This Matrix article contains spoilers.
“I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
He’s the Judas in the Wachowskis’ sci-fi fable, The Matrix: a traitor willing to betray and kill his friends in the hope of returning to a cozy, simulated reality. As played by Joe Pantoliano, Cypher’s second only to Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith in the movie’s villainy stakes – and Agent Smith at least had a reason to be cold-hearted, given that he’s a sentient computer program.
There’s an alternate way of viewing Cypher, though: for all his treachery and bloodthirstiness, he may be the most human character in the whole movie. Given the choice between two versions of reality, one comfortable, one miserable, how many of us would choose the latter? From a certain point of view, could it be that Cypher is right and all the heroes in The Matrix are wrong? Twenty years have passed since the film’s release, so let’s begin with a brief recap.
The Matrix is largely told from the perspective of Neo (Keanu Reeves), a programmer and hacker living an ordinary late-90s existence: he has a steady yet sterile office job, he has the Internet, and he goes to nightclubs that play Rob Zombie music. But then he starts hearing of something called the Matrix, and encounters a mysterious, leather-clad figure called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). From behind his mirrored shades, Morpheus tells Neo that he is, in fact, living in a simulated version of 1999: everything Neo sees and senses is a construct. It’s really the 21st century, the machines have enslaved humanity and turned them into slumbering batteries – the Matrix being a baby-sitting program designed to keep everyone pacified.
Neo’s choice between the simulated world and reality is symbolized by Morpheus’s outstretched hands offering a red or blue pill. “After, this there is no turning back,” Morpheus says. “You take the blue pill, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland. And I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
That’s a big decision to make in such a hurry, and we should be grateful that Neo’s curiosity gets the better of him; had he taken the blue pill, The Matrix would’ve been a far shorter movie. But maybe at least a small part of Neo lives to regret not choosing ignorance rather than truth. No sooner has he swallowed the red pill than the simulation begins to liquify and collapse; a CGI shot or two later, and Neo is thrust into the realm beyond the Matrix: a bio-mechanical world of tubes and pods filled with gallons of ooze. Earth is a blackened husk governed by machines which patrol the endless battery farms of unconscious humans. Before he knows it, Neo’s aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, a gravity-defying ship which Morpheus uses to search for The One – a person who will save humanity from the machines.
“I wanna remember nothing,” Cypher says, waving a glass of wine. “Nothing, you understand?”
Really, can anyone necessarily blame him? Maybe a comfortable illusion is better than an unpleasant truth – particularly when the illusion is literally indistinguishable from reality. Consider, too, that Cypher is but a rank-and-file member of Morpheus’s rebels. He isn’t a leader like Morpheus, and he certainly hasn’t been tipped for greatness like Neo, whom Morpheus thinks is the Chosen One.
Then there’s the state of the world humans will inherit should they be able to defeat the machines: assuming the damage done to the environment can be reversed at all, humanity faces generations of hardship and starvation while the planet heals itself. Besides, who’s to say for sure whether life in the Matrix is any less valid than existence outside it?
As writer Sam Kriss asked in an article on The Atlantic, “If reality is whatever’s mutually agreed upon […] does it make sense to then start talking about fake realities and real ones? Why is a universe composed of software necessarily any less real than one composed of matter?”
Those questions were raised in response to a somewhat worrying ambition growing in Silicon Valley: to prove that our everyday, 2016 existence is a fabrication just like the Matrix, and to then find a way of breaking out of it. On one level, these might sound like the ramblings of rich computer geniuses with too much time on their hands; if just about all aspects of our working lives can be simplified with apps, the thinking seems to go, then maybe reality itself is just a piece of software that can be hacked and reshaped. Just as everything looks like a nail to a hammer, so everything looks like code to a programmer.
Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, is one high-profile believer in the simulation hypothesis – “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in a base reality,” he said. As described by The Verge, Musk’s philosophy is that, with computers now able to create simulated online worlds where players can share a single, virtual space, then technology could one day create a simulated world that is indistinguishable from the real thing.
This school of thought isn’t new, and indeed, the notion of simulated realities goes back far beyond The Matrix. From 4th century mystics to 17th century philosophers to 20th century writers like Philip K. Dick, the nature of existence and what might lie beyond it has constantly been probed and questioned. The idea that we might be able to use our ingenuity to “break us out of the simulation,” as The New Yorker recently put it, reads like a relatively new, technological spin on time-worn metaphysical beliefs: that there’s more to existence than is visible to the human eye, and through our scientific ingenuity, we may one day be able to see beyond this reality and into the realm beyond – a kind of digital transcendence.
There is, however, a nagging problem with the simulation hypothesis: what if our simulated reality is also built inside a simulation? That is, if our computer technology becomes powerful enough to generate a reality with sentient being inside it, couldn’t they one day develop computers powerful to make their own simulations, and so on? If so, who’s to say that the beings who created our reality aren’t themselves caught inside a simulation?
Let’s apply all this brain-melting logic to The Matrix: that the dark, 21st century reality that Neo wakes up in could also be a simulation created by a second race of despotic race of beings. Certain events in the third Matrix film, Revolutions, could be seen as evidence for this: Neo’s powers start to work in the ‘real’ world, which might suggest that this too is a simulation.
Viewed like this, it becomes clear that Cypher is living in the middle of a philosophical quandary. Cypher’s left one world – full of steak, red wine and other pleasures – but is now stuck in another realm which is not only worse, but could itself be a construct.
The Matrix Revolutions‘ ending sees the war between machines and humans comes to a close, and a pledge is made to allow humans to leave the Matrix if they wish. We can only wonder how many of them, after choosing to leave one reality, wound up regretting the decision as much as Cypher did. (The short-lived videogame Matrix Online, a continuation of the film trilogy’s story, introduces a group of humans called the Cypherites, who’ve formed around the goal of getting themselves reinserted back into the Matrix.)
Before the tech gurus of Silicon Valley starts probing too far into the (possibly) computer-generated fabric of our reality, then, maybe they should consider the consequences of swallowing the red pill. For all his flaws, Cypher is, as his name implies, a stand-in for ordinary people like us: we all need fiction, and we all create virtual realities around ourselves, whether that means gravitating towards like-minded friends or reading newspapers that reflect our worldview. It would be a wrench to be torn away from all of this, to take the red pill and be plunged into an existence that, although sold to us as the one ‘true’ reality by a charismatic leader like Morpheus, is a pale replacement for the sphere we left behind.
If we can’t condone Cypher’s treachery, then maybe we can at least understand his motivations.
This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK on October 18, 2016.