WHEN Morpheus is explaining The Matrix to Neo, he mentions that when the machines were building their virtual reality, they chose to recreate the late 1990s, the peak of human civilisation. I can recall being young in the early-00s & hearing people mocking that line, I think only because it dates the movie. But so? The more time has passed, the more obvious it becomes that Morpheus was exactly right: the Berlin Wall had fallen; 9/11 had yet to occur; Tony Blair & Bill Clinton were world leaders beloved in their own countries & abroad. The Gulf War was over, & the War on Terror had yet to replace the relatively death-free War on Drugs*. The crack epidemic of the 1980s was dying out, & crime was way down. The economy was booming, and liberal democracy represented the end of history; Brexit, & the rise of anti-establishment politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump & Marine Le Pen show a mass resistance to that very global stability, but at the time it looked like it was going to be nothing but peace, stability & prosperity forever on out.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s Senator Barack Obama in the 2004 preface to his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: “I began writing against a backdrop of Silicon Valley and a booming stock market; the collapse of the Berlin Wall; Mandela—in slow, sturdy steps—emerging from prison to lead a country; the signing of peace accords in Oslo. Domestically, our cultural debates—around guns and abortion and rap lyrics—seemed so fierce precisely because Bill Clinton’s Third Way, a scaled-back welfare state without grand ambition but without sharp edges, seemed to describe a broad, underlying consensus to which even George W. Bush’s first campaign, with its “compassionate conservatism,” would have to give a nod. Internationally, writers announced the end of history, the ascendance of free markets and liberal democracy, the replacement of old hatreds and wars between nations with virtual communities and battles for market share.” (Three Rivers Press, 2004 edition, pp. ix-x)
There were some more specific pleasures, too: the 90s was an unusually good decade for film, including The Matrix, but we had yet to see the wave of terrible post-Matrix action films (including the sequels. Har!). The ludicrous fashions of the 80s & early-90s were dead, and everyone looked relatively normal in their Levi’s. There wasn’t a whole load of great music around, but hip-hop was at a high-water mark (Wu-Tang Clan, 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Eminem, NaS), we had some great pop-punk & no-one had had to put up with a new Guns N’ Roses record in years. Everyone was so happy & prosperous that TV was full of shows about happy, prosperous people: the friendcom. OK, you might say, but this is all just nostalgia talking, and any generation could point to its own cultural high-points. But my point is that, despite the inevitable sterility that living at the end of history brings, the 90s still managed a healthy, if un-revolutionary, culture of its own plus unprecedented access to the cultural treasures of previous generations, thanks to the first real, full flourishing of videotape, in case that happened to be more your thing. What could you possibly want that you didn’t have, except maybe faster Internet?
There are plausible objections to the theory that the 1990s was the peak of human civilisation so far. A friend mentioned that African starvation was at much, much higher levels then than today; one might also mention the ongoing wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Rwanda, Liberia, Yugoslavia, the Congo, Somalia, & elsewhere. But a fact that’s often missed about The Matrix is that it isn’t a recreation of Earth in the late-90s. It’s actually a single, enormous city, Matrix City, which bears a suspicious resemblance to Sidney. So those regional conflicts presumably don’t even exist, & everyone we see in The Matrix appears to be affluent, if a little dronish. It’s the end of history indeed, & it is sweet.
*The War on Christmas had yet to begin in earnest.