A good deal of contemporary science fiction, from Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory novels to action movies like The Matrix, is based on a simple premise: technology makes it easy to create fake worlds. Inception, a movie about the use of advanced technology to steal dreams or coercively implant ideas, ostensibly furthers this paranoid cultural tradition. However, this conventional reading of Inception ignores another, more relevant interpretation: the movie is about the new, exciting, and at times confusing means of simultaneous experience in both synthetic and everyday spaces that modern technology enables.
When we use our BlackBerries, iPhones, or plug into our iPods, we are disconnecting from world around us to interact with others at a remove. Network theorist Kazy Varnelis points out that, in a way, this simultaneous interaction mirrors Inception’s participatory dreamworlds. This is not necessarily a new technology—as Varnesis observes the concept of simultaneous interaction in both natural and synthetic spaces has been a part of modernity since the invention of the telegraph. But the ease with which we can live in multiple states of space and time and the multitude of networked forms our distributed worlds take is a contemporary novelty.
Inception illustrates an extreme form of simultaneity. There is a baseline reality and a set of differing levels of dreams, each with different rules and different modes of time—all of which ticking by simultaneously, with action in each level influencing the other. This is the heart of what the “network society” looks like in practice. Seem a little extreme? In an era of massively multiplayer online RPGs (MMORPgs), “augmented reality” technology that integrates the synthetic seamlessly into everyday environments, or handheld platforms that enable students to Tweet their hearts away during boring classes, extreme simultaneity is fast becoming a reality.
Thus, it was William Gibson, whose novels focused intensely on the integration of the real with the virtual, rather than the Lotus-eaters of The Matrix, that proved correct about the direction of the future. Instead of a fake world constructed to trick us, we have a multitude of private worlds inhabited by groups of people that ebb and flow across a global distributed information space. The synthetic is not something to be experienced apart from the real. Both original and counterfeit are experienced simultaneously. Perhaps to some who have grown so used to Twittering and Facebooking from shiny new iPhone4s, synthetic worlds have become an inescapable part of everyday life to the point where the idea of simultaneity itself is arbitrary. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a time when simultaneity was not an inescapable part of everyday life.
What Inception demonstrates is that The Matrix's prediction of the future was wrong. Synthetic reality did not lead to an Orwellian future of thought control. Rather, instead of Agent Smith, we instead find ourselves captured by Farmville or Mob Wars on our work computers or smartphones. Our future is not of a disaggregation between the real world and the virtual, but a progressive blurring and merging of the two as the technologies of simultaneity grow more advanced.