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In The Matrix, the people within the Matrix live in a simulated version of the year 1999. It's already been asked why the machines bothered with the Matrix at all, but let's assume that they had a good reason. My question is: why simulate 1999 or a similar year in which computers are prevalent?

It seems that those who get free, and notably Neo, benefit greatly from the knowledge of computers that they learn while growing up in the Matrix. So why didn't they simulate a year that was before computers, say 1890 or even something more primitive like 900 AD. If they had simulated one of these years, then the machines wouldn't have had as much problem if a human had managed to get free as the human would have no concept of what a computer was, meaning not only would they have greater difficulty conceptualizing the Matrix but also they wouldn't know how to operate computers and other technology that would ultimately be used to fight the machines.

I realize that there is Smith's line about how 1999 was "the height of human civilization", but it doesn't sound like not being in 1999 would make the Matrix any less effective at controlling humans. So why did the Matrix simulate 1999 instead of a pre-computer year?

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In reality, because the movie was released in 1999. –  Jack B Nimble Jul 30 at 15:56
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Also, computers were required. The program required that those that were capable of rejecting it were able to do so and go to Zion, so the cycle could be perpetuated. –  Dave Johnson Jul 30 at 16:05
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To be fair, Descartes famously wrote about something akin to the matrix in the 1637, it wouldn't be surprising to me if the Romans/Greeks also grasped the possibility of a virtual life. –  Mooing Duck Jul 30 at 17:01
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Also, Plato (520AC-ish) described people as actually living in a false reality and philosophers leave this falsehood and begin to explore the true reality. This doesn't directly compare, but I bet he could also conceptualize the Matrix. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave –  Mooing Duck Jul 30 at 17:14
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If they kept it in 1999, they'd have no y2k bug to deal with.{/tongue-in-cheek} –  MichaelT Jul 30 at 17:37

13 Answers 13

up vote 67 down vote accepted

Maybe 1999 was the era that had the longest life expectancy for the average human.

Neo: If you're killed in the Matrix, you die here?
Morpheous: The body cannot live without the mind.

Maybe the machines thought humans would relive their past, and in the early 20th century they would have major wars that resulted in "entire crops" being lost. Or a repeat of the crusades.

The average life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years, compare that to 1999 where it was 76.7 - cdc.gov. That doesn't necessarily mean anything though, because the humans are in a controlled environment. Presumably, they don't have exposure to viruses, bacteria, or harmful substances (unless the gel is harmful).

If the most common cause of unexpected death in the Matrix is violent death, you want to choose a setting where that is at a minimal. Maybe you could disperse the population over a massive area, so no one ever interacts with anyone else, but then people would die from lack of social contact. Better to choose a time and place where the people are more docile. Perhaps 1999 marked a time with less conflict (although the movie didn't know this, it was right before 9/11, and the subsequent wars with Afghanistan and Iraq).

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Could also be the quantity of people. –  Kevin Jul 30 at 15:51
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Kevin: I think the key point is density of people. All else being equal, it requires less processing power to simulate 5 million people in a confined space like a modern city, instead of having to spread them out over a much wider area in an agrarian society. –  Royal Canadian Bandit Jul 30 at 15:58
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@RoyalCanadianBandit, that may be debatable. Simulating multiple isoloted local environments may be less expensive than simulating a complex space with more variables and depenancies. Either way, quantity/density shouldnt really be an issue because they could just have multiple simulations running in parrarel, firing up a new one when the population is too large. –  RyanS Jul 30 at 17:32
    
I agree that it had to be something to do with the quantity of people. More people = more power, and maybe the requirements to simulate the world for one human being was only a fraction of the power that could be harvested from a single human. Plus intelligence is playful. The machines needed a distraction. –  J. Reynolds Aug 1 at 17:52
    
I'd remove the last line: the out-of-universe explanation is both obvious and not requested. –  Lohoris Aug 1 at 19:44

This was sort of explained in the first movie by Agent Smith. He explained that the first Matrix was designed as a utopia, but that the humans connected to it rejected the program, and "entire crops [of human Duracells] were lost". He goes on to say that the Matrix was redesigned into its current form, "the peak of your civilization". So it was done to ensure that the people plugged into the Matrix would not "reject" it.

Of course, the real explanation is that if they did design the Matrix as you suggest, there would be no movie.

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The real question is how they figured 1999 as the peak of civilization. I mean, was the year 2000 really that bad? –  Zibbobz Jul 30 at 17:08
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But would they really reject the Matrix if the simulated year was 1890 rather than 1999? I'm having a hard time imagining that this would happen. Could you consider expanidng your answer? –  Thunderforge Jul 31 at 4:27
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@Mr.Pichler: It's not that they would reject it, it's that 1999 was the highest quality of life that people would not reject. The machines wanted people to be comfortable, after all. –  Phoshi Jul 31 at 12:05
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@Mr.Pichler I'm certain the Matrix did simulate 1980 before 1999 -- Neo had to be a baby at some time in his life. Too many people here are talking as if the Matrix just repeated 1999 over and over again, when the movie shows us that humans are introduced to the Matrix as babies and age naturally. –  Blazemonger Jul 31 at 13:31

The reason that The Matrix was placed in 1999 was because the previous ones had failed... The Machines needed humans to accept the virtual world rather than the real world, which I will explain in detail later.

There were two previous version as far as we know.

http://matrix.wikia.com/wiki/Matrix_betas

The first was the Paradise Matrix, which human minds rejected.

The first Matrix (known as the Paradise Matrix) was designed to be a perfect human world, where none would suffer and everyone would be happy. It was supposedly a utopic realm where's one's desires, namely the mind connected to it, would manifest. However, human minds could not accept this concept, and scores of humans rejected the program.

The second was the "Nightmare Matrix"

A second Matrix (known as the Nightmare Matrix) was created. This time, the Architect didn't try to make a perfect world, but one based on human history, "to more accurately reflect the varying grotesqueries of your nature".[2] This time, the Architect inserted a primitive cause and effect option into the virtual world.

This one was a failure because it didn't resemble close enough to the real world.

If the Merovingian's chateau and artifacts are any indication, while the second Matrix beta was designed to more closely resemble real human history, it somewhat resembled a stilted soap opera or B-horror movie. Instead of a fluffy and soft "Paradise" like the previous version, the Nightmare Matrix was populated with various "Monsters" such as vampires and werewolves. Humans within this Matrix did now operate within a framework of cause and effect, but didn't have true choice, so much as acting out these scripts. Human minds within the second Matrix beta could still discern on a certain level that it wasn't real. While it wasn't the catastrophic failure of the first Matrix beta, the second Matrix beta was still ultimately deemed to be a failure.

The final version is the Modern 1999 version we see in the film... It was made more realistic than the previous two where human civilization was at it's peak.. The Oracle actually stumbled across the fact that 99% of test subjects would choose to accept the virtual world if given the choice.

"As I was saying, she stumbled upon a solution where nearly 99% of all test subject accepted the program as long as they were given a choice, even if they were only aware of the choice at a near-unconscious level." The Architect to Neo

The solution was ultimately stumbled upon by an intuitive program, originally intended to study aspects of the human psyche: The Oracle. She discovered that if humans were given a choice, even at a subconscious level, to accept the reality of the world around them, ninety-nine percent of humans would accept the virtual world. Thus the Architect redesigned the Matrix into its third and final form, a realistic world approximating human civilization at its peak, circa 1980 - 2025, right before human started developing Artificial Intelligences that became the Machines.

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Interestingly, the matrix wiki says the final is the third, but wikipedia and the movie both mention that the final matrix is the sixth. –  Mooing Duck Jul 30 at 17:18
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@MooingDuck: Third Matrix; sixth emergence of The Anomaly. Also known as "The [Sixth] One", which by my calculations should make it actually "The Sixth" rather than "The One". But since nobody knew about the previous "Onesies" I suppose it's fine that they don't call him "The Sixth" but rather "The One". –  user24620 Jul 30 at 21:12
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They had to reload the Matrix multiple times as the quote states... The third Matrix is the final version but they just simply reloaded everything at the very least 5 times. –  DoctorWho22 Jul 30 at 22:28
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@doq If they had to reload 5 times, are they sure they were in 1999 and not a few years ahead running on Windows ME? –  Pharap Aug 1 at 9:09

I'm surprised that this hasn't been mentioned before, but it seems reasonable to assume that it comes down to optimal power generation.

We're told in the first movie that humans are kept alive and in the matrix so that their heat energy can be used as a power source. From a scientific perspective this makes little sense, but there is nothing in the movies that refutes this from a lore perspective. So the matrix is one component of a power plant.

The power output of the matrix would be directly proportional to the number of human beings involved, but the number of humans is limited by the viability of the virtual world. In other words, the world must be believable so that the humans do not reject it. So it makes sense to choose a setting that allows for maximum population density.

Imagine they created the matrix to simulate the 1500s. How would they realistically (virtually) feed billions of people with no modern farming technology? How would society (virtually) house them without modern construction technology? And average life expectancy, and per-capita killings, were lower in 1999 than when feudal wars were the norm.

Setting the matrix in 1999 maximizes population without rejection, and thus optimizes power generation.

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Good point, we hit 6 billion people in 1999 while in the 1500s there were, what, around a billion? –  Thunderforge Jul 31 at 14:03
    
This is a non-issue, the Matrix does not need to simulate conservation of mass. –  nomen Aug 1 at 4:24
    
@nomen Maybe. However, we are given no indication that the matrix uses phasing, so all humans are in the same instance (to use gaming parlance). As such, there needs to be a realistic number of them or they risk rejection again. –  Nicholas Aug 1 at 12:25
    
@Thunderforge, world population hit a billion in 1801, according to Wikipedia. In the 1500's I think it was more like a couple dozen/hundred million. –  trysis Aug 1 at 20:10
    
@trysis - This conversation got me looking into this. Estimates for the 1500s lie in the mid 400 millions. –  neilfein Aug 3 at 4:25

A possible answer might lie in changes made to the premise of the Matrix during the making of the first movie.

The original plan had the machines constructing the Matrix to link humans together as neural computing units. It would have been easy to explain any feature of the virtual reality by saying that was just how the dreaming parts of the mind experienced the computations being fed to them.

But someone thought that "human minds = processors in a network" was too complicated for movie watchers to grasp, so it got changed to "they're keeping us around for our body heat", which unfortunately left the plot hole of why the machines didn't commit some psychosurgery to make everyone a lot more tractable.

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And also left the whole premise for the movie themodynamically ridiculous. –  Jerry Schirmer Jul 30 at 21:19
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I always thought it would make so much more sense for the Matrix to be using human minds for processing power. It would explain why the machines need the humans, and why the machines can't just totally control the Matrix. Why would the Matrix allow powers like Neo had? Well, what if the people's dreaming minds accept Neo and the machines can't do anything about it? It's too bad they didn't just go with this and keep it simple. "The human mind is still the ultimate computer. The machines need us even more than we need them." That would have been enough explanation right there. –  steveha Aug 4 at 15:47

The one depicted in the movie was the 6th iteration of the Matrix and was considered to be the optimum iteration. As we know from the movie, every story about a warewolf or vampire from long ago was a program from a previous more primitive variation and those presumably didn't work out well. It is also stated in the movie that the Oracle was the program who came up with the piece of the puzzle that saved entire crops of humans from being lost because they rejected what they were seeing - the illusion of choice and presumably normalcy. The war between the humans and machines happened in modern times - after the advent of computers. If you put the humans into a scenario that is alien to them they would reject the program and the crop would be lost.

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Other answers cover the whole "keep the people happy" side of the matrix, but in the scene with the Architect he mentions that the 'One' is a manifestation of imbalance in the system, and allowing the cycle of: The 'One' shows himself, fights the system, gets the choice to rebuild zion with a group of people and reset the matrix; to continue is an acceptable solution. Setting the matrix in an age where humans can have a deep knowledge of computer systems and hacking probably helps ensure the cycle happens in this way, rather than risk those who are unplugged rejecting the real world and not comprehending what the matrix actually is.

Another point is that it seems that the majority of the population lives in a 'megacity' inside the matrix. Simulating a gigantic city with a dense population was probably easier than simulating an even bigger area with a sparse population, and 1999 technology invented by humans would provide the necessary 'administrative' systems to make the simulation work and make sense to the inhabitants. Assuming the downfall of human civilization in the early 21st century, a believable 'megacity' needs to exist in a time period with human-invented technology to support it without being set in a time where humans have invented AIs.

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I totally agree with your first point. The "one" needs to rebuild Zion. This includes using computers and hacking into the Matrix. A "One" from a rural or pre-computer society would lack the skills to do this,. –  Richard Jul 31 at 11:33

Morpheus tells Neo:

What we know for certain is that at some point in the early twenty-first century all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to A.I.

Agent Smith says:

The Matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization. I say your civilization, because as soon as we started thinking for you it really became our civilization, which is of course what this is all about.

So there you have it -- the machines wanted to recreate a time that provided as much technology and "modern life" as possible while still ending prior to the advent of artificial intelligence -- and then restarting at some other (unspecified) point early in the computer age.

(I can only imagine the complications that would arise if a human-created A.I. would be invented within the Matrix simulation -- one possibility is that it would by its nature become aware of the simulation and inform its human creators.)

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or you could end up with some nice recursion there. A matrix inside of the matrix. –  mpop Aug 18 at 14:59

Another possible option is that the machines have no data at all to recreate realistically a Matrix in a previous years. Maybe they take the original data from human living brains, and when they achieved consciousness this was the oldest year possible.

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I think the answer comes from what Smith tells Morpheus about the original Matrix, which was a paradise. Humans rejected it, so the Machines were forced to make a more realistic virtual world.

SMITH: The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was re-designed to this: the peak of your civilization.

So originally, the Machines aimed to create a world where humans were as happy as possible. But on the second try, their goal was to create a world where humans were as happy as realistically possible. If that meant there were some computers (computers that no doubt would seem laughably ancient to the Machines), so be it.

Also, you make the point that creating a Matrix with computers in it seems to help out Neo and the human resistance. But keep in mind, the very existence of the human resistance and the One was accounted for when the Matrix was created. According to the Architect, the Oracle came up with a method where "99.9%" of individuals would accept the Matrix, and it was always understood that there would be some able to break out.

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Fun math: 99.9% of the world population in 1999 would be 6.04 million people resisting the Matrix at any given point. –  tar Jul 31 at 7:34
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Ironic since the disconnect between our primitive cerebrum and the complexities of modern civilization leads to rampant stress and a feeling of disconnection from reality for many people. To the point that the idea of a fake reality is born and The Matrix is conceived. Why would the movie world not have its own version of the movie? Unless the agents killed everyone thinking along those lines. –  kleineg Jul 31 at 12:11

The original script called for the humans in the Matrix to be used for their mental computational power, not their ability to produce energy. In that context, 1999 may have been the point at which our culture was producing the most rational thinkers, etc.

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Interesting. Do you have a source link handy? –  Jimmy Sawczuk Aug 1 at 17:02
    
@afeldspar's answer has more details. I don't have a source handy right now. –  Sparr Aug 1 at 18:53

The Matrix is a metaphor for our society.

As such, the only time that could possibly make sense was "now", which was 1999 for practical reasons, such as the movie being shipped in 1999.

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If you accept the fact that the Matrix is not actually a power source for the machines, it becomes much simpler to justify the reason they choose 1999.

This answer keenly explains how the Matrix as a power source makes no sense, so we're left with the conclusion drawn from the two sequels.

The Matrix, the 1999 simulation, is a lower-level simulation, outside of which there is Zion and the Robot Wars. The movie that we see is a second-level simulation for those who break out of the 1999 simulation - those who reject the Matrix, and who live their lives fighting a battle against the machines.

And if we recall from the first movie...

Neo only meets the resistance members through his life as a hacker - something that wouldn't be present without the presence of technology. In this way, those who reject the Matrix can be filtered out of it, to lead a life in the second-level simulation.

Without that level of technology, it wouldn't have been possible.

So the reason they simulate a 1999-era Earth is specifically because they need to have some method by which humans can be extracted from the first level of the Matrix, so that those who reject it can be brought into the second level of the simulation.

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