2020 Has Me Really Wondering if We’re Living in the Matrix
It’s the year reality and conspiracy theories crashed into each other
It was the reanimated corpses of culled, Covid-infected mink rising from their mass graves that finally got me. In case you missed it, a mutation of Covid-19 was discovered last month on mink farms in Denmark. Fearing the mutated virus would spread to the human population and interfere with the effectiveness of vaccines, mink farmers culled millions of the animals, which are raised for use by furriers. To the horror of observers, some of the animals disinterred themselves to walk the earth again. The corpses of the animals were instead burned.
Is this not the opening sequence of a zombie thriller? When I read the news about the mink I thought, surely, this can’t be real. If it isn’t real, how would we know? I’ve been pondering this question more than I’m comfortable admitting. I’ve joked, along with others, about “the engineers testing the limits of the simulation” or “the writers room trying to do too much.” But 2020 has been weird as hell and seems almost designed to strain our credulity.
The pandemic demonstrated how important it is that a critical mass of people accept a shared reality.
I recently rewatched The Matrix, the seminal “your world is a computer simulation” pop culture artifact. The film has held up well since its release in 1999, and the questions it asks remain relevant. What is reality, and how much does it overlap with our perceptions and beliefs about it? These are sticky philosophical queries that may never have firm answers. We all have moments when we sense there may be a veil we can’t see past. Perhaps we experience déjà vu or feel as if we’re certain we’ve known someone we’ve only just met. There’s a feeling in our lives that a story is being written, and every now and then the narrator makes a slip and nearly reveals themselves to us. In The Matrix, the narrators are a vast network of computers running a simulation on human subjects, who have no idea the world they experience doesn’t exist. Sometimes, whenever the simulation would update, there were glitches — something obviously out of place. It made a certain kind of curious person question the story they were being told and seek the truth.
People’s divergent perceptions and beliefs about reality were volatile flash points in 2020. It is the year in which reality and conspiracy theories crashed into each other. The chaotic year will be defined by the Covid-19 pandemic and the world’s response. The pandemic demonstrated how important it is that a critical mass of people accept a shared reality that allows them to cooperate to solve large-scale problems. In a way, a certain segment of the world insists we are living in a kind of Matrix, and Covid-19 (and other deathly serious matters) are falsehoods being propagated to control us. “Hoax” may be the word of the year, because of the dire consequences of the actions of those whose beliefs are shaped by this conspiracist thinking.
In 2020, the storyline has become so absurd it’s scarcely believable.
The year 2020 seemed to defy reality, because it also defied classic storytelling tropes. Take the zombie films to which I alluded as examples. A writer would have been laughed out of the room if they’d pitched a non-satirical story in which hordes of people created a “resistance” movement of plague-spreaders, whose animating belief was that they had a God-given right to be bitten, bite others, and infect themselves and anyone they pleased. It’s too contrary to rational self-interest, too bizarre. In 2020, the storyline has become so absurd it’s scarcely believable. Reality has raced past satire.
The themes of The Matrix point to why this strange response arose. The Matrix is a “chosen one” story filled with religious undertones. The hero, Neo, dies, is resurrected, and ascends to his higher self — his true self. The Matrix is also a story about secret knowledge and true believers, those who see past an elaborately constructed facade to understand the truth of the world. It is about the power of that truth and how belief in it frees and transforms. Anti-maskers, QAnoners, anti-vaxxers, and similar groups believe they have secret knowledge. They believe they are enlightened. They believe they are special, perhaps even chosen. They believe they are free and can’t understand why the rest of us don’t want to join them and their Covid droplets in the march to… wherever they think it is they’re going.
It saddens me that people who have fallen for the “coronavirus is a hoax!” and similar conspiracy theories were actually on to something. There is something gravely amiss and off-kilter in the world. We have been fed propaganda that belies reality and creates a crushing sense of cognitive dissonance. Myths that create certainty in a false sense of security will always rush in to fill that gap. The Covid-19 pandemic is one of the lenses that magnified the issue and forced us to consider what is real and what should be important to us. Rugged individualism is no help in a pandemic or any other large-scale emergency. Cooperation is what undergirds civilization, keeps it going, and maintains equilibrium. The Matrix also discusses the matter starkly when Agent Smith refers to humankind as “a virus” that spreads unchecked. Humanity isn’t the problem, though. The cartoonishly evil greed of a small number of people has put the human race catastrophically out of balance with our natural environment and alienated many of us from our responsibilities to one another.
There is a Matrix that uploads falsehoods to us and stimulates us in ways that prevent us from seeing the truth. That Matrix is made up of consumerism, propaganda, and other fulcrums of pacification that mask the horrors of a devastatingly extractive and violent capitalism that cannot be sustained. We should question our reality. In fact, we must.
We are in the “reanimated, plague-riddled mink corpses” phase of being forced to unplug ourselves and look at the real world. If nothing else, the sheer absurdity we’re being asked to accept should give us pause. The Matrix has us. Our lives, our relationships, our societies all have to be reimagined. The comfort and convenience used to entice and mollify us are not worth the immense cost.