The first “Matrix” movie was the culmination of the hacker’s culture of ’90s as a movie. That was the first decade when both computers and online access began to work well enough for the general public, hence the hacker culture and mass culture had a lot of overlap. People watching the first Matrix experienced an epiphany reflecting about a world run completely by computers: what would be possible? The future potential seemed endless and the cultural vector of ongoing computer revolution had been set.
Conceptually, “The Matrix Resurrections” is a perfect replica of first “Matrix” formula: the culmination of modern hacker culture. Yet this time we did not have a world-altering cultural shift from analog to digital. Software ate the world and the world is run by computers now. They are everywhere, and no one needs to be a hacker to use them. The hacker and mass-market culture are separate again. We did build the “Matrix” we deserved, just not the one we dreamed about in the 90s.
Hackers, game, and crypto developers will enjoy “Resurrections” immensely. The general audience might have a more tepid reaction, since one has to be a coder to really get all the references and insider humor. People might be expecting a similar mass-culture epiphany like the one they had watching the first “Matrix“. Yet there is no new culture shift to ride on. Instead, Lana Wachowski had done brilliantly exactly the same thing she had done 20+ years ago: she created a great hacker-culture movie reflecting the current computer tech zeitgeist. Here I will try to explain in simple language for “not hackers” what is going on inside “Resurrections”.
Recursive functions and algorithms are a cornerstone of computer science, that is simply how computers work. Key theorems of computer science like Gödel’s Incompleteness or Turning Halting problem are recursive in nature. For hackers, it is second nature to notice and leverage anything “recursive”.
What is recursion? It simply means taking something you have, running it again, but running in such a way that it gets slightly better next run. Repeat it thousands or million times, and you get a far, far better result than what you started with.
For example, instead of explaining what is odd number I can give you a recursive algorithm:
next = last + 2, and tell you to start from 1. Or I can define factorial as
last * (last + 1). Recursion is all around us (like the Matrix) from these schoolbook examples all the way to modern AI tech like GANs where two AI networks endlessly battle each other to get better in a recursive loop – each previous attempt makes the AI slightly better.
Even the word “Resurrections” sounds a bit like “Recursion” which might be a coincidence, yet knowing Lana’s unparalleled talent of creating meta everywhere, makes me wonder. Religious “resurrection” is a human version of recursion – live your life again, slightly better.
The correct title of the movie might as well have been “Matrix Recursions” since its wall to wall full of software recursion. The amount of software “meta” in the movie is exhilarating to any hacker. Let’s unpack everything that is going on.
You should have watched the movie already if you continue reading past this point.
The Machine Mind
If you are machine AI at the end of the first movie, how would you improve? How would you build Matrix2? Well, there is one way and as matter of fact, the only way computers know – recursion.
Take Matrix1 code and recurse it into building Matrix2. Also, apparently, there is this highly gifted sentience (aka “Neo”) – let’s add it into the recursive loop and have him contribute changes to Matrix1 codebase to constantly improve and upgrade into Matrix2. He thinks he is building a game, and of course, as any good game developer, he will try to make the game better. And he does.
Neo (and his source code) is inside recursively progressing versions of the Matrix. Each minor update (+0.1 versions) he codes day to day, each major update (+1 version) is probably launched when he jumps of the roof meaning when his trapped consciousness is burned out in this cycle. The next recursion starts. It takes 60 years to build good software after all.
Matrix1 and its source code are just a “version 1″ game inside Matrix2. Ever run first “Doom” on your fridge door or something like that? Machine AI gave Neo enough access to work, which is why he has access to the original Matrix source code – that’s important for the “Modal” subplot. But everything Neo does affect the main Matrix: he is “The One” after all, he does have root access and keys to the genesis block.
If Machine AI can use recursion to self-improve, so can Neo and he does. So he creates “Modal” – his personal server with his personal copy of the Matrix1 – where he codes up recursive agent Smith-Morpheus. It got to be an agent, since that is the only source code of digital sentence Neo inside the matrix has access to, which is then coded up with Morpheus personality (“you live only as long as the last person who remembers you”). The goal of this agent of the Matrix is to rescue Neo. Or alternatively, and equally valid: this might be just the plotline of Matrix4 game they designed right as we were watching. We will never know.
Bonus point: did you think if Neo created “digital sub-Neo” inside the Modal server so his Smith-Morpheus has a full universe to grow in? Sub-Trinity is already there. Then technically you can have a universe where all “pain and suffering” that sub-Neo is going through in M1 is not because of the machines, it’s because of… himself so he can free…himself. The life path of “sub-Neo” would naturally match one to one to M1 storyline: who is the evil mastermind then? Lana’s meta at its best.
Why Smith-Morpheus laughs at the beginning of the movie? Because the situation is frankly hilarious. S-M is one of the most self-aware characters in the movie – he knows who he is and knows what he needs to do. He is essentially just born out of “the recursive subroutine” (the Modal) and Bugs is about to do “copy file” from Neo server to the real world of her ship network. He is presented with ferocious Level1 NPCs of this toy universe that only exists to train him, and they will cease to exist as soon as he leaves. Hard not to laugh at how seriously these NPCs take things: “OK clowns, I’m outta here”.
Architect 1.0 was just a primitive mathematical core with EQ 0, thus requiring the Oracle 1.0 with some degree of empathy to understand humans. Separate and always in conflict. Of course, Matrix2 would have none of that ugly software design – now it is the Architect 2.0 (the Analyst) is recursed into a far better version of the software. It is both Architect 1.0 and Oracle 1.0 – he is both smart and emotional, he understands humans and machine logic, and he is not shy of enjoying his “human” side. Software can get alot better over 80 years of recursion.
That “new” Architect 2.0 shows another narrative of the movie. As humans get to be more like machines, machines get to be more like humans – worlds start to blur and intermingle. The Oracle said just as much in M2: “The only way we going to get to the future is together, Neo”. Hence the question of which side is “our side” becomes blurred – it is only logical some machines will join and help build the human world. The primitive zero-sum conflict (which would seem logical in ’90s) “man-vs-machine” is gone, and now the relationship is more explicitly symbiotic, more blurred, and the “good/evil” axis far more obfuscated then before.
Then what is the difference between the real world and the dream world? Is fully conscious digital Neo playing the “game” of Matrix1-4 any less real than “real” Neo fighting for his life, if it is his real life? Is he real Neo now, or he is just a game character again? And, most importantly, if there is no difference, then why would escape from Matrix matter at all? Then why Machine AI is “evil” just for building it?
One of the meta question the movie is left unanswered, as it should: is this the story of the “real” world, or this is just the fourth version of Neo’s game? Notice that every key scene of Neo leaving the Matrix (like awakening in the ship’s cabin) is the exact copy of M1. Is that his life repeating itself, or he is inside another recursive loop? Is that the “real” reality or weekly quest “Escape the Matrix” for 50 gems?
Just like the simulation hypothesis, these are untestable and unanswerable questions, and the brilliance of the movie is to ask them again for the USER in entirely new context to ponder at her or his leisure.
The Matrix we deserved
The Wachowskis brilliance of the first movie was to capture the 90ties “hopes and dreams”: we can have a world run completely by computers which can lead us to paradise or to unimaginable post-apocalyptic horrors, yet no matter what happens the immediate future of computer technology will be incredibly exciting.
I think Lana succeeded brilliantly again, capturing the current zeitgeist of modern computer-hacker culture. We did not get anything like we dreamed for and feared in the 90ties. What we got is represented by homeless Merovingian raving about Zuckerberg and Wikipedia – the result was not paradise, nor horror but unstructured, yet mostly hilarious, and mostly harmless, chaos. If you do not take it too seriously, and especially not take your own old dreams too seriously, you might well enjoy it.
The software got improved, Architect 2.0 is entertaining in his passive-aggressive brand of malice, Smith 2.0 doesn’t even read as anything truly evil, in gamedev industry today he would totally pass as “better than most” executive material – probably already on the shortlist as Blizzard CEO replacement. Neo is rightfully reflecting “Matrix is as strong as it was”.
Instead of brilliant and all-seeing tech demigods building the brighter future (Merovingian 1.0 in M2) we got people with ethics and smarts of Zuck and Dorsey stumbling in the dark from one unintended disaster to another. Merovingian band of homeless hobos perfectly encapsulates that contrast of “dreams of the ’90s vs reality” as well as the actual reality on the streets of SF Bay today.
We wanted to build techno-paradise and flying cars, and after 30 years of herculean effort of building modern digital civilization, all we got in exchange in the world of “real atoms” is the failed dirty city covered with needles. Merovingian subplot meaning is just as meta as everything else.
The movie ending is pitch-perfect. Architect 2.0 is “evil” but not really vanquished and clearly is part of the “solution” whichever that will be. Trinity and Neo are in fact returning into the Matrix on their own terms “to make it better” whichever that will be. Everyone is on speaking terms, even if conversation starts with breaking a jaw, so it is pretty much like Twitter. Nobody knows what to do, yet everyone is pretty sure they are right. Contrast that with refreshing clarity of the first Matrix ending: “Machines are evil. Save all humans. Go Neo!”. These were the times…
In my view, this IS the current zeitgeist. The clear compass of technical progress we knew so well in ’90s had evolved to its opposite. The needle spins aimlessly now, with no direction where true north is. Nobody (except for Balaji, of course) knows for sure what to do, yet we cannot afford to stop moving forward. Matrix is here and it is for sure not going anywhere.
The simple times of “zero to one” are truly and well behind us. What is the next step? What is the new tech vector? A game developer working on the next mega super online world? NFT artist crafting digital decoration for the metaverse household? An intrepid team of pseudonymous hackers launching another blockchain with unclear use case but great potential? Social engineer coding another addictive viral loop into news feed? Are they improving our lives or just selling you another trojan pack of pointless digital masturbation? Is next +1,000 hours on Steam is fond memories of unimaginable adventures or utterly wasted life ground into useless pixel dust of the Matrix? Just like real Neo vs in-game Neo duality is left in the permanently undecidable state, these are the questions you will never get a clear answer for. The only answer is fundamentally what you personally, individually believe “really matters”, and The Analyst has some choice words in the movie about what people choose to believe nowadays.
Taking the opposite side of this argument will not produce any better or practical answers. Once you start going down the slippery slope of “only real atoms matter; let’s make the world a better place!” the conversation pretty quickly will go through disturbingly popular crazy town of “progressive” woke-taliban communism 2.0 (everything is a recursion of the old) all the way down into potential and easily predictable Russia 1917 style bloodbath. Changing atoms is hard, changing atoms ownership (without bloodbath) is next to impossible. And of course, nobody is happy with the current ownership structure, so calmer heads on both sides will steer the crowd away (for now) from actually touching the atoms and redirect the passions to social media where it will stay in the state of impotent yet permanent rage, just if indeed somebody is running a human power plant to harness all that wasted energy.
Then the only plausible alternative to the atom-redistribution bloodshed is to live yet even more in the Matrix, replacing atoms with digital, friends with discord.gg, a girlfriend with e-girl, join a DAO, level up that druid to level 50, and trade each other NFT apes. That is why The Analyst is smiling so confidently at the end. The Matrix after all, contrary to all prior expectations, might be better final destination for humanity, than what humanity can manage on its own in the world of “real atoms”.
In conclusion, Lana still got it. “Matrix Resurrections” is everything: hacker culture, inside jokes, endless layers of meta, all the while posing crucial mind-blowing philosophical and largely unanswerable questions of where the rabbit hole of computer technology is leading us.
Happy Holidays to you all.