You may be acquainted with Matrix I -- the movie that brilliantly concretized an abstraction which, until then, philosophy professors had had for centuries to explain with mere words: the genuine possibility, a metaphysical inevitability for each of us (though some deny it), that the world we perceive is wholly illusory.
In Matrix I, the real world is a desolate, ravaged place. The sun is history — it's been extinguished. Apart from a motley band of rebels, most people spend their entire lives in "pods," immobile. The evil aliens who control the world sustain them only to draw nourishment from the kind of battery charge that the human life current provides.
The aliens understand that the human animal cannot subsist without some sense of society and purpose. So they provide it — the sense, that is — via a plug physically inserted into the brain of each pod's inhabitant. Through these plugs, the humans' brains are all connected to a central computer.
From that point, of course, the mechanism of illusion is straightforward. You're no doubt aware that all brain activity is electrical, including the signals from the five physical senses on which all our perceptions of the material world are based. The aliens simply do essentially the same thing you do in your morning shower when you pull the thingie to switch the water from the bath faucet to the shower head. They divert the brain's connections from the five senses to the false sensory signals generated by the computer. Thus is wrought a completely synthetic reality.
The humans have no way to know it, but the truth, as one character informs another, is that "you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind." (Script here.)
How this works as an allegory for our actual condition in this "information age" of ours hardly bears mentioning. You know it already. Funny man Jon Stewart is suddenly everyone's darling because he merely alluded to our condition on CNN's Crossfire last October. There was no need to spell it out:
JON STEWART: I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad.
PAUL BEGALA: We have noticed.
STEWART: And I wanted to — I felt that that wasn't fair and I should come here and tell you that I don't — it's not so much that it's bad, as it's hurting America.
TUCKER CARLSON: But in its defense...
STEWART: So I wanted to come here today and say...
STEWART: Here's just what I wanted to tell you guys.
STEWART: Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.
BEGALA: OK. Now
STEWART: And come work for us, because we, as the people...
CARLSON: How do you pay?
STEWART: The people — not well.
BEGALA: Better than CNN, I'm sure.
STEWART: But you can sleep at night.
STEWART: See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations. And we're left out there to mow our lawns.
[Excerpted from transcript of Oct. 15 Crossfire.]
I've been constructing my very important and logically airtight arguments about the failures of public debate, about delusion, about cultural pollution and the imminent end of everything.
This guy Stewart just has to say "Stop hurting America." Everyone knew.
The phrase itself has swept America and is now part of our lexicon. (Google it and see for yourself.)
But the problem is deeper and darker than the news media's false portrayal of the world. The reality is bleaker even than the sunless Matrix world. It's something that renders polemics pointless, something that should shut us all up.
The Matrix's slaves, after all, enjoy an unhampered ability to communicate with each other, just like in the (apparent) world outside the movie theatre. How this works is that the Matrix computer not only generates the inputs to each person's brain, but also receives the brain's outputs — for example, a person's neural commands to his legs, arms and vocal chords. And the computer then generates everyone's subsequent brain inputs accordingly.
So when a person "says" something, he "hears" himself say it. And everyone around him also hears it. Everyone hears the same thing.
The point is, there is a single and unique simulated world for everybody.
That's why the Matrix allegory is really too cheerful. There are no "separate realities"! Even Bush and Kerry supporters hear the same thing.
In our real world, by contrast, we are divided into innumerable reality blocs. We might call them opinion blocs. And the information boundaries between these blocs are impregnable.
Allow me to expose myself here, for the public interest. Taking myself as an example,
it's practically inconceivable that anything would lead me to change my mind about an opinion I've already developed.
And I assure you I'm exceptionally open-minded.
You, dear reader, are the same way. If you got an opinion, it ain't gonna change.
So. This certainly raises uncomfortable questions about what we're doing here. And about communication in general.
Besides the opinions I already hold, my general opinions are often applicable to a brand new issue I've never heard of before. So I'm quite capable of having an inflexible opinion instantly when an issue arises for the first time.
My own particular opinion bloc, since we're on the subject, has an estimated size which I confess is not especially large. As I've become more realistic about the world's separate realities, it's begun to dawn on me that its population may not significantly exceed one.
Which, certainly, does not make overturning my views any less unthinkable.
I'm not talking about an inability to recognize error. Everyone makes mistakes, and virtually any ass knows he's no exception. I am talking about the inflexibility of developed opinions — the same inflexibility you yourself share (though most people enjoy the validation of a more populous bloc).
I sometimes look back on things I wrote some time ago — for example, my September 1, 2002 letter to my diplomacy school students, or the one from the year before (just before 9/11) to my Tsinghua students — and I think, this is just so right. It's wondrous how the passage of time has left my conviction totally undiminished.
That 2002 letter, for example, says that "the most potent threat to freedom, democracy and other fundamental American values" is
unbridled corporate power and the way it corrupts politics, news reporting, and (via the entertainment media) the culture at large. This worsening problem is probably best appreciated and most often criticized by commentators within the U.S. itself, but it seems only radical solutions could address the problem, and none is under serious consideration.
Isn't that just too true? No radical reform is on the agenda. No reform under discussion could credibly address our polity's core problems. Our news is manipulated. Our democracy is on its way to being extinguished, like the Matrix's sun. And nothing is being done. ("Stop hurting America," though touching, won't work.)
But I understand these feelings of mine cannot breach the confines of my private opinion bloc.
This disconnectedness between people's opinions was of course a national obsession for a while in 2004, as millions pondered how their fellow citizens could have re-elected a president they perceived as plainly dishonest and dangerous.
Communication, as we know, is fundamental to society. We must establish the wiring, we must link up our pods. And some blocs are talking about it. But has news of the issue surfaced within the dominant blocs?
The potentially interesting topic of whistle-blowing drew me for a second visit last November to the Toronto Debating Society. Whistle-blowing, fundamentally, is about exposing truth — but some personal exchanges I had with participants after the debate illustrate our culture's delusion problem.
One person, a mother in her 40's, told me how she'd been a "whistle-blower" herself. She'd become aware of some kind of fraud taking place in a corporation she'd begun working for shortly before. She'd been pressured to sign some documents and felt personally implicated. And, she told me with evident emotion, she'd spoken up — presented the facts to senior officers of the corporation — and had subsequently been threatened and intimidated. She'd then decided not to be involved any longer, and had tendered her resignation.
"Was the crime stopped?" I asked her.
"Uhhhh .... I really can't say for sure."
That, dear readers, is not whistle-blowing. It is self-delusion. The lady has transformed what appears to be one of the significant experiences of her lifetime — from the truth, that she caved in, into a memory of an act of courage.
Remarkably, a second participant whom I spoke with at the same event exhibited exactly the same kind of self-delusion. In his case the "whistle-blower" was his father. That man had become outraged upon discovering that a major American corporation's prospective business operations in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), operations he'd supported in his capacity as a lawyer, were grossly exploitative. His "whistle-blowing" consisted of getting drunk and loudly denouncing the lot of them at an executive meeting — an act which got him fired on the spot.
The person telling me the story was proud of his father for what he'd done. He wanted to tell me, however, that his father himself considered the act questionable because he'd violated the ethical obligation of client confidentiality. So, his point was, the rightness of whistle-blowing was sometimes difficult to assess.
That case isn't difficult at all, I said. It's easy.
"Well, I don't want to discuss it," he said. The point, he maintained, is that whistle-blowing is not a "panacea."
This same person was later kindly urging me to join the society, and I confided what it is that limits my enjoyment of the club's activity. His response there too is telling.
My problem with "debating" is that typically you're arguing a position that does not reflect your own beliefs. It's just a game. That's fine if you like that sort of thing, but personally I don't get much of a kick out of promoting some arbitrary position that I don't believe in. My sincere beliefs already meet with enough disagreement. I hardly need to pursue additional, artificial arguments.
But the man was against the idea of debates in which participants would debate their actual beliefs. Why? He said the problem would be that people would get carried away by their emotions, and that in consequence their arguments would be irrational.
Well. Doesn't that just say it all?
How could our differences be anything but irreconcilable when we can't discuss them rationally?
The man's spontaneous remark contains a great truth.
How widespread is this phenomenon? How many of us can't or won't frankly face the truth? 50%? 80%? How does the incidence of this disease vary across cultures? Is it more or less pronounced in ours?
And ... how about yourself?
Our disconnectedness turns out not to be absolute.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was going to vote, April 19, on President Bush's nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. The panel's 10 Republicans were expected to unanimously support the nomination, a move that would have sent the nomination to the Senate floor.
But then communication happened.
In the course of a two-hour meeting of committee members in which two Democratic senators spoke against Bolton, one of the Republican senators listened ... and heard. He then "stunned" his colleagues, according to the New York Times, by changing his mind about supporting Bolton without further review.
The Times reports the reaction to this singular event by another Republican on the panel who had also had misgivings about Bolton:
The second Republican ... did not make his views known at the hearing, but told reporters later that he was glad that the vote had been postponed.
"I don't know if I've ever seen, in a setting like this, a senator changing his mind as a result of what other senators said," [he] said. "The process worked. It's kind of refreshing."
["Senate Panel Postpones Vote on U.N. Nominee," New York Times, April 20, 2005.]