Cult films are a distinctive feature of post-modern cinema. In an earlier post I argued that Napoleon Dynamite is a recent example of the phenomenon. One could list others, of course, but one in particular stands out: the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix. The cult film phenomenon involves, among other things, appropriating a public text for private, yet still shared, means, sometimes far beyond what the original filmmakers may have envisioned. The Matrix has inspired all kinds of speculation on the nature of reality--some of it interesting, some of it silly. The filmmakers themselves supposedly based the series on a misreading of a philosopher with a cult following, Michel Foucault.
Now the Matrix as metaphysics idea has come full circle. John Tierney reports in today's New York Times on an Oxford philosophy professor named Nick Bostrom who argues there's a good chance that we may be living in a computer simulation. Tierney explains,
This simulation would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits.
Bostrom's theory is unprovable, but Tierney goes so far as to claim he has a "gut feeling" there's a better than 20% chance that our world is just a computer simulation. I guess it takes a more sensitive gut to detect this possibility than the one I have, because my gut has no inkings about being trapped in a computer simulation.
It's probably just a coincidence that Tierney raises the virtual world question during a financial crisis in which vast sums of money were made based on the fiction that the housing market would expand well past Americans' means to pay for housing. Still, if one wants to conduct a thought experiment about the nature of reality, then this is the direction I'd head toward.
Although Foucault is well known for his musings on the constructed nature of reality, Jean Baudrillard is our most systematic theorist of simulated worlds. His most famous concept is the simulacrum, i.e., the endless repetition of copies with no originals. Contemporary culture, according to Baudrillard, consists of the free exchange of signs without any referents. In earlier stages of Western culture the place of the referent was occupied by nature--raw materials and direct industrial production (e.g., turning raw rubber into tires), as well as artisan and craft modes of production. Now cultural products refer to nothing more than the circulation of commodities in late capitalism.
The recent housing boom saw a new phenomenon: flipping a house. At one time a private home was a middle class person's last tie to a specific territory, a small, but very specific slice of nature. During the housing boom the home became just another commodity to be bought and sold on a global scale. The "California Dream" is now the LA housing market, where one's mortgage starts off as a signed contract but quickly ends up as a chit in some vast investment portfolio in New York, Paris, Frankfurt, or Tokyo. The tangible reality of the home, where Bachelard tells us houses our daydreams, is like the bodies suspended in liquid in The Matrix: just a husk, its intrinsic value is determined in some obscure and complex marketplace few people truly understand. Life in today's real estate market is a gut-wrenching experience that may very well account for the intuitive sense that somebody out there is controlling our lives, and doesn't really care what happens so long as the lindens pile up.