Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s pop-culture busting novel Ready Player One has a more than overt reference to ‘God in the Machine’, a conceptual fusion of spirituality with near-future advancements in technology which suggests our models of worship are changing and evolving alongside how we interact with entertainment, media and the wider online world.
That phrase sounds a little similar to ‘God From the Machine’, better known as deus ex machina in fiction in the original Latin, which has emerged as a symbolic description over the years in narrative terms whereby the resolution of a plot comes at the hand of a character or object, equivalent in relative terms to a God, which quickly and unexpectedly solves the insoluble problem faced by the protagonists.
This doesn’t equate directly to Ready Player One, because the deus ex machina is coded into the very DNA of the entire concept behind that fictional world; James Halliday, the programmer and creator of the OASIS, developed a world he wanted to give back to the people once they found him, his soul essentially, deep inside the hidden corners of the machine.
The relationship between the divine concept of God and technology has been all over fiction, particularly science-fiction, since media began reflecting our headlong rush into advancements in machine-based innovations that has been taking place for decades. Consider The Matrix, which used a dystopian, futuristic landscape inside which existed a simulation designed to fulfil a code-based, digital Messianic prophecy about The One who would save humanity from the onset of machine-based, technological domination. Though the sequels may have been questionable in terms of quality, The Matrix Revolutions is deeply concerned with a multitude of philosophical questions about man and machine, ending with more than a beat of ambiguity.
Moreover, many of these narratives suggest we should be looking to God in order to save us from these advancements in technology which are taking away our attachment and connection with humanity. Ready Player One is directly concerned with the idea that God, a divine force, wants us to retain and restore our interaction with the ‘real world’, despite the temptations of a simulated one. As Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher in The Matrix takes the blue pill, electing to remain in the simulation because “ignorance is bliss”, millions in Ready Player One are seduced by the OASIS at the expense of a reality in economic and natural decline. In both examples, it takes an allegorical, human Christ to free us from the slavery of technological servitude.
Gods providing humanity with technology has also writ large over modern storytelling, whether it’s the Erich von Daniken creation myth of Prometheus—literal alien Gods seeding human life and providing us with nascent technology—or TV series such as Alias, in which the prophet Milo Rambaldi is described as experiencing “almost a psychic vision of technology”. He subsequently creates, at the end of the Renaissance, innovations centuries ahead of his time and more advanced even than modern day humanity are capable of; apocalyptic weapons of destruction, killer viruses and bombs capable of human combustion.
The suggestion is that Rambaldi “knew God”, that he believed wiping the slate clean of humanity was for the betterment of its future; Prometheus, with the God-like Engineers returning to cleanse humanity, holds a similar idea at its core.
Cyberpunk science-fiction has explored the dynamic between God and technology more and more in recent years, ever since Blade Runner posed the question of what humanity means in relation to advancements in technology – were Replicants human? Would they consider their creator to be God? Subsequent science-fiction properties have explored the idea of robotic or synthetic creations searching for humanity, searching for understanding behind their creation – be it the android synthetics in the Alien saga (David in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant most notably), the Cylon mechanical replacements of human beings in the remake of Battlestar: Galactica, or on the flip side Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The question of whether human beings and technological innovations created in their image can know God, can touch the Divine, seems to be all over storytelling.
Perhaps we are trying to rationalise and make sense of Creation in a world where science and technology are seemingly removing the ambiguity. Science tells us evolution and the Big Bang created both life on Earth and before it the creation of the Universe, while technology provides solutions which centuries ago would be indistinguishable from magic – to almost paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote about the subject. Early 21st century mankind may still be riddled with political, economical, environmental and sociological problems—many of which are worsening due to our short-sightedness as a collective species—but we feel like, when it comes to advancements over our world, technology has provided a majority of the answers, or at least will do as the century continues.
This is, of course, dangerous thinking. Fiction is filled with narratives about humanity’s hubris when it comes to technology leading to our downfall; the aforementioned Matrix, where human beings end up as biological batteries to power a dominant artificial intelligence; the Terminator films which see nuclear oblivion caused directly by our own belief we can manipulate technology we don’t understand for our own ends (and admittedly a pre-destination temporal paradox, but who’s nitpicking). Writers and creatives are morbidly fascinated by our own destruction, particularly in the face of the belief we are equivalent to God in our understanding of the planet, of Nature, and of technology. There is not a great deal of hope in humanity when it comes to modern science-fiction.
That’s partly where Ready Player One differs, because Spielberg’s film believes we can overcome this short-sightedness, or at least have enough self-awareness to realise the creation of an ultimate simulated fantasy cannot replace the toil and strife of objective reality. It has faith in humanity and particularly the generations to come, the generations who are likely to be burdened with trying to rescue a sundered world low on natural resources, in the grasp of supreme, monolithic corporations encouraging inequality and strangling their control of technology in order to exploit and enrich themselves with the planet around them, at the expense of its population. It believes the reality a human God, Halliday, created, can help bring together humanity to have a tangible, positive effect in the real world.
What is interesting is how Ready Player One chooses nostalgia to unite everyone in this common cause. The nostalgic obsession with historic pop-culture is as coded into Cline’s narrative as the God machine concept is; protagonist Wade Watts, more in the book than the movie, is a walking encyclopaedia of entertainment media from the 1960’s through to the near-future he inhabits; he lives technically in the 2040’s, but his entire persona, belief system and moral set of values have been created through the prism of ages past, through popular-culture. He is a product of a nostalgic past where the world was ‘better’. He isn’t inspired by a TV show from the 2030’s, but the 1990’s, suggesting iconic innovation stopped the moment people gave up on the world for a fictionalised reality.
In that sense, nostalgia has always been a dangerous prospect in itself. Where will the next Star Trek come from if pop-culture continues to eat itself? A problem we are experiencing in fandom right now, in everything from Star Wars to The X-Files and way beyond, which I have written about multiple times, concerns fans who are unable to detach and divorce themselves from the historical aspects of the properties they adore. They are so in love with what brought them into their fandom, they cannot and will not accept that every creative, ongoing piece of media needs to evolve. These choices aren’t always right, nor are they always better than the original movie or TV show or book etc… but many of them are made in the spirit of reflecting a different age. Take most recently Star Wars: The Last Jedi or The X-Files Season 11 as potent examples of this.
Nostalgia, therefore, can be a double-edged sword. Living in a world that no longer exists, obsessed with past glories, can be harmful. The OASIS in Ready Player One begins in this fashion and ends as a much more forward-thinking philosophy, a return to core values of human beings connecting inside and outside of the simulation, and accepting reality once again. For those who believe in organised religion, God created a world in which we have been left to figure out the problems ourselves. Halliday created the OASIS in part so we could learn from his mistakes as a flawed, regretful and socially detached human being. He is a benevolent God in the machine, who imparts knowledge and wisdom Wade can use to change humanity’s path.
And yet nostalgia, in this story, is what brings everyone together. Their shared passions, shared adorations of historical movies or video games or TV shows, gives them a common language Wade can call on to help his cause against the technological control imposed by the corporate IOI, while being handed down clues and wisdom from the higher power inside the game. Ready Player One, though ostensibly quite a light, family entertainment film, holds a philosophy about the relationship of God, technology and humanity, which people can take some level of solace from.
Perhaps we don’t have to race toward the dystopia presented in 2045 if we can try and be aware, accept reality, and connect with those around us.