The Matrix, Simulacra and Simulation
Some believe the idea of simulation in the movie is related to Jean Baudrillard’s notion of simulation (in his book Simulacra and Simulation), especially because it was cinematically alluded to in the movie itself.
However, the two are very different in term of their nature and may be difficult to correlate. The simulation in the movie refers to the AI-induced computer simulation (i.e., a non-existent false reality) for humans. On the other hand, (my take on) Baudrillard’s notion of simulation refers to the contemporary media exposing us to endless copies of a problematic reality matrix.
Baudrillard points out and attempts to explain the cultural and philosophical crisis of our time - individual’s self-identity crisis and lacking life’s meaning. He claims that the problem stems from our synchronic meaning of signs (e.g., words) which is intra-contextual and self-referential. “Synchronic definition” refers to defining words, sentences and paragraphs in relation to one another (without an external [i.e., real] referent) and forming a tightly-knit coherent game of signs. This makes it possible for the media to play with signs and values and govern our lives more than anything real and concrete.
The term “simulacra” can refer to the tendency to distort the reality/truth so that it appears more accurate than the original; for example, a deliberate disproportional copying of a (ground level) statue that will be located 5 feet up. It can also be used to refer to downplaying the reliable input of the senses (i.e., the real) and resorting to the constructs of language and reason to arrive at a distorted copy of reality.
For Baudrillard, “simulacra” refers to ‘copies that depict things that either had no original, or that no longer refer to an original.’ He claims that contemporary society has become so saturated with these simulacra that all meaning has become meaningless by being infinitely mutable – it’s as if anything can mean and be anything. Baudrillard defines “simulation” as ‘the imitation of the operation of this type of process or system.’ He claims our contemporary society has replaced all reality and meaning with interplay of symbols and signs (without an external [i.e., real] referent) to the point that human experience has become but a simulation of reality.
Baudrillard also speaks of an object’s sign value overtaking its use value, exchange value and symbolic value. Object’s sign value may be associated with prestige, status, happiness, etc. In our contemporary society, an object is no longer just an object that has a use value vis-a-via human needs, as might be in a society very different from ours. And it’s not just about shoe design and shoe-making technology being different. For example, a person wearing the latest designer dress shoes would tells us that the person is a business type who studied business or business-related discipline in university, has a relatively high income, lives in an upscale housing, drives an upscale car, successful in life, happy, etc.
But if we are to ask: Where do all these interconnected ideas come from? Who decided on this kind of reality matrix? Baudrillard would say we ultimately get it from the media. Our media may reflect our reality but it also simulates (keep repeating) it and reinforces it. This repeated system of perception, value and belief become so true and real that people don’t question any of it anymore – and say that’s just reality.
But, should it be reality? Why should it be like that? Did/should we have any say in that? Have we all become prisoners in Plato’s Cave - believing that shadows (of the objects cast on the back wall) are real, and that’s all there is to life? Would life have any meaning if all media suddenly disappeared; or could that afford an opportunity for us to create life’s meaning on our own terms?