Comparing the Matrix and the Metaverse

Matrix Background photo

Much of our digital technology is influenced, in part, by science fiction. From microwaves to VR headsets, science fiction has given ideas for branding or designing technology that we may take for granted today. This trend includes metaverse technology. As the metaverse, a term describing an expanded universe filled with virtual experiences becomes more of a reality, many metaverse companies are turning to science fiction to help advertise and design this technology. Companies like Facebook (now called Meta) are using Ready Player One by Ernest Cline as a guide to help design their virtual reality and metaverse software. Science fiction not only offers creative descriptions of new ideas but also has primed the audience to accept that this technology could exist in the future. When it comes to the metaverse, there are many classic science fiction works that stakeholders are hoping to use for branding. One of these is the Matrix film franchise.

With the new Matrix film, Matrix Resurrections, coming out December 22nd, more people are comparing a simulation like a Matrix to what the metaverse may look like. “Although the Matrix is a dystopian film about the (fairly common) science fiction theme of humanity’s falling victim to our machines, I have found, in teaching the film over the years, that students are intrigued by the idea of an illusory world and of how VR might afford experiences we might not otherwise have, and how it might productively change our assumptions,” explained Dr. Priscilla Wald. Wald is a distinguished Professor at Duke University and teaches science and science fiction. She has taught on the Matrix film franchise for several years. “I think the exercise posed by the Matrix—that everything around us could be an illusion—is an important one,” she added. This issue of distinguishing between virtual reality and a real one poses difficult questions for metaverse technology designers and developers. They want to make the technology as user-friendly as possible, but this can come with concerns about ethical uses.

It’s not difficult to compare the Matrix to the metaverse, as both deal with issues of reality, machines, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). In comparing these two, many people may fear that the metaverse could turn into a Matrix, with disastrous consequences. “The Matrix also raises questions about our dependence on machines,” Wald said. “What are the real risks of AI? Not, I would argue, that our machines will evolve beyond us and turn against us, but that we will become too dependent on them, which raises a range of problems, from susceptibility to cyber hacking of systems controlling basic needs, to not fully developing useful skills on which humans rely.” Many other experts have similar concerns when it comes to the development of the metaverse, that problems will arise from being too dependent on the technology. With most of us taking our current technology for granted (like the laptop I’m currently writing on), it will not be surprising if we take metaverse technology for granted in the future, becoming more dependent on it for our livelihood and socialization. If this becomes the case, we could have a Matrix-like situation, but one far less sinister.

While science fiction can help to supply ideas for new technology, it also must be taken with a grain of salt by designers and the general public. The rise of the metaverse leaves many questions currently unanswered, which many try to answer using science fiction tropes and themes. This can lead to inaccurate assumptions or panic by many individuals. It is important for developers of metaverse technology to be careful when implementing science fiction in their design or marketing, as this could potentially cause more harm than good.

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry

Kenna Castleberry is the Science Communicator at JILA (formerly known as the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics) at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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