Source: Elie During, « Is there an exit from ‘Virtual Reality’ ? Grid and Network - From Tron to The Matrix », in The Matrix in Theory, M. Diocaretz & S. Herbrechter (eds.), Amsterdam, Rodopi, coll. « Critical Studies », 2006.
To exit the virtual means, first of all, to break from the formalist or figurative imagery that characterized the beginnings of the cinematic synthesis between image and computer. It implies renouncing the geometrical emblems popularized by early computer graphics and vectorial games, and the naive heraldry attached to their crude imaginary of virtual worlds. More importantly, it implies breaking with the idea of the virtual for which this imaginary merely provided a colourful attraction, as illustrated by the fluorescent mannerism of a film like Tron (1982). Parallel to the stylistic evolution determined by technological innovation, the development of methods of modelling has modified the very idea of simulation in the following years. The Matrix (1999) is located at the end of this process and follows on from a few other films in this respect (those by Cronenberg for example, from Videodrome to eXistenZ, but also Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, The Thirteenth Floor, and Dark City), as well as from some well-known books (Daniel Galouye’s Simulacron Three, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and most of all those by the master himself, Philip K. Dick). If we were to frame things in terms of overarching aesthetic ideals, we could say that we have moved from viewing simulation as a production technique of artificial forms and environments to identifying it with the phantasm of an integral simulation of the real. As immersive as Tron’s universe may seem, it is still basically presented as augmented reality. In The Matrix, however, the virtual realm is no longer a crude and rough version of our own, nor an exotic enhancement displaying its fictional character through an excess of ingenious devices. It is, in fact, no longer one virtual world alongside others, but a virtualisation of the world itself considered as a whole. This double of the real world is virtually indistinguishable from it because this perfect simulation hides its own machinery. (Simulation, as Deleuze reminds us in Logic of Sense, is nothing else but “the phantasm itself, the effect of the functioning of the simulacrum as machinery—a Dionysian machine.”) As a result, entering and exiting virtual reality is no longer self-evident at all. The entire problem of The Matrix lies here. The question, briefly stated, is not so much to tell the real from the virtual, but rather to know where to find the latter. It is a matter of learning how to enter and exit a transparent machine—a machine reduced to a discrete distribution of interfaces that need to be operated in the proper way.
The baroque appearance of the visual universes engendered by primitive CGI techniques sought to mimic the infinite creative power of mathematical models. The Matrix, on the other hand, develops the narrative implications of a hypothesis already formulated in science fiction literature, namely that of a complete and (almost) perfect simulation of reality as a whole. How do we represent such a thing by cinematic means? The “low tech” quality that is retrospectively perceptible in the overall form of representation adopted by Tron has been absorbed into the very contents of diegetic representation: black Bakelite telephones with a vintage feel, retro television sets, dark abandoned Victorian buildings… We are half-way between Batman’s dark version of the fifties and Blade Runner’s not-so-distant retrofuture. It is as if these cues were intended to remind us that simulation is something that may also be cobbled together from scraps. Simulation is not an absolute condition; like software, it comes in more or less upgraded versions. In fact, the simulated real sometimes contains little glitches that raise the alarm: the celebrated scene of “déja vu”, in the first episode, shows a cat passing through twice in an identical manner, right under Neo’s eyes, at the very moment when the agents are manipulating the code of the Matrix in order to wall up the windows of the building. Another important difference with typically eighties renderings of simulated realities is that the virtual occurs no longer in the magical spectacle of immaterial and immaculate forms. Only those scenes in which the Matrix code is directly visible constitute an example of a literal reappearance of the digital infrastructure, and more precisely still, of the symbolic substratum of simulation. Thus, the green code that runs down the screen during the credits and which also figures on the control screens in the Nebuchadnezzar, or in Neo’s vision in the final scene of the first Matrix, when the three agents appear in green watermark, like pure programmes created by the Matrix. The symbolic essence of the Matrix can still take on a figurative form, as shown in these examples, but only as it would appear to someone who would not be immersed in it, who would thus envisage simulation from the outside, from the “real” (like Tank, sitting behind his screens to pilot the Nebuchadnezzar), or else, only as it would appear from inside the Matrix to someone who managed, by some kind of double vision, to pick up the code and the sequence of conventional rules under the shimmering surface of simulacra (this power that Neo develops corresponds symmetrically to the one of the rebels who are so used to deciphering the flow of symbols that they directly “see” their meaning so to speak, by immediately interpreting the stream of digits and graphemes into forms, objects or movements). The green code symbolises or signals that there is simulation, while suggesting that trained people can literally see through it. It corresponds to the perfect covering of a technically expressed form (the synthetic image produced by the computer) by a form of technical content (because this time it is in fact the digital artefact that needs to be represented as such). It also poses the central question: where is Neo? What is his point of view when he thus perceives from within what strictly speaking can only be the Matrix’ “exterior” aspect, its rough digital texture? How can that which is coded perceive the code itself? This paradox could be named the “point of view of the Architect.”
Most of the time, however, the virtual does not appear as such. It does not confine itself to digital flux of an immaterial nature, on the contrary, it has a veritable, dense and rough materiality which cannot be reduced to mere effects of texture (in the Matrix the blows really cause one to bleed, which is the first lesson Neo receives during his apprenticeship). It presupposes in fact a whole machinery (which is not the same as a model or a digital pattern). This is exactly why the problem arises of how to insert oneself into the Matrix, how to work one’s way through to its machine room so to speak. It is quite interesting to contrast the entry and exit scenes of Tron and The Matrix in this respect.
In Tron, the hero enters the universe of the video game by literally being “digitalised” by a powerful light beam directly aimed at him. He is thus reduced to small cubicles to be reassembled elsewhere in the game console. The complex machinery we are made to see, only has one function, namely to “scan” the body of the hero line after line and reconstitute its virtual double who will eventually materialise as an assemblage of pixels. This operation has three characteristics: first, it is entirely reversible – in the end, the hero reappears in the real as if nothing had happened. The light beam redraws his body in real space, line after line, to an extent that one wonders whether the directors merely played their tape backwards. Second, in both cases it is the machine that captures and reconstitutes the body – the procedure does not require any particular skill, it is entirely automated, one merely has to let it happen. Finally, the hero is absorbed into the video game involuntarily, by mistake. This is a far cry from the hackers of The Matrix who deploy a great deal of ingenuity in order to infiltrate the works of simulation and who never take the same route twice so to speak. The Matrix puts forward a much more archaic version of this double process of virtualisation and materialisation: the metallic “bioports” located at the back of the neck are not fundamentally different from this point view to the jelly-like and vaguely pornographic “pods” in eXistenZ. They function, by the way – and I will come back to this – only when interfaced with good old Twentieth-Century telephone “land” lines.
There is a very different conception about passing between reality and the virtual at work in these two films. But they probably also no longer share the same conception of simulation either. The Matrix, as we suggested, runs counter to two current misconceptions about the virtual: the “realist” (or imaginary) which understands the virtual as a kind of subtle ethereal territory, a synthetic environment conceived as a simple extension of our ordinary reality, and in which it seems possible to move around as if one were travelling towards some far destination; and the “idealist” (or symbolic) idea which represents the virtual as a kind of structure or intelligible model that may be fleshed out in various ways but is digital through and through and thus purely ideal. It is true that the very idea of simulation presupposes symbols combined according to the rules of a syntax, which by providing a functional equivalent of the relevant characteristics of the reality to be simulated, necessarily suggest a fundamentally abstract mode of representation (regardless of its abundance of detail and the power of illusion). But one is not compelled to think of “functions” in terms of unchangeable essence. As a matter of fact, the model as understood in modelization techniques is best characterized by its capacity to evolve and its adaptability. In The Matrix the functional space visualised by the green code running down operates less like a grid than as an elastic framework that can be as rigid or flexible as needed within the limits the programme determines. The motif of the chequerboard is thus merely the most basic form of the simulation scheme, because the functional space is in fact as varied and differentiated as one may wish. It can be folded, crumpled, and it is in folding upon itself that it constitutes objects that subsequently only need to be filled out by adding some new parameters (e.g., colour, luminosity, texture, etc.). This is the suppleness exploited by Neo while learning to fight, the suppleness apparent in the background of every scene, when the whole pavement undulates as the hero lands to the ground after flying around the city, or when Morpheus pompously states the basic rule of the matrix: that one merely needs to “bend” (rather than break) the laws of nature, that one should perceive them as mere nodes of virtuality rather than necessary, inflexible dictates of the universe’s “mainframe”.
On the whole, one might be tempted to say that The Matrix proposes a “realist” version of simulation while Tron, enhanced with its fluorescent colours, puts forward an “idealist” one. But things are a little more complex. There rather seems to be in both cases a specific combination of two meanings or two aspects of simulation: the matrix as grid, coordinate system or operator (i.e., the matrix in its mathematical sense) and the matrix as organic container (i.e., the matrix in its biological sense). If one prefers, the matrix as model, and the matrix as texture. Tron displays the artificial nature of its constructions, it everywhere verges on the model, hence the omnipresent chequerboards and the ubiquitous geometrical forms and transformations. On the other hand, The Matrix makes the setting ripple like supple fabric; it emphasises at every level the elastic, fluid and even liquid quality of the matrix. But these two aspects are in fact inseparable. Learning about the plasticity of the body in fact mirrors the watermark vision of the green or golden code, but also the fine exploration of the topology of the virtual world, that is to say the plasticity of the network itself. Thus, the image which is appropriate for the new idea of the virtual is less that of an illusionist trompe-l’oeil (or the cinematographic machine) than that of the flimmering “web” of the internet. The development from Tron to The Matrix is from the idea of the grid to that of the network.
To enter and exit the virtual within such a configuration presents very specific difficulties. These difficulties stem directly from the first hypothesis, namely that of the existence of a complete simulation of reality, along with the network as the technical form that corresponds to such a state of affairs. But what remains there to be seen once the simulacrum is perfect? How to find one’s way through “the desert of the real”? The Matrix suggests two answers to this quandary. On the one hand, it displays a topology of the virtual which is of direct relevance to matters of orientation and navigation within the simulated world (entering and exiting takes place in the tangible representation of the matrix’s infrastructure, starting with the network of “land line” telephone sets); on the other hand there is a choreography indicating in an oblique way how it would feel to develop a vision of the virtual as such, a perception from within the folds of simulation (hence the “Bullet-Time” effect).
What distinguishes a film like The Matrix from other films that deal with the same topic is that it makes one see how the real and the virtual are set out in practice, not in the terms of an imaginary topology where reality and simulation are always conceptualised, whether intended or not, as two distinct but adjacent “worlds.” As a result, the problem of illusion, the subjective anxiety provoked by the faltering of appearances and the shaking of certainties (which is the central theme of films inspired by Philip K. Dick’s work) move to the backstage. Once the relation to simulation is treated in an “objective” way, it can be transposed onto concrete problems of navigation and cartography. This approach naturally suggests theoretical hypotheses about the infrastructure of the Matrix and the kind of beliefs and narrative schemes it authorises. The question is no longer what the Matrix is, but how it works, and more specifically, how to intervene in and how to exit from it. In this connection, the technical device that underlies the simulation plays an essential role. It is that which makes The Matrix part of the technology driven action film genre (like for example Mission Impossible) and more generally of science fiction, which, of course does not merely rely on futuristic technology and the exploration of unknown worlds but also demands that the protocols of experience should not be arbitrary but always rationally explainable. The use of telephones, the insistent emphasis on either analogue (“hard-wired”) or cellular (satellite-controlled) devices, as well as on the physical network of telephone land lines visualised on the control screens, makes it possible to reveal the edge of virtual reality by focusing on its connection points. Elsewhere I have analysed the precise (and by no means trivial) function of the telephones in The Matrix. Here, it must suffice to give merely a general idea.
The telephone, it must be emphasised, is not just a sporadic instrument, it is present throughout the entire trilogy. Right from the first sequence of the first episode one witnesses Trinity communicate with the rebels through her mobile phone and then diving into a telephone box that a lorry is going to crush a moment later after just after she has dematerialised. After that, it is Neo, the Hacker, who is woken up by the ringing of his telephone set, and later contacted by Morpheus on a Nokia mobile delivered in a FedEx envelope. And soon after, Morpheus is himself on his mobile or walking slowly towards an analogue black Bakelite phone with an old-fashioned dial that occupies almost the entire screen. The mobile of Cypher, the traitor (who made the choice to return to the Matrix for good and thus no longer needs to communicate), lands in a bin, in a slow-motion sequence reminiscent of De Palma. This switched-on mobile will eventually allow the agents to locate the rebels. In the last few scenes of The Matrix one sees, successively, first Morpheus dematerialise by using a phone box in an underground station, then Neo snatching a mobile off a passer-by in order to signal to the rebels where he is, and then running towards the telephone in room 303 before being shot by Agent Smith. What is important in these scenes is not the content of the conversations, nor the symbolism of the telephones as such (the vivid presence of the human voice in a world that is entirely artificial, unless long distance communication merely signifies the imperative of mobility as the true spirit of new capitalism), but rather the particular operations implied by these varied usages of the telephone. During an “online” discussion, the Wachowski brothers admitted that they “liked the analog nature of older technology... [and] the suggestion of old original phone hackers.” But how exactly does this work, beyond the stylistic effect? And what exactly is the difference between using mobiles or old analogue technology?
One only has to pay attention to the protocols shown in order to understand that the land line telephones are not a means of physical transportation (like for example the teleporters in Star Trek or in Ray Palmer’s “The Silver Age Atom”), which would enable people to circulate along telephone lines after having been reduced to the quantum scale. They are also no direct means of communication – the mobiles perform this function very well and they are in fact what the rebels use to call their base when they are in the virtual Matrix. No, the hard-wired telephone sets are used for navigating or locating purposes.
For the main problem of navigating in a virtual space lies in locating a virtual body (“avatar”) or a virtual environment (a hotel room for example), in a way that does not merely rely on the topographical conventions of the simulacrum-world, nor on the purely syntactical or computational level symbolised by the green code running down the screen. In order to land on a specific point in the virtual world it is not enough to have a virtual map (nothing would be easier for the hackers to obtain a plan of the virtual telephone network), one rather has to find a way to determine the point at which one is. The issue is to know where to enter and also where this entry will lead to in the virtual world, “behind the looking-glass.”
Let us attempt an analogy here: in contrast with a map of the underground which suggests an absolute or bird’s eye view of the subterranean network (and which is hence purely relative for those who do not know where it is actually located), town maps are for purely local use; as these plans are in themselves barely useful to those who are unfamiliar with the surroundings, one occasionally sees a “you are here” added to help the visitors locate themselves and figure out the right orientation. In the case of virtual navigation, the difference for those who are outside the virtual is that “here” can only be found blindly and at once – no real trial and error is possible before emerging at a specific point in the Matrix. It is somewhat like the situation for someone who is supposed to reach a destination by finding one’s way through complete darkness using a plan that would give no idea about the point of departure. If one is outside the Matrix, calculation alone does not provide any direct entry point interpretable in terms of a virtual place. Consulting the cadastre of the virtual world or the layout of the telephone network will not help either because that would only provide a relative location, certainly useful for those inside the Matrix (like a town map, provided one knows how to orientate it in relation to a direction of reference), but which can provide no real or absolute access for those outside it. The only solution to this problem of absolute locating is therefore to find an intermediary framework between the syntactical structure of the simulation and its virtual topography. This intermediary framework is precisely what the analogue telephone network provides; it plays the role of an interface that reduplicates the reticular functioning of the Matrix in a way that makes sense to people navigating in its vicinity. The telephone network is thus more than a grid or a coordinate frame in the geometrical sense: it offers a tangible representation or model of the network of the Matrix, it lays bare its topology. The telephones are thus indices or buoys in the ocean of the virtual. Once again, one does not enter the virtual as one would enter a house: in order to do so one must trace marks on flowing water, that is, decipher fluctuating configurations of symbols which constitute the veins of the network, all the while avoiding the connections bugged by the agents of the Matrix. It should be obvious from these technical considerations that entering the Matrix and exiting it in time, at the right moment, already presupposes special skills with respect to the plasticity and complex synchronisation of durations.