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Together in Electric Dreams

A documentary film about the science fiction motif of ‘the world as a hallucination’ reveals something quite different — the tragedy of the means people use to cope with reality.

The ubiquity of social media, smartphones, deep fakes, conspiracy theories, and ‘fake news’, some theorists claim, has led to the collapse in a shared reality. The premise of the new documentary film A Glitch in the Matrix goes one step further; the real reason for this pervasive sense of unreality is that we are actually all already living in a computer simulation created as an experiment by our own descendants and that sometimes, the programme goes wrong. The film’s promotional blurb sets up the expectation that it will be a deep dive into this theory, with a number of philosophers and theoreticians on hand to propel us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.

The film does contain these elements and employs an essayistic structure of a sort, but overall, it’s extremely disjointed and uneven in both theme and tone. The starting point and ostensibly its core resource is footage of a talk given in the early 1970s by the noted sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, in which he claimed personal experience of and insight into what is commonly referred to as the ‘multiple worlds’ theory: the claim that a number of other realities are contiguous with our own — the borders of which are very porous.

Another key element of the film, which overlaps to some degree with Dick’s claims, is simulation theory, as proposed by the philosopher Nick Bostrom. But this, despite the complexity of the argument, its refutations, and its many intricate implications, is also addressed rather perfunctorily, perhaps because ninety minutes of Bostrom’s largely expressionless face on a Zoom call, close up over a mid-range webcam, is no one’s idea of cinema.

Glitch also throws in various other meme-y ideas drawn from the internet to buttress its argument. One is the Mandela Effect, a phenomenon in which large numbers of people claim to remember historical facts which have presumably been written out of the record as our thirty-first-century AI overlords tinker with the simulation we are immersed in. The most widespread example of this is the insistence by large numbers of people that they remember an alternate timeline in which Nelson Mandela died in prison. It also explores a Reddit poster’s claim to being a Non-Player Character (the video game equivalent of movie extras) due to the extremely limited and highly patterned number of responses he has to give in his service-sector job. This touches on the experiential flatness and routinisation of social interactions in what has been dubbed ‘emotional labour’, but the film fails to explore this potentially fruitful political avenue.

The third strand, and the one where all the interest of the film resides, is a number of interviews with men who believe that they are living in a simulation, including a disturbingly detailed interview with Joshua Cooke recounting the night he murdered his parents (his obsession with the film The Matrix was almost used as a defence in his trial). The three main interviewees are disguised behind computer graphics and the stories they relate of what led to them believing they were in a simulation are also animated, often in deliberately dated and clunky ways, lending the film a jarring, dreamlike quality.

The tension between the horror in Cooke’s bland retelling of the shooting of his parents and the whimsical and pathos-laden explanations of how the other three have dealt with their insights into the artificiality of the world around them turn the film instead into something of a meditation on what the psychoanalyst Darian Leader calls ‘quiet madness’. These are the often extravagantly elaborated and hidden structures of reasoning that many people develop in order to continue to function. Leader expresses this invisible, individuated ‘quiet madness’ as a way of ‘being mad without going mad’, a way of not becoming Cooke. For Dick that coping mechanism was perhaps the creation of fictional worlds, for Bostrom it could be the building of extravagant systems of thought. For the interviewees it’s a constant negotiation with a sense of unreality and non-existence — and ultimately Glitch maintains interest less because it blows the mind with theory than by pulling at the heartstrings through its insights into the coping mechanisms of the individual psyche, and the quiet madness of everyday life.