Man as the World-Builder

David A. Wheeler

June 15, 2003 (revised April 23, 2006)

Many articles have been written about the concepts behind the movie The Matrix, extolling the differences between “the real” and “the unreal.” Let me offer a counterpoint: in the movie, the virtual-reality matrix is a real matrix. It's all real, from the point of view that any environment in which people can interact is real.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of mankind is that we are world-builders. Other animals occasionally use tools, and some animals make a specific environmental change (e.g., beavers can create ponds), but only humanity routinely dreams up and then implements whole new environments to suit our desires. In general, we most respect older civilizations that shaped and molded their environment to suit their needs (e.g., the pyramid-building Egyptians, the Roman Empire, and ancient China). Many of the most popular works of fiction present an entirely new world (e.g., J.R.R. Tolkien's work, or Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek universe), in which others can pretend to inhabit.

We continue to develop new worlds – new environments – today. Our growing cities are not “natural”; they are human-dreamed and human-created. The most obvious and newer environment today is the Internet: its services such as the World Wide Web, email, and chat systems (such as various Instant Messaging systems and Internet Relay Chat) all provide environments in which we can interact. The fact that they are electronic does not make the people any less real, and there's nothing wrong with “artificial” environments merely because they're artificially created.

The problem of the matrix in The Matrix is not that the humans are in an artificial environment; we've been in artificial environments ever since we built our first homes. The problem is that the matrix is a prison – it's an environment that people are unaware of, and cannot (easily) escape from. As the character Morpheus says, it is a “prison for your mind.”

The fundamental issue is that humans should not allow environments to control them; instead, they must (continue) to control their environments. There is, of course, a danger that our systems (part of our environments) will control humankind, which is why many systems (such as political systems, media, and so on) must be watched and it's critical that competing points-of-view can be heard. Even if the environment is artificial, however, humans should still treat others with respect. Some people send nasty email to others they'd never send in person, under the mistaken notion that because the environment is (more) artificial, so are the people. This is wrong: what's truly real are the people around us.

Feel free to see my home page at; you might find Why are Humans used as Batteries in the Matrix? and How to throw a Matrix party especially interesting. You can also consider what happens when a pong game questions the matrix.