Neo absorbs the Matrix

::: a special four-part series

"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

If 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.

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 can supply.

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.

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