The subject of the film, The Matrix came up in the comments of Yakaru’s blog, Spirituality is No Excuse lately, and it inspired me to write about something I’ve meant to approach for a while – the real Matrix. I’ve ignored The Matrix at least twice while family members watched it. I’m a realist and can’t bear fantasy nonsense (unless it’s tongue in cheek).
The Matrix falls into the common category of interesting sci-fi idea made ridiculous for the sake of cheap gasps and special effects, the interesting idea being that we might be living in a virtual reality, and the cheap gasps coming from the idea that if we broke that illusion we’d have magical powers, kung-fu-type slo-mo fighting skills, etc. Flying slo-mo martial arts, of course, is an earlier cheap-gasps distortion of actual kung fu (a cultural misrepresentation to add to all the others).
The Matrix, even among its type, is probably particularly damaging culturally, because it deepens people’s delusions about a bunch of supernatural New-Age memes, by providing a hand-waving sort of explanation for them: some people are psychic, or can survive death, or can channel other beings, or can astral plane, for the same reason actual martial-arts masters can slow time down or levitate, because what they’re doing is “tapping into the Matrix”. There are a lot of such deluded people out there; the weird part of YouTube seems to be a favourite haunt.
The film’s idea of a programmed virtual reality has now become distorted again in these people’s minds from an evil plan of actual physical people (or machines, I don’t care) to enslave others (or something: as I say, I was trying to ignore it) into the pseudo-scientific idea of a hidden “spritual reality”, the source of all manner of abilities humans would like to have. People are persuaded that the film is some kind of allegory illustrating our actual condition in this life (some, of course, have a different take, that we’re actually asleep somewhere, like brains in a vat).
The delusion resonates with and amplifies the Law of Attraction garbage, because it says we just have to see through the illusory programming to be able to do anything, absolutely anything, be anything we want, from becoming a president or a superstar to jumping off buildings and flying, live forever, instead of what real, actual biology and physics unfortunately demand.
However, we can see this film as an extreme example of a broader category of fantasy – and even of fiction in its entirety – and the problem stems from the vast amount of similar stories in our culture, introducing the susceptible to belief in everything from ghosts to alien visitation.
The Real Matrix
Of course, one can argue that it’s all just a bit of fun, and I’m a boring old twat somewhere on the autistic spectrum and should lighten up. Maybe, but this is the thing: there’s an actual Matrix and, ironically, it’s exactly the river of twaddle pouring out of the entertainment industry! It’s real, and it’s deployed by people for the purpose of extracting money from us.
And worse. As Adam Curtis documents so well, it’s been used as a method of political manipulation since the ’50s to disempower us, to manage us politically (probably from a genuine desire to construct a peaceful society, as a matter of pleasant-ish fact). Freud’s discovery of the unconscious opened a Pandora’s Box of psychological tools that they (the social engineers of the time) thought might keep everyone genuinely satisfied and happy, and it does, but at a cost so enormous it’s hard to overstate, to our social engagement, to our peace and security, to the survival probability of the planet. The consumer revolution was born.
This real Matrix is now on steroids. Its ubiquity, its penetration into our lives through social media and its trivial or deliberately fictitious content are rapidly trapping us in our “post-truth” world. All media are becoming subsumed by the Internet, and consolidated with robotic manufacturing and delivery systems. The power of presenting individualised misinfomation through algorighms is now well known and therefore used by those with the means, from Putin’s Russia to the political manipulations of the Brexit campaign.
But in a sense, we’ve always been doing this to ourselves, bringing our children up on fairytales, filling their heads with more nonsense than is good for them. We say we do it for the moral lessons the stories convey, but it seems a weak argument, or at least over-played, and more likely we just enjoy the excitement of relating and hearing a scary tale, which either turns out alright in the end or implies the sub-text: the monster isn’t real, so you can now sleep soundly. Either way, we are alarmed, then comforted, appealing in the same way music does, by establishing tension only to dissolve it again in harmonic resolution.
Engaging our emotions does help fix important lessons in our minds, so, rather than telling a little girl not to wander off into the forest alone, or not to trust the outward appearence of things, we instead make her experience vicariously the terror of Little Red Ridinghood facing a deceitful wolf who’s already eaten her grandmother. No doubt this kind of storytelling has other psychological benefits, too, but we need to wake up at some point. We need to put away childish things. To quote Stewart Lee:
‘Have you read the new Harry Potter book, Stew? It’s good, have you read it?’
No, I haven’t read it, because I’m a forty-year-old man.
As adults, we need to stop endlessly entertaining ourselves with the fake scary questions, because we’re ultimately doing it to avoid dealing with the real scary ones. The dangers of over-indulgence are great, because the Real Matrix is seeking to dumb you down, keep you distracted with the latest blockbuster bullshit, confuse you enough to take away your hard-won democratic franchise. If you wake up too late, you could find you’re living in a post-Brexit Britain, or a Trumpian dystopia, or a Third World War.
The sickest deceit was to persuade us that we were empowered by social media, engaging more with politics when we ranted and petitioned on Facebook and Twitter, only to find we were being corralled into digital pens, preaching to the converted, wasting our breath. Lee again:
I hate Twitter. It’s like a state surveillance agency staffed by gullible volunteers.
The fairytale, the fantasy novel, the heroic movie, almost all the mythic tales have perhaps two central motifs. One is the inexhaustible power of positivity, the resolution of distress or oppression and the establishment of a happy ending. That has merit in moderation; it helps us to hope and strive for a better future, but, in excess, it engenders unreal expectations of life, feeding the modern obsession with self, wanton consumption, shallow measures of success, unhelpful levels of competitiveness, the presentation of skewed versions of ourselves and accompanying toxic shame and self-hatred if we ever contemplate our own realities.
The other, closely related, motif is the unreal binary condition of good or bad, of goodies and baddies and the fight between them, with ourselves always identified as the good, when we’re all much more complex than that. The pervasiveness of this meme may be much worse than the first, leading to everything from our failure to appreciate other people’s perspective in our private squabbles, through racism and other forms of prejudice, to political oppression, war and genocide.
The two actually coincide in an unhealthy relationship: not only is there some mythic holy grail we semi-consciously imagine we’re striving for all the time, but we have to beat everyone else to it. Or a more extreme version: our unrealistic optimism as a “positive thinker” relies on vanquishing all the bastards trying to grind us down. Or worse: we expect to build the perfect society once all the degenerates have been wiped out.
Right now, the real Matrix is reinforcing dreams of redemption and/or conquest in developing minds. One is in her room, sparkly and painted, emulating the immaculate public persona of a celebrity singer, another is waiting to graduate from mindlessly slaughtering enemy-shaped pixels to mindlessly slaughtering enemy-shaped people.
We’re all being programmed to want what someone else wants us to want. The Matrix wants you to feel so that you don’t think, which is why everyone is ranting endlessly on social media. Thinking, being a realist, is the only way out of the Matrix. Unfortunately, that’s harder than choosing the right pill (although, from what I remember, it’s a lot less noisy and dangerous). We can do all sorts to improve our thinking, including studying critical thinking, logic, psychology, history and philosophy. We can also watch fewer of that kind of movie (or watch them with critical detachment). We can reduce our social media exposure, and we can engage with science, non-fiction (it’s a thing) and other forms of education.
A Word of Warning
Because we are hard-wired to feel very quickly and think very badly, and because these memes of fighting against oppression are ingrained in us so deeply, it’s easy to trip yourself up with the knowledge of the Matrix once you’re aware of it, imagining that the perpetrator of this terrible crime against truth and freedom is some one or some group – the Rothschilds is a common target, or the Left or the Right, the Illuminati, or the Jews. It’s almost certainly not these, not an orchestrated evil entity, but a very mixed bag of people all over the world just acting in their own interests. This forms a vast ad-hoc system with probably no centre and no evil genius at the top. Certainly there will be some who know what they’re doing and just don’t give a shit, and we can expect they’ll be concentrated in the multinationals, the energy and food companies we rely on most, the retail giants, and in Hollywood, the churches, Silicon Valley. Power corrupts, and scum rises.
But our too-quick thinking styles lead the unwary to imagine all manner of paranoic nonsense: the global governments are working together to enslave the rest of us, or intend to wipe nine tenths of us out; 9-11 was an inside job; the US Government has a secret pact with aliens, or is at war with aliens – conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. One of them, of course, is “we’re living in the Matrix, like in the movie”, meaning something very different from what’s actually happening. It seems unlikely to be mere coincidence that people now seriously discuss the possibility that the universe is virtual, created by a superior being inside its computer simulation, which has gained more traction than a fair assessment of its likelihood warrants.
But we shouldn’t forget that our messy human version of a Matrix is being constructed around us, and we support it, because we want the cheap products and the easy life and the fun and games with which it buys our political irrelevance. We watch our amusing cat videos, and, like our pet cats are infantilized, we infantilize ourselves, extend our childhoods. Some even fondly await a digital paradise of endless playtime in their virtual worlds. The fate of the real world, meanwhile, is in the hands of those who remain awake.