::: a special four-part series
f you’ve read everything leading
up to this you no doubt thought at some point that there really
was no answer to the question. That just like the movie, all anyone
could do was continue to find new ways to ask the question. Well
there is an answer, but it is not an easy answer. Like Neo learning
to accept that his world was largely made up, the answer to "What
is the Matrix?" is something that cuts to core of your own reality.
Like Neo, you should prepare to have your world turned inside out.
"Literacy remains even now the base and
model of all programs of industrial mechanization; but, at the
same time, locks the minds and senses of its users in the mechanical
and fragmentary matrix that is so necessary to the maintenance
of mechanized society." (italics mine)
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964
"All the speed he took, all the turns
he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d
see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding
across the colorless void . . ." (italics mine)
—William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984
According to the protagonist’s guide, the Matrix is the "world
that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."
It is the construction the world has become to hide what we’ve known
all along: we are slaves to a force much larger than our individual
actions. It is the collective illusion of humanity sharing an artificial
reality created by machines to keep them docile and helpless against
their captors. But, in plain English, the Matrix is simply the Technological
Society come to its full fruition.
In 1964, communications scholar Marshall McLuhan wrote his seminal
book Understanding Media. At the time, McLuhan was called
"the oracle" of the modern age by both Life and Newsweek
magazines, and he has subsequently become the patron saint of Wired
magazine and numerous communications departments across the country.
His quote takes some unpacking, and to understand McLuhan it helps
to read his mentor Harold Innis’s The Bias of Communication,
his fan Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and his
contemporary Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society.
These books cast light on the question of "literacy as the base
and model of all programs," but also on the critical point that
what McLuhan means by the term "matrix" is precisely what the Wachowski
brothers take it to mean: a system of control. Neo’s initiation
into understanding the Matrix in the movie is a literal step into
a fragmented mirror in which he discovers just how profound the
control of modern society really is.
The Matrix arises at the point that the machine species realize
that the human species is a virus that will destroy the ecological
balance between the environment and itself if left unchecked. A.I.
will destroy us once it perceives that we are a threat to A.I.’s
survival. But artificial intelligence doesn’t actually have to be
smarter than we are in order to dominate our lives. We could simply
continue to think, as we have for the last 100-plus years, that
technology is always the solution to any particular human problem.
Thus, the Matrix, while ostensibly being future technology’s enslavement
of the human race, in appearance actually resembles the industrialized
world as we find it on the day we enter the theatre. In other words,
the Matrix is the trap the world has become. It is human hubris
writ large. We all instinctively feel that technology, while giving
us jobs and helping us balance our checkbooks, is nevertheless taking
us somewhere we don’t want to go. But the trip is so fun, we keep
trying to answer the question, "Where do you want to go today?"
as though the choice were ours.
In modern society, the electronic foundation of our culture has
embedded each of us into a Matrix that affects us in unique and
personal ways, and from which it seems nearly impossible to escape.
Subcultures like the Amish or the Bruderhof Communities strike us
as reactionary Luddites because, in escaping the Matrix, they have
not transformed the culture as much as they seem to have ignored
or bypassed it. And yet we should not be so quick to dismiss their
examples for our own lives. They stopped watching television when
they realized their children weren’t singing as much. They
stopped using e-mail when they realized that it wasn’t improving
communication, but rather had a destructive tendency. In a similar
vein, Ted Kaczynski’s credibility ended where his package
bombs began. While we will never condone murder, it has yet to be
acknowledged by any of our public intellectuals that Kaczynski had
some very valid points to make about the failures of the technological
society in providing the human species with a meaningful and purposeful
way of life. And it is arguable, though despicable if true, that
his points would never have been heard had he not sent explosive
messages, the equivalent of the SYSTEM FAILURE message that the
Matrix ends with and which Adbusters magazine has used as
a metaphor for the imminent collapse of our current cultural trajectory.
Consider two worlds: One where everyone is told what to think
by watching a box for half their waking hours and the other where
everyone has that signal sent straight to their brain. In the first
world, everyone is educated systematically to see the world a certain
way, and those who dissent are eliminated from the educational hierarchy,
all the while claiming that they have freedom of expression. In
the other, everyone is educated systematically to see the world
a certain way, and those who dissent are eliminated; all the while,
reality is so radically different from this made-up world that most
people would choose the imaginary if given the freedom to choose.
In the first one, everyone finds purpose by seeking employment with
a large impersonal organization that only sees their usefulness
in terms of the one thing they were hired for. In the second one,
everyone’s purpose is employment by a large impersonal machine that
only sees their usefulness in terms of one thing: the energy they
Recall the scene in which Thomas Anderson is reprimanded for being
late to work. Recall that Trinity was famous for hacking the IRS
database. Recall Agent Smith’s list of what was a "normal" life:
"You work for a respectable corporation, you have a Social Security
number, and you pay your taxes." Sprinkled liberally throughout
the movie are hints that the Matrix is really our present world.
How better to control millions of people than to convince them that
they are living a "normal" life in 1999? When Morpheus is giving
Neo his long explanation of the Matrix, he says, "It is there when
you watch TV. It is there when you go to work. It is there when
you go to church. It is there when you pay your taxes." These are
all components of modern life that serve to control us and can easily
be abused to the point of enslaving us.
The reasons we accept this control vary, from watching TV because
we like entertainment to paying taxes because we feel we have no
choice in the matter. The message of The Matrix is that we
are already pawns in a modern technological society where life happens
around us but is scarcely influenced by us. Whether it is by our
choice or unwillingness to make a choice, our technology already
controls us. In an attempt to wake us up, the movie asks us to question
everything we believe about our present circumstances. Even if it
feels good, is it good for us? Are those things that seem beyond
our control really untouchable? If we do not want to wake up, then
the answer is yes. However, for those with a splinter in the mind
that will not go away, the challenge has been made to open your
eyes and seek true reality, and ultimately to escape from the Matrix.