The Dilemma of Shutting Down the Matrix
[This essay originally appeared in SciFiDimensions.com in May 2003, just before the first sequel to The Matrix—The Matrix Reloaded—was released. Obviously, the franchise went in directions that completely negate my speculations, but I think they’re interesting enough to warrant revisiting. –JCS 12/27/2021]
Millions of science fiction fans have May 15, 2003 marked on their calendars: it’s the date that The Matrix Reloaded, the much-anticipated sequel to The Matrix, hits theatres. And on November 5, 2003, the conclusion of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, will debut.
The big question in the minds of fans is this: How will Neo and his compatriots destroy the Matrix? The Matrix, we know, is a vast virtual reality that feeds into the minds of billions of unwitting humans, each encased in a nutrient-rich cocoon, and stacked like so much inventory in gigantic towers maintained by the Machines, the descendants of artificial intelligences that rebelled against their human masters.
Of course, it’s just a movie, and the Wachowski Brothers may very well choose not to address the actual moment in which the Matrix itself is incapacitated. But let’s conduct a little thought experiment. How hard would it be to shut down the Matrix—and would we really want to?
There are two principal dilemmas associated with “unloading” the Matrix: shutting it down, and dealing with the aftermath. First, it seems doubtful that Zion (the last sanctuary of free humanity, hidden deep underground) has the resources—in food, water, shelter, clothing, medical treatment (not to mention psychological counseling)—needed to provide for six billion naked, shivering, screaming human beings whose “reality” is suddenly evaporated, and who find themselves helpless and atrophied inside semi-transparent tanks of goo. Zion may consist of a few million souls at best, and surely Morpheus, Neo and the gang would not be so cruel as to traumatize all of humanity simultaneously. No, switching off the Matrix doesn’t seem to be practical. Phasing it out is the ticket.
Or is it? There’s one tiny little problem with the whole assumption behind the Matrix, something that’s been bugging countless fans in “our” world for the last four years. The Matrix, or so Morpheus has said, exists to subdue humanity so the energy generated by their bodies can power the gigantic industrial complex of the Machines. As many have pointed out, this is at best inefficient, and almost certainly impossible. Maintaining a human body requires more energy than it can produce. Besides, if body heat for energy is what the Machines are after, why not just exterminate humanity and pickle cows? Bovine virtual reality would be laughably easy by comparison: a sunny day and lots of grass and you’ve got contented cows for as long as you like.
Perhaps the reality of the Matrix is even more insidious than Morpheus has let on. We’ve all heard the claim that we only use a tiny fraction of the brain’s potential. So, what happens to the unused potential? Well, maybe it is used—by the Machines. Maybe our vast collective excess capacity is being co-opted—rerouted—to generate the Matrix itself. Maybe our minds are being used to maintain the very prison that enslaves us!
Such a truth would present a moral dilemma for anyone outside the Matrix who values human life. I’ve suggested that the Matrix can’t be shut off all at once. So, let’s say Zion defeats the Machines and gains control of the Matrix. If they begin unplugging people one at a time, going at a pace that could be supported by the limited infrastructure of the “real world,” what happens to the folks still in the Matrix? From their perspective, people would begin disappearing, leading to mass confusion and eventually chaos and insanity. At the same time, fewer and fewer people would remain connected, leading to an increasing reduction in computing capacity (since fewer brains are available). Reprogramming the Matrix to compensate for this is probably impractical. After all, the computing power needed to do that would be, well, the computing power that succeeded in rising up against humanity in the first place! It seems unlikely that Zion would risk having anymore pesky AIs around.
I come up with three possible solutions for the “gradual shutdown” scenario. One is to steal from the Star Trek playbook, and just have all the copper-tops go to sleep, a la the Borg. Just keep ’em nappin’ until they’re ripe for pickin’. Another is to slow the clock down on the Matrix by a factor of, say, a million. That way the last folks out of the box would experience only a few seconds of “What the hell?” before Neo pulls their plugs. A third solution is that once Zion has control of the Matrix, they could launch a huge multi-pronged propaganda campaign within the Matrix to acclimate matrixed individuals to their situation; perhaps millions could be persuaded to be unplugged voluntarily, with a minimum of trauma.
Then, of course, there are those who wouldn’t want to be unplugged. Imagine being a multimillionaire sports star, or a newlywed on your honeymoon, and suddenly finding out you’re really living on a blackened, blighted ash-heap. Bill Gates would be pissed. Johnny Cochrane would sue. Millions would doubtless commit suicide. And what would you do with such unsavory characters as Charles Manson or Osama bin Laden (assuming he’s still alive)?
So… our little thought experiment will probably become obsolete or moot by year’s end, depending on what is revealed in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (not to mention the animated DVD collection The Animatrix). At the very least, it points out the extreme difficulty of creating a science fiction tale that’s completely airtight. And it’s not like we’ll ever need to deal with a situation like that, right? Right…