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Rodney Ascher: Why A Glitch in the Matrix feels so real

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A Glitch in the Matrix is a new film by Rodney Ascher about simulation theory, which is a fascinating confluence of science fiction and fact. It’s about people who believe that we are living in a computer simulation, and that nothing about reality is real.

The idea was first posed in a 1977 speech by science-fiction author Philip K. Dick (the mind behind Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, and The Man in the High Castle), who said that we only notice the unreality when a glitch occurs. The film delves into people who have gone down this rabbit hole and believe that it’s true.

Rodney Ascher, the creator of films Room 237 and The Nightmare, directed the documentary, which wavers from the hilarious to the nightmarish as it takes us through the history of the movement and its dark turns in a Reddit subreddit. Ascher takes on a journey of science, philosophy, morality, narcissism, and conspiracy theory.

And he draws a connection to today’s politics, where it was all too easy for people to deny reality and call mainstream news media “fake news” at our former president’s urging. Cosmologist Neil DeGrasse Tyson acknowledges in the film that it’s difficult for him to disprove the theory. Ascher interviewed Nick Bostrom, the philosopher who took Dick’s theory and ran with it. And he also talked to people who believe in the simulation theory — with tragic consequences based on the Matrix defense.

I saw some connections between simulation theory and sci-fi movies like The Matrix series as well as video games like Prey. And I had a thought-provoking conversation with Ascher about making the film. The movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is available for viewing here. You’ll come out of it wondering, “What’s real?” The film is available to watch here.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Rodney Ascher is the director of A Glitch in the Matrix.

Image Credit: A Glitch in the Matrix

VentureBeat: My reaction the whole time, watching the film, is “Are you serious? I can’t believe people believe this.” It’s a very good film, but I wonder how seriously to take it. How do you approach that thought yourself?

Rodney Ascher: If it were an obvious idea that everybody agreed with, there might not be a reason to make the movie. “Here are interviews with people who believe in gravity.” It wouldn’t be a fascinating idea for a movie. But for me, it was more the notion of — I found simulation theory a fascinating topic, and I didn’t necessarily understand it super well in the early days as I was starting. Making the movie is a way of talking to people who believe in it quite strongly, or people who weren’t necessarily true believers but who had interesting commentary to illuminate the discussion. The whole process was about, “Well, is there a there there? What is this idea? Where does it come from and where does it go?”

VentureBeat: It did surprise me partway through to see it take a darker turn, or the turn toward what some of the consequences of believing this are for real people. Did that direction appear to you as well in the process of figuring out where the there is here? Where you wanted to go with the idea.

Ascher: That was a discovery, like most things about the movie. We got going just on the topic, the generalized approach of reaching out to people who believe it and getting their stories. At an early point, when I was doing research and I had my big whiteboard of ideas that seemed to be related to the topic, one of them was the Matrix defense. I forget where I first came across that fact. We should try to find a natural way to get that into the story, because that seems like a surprising turn.

Producers over at Campfire, Colin and Rebecca, were able to put me in touch with Josh Cooke. As I talked to him and thought about his story, not only was it fascinating and often quite troubling on its own, but it also tied into themes that had emerged naturally earlier. I was surprised, talking to most people, how quickly they went to questions–almost religious questions of morality and ethics and your responsibility to other people. From when Jesse Orion brought up the story of the guy who stole the airplane, or Paul was talking about his uncle saying, “If this is all fake, what’s to keep me from shooting our neighbors?” Josh’s story was the heightening, the culmination of that thread of the movie.

A Glitch in the Matrix is about people who believe we are living in a computer simulation.

Above: A Glitch in the Matrix is about people who believe we are living in a computer simulation.

Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures

VentureBeat: When you’re collecting some of this material, it must be interesting to find these little stories that people tell about why they believe. What were some of the more interesting ones?

Ascher: I love those stories. At one point it seemed like maybe this movie was going to be more a collection of those things, so that it would have been more of a non-fiction Twilight Zone anthology. Those stories are endlessly fascinating. We get iterations of those, sort of. Milo talks about all these strange synchronicities that led him to go into that sensory deprivation tank, or Alex, the way he described his car wreck in Cuernavaca as a series of increasingly improbable near-misses as he drove on that winding mountain road. I love those stories. I still love them.

VentureBeat: I was thinking the only thing I would have enjoyed more was seeing Philip K. Dick in a bit more of a surreal setting, or with an avatar on his head or something. That seems like it would have been appropriate.

Ascher: They do some nice little moments like that in A Scanner Darkly, or in the opening credits of Electric Dreams, that Amazon Phil Dick anthology show, where they have his face sort of hollowed out with a robot, with cybernetic parts inside.

VentureBeat: In some ways, when it gets into the philosophical discussions, it almost feels maddening that you can’t prove something either way here. I don’t know if you searched for someone who had a winning argument here, so to speak.

Ascher: I kind of love these unanswerable questions. This movie, as well as the last two, are much more about questions than they are about answers. People come away with different takeaways or morals or conclusions based on the movie itself.

VentureBeat: There’s a touch on the politics of it, and how it becomes relevant again today. People embraced the phrase “fake news,” this disbelief in reality because of American politics and the way they were going. It seems like there’s a strong belief on your side that this has gained currency because of things like that. Or that that’s an example of people willing to believe in something that feels so unreal.

Ascher: That’s where simulation theory as a metaphor becomes especially apropos. The question of, are we each creating and inhabiting our own simulated worlds? Like Emily talks about Plato’s cave, and she heightens that idea by questioning–the sources of the shadows in the cave, are they reflections of the real world, or are they things that have been created in order to distort, to influence the people who are watching them? Is the media diet of person A versus person B equally objective?

We don’t talk about specific contemporary political crises that much in the movie, though I think a lot of that is suggested by the way Emily talks about Plato’s cave and how people’s realities are created by their media diets. That was largely intentional, imagining that in the next few years new crises, new conspiracy theories will be waiting around the corner for us. In my perfect world this movie and some of the questions it asks might stay relevant a bit longer that way.

Above: The animations in A Glitch in the Matrix are pretty weird.

Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures

VentureBeat: I thought it was a nice touch to have Neil DeGrasse Tyson there, and then Nick Bostrom as well. Then you do have to take it a bit seriously.

Ascher: Bostrom’s the man, right? When you get to Tyson, or even Elon Musk and other folks, it gets to the scientific end of it. I was talking just before about using simulation theory as a metaphor. But if you’re going to take it literally–pretty quickly that gets beyond my field of expertise. But I think a quick little sound bite by Tyson goes a long way toward suggesting that people who think about this for a living, people who are a lot smarter than me, don’t dismiss it out of hand. You can take that for what it’s worth.

VentureBeat: When you’re looking around for these discussions today, is it hard to find them? Or is it bigger than ever today?

Ascher: This gets into each of our media diets again. In the waters I swim in people talk about simulation theory all the time. And often just as a throwaway joke. Any time something insane happens in the news, people joke, “The simulation is misfiring again.” They use that as a quick way to alleviate the pressure. Maybe this doesn’t matter so much because we’re all living in a simulation anyway. Clearly this new thing that happened is a bug, a misprint, a glitch. There’s no way that would have happened in a normal, realistic world.

VentureBeat: It’s all this fine line between the joke and the madness, the disturbing parts of it.

Ascher: It’s hard to separate them sometimes.

Above: Is it all just a game? These avatars are the best thing about the film.

Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures

VentureBeat: I wondered what the very elaborate avatars meant. It looks like you went to a lot of trouble to create those. Was there something about them that made it worth that effort?

Ascher: At the beginning it was just a fun idea, playing with the increasing strangeness of digital communication and where that’s going. How many of us–this conversation that you and are having now, where we’re using our real faces, or I assume that’s your real face. If it’s an emoji it’s a very realistic one. But in just as many of my conversations with people online, it’ll be going through an avatar. Or I’ll communicate with GIFs and things. There was that amazing video on Twitter maybe two weeks ago of that lawyer who couldn’t turn off the Snapchat filter of the cat. He was trying to argue a very serious case while he looked like a fluffy white cat. It feels like that stuff is becoming ever more common.

It also gave us a fun way to be able to take these people, and when we do the animated re-enactments of their stories, we can use that same character again. We don’t have to find a lookalike actor, fit them with the right pair of glasses and fit them with a fake mustache to create those scenes. And then as the film started to–as the cement started to harden, it wound up emphasizing other aspects that were interesting. These folks quite naturally spoke a lot about video games, using video games as a metaphor. These avatars were designed to look something like Fortnite characters, for instance. The idea that they feel like video game characters in a way is made more literal.

Something that I always love seeing — even in the Warner Bros. cartoons, where the coyote and the sheepdog, after chasing each other off cliffs or hitting each other with clubs, they punch out of work and catch up on their gossip and small talk in the break room. I also loved the idea of maybe we’re talking to video game characters on their day off.

Above: An out-of-body experience in an isolation tank.

Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures

VentureBeat: We just had a conference, something that started small, but eventually we had 29 panels on the subject of the metaverse. It’s a gaming conference, but we had some people from all over that were interested in this. The thinking goes that if we’re all stuck in the Zoomverse, we might as well make it better. Bring everybody into a better virtual world in the metaverse. The game companies have taken the idea of creating this very seriously, people like Tim Sweeney at Epic Games, or the people building Roblox. They’re all guided by science fiction, stories like Snow Crash or Ready Player One or Philip K. Dick. It’s interesting to see the possibility that we’ll have a metaverse as the technology for delivering it gets better over time. I wonder what you think about the future of computer simulation yourself.

Ascher: One of the interesting things that happened in the course of the movie–we were aiming to release originally in April 2020, before the shutdown. Even if a lot of the Skype calls and things make it feel evocative of life under quarantine, a lot of those decisions were made coincidentally beforehand. If we spend a lot of time in the movie talking about some of the dangers of getting lost in digital worlds, after the shutdown I couldn’t help but notice what a panacea this stuff was as well, for everybody who was isolated.

My son plays a lot of video games. He was able to continue socializing with his friends that way. Fortnite isn’t just a thing that he does. It’s a place that he goes. He knows the people that are there. Even our film–I was imagining a conventional film festival release and opportunities to talk to audiences afterward. We didn’t get that in person, but some of the Zoom conversations, or the VR party that Sundance built, that was the next best thing. I’m hardly a Luddite as far as that stuff goes.

In fact, just in the last month or two, we got an Oculus Quest. I’m deeply fascinated by it. Both by some of the fun, outrageous places I can go, but I think my favorite one is being able to play ping-pong with a friend who isn’t there in person. It feels like a genuinely satisfying social interaction. We just hang out and chat while absent-mindedly volleying. I’m personally excited about where that stuff is going, even if the film sometimes strikes a cautionary note about it.

VentureBeat: It’s not meant to suggest that video games are a problem, contributing to something dark.

Ascher: No. I’m not a huge gamer, but I am somebody who loves outrageous, over-the-top, often controversial movies. I’m the last person to blame real-world troubles on the media people enjoy. A better way to describe some of the stuff in the movie is that–if people lived in this world the way they do in some video games, that could be really dangerous. Which is not to say that playing those games is going to turn around and make you do any of that.

Maybe it also gets down to the idea — many games are set up in a way where the point of the world is to force you into conflict. I was having a conversation with someone else about that recently. We got around to an interesting question of, well then, what is this world designed to do? How do you win here? What are the principal attractions that everybody should see when they take their turn?

VentureBeat: When you back up, then, after diving into this rabbit hole, what do you come up with? What’s your message that you have for the rest of us?

Ascher: [Laughs] If you knew the way I’d wasted my precious days on earth so far, I think I’d be the last person you’d ask for moral or ethical advice. The movie is much more about asking questions than delivering answers. Some of the thoughts that people I talked to within the movie had, the ones that resonated the strongest with me — even if you do believe that this world is a simulation, that’s kind of beside the point in some ways.

A Glitch in the Matrix is about simulation theory.It’s a fascinating creation myth, but the stakes as far as how you treat other people and your responsibilities to one another and yourself are still very much the same.

VentureBeat: Has anything about the reactions to the movie surprised you?

Ascher: I’m still at the point in my career where I’m amazed that anybody looks at something I’ve done and takes it seriously as a real movie. Seeing that a lot of the reviews start to turn on ethical, philosophical questions is kind of awesome. I love to see it used as a springboard for those sorts of conversations. Especially since most of the movie reviews I read are plot summaries with a bit of performance evaluation. To see one that gets people talking about why we’re here, what is our responsibility to other people, I just love seeing that. Most of the reviews have been positive, but even the people who really dislike it, I’m fascinated to see how genuinely they engage with it, the places it sends them thinking.

VentureBeat: I feel like it’s coming out at the perfect time, because reality became so unbelievable. Every day we’re questioning just how crazy the world has become.

Ascher: I see that a lot, too. Talking to Nick Bostrom, if I remember right, he didn’t necessarily find any insane happenings in the news to be especially persuasive one way or the other as evidence that we’re living in a simulation. But for me it raises the question of, what is the simulation for? What counts as a glitch? Just talking about the pandemic, it could be either way. It could be an accident, a glitch that happened in the simulation, sort of like a corrupted blood plague in Warcraft, or it could be intentional.

I remember when I was working on the movie, I was affected by seeing this Flash animation on the New York Times website. It simulated the way COVID could spread. It was just a square box. One box would turn red and bounce up against another one, and then that would turn red, to simulate the way the virus spreads. If I remember right you could toggle between two or three variables to make it spread faster or slower. I was struck by the horror of, what if that’s all we are, and someone tweaks variables to see what’ll happen?

VentureBeat: My last thought here would be, I’d hope that people would come to the conclusion that — just like if you believe in God or not, there’s a proper way to behave, whether we live in a real world or simulation. You shouldn’t necessarily live your life differently.

Ascher: One hundred percent. I was speaking with someone the other day about that. He had an interesting way of comparing it to Pascal’s wager. At the end of the day you’re better off assuming that everyone is just real and just as important as you are, because the consequences for being wrong are so catastrophic.

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