignorant bliss, it appears early people had many ways of organizing that relied neither on power, not religion, nor technology. The present reality that we have created, with its freedom that isn’t free and our wealth that is not enriching is not the only way to human.
In our own present, shared reality is a slippery concept. We are nestled inside realities like nesting dolls–some of us live wholly in man-made worlds–the present and future Metaverse, while some of us have to go out here on planet earth and battle the very real viruses from COVID to Trumpism to climate change. Most of us move between reality bubbles, our world a complex mash-up of made-up realities that clash in a million ways. But, don’t let the complexity of our present make you hopeless for the future.
If we accept that there is no reality, it might seem alarming at first. Everything that you know, all that you took to be solid and unchanging, is all of a sudden set in motion. What we accept as universal truth becomes mere guesses as to what is and what can be. On the other side of that free fall, though, is freedom.
If reality is what we make it then we can at any moment create change and mobilize ourselves to live in a different world. Sci-fi has long imagined what worlds there might be in the future. Abolition movements, which came to mainstream notice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd amidst calls to abolish the police, point to a doorway where–free from systems that no longer serve us–we can step into a new world that we can build together.
To build a new reality what we need is a shared consciousness of what we know and what we don’t and the willingness to engage in crafting a new agreement about what it means to live in this world and be fully human. Luckily for us, both The Matrix: Resurrection and The Dawn of Everything share the same lesson for us. Tune in to part 2 to learn the answer to life the universe and everything (spoiler: it is not 42).