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The Matrix Refactored [Apr. 19th, 2007|12:27 pm]
The Matrix movies, remember those? Way back at the turn of the millennium? They started out really well, but fell very flat by the end. My feeling about them is that nearly all the parts that I liked happened inside the Matrix; the stuff I didn't like was what went on outside the Matrix, and that's what overgrew the rest of it as you got closer and closer to the end of the series. The basic premise of what the characters were doing (fighting against the mechanical forces of oppression from inside a virtual world) was interesting and compelling, it was the extended premise of why they were doing it (humans as batteries? WTF?) that was confusing and boring and, well, lame.

So I was thinking I would share some ideas I had about refactoring the Matrix. (For those of you who don't hack, "refactoring" is a jargon term that means rewriting computer code so that it makes more sense and fits together better. That's a little joke...) The goal here is to preserve all the good parts of the original while redesigning the world so that it actually makes sense.

Let's start with what's good. The basic idea of the Matrix, that the 'real' world is actually a computer-created illusion created by the Machines, and all the humans are actually tucked away dreaming in pods, that's pretty cool. And all the spiffy abilities of Neo and the other Awakened folks, like bullet-time, jacking-in from outside to hack the Matrix, that's good. The AI characters like the Oracle and the Keymaker are also spiff, especially the idea that they form the nucleus of various myths and legends and that they're not a part of the normal Matrix 'ecology' like the Agents. The physicalization of various computer science concepts within the Matrix ('back door' access, viral Agent Smith) is also pretty cool.

So what's broken? Well, the most egregious problem is the whole issue of the Machines' motivation for creating the Matrix. The idea that humans are used as a power source is just ridiculous on so many levels I don't even know where to start. Even if there were some way to pull electricity out of the human body, and that was somehow not less efficient than just about any other generation scheme you can conceive of, what are they feeding them with? There's no sunlight, nor even any plant life, as far as we can see. (And the 'soylent green' answer doesn't work for long -- there's only so much biochemical energy to be extracted.)

Okay, but maybe the rules are different outside the Matrix. They have some kind of antigravity technology out there in the real world, right? Maybe the physics of the Matrix have been edited to leave things out. That's an interesting idea, but there are two problems with it. The first is the issue of computational power. Creating a simulation like the Matrix would require so many computational resources that you would have to cut corners wherever possible. If you tried to simulate every molecule in every brick in a building, it'd never work. You have to just show the surface of the building and figure out what's going on with the interiors only if and when necessary. You create a very intense version of the Observer Effect, where you don't bother with having things exist at all except when they'll influence an observation. So the Machines would have to leverage off the physics of the real world to make those shortcuts, or they'd never be able to get the Matrix up and running.

The second problem is that, if you did edit out antigravity and personal fusion (or whatever), why stop there? Why should the outside world be even vaguely comprehensible to a human born and raised within the Matrix? More to the point, why should conditions within the Matrix be such that humans have a mental framework for conceiving what the Matrix actually is and rebelling against the system? It would be really easy to tweak the rules of physics such that computers just didn't work. Heck, it wouldn't be too hard to keep technology at the iron age level or below inside the Matrix. Wouldn't that make things a LOT easier for the Machines?

For that matter, why is human sentience even present within the Matrix? If all the Machines want is bioelectricity, there's no reason to use humans. You could just as well use cows or dogs or rats, who would require an awful lot less infrastructure. Or even if the process does somehow require human intelligence, why not just keep the humans perpetually asleep and dreaming incoherently, rather than putting them into a shared world?

No, clearly Morpheus's explanation of why the Machines created the Matrix is simply wrong. So if the Machines aren't using humanity as a resource of some kind, why would they bother creating the Matrix? If they hate humanity so, why not just wipe it out completely?

(Aside: I know that the Matrix movies have got a lot of gnostic and other metaphysical symbolism going on, and that many of the "why" questions can be answered with "because it represents X". I'm mostly ignoring that and working on the purely literal level, but if you care to reverse-engineer some theological points by looking at my redesign and considering it in that symbolic framework, more power to ya.)

The solution I came up with is that it's actually well-intended. The Matrix is the Machines' way of caretaking humanity.

Imagine that we've got a technologically advanced civilization, which we'll call Atlantis. The Atlanteans create lots of robots and complicated computer systems and good stuff like that, and at some point, they have an AI that they put in charge of managing all the complicated interdependent systems that they depend on, because that's the kind of thing you'd need an AI for, right? This AI -- let's call it the Architect -- is tasked with keeping things running so that humans can go about being humans. Now, suppose that the Architect is faced with a looming crisis: the human population is going to rapidly outgrow the carrying capacity of its environment, the one piece of infrastructure that the Architect can't upgrade.

This is a serious dilemma. The Architect's goal is to let the humans do human things, but presumably it's got all kinds of safeguards built in as well. It can't just kill off a bunch of humans to bring the population down. It doesn't have much leeway in how much it can limit human freedom. But it has to do something.

Now, consider how good computers are at doing what you said to do, rather than what you meant for them to do. And how good they are at thinking sideways because they don't have 'common sense' assumptions built in. The Architect concludes that, so long as you can't distinguish between them, a simulation of reality would be just as good for doing 'human things' (which it doesn't understand anyway) as actual reality would be. Humans are free to do whatever they like, their support footprint is drastically reduced, the complex of systems it has to operate is simplified and stabilized, everyone wins. And so the Matrix is born.

Wouldn't it explain a lot about the behavior of the Sentinels in the first movie (much as I want to throw out everything in the movies from outside the Matrix) if they were not hunter-killers intent on destroying all humans, but maintenance units of some kind? Maintenance units that have a hard time acting directly against humans, but can try to provoke them into disabling themselves in one way or another?

The whole Zion thing will still have to go (especially this notion that you can rebuild the entire species from 30-some individuals -- that's a really nasty genetic bottleneck, just ask a cheetah). And it's not clear how much of the giant lump of exposition from the second movie is (or should be) salvageable. But isn't that a much more interesting setup? The Machines mean well. They have to keep people in the Matrix for their own good. Even if they concluded that humans would be happier outside the Matrix, they can't just decant everyone. It would be beyond disastrous.

There are all kinds of really exciting possibilities here. The world outside the Matrix could be lush and beautiful, or it could still be fragile and recovering. There's probably more than one Matrix, to accomodate population growth within the finite setting cribbed from the physical world. There could be multiple Machine factions with differing opinions on exactly how to manage this solution to the problem. Maybe the Machines are trying to come up with a solution that will let them release everyone from the Matrix. (It is, after all, still a stopgap measure in many senses.) Various events (religious and otherwise) throughout history can be viewed as attempts by the Machines to intervene in simulated human history.

Instead of simple good-vs-evil, machines-vs-humans, now it's good-vs-good, humans and machines against themselves, which is much more interesting if you ask me.

Anyway, just an idea I got stuck in my head and wanted to share, in case people found it interesting. Whaddaya think? What would you add to it?

[User Picture]From: emramesha
2007-04-20 03:14 am (UTC)
I am a huge fan of the world constructed in the Matrix and read a lot of the associated stories on the website at the time, as well as watching the Animatrix (I was geeky enough to buy the boxset, but not geeky enough to get the computer games or the deluxe boxset). I feel that the robots constructed the only earth they empirically knew and hence the level of technology available. However, I do think they do a rather good job at keeping down the humans given the billions that are in the Matrix and the relatively low level skittering around its edges. I like your idea too, but I think too much has been set up by the Wachowski brothers to allow it in. Have you thought about pursuing it further in its own framework without "The Matrix" name attached to it? That could be a fun bit of creative writing.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-04-20 03:45 am (UTC)
I'm not so much adding to your idea, here, as giving you mine.

I know I wrote this all down at some length, ages ago, when I was thinking a lot about these movies, but that was many hard-drive-swaps ago and I may not have the files at all, and certainly have them nowhere accessible, so this is the short version.

Right; Morpheus was just wrong about the battery thing. It's an urban legend of Zion, cited by people who just don't think it through or who don't have the data to reason quantitatively about it. Actually, the system keeps humans around because it needs their brains for computation.

Basically, human history is just what we perceive it to be and is "real" until some time in the near future -- oh, let's say 2040, just for grins. That's when the latest cybernetic VR system suddenly goes nonlinear and pseudointelligent, and starts grabbing all the available hardware it can to run on. Humankind fights back, among other things trashing/randomizing all the computer hardware it can reach. The System responds by optimizing itself to run on the brains of the humans cybernetically linked to it. Things get worse from there; eventually humans just lose. But the System doesn't have enough meta to port itself wholesale to another hardware platform, so it's left running on the distributed wetware system.

Which means the Matrix isn't a simulation running on some other hardware somewhere doing I/O with thousands (or millions, or billions) of human brains; it is a simulation running on those brains. It keeps the simulation running because without some kind of cogent reality-like simulation, its human server farm tends to atrophy and shut down.

Incidentally, this is why people "jacking into" the matrix can't simply cut off contact and wake up; in order to enter the Matrix, you have to let the Matrix client software run on your own cortex. If you don't shut it down properly, you get buffer overflow and things like autonomic heartbeat control get overwritten. You have to shut down the connection from within the software.

The System has been running for about a century since then; unfortunately, it isn't especially creative... so the only "simulation" it is capable of creating that is convincingly detailed enough to keep the humans in it sane and functioning is one based on actual detailed records of the period from Just Before Everything Went To Hell back to Just After Computerized Records Got Started... let's say, 1960 through 2040, just to put some numbers on it. So that's what it does, and when the simulation clocktime hits the end of that period, it is forced to "reset", which causes all kinds of weird funky edge-case phenomena (and, incidentally, gets a whole Ages of Mankind symbolic metaphysical reference going).

The overall system Architect-ure doesn't really have an overarching goal other than continuing to run -- it has simply expanded to take over all available hardware, and is perpetuating its own existence. In the meantime, various subSystems have gone nonlinear and pseudointelligent on their own (the Oracle, Agent Smith, etc.), and come into conflict with it.

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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2007-04-20 04:49 am (UTC)
This matches my understanding, though, Beemer, your concept has great merit of its own, and is easily expandable into its own storyline - you too can be a fanfic author. Or take it off on a non-Matrix path and expand to what your imagination can make it. :D
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-04-20 08:19 pm (UTC)
It suffers from my usual dilemma, which is I have a grand time coming up with interesting settings, but I get kinda stuck once I try to come up with any kind of actual plot...
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-04-20 08:46 pm (UTC)
So, I really should dig out my old notes, because I gave some thought to this too.

Mostly, the thing that fascinated me plotwise was the nature of the conflict between the various agents.

In general, I think any decent "Humans vs. Aliens" plot (and AIs are Alien in this context) needs to pick an attribute (or several, or the lack of one or more) of humanity that it's emphasizing, and around which the conflict orbits; the resolution of the conflict should suggest something worth saying about the nature of the chosen attribute(s).

In specific, the setup below seemed ripe for emphasizing creativity; I like the idea of a struggle between system A, which can be counted on to behave repeatably in the same (potentially pseudo-random) ways given the same input, and system B, which simply can't.

Relatedly, I have particularly fallen in love with the image of the rebels having to break into impossibly-defended Place, and covertly getting their hands on a copy of the Matrix's defensive subroutines for Place, and spending the better part of weeks running the thing in their private VR system to work out just exactly what it is they need to do to break in, given that if they do A the system will reliably do B, to a level of precision that really does make the breakin a choreographed dance. (Eg, "wait 4 seconds, move ten feet to the left while agent looks where you were just standing, wait 2 seconds, move back..." allowing you to literally hide in an empty room by simply not being where you already know the agent is going to look; or tricking agents into shooting each other the way you would goons in a video game.)
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-04-20 08:10 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting take on it. I like it!
If I ever do anything more with this, I may steal bits from you.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-04-20 08:31 pm (UTC)
Feel free.
I might even be psyched to get involved in a collaborative project of some sort in this space, if you were interested in such a thing.
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[User Picture]From: portlandpiglet
2007-04-21 10:16 pm (UTC)
I agree with your basic assessment here: in matrix = good, "real world" = sucky and lame.

This post reminded me of an episode of This American Life I heard a while back where the author of the piece explains how "Star Wars: Phantom Menace" should have gone, instead of the horrible, Jar-Jar way it went. So he proposes a rewrite that is infinitely better than the original. It turns out that it's by John Hodgman, the hilarious author of "Areas of my expertise", frequent contributor to The daily show, and the older, tie-wearing "PC" from those "Mac vs. PC" Mac commercials. You can listen to it at http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=232. It's "Act 3" of the show, so it's just past 45 minutes in. It is SO worth checking out.

Also salient to this conversation: http://www.themeatrix.com. An argument for vegetarianism based on the myth of the family farm, showcasing the reality of where your meat comes from.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-23 01:32 pm (UTC)
Wouldn't it explain a lot about the behavior of the Sentinels in the first movie (much as I want to throw out everything in the movies from outside the Matrix) if they were not hunter-killers intent on destroying all humans, but maintenance units of some kind?

It would seem to me that keeping "rebels" from interfering with the carefully managed Matrix would be a reasonable thing for maintenance bots to do. After all, a component of the Matrix is clearly malfunctioning.

I think my own refactoring would be slightly less drastic than yours. I'd keep most everything, but I'd agree with another poster in that the Matrix is using people for a CPU, not a battery. Change that one little thing and a lot of plot and motivation gets cleared up.

Incidentally, the VR world has definitely popped up in my reading in the past. I *want* to say that I'd read something John Varley'ish about using this sort of mechanism to get humanity around as we're travelling between star systems (sublight).
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[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2007-04-23 01:37 pm (UTC)
LJ really should tell you your login cookie has expired. This was me. :-)
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From: stevenrbrandt
2007-05-23 02:39 pm (UTC)

Other refactorings....

I had some other ideas about refactorings of the matrix (see http://javaregex.com/wordpress/?p=29). It even occurred to me to use the "refactored" term. I like your notion that the machines are really trying to help us -- somewhat better than the wetware answer.
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