Twenty years after the release of The Matrix, its prescient vision of a virtual world continues to mirror events in real life

The Matrix has barely started when a phone booth is demolished, left as a smashed pancake of glass and metal. It was a prophetic touch. Payphones were still everywhere in western cities when the film came out in March 1999. By the time of the first sequel four years later, they were already half-vanished, replaced by a private army of Nokias and Motorolas.

But now The Matrix is a relic too, a quaint slice of 90s nostalgia about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. “1999”, the recent song from Charli XCX and Troye Sivan, features wistful lyrics (“Those days, it was so much better”) and cover art in which the millennial pop stars wear the black leather costumes made famous by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as they battled the machines enslaving humanity. Yet for a relic, it never slipped far from view – still a familiar reference in a world divided between internet and IRL (in real life), its characters endlessly circulating in memes and gifs, often as vehicles for the acrid politics that define our 21st century.

Back in the 20th, much of the highest excitement was reserved for the visuals – the “digital rain” of green code, the bullets slowed to a stop while Reeves swayed around them. But the premise was what made it a phenomenon, the idea our whole reality might be a virtual concoction. How would we know? More ticklish still, would we want to? If, like Reeves’s weary hacker Neo, we were approached by Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, would we take the blue pill to return us to life as it merely seemed to be? Or the red that promised us – however terrible – the real?

Of course, Neo chose red, as we told ourselves we would, too. The notion of the matrix hit a nerve. Despite sunlit economies and political stability, a strange ennui and mistrust of technology hung over the end of the 90s. People fretted about the “millennium bug” and reality TV.

In fact, as sibling co-creators the Wachowskis alluded to on screen, the film was just the latest in a long line of variations on a theme, nestled in the mainstream of philosophy. In the allegory of the cave, Plato presented humanity chained to a cave wall, taking passing shadows for reality. Then came the first meditation of Descartes (1641), speculating that everything his senses told him might just be the work of an “evil demon”. By the 1980s, we had the theory of the brain in the vat – built on the impossibility of ever knowing for sure that you aren’t exactly that, your whole life simply electrical impulses wired into your tank.

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