I first saw The Matrix last year and like every person who has watched it since its release in 1999, it left my auditory and visual senses on overload and a gargantuan heap of information for my brain to process. A second viewing few days back, made me observe relationships and philosophies that escaped me in the first attempt. There are good reasons why The Matrix is discussed by critics even today from as varied perspectives as social, political, scientific, philosophical and of course, technological and has injected such appealing concepts and ideas in the public imagination that they have managed to pass into our vocabulary and lifestyles.
I am aware of the strong Biblical references and the view that Matrix is a modern day retelling of the story of Christ, repackaged to appeal to an audience enchanted by video games and television screens. I won’t dwell into well-debated and resolved interpretations. For more, see this essay by Read Mercer Schuchardt featured in Taking the Pill, ed. Glenn Yeffeth (And you thought, Matrix was just a movie?!). But first, for the uninitiated…
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a programmer at a software corporation called Metacortex except he isn’t satisfied with…reality. By night, under the guise of Neo, he phreaks and hacks into computer systems. But, still a question lingers in his mind, like a splinter, what is the Matrix? With the help of Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie Anne-Moses), he wakes up into the “real” world and learns that the world he lived in is a computer-generated reality to keep humans under control who now serve as energy sources for AI, that has come to rule the planet. Remnants of a nuclear winter where the sun never shines, humans no longer born but grown and Zion, the only remaining human city situated near the Earth’s core. He also learns that he is a reincarnation of the One, an entity with almost God-like powers in the Matrix, something akin to a superuser. He is also prophesised to destroy the Matrix and end the war against the machines.
Sure enough, he saves Morpheus, falls in love with Trinity who brings him back from the dead after he’s shot inside the Matrix by an agent (independent programs developed by the AI to search and destroy people like Morpheus and Co. from plugging into the Matrix), resurrects and realises his true potential inside the Matrix. He can now see the “reality” inside the Matrix as it really is, bits of 1s and 0s flowing through circuits. As William Blake said,
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”.
What is the Matrix?
“The Matrix is the graduate thesis on consciousness in the sheep’s clothing of an action adventure flick.”
~Read Mercer S.
Indeed, consciousness is a prominent theme that the movie explores. As Morpheus asks, “What is real?” If you’re familiar with the hypothetical brain-in-a-vat experiment, then you might have had a wash of uneasy feeling when Morpheus goes on to describe how any sensation is just a stream of electrical signals to the brain. What makes it uneasy is the inevitable, starking truth of its possibility. In fact, I would like to argue that there is no need to build a Matrix because it is already here.
Not as explicit as keeping human crops enslaved in crimson pods and connected to mainframes via electrodes in our brain, the Matrix is the tumultous, unregulated and vapid cyberspace that has engulfed millions today. Politic agendas, religious dogmas, terrorism, abuses – there is a shrine for the most queer of disciplines in the garden of the ever-expansive Internet. The information we consume on the web governs our actions, responses and reactions towards others and the society. What’s extremely alarming is the inescapable fact that this is becoming the only conduit for information acquisition.
How many people read books today like they used to or go out and interact with real life people? Online relationships seem alluring as you can project what you want to be, and not what you really are. As another glaring example, take the rocketing rise and profitability of porn sites. The information poured into our brains today is the electrical signals that we unconsciously seek to forget the miseries of our “real” lives.
THE MICRO-CELEBRITY EFFECT
I see another dreadful trend rising that which I call the micro-celebrity fever. Everyone has a platform to voice their opinions, no matter how obtuse, irrational, incorrect or even inhumane. In a recent study, India was the leading country for fake or misleading information about Covid-19 on the web. Humans, for the most part of our history, have been hunter-gatherers (We settled only after we discovered agriculture) and interacted with a ceiling of say, 100 people in our entire lives. But today, we can reach out to millions in the blink of our eyes. We don’t know how to behave. I can see nothing but a turbulent, sensitive and unstable society with localized fandom centering around micro-celebrities and pandemonium and chaos as these schools of thoughts adjust and negotiate to live together on this planet, if unregulated cyberspace is continued to flourish. (1)
THE RED PILL OR THE BLUE PILL
This metaphor took the newly spawned cyber-generation of the 2000s by storm as the WWW was being populated and the world migrated online. It essentially asks the question, “Given the possibility of agonising truth and blissful ignorance, what would you choose?” This is purely a question of the individual self whose answer, I believe, will be affected by factors like breeding, family, education, and so forth. What about me? I would choose the red pill. As Emerson said,
“IGNORANCE IS BLISS” – A STUDY OF CYPHER
Mouse said during their nutritious dining time that “To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.” And isn’t the very nature of humanity to be perpetually content and happy? Civilisation and the Age of Reason and Enlightenment of a few thousand years dwarfs in comparison to the millions of years of evolution that has engrained in our bodies the primal instinct for survival and procreation. Then, is it unfair to seek abundant food and ample sex even if it comes at the price of knowledge? This is the dilemma of the character of Cypher — the traitor to the group.
So, the question stands: Was Cypher right? For me, I would strive for the truth because as cliched as it may sound, truth propels civilisation. But like the many questions that the movie inspires and invites the audience to ponder, I would leave you with the pleasure to find an answer that satisfies you. However, for further indulgence, check out this essay by Robin Hanson.
THERE IS NO SPOON
If there was one line I could pick up from this movie, it would be this one: “There is no spoon”. This line initiates Neo on the path to accept the limitations of the system he is a prison of and to begin to manipulate it. It is line more on the philosophical, mental, even spiritual side of the mind; a mirror into the unknown potential we hold locked in ourselves and a herald to peer inside and unlock it. In a grosteque movie where humans are reduced to power sources for machines, this line is the pencil of hope. So, whenever you set out to do a seemingly impossible task, say to yourself, “There is no spoon”.
ART & LEGACY
Of course, to keep people glued to the screen and sufficiently intrigued throughout the ~120 minutes of the runtime, the Wachowski brothers had to flourish in the artisitic presentation frontier. And boy, is this movie a treat to the eye (apart from being philosophical and revelatory). As you are aware I hope, I’m a fan of movies that do not insult the intelligence of the audience. Matrix, thankfully, checks that box.
- The first thing that a viewer will, perhaps, notice are the colours. The general colour palette for the movie is dull, murky green. There is an undertone of green in “inside” the Matrix scenes. This is, of course, not a coincidence. The green plays a significant role as it is the ubiquitous colour of CRT screens of the 1960-70s, where characters in bright pathological green glowed against the pitch black darkness. Thus, the Wachowskis ensured that we can differentiate between the Matrix and the real world in a sleek way. Similarly, screens, monitors, TVs, digital equipments, reflection shots inside the Matrix constantly remind us that there is “something” not real about this world, like a reflection in a mirror.
The famous “Matrix rain” (see above), a computer generated terminal green shower of Katana symbols flowing down the pitch black screen has become a symbol of techno and cyberpunk.
Even today, “plugged in” or plugging into the Matrix is a phrase roughly meaning engaged with technology intimately.
Latex! Here, there everywhere!
Neo’s room inside the Matrix. chef’s kiss. Also, of notice, was the Simulcra and Simulation reference, a strange philosophical treatise by a French into the nature of reality, symbols and society, in which he stores his programs.
- The visual effects ❤️. The sparring sequences, especially the martial art training of Neo is incredible. The bullet dodging scenes too. Also, to be noted is the slow-motion effects. As far as I know (AFAIK), such visual effects were never seen before. So, it set a benchmark for visual engineers.
Is the Matrix here already? What should be concerning is even if it is here, how do we know? The ride is so fun, nobody wants to stop. Would you give up email today? Or television? How about online chatting? Are you sure it is really the person you’re talking to or some clever computer program? (2) Ah, maybe but they are so convenient. Technology is making slaves of us while we are oblivious to the coup. The Matrix is designed, like Huxley’s “brave new world”, to oppress one not through totalitarian force, but through toltalitarian pleasure. Terrifying, when you think of it, isn’t it? Part of why The Matrix was such a rage. It opened a new continent of imagination, a new eye of inquiry and questioning.
Being moderately knowledgeable about AIs and technology in generally, I would like to put forth the assurance that AI as portrayed in the movie is not a possibilty, not even in the distant future. We are not that clever. Ironically, the problem is exactly that. We might not be extinct from an all-pervading self conscious program that turns against us but what about ourselves? As I have argued above, how are we going to survive in a turbulent and technoliterally varied demography? (3)
Being the visual treat, and massively appealing to the technogeeks out there, The Matrix asks the question, “Where are we headed?” and opens our eyes to one despicable possibility. But it also points us in the direction to liberation by simply saying, “There is no spoon”. It is in our hands if we choose to take the red pill or the blue pill.
(0): I’m not sure how many people even read footnotes. I do and you read my blog so I assume you do too :) Well, as you have noticed, I’m experimenting with dropcaps (those initiate words in giant fonts to ease initiating reading). Tell me if you like them down in the comments?
(1): Am I a proponent of censoring the Internet? Is the reader inclined to think that I’m, in guise, trying to stifle freedom of expression on the Internet? No. Far from it. I’m simply noting anomalies and aberrations that I observe today. What is supposed to be done will be in the hands of the mass. But then again, how smart are the masses today? Or how self-less and honorable will be a single man if asked to make the decision for everyone? Too many questions, too few answers.
(2): I know there is no computer program yet that has passed the Turing test. But that is my point. If there were such programs, how would we ever be able to detect them?
(3): Meaning a population with different levels of knowledge about technology, their usage (and misusage), threats and responsibilities.