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The Matrix Re-viewed

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“The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

For me, the appeal of the 1999 movie The Matrix is simple. It’s not the shades and black leather outfits; it’s not the ultraviolence. Those I could do without, although I did enjoy the noir style of the beginning, particularly the scene of the black caddy under the bridge in a rainstorm. The movie works for me because I read it as a straightforward condemnation of two powerful forces, corporations and media.

Corporations are the machines, the media the simulation.

In the abstract, and disregarding the fact that I work for one, corporations are similar to Frank Herberts’ sand worms — a gullet with no eyes and no heart. They run on that famous engine called profit, which in turn feeds on the environment, people, anything that will keep it stoked. The intelligence of the corporation is unconnected to the organic systems upon which life depends; their one reason for being is to replicate profits, even if it means the creation of conditions antithetical to human life. They’re less than bright that way.

Only laws built to serve the common good can keep this force in check, yet corporations have wrested law-making authority from the people, governments from their connection to populations. Nearly every top job in the Bush administration, for example, is filled by a former corporate executive previously dedicated to subverting laws that make sense for old-fashioned, organic people, but not for modern corporate entities.

But back to the movie. The artificial intelligence Morpheus speaks of – the beginning of the great calamity – is analogous to the artificial personhood of the corporation and the artificial reality of TV.

It’s no accident that Morpheus’ speech to Neo on how the world was brought to its ghastly state features a blank room with two battered armchairs and a TV set, both circa the 1950s, the era of the birth of broadcast television. It is in this setting that Morpheus speaks of the “birth of AI.” Whether an electronic media mirage or a computer simulation, the end result is greater control, and a collective mind sold on the “wisdom” of machine or corporate rule, as the case may be.

Kurt Vonnegut articulated this modern-day dread in his Clemens Lecture presented in April for the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. “We have suffered a technological calamity,” he said. “Television is now our form of government.”

I haven’t seen The Matrix sequel yet, and I don’t see the need for one, except, ironically, its ability to keep the audience plugged in. The ending of the first was perfect, leaving the revolution that would free humanity up to the imagination, underscoring the point Morpheus makes to Neo: “I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

In other words, it is incumbent upon everybody to wake the fuck up.

“… you have been down there Neo, you know that road, you know exactly where it ends. And I know that’s not where you want to be.”

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About George Partington

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    A great take on the first movie. Thanks!

  • http://ulmann.blogspot.com Cal Ulmann

    Corporations are machines. Okay. At one point in the sequel an old wise leader points out that Zion, the community of people not fully controlled by the machines, needs machines to keep the city going.

  • http://highwater.blogspot.com George

    yeah, but I think the point is do we allow our machines to dominate us and remove us from our true, organic nature? Do we allow a corporation to employ children in sqaulid conditions working 16 hours a day because the system certainly tells us that’s the best way to keep profits high (to make a few very rich)? Yes, in both cases (the Matrix, our world).

    No argument here that we don’t, or can’t, benefit from our machines. We just shouldn’t sacrifice our humanity in the process.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Unfortunately, “sacrifice our humanity” seems to be one of those statements that can mean anything at all, and usually means “do some with which I disagree”. If someone would define a standard of what exactly it means to “sacrifice our humanity” that doesn’t consist of something like “sell out to Wal-Mart and the soulless pharmaceutical companies,” then I’d be a lot more comfortable with the phrase.

    Not that I’m saying pharmaceutical companies aren’t soulless, I’m just saying that the label is loaded.

  • http://highwater.blogspot.com George

    by your standard, we can’t talk about humanity (could mean anything at all, and be invoked when you want to make a sloppy argument), so hey, sorry, can’t help you.

    although selling out (whatever *that* phrase means — see how easy it is to get all semantic?) to Wal-Mart and the soulless pharmaceutical companies seems a fine example of sacrificing of such, as you note.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Humanity is easily defined – it’s people. Sacrificing our humanity is even relatively easy to give examples of, but difficult to define by setting limits, because sooner or later someone will come along as list a new example, one with which many people will disagree.

    For example, is purchasing something at Wal-mart “sacrificing our humanity”? Let’s see, does it make us less human? Obviously not, so obviously the phrase doesn’t mean what it says. So what does it mean?

    I suspect any definition will be too open-ended and confrontational to be of any use except as a label to throw around among the people who will sagely nod their heads, blithely accepting it for whatever suits the current need.

    Specifically, at what point does dependence on machines turn into sacrificing our humanity? One could say the first time somebody lost their job to a machine, we “sacrificed our humanity.” Another could point out that people live today because of machines that would otherwise die. Given that this means more humanity is alive than would otherwise be, isn’t this the very opposite of “sacrificing our humanity?” But others say that life lived dependent on machines is not truly life lived at all, but “sacrificing our humanity” to machines. I personally suspect that those people haven’t faced the prospect of death without a kidney machine, or they might have a different perspective. I could be wrong.

    Anyway, my point is that you said “No argument here that we don’t, or can’t, benefit from our machines. We just shouldn’t sacrifice our humanity in the process.” I’m asking what that means. You asked “do we allow our machines to dominate us and remove us from our true, organic nature?” I’m asking how a machine could do that.

    I can provide a definition of humanity, and even provide a dictionary reference. I can also find a high percentage of people at random that would agree with my definition or match it on their own. I suspect it would be hard to find three different people to give the same definition for “sacrificing our humanity” without a lot of background information.

  • http://highwater.blogspot.com George

    to define sacrificing humanity, you’d have to define humanity, and my intended use of the word has little to do with dictionary definitions. You start throwing that word around (and it’s fun to do, so I sometimes do) and you’re getting into the deepest mysteries, religion, soul, all that.

    if we define humanity to mean simply people, then we’d have no problem with the world The Matrix presents, as there are people in those pods.

    anyway, it’s a personal thing, as in folks have to decide for themselves if going to Wal-Mart sacrifices their humanity (don’t laugh, some feel that way). That’s all I’m saying.

    In my original example, I said corporations employing near slave child labor were using inhuman practices, that was my example of a practice, when engaged in, sacrificed one’s humanity. (if it “confronts” someone, well hey, that’s good) I wasn’t telling everyone I had the definition that they had to agree with, however, or wanting them to nod in a psuedo sage manner. gimme a break.

  • http://highwater.blogspot.com George

    do we allow our machines to dominate us and remove us from our true, organic nature?” I’m asking how a machine could do that.

    A pilot flying a bombing mission returns to his base all happy, exchanging high-fives. Meanwhile, on the ground, a small boy loses his limbs and his mom and dad. The pilot has allowed machines (planes, bombs) to remove him from the truth of his actions. The machinery of the state, too, has helped him achieve this insulation. Of course the machine doesn’t do it itself.

    Sure, humans war, there’s conflict, but we might be sacrificing some humanity (loaded term, I know, but language is like that) if we aren’t dealing with it honestly.

    “But others say that life lived dependent on machines is not truly life lived at all, but “sacrificing our humanity” to machines. I personally suspect that those people haven’t faced the prospect of death without a kidney machine, or they might have a different perspective. I could be wrong.”

    I doubt it. (nice strawman).

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Now you’re talking about something completely different, which was my initial point. You choose a squishy definition of humanity which results in a somewhat arbitrary definition of how such a thing is sacrificed. It is, as I said, a loaded label with subjective baggage.

    Even within your scenario, it is difficult to understand if humanity would have been better served if the pilot had instead ripped off the child’s limbs with a knife or his bare hands, or whether the violence itself is the abhorrent factor. Personally, I’m not keen on the idea of injuring or killing people in general, but doing so is not necessarily a sacrifice of my humanity, though it is a net loss worldwide.

    This part is not directed at you, George. I don’t know why it is that I constantly read from liberal-trending people who pat themselves and each other on the back and assure themselves that those stupid conservatives just don’t understand the nuances and details of things. For every Ann Coulter in evidence, there is a Roger Moore to balance the scales. And conservatives, for all their faults, are hardly simplistic, but instead rely heavily on subtly nuanced arguments regarding a wide variety of topics. This one, justification of military force, seems to be one that requires much thought, but is instead supported or protested based on which party controls the White House. Anybody can be as nuanced as they want to be, but most people choose to switch off instead, when it is convenient for them.

    Okay, sorry, had to get that out.

    My argument is hardly a strawman. You failed to offer up a definition I requested, so I hypothesized a few based on simple definitions. It has been posited quite recently (by Bill Joy in Wired for one example) that as we trust machines more and more for life extension, that we somehow “lose our humanity” in the bargain. That was a real argument, and real people really believe it.

    I don’t.

  • http://highwater.blogspot.com George

    Now you’re talking about something completely different, which was my initial point. You choose a squishy definition of humanity which results in a somewhat arbitrary definition of how such a thing is sacrificed. It is, as I said, a loaded label with subjective baggage.

    Phil, you’re the one who changed the subject, insisting on something non-squishy to define humanity (which makes no sense to me, sorry). This isn’t scientific inquiry here.

    “Even within your scenario, it is difficult to understand if humanity would have been better served if the pilot had instead ripped off the child’s limbs with a knife or his bare hands, or whether the violence itself is the abhorrent factor”

    Aren’t you even listening? I said: Sure, humans war, there’s conflict, but we might be sacrificing some humanity if we aren’t dealing with it honestly. The point is the pilot isn’t abhorred by the violence. That’s a major point there you completely missed!

    “My argument is hardly a strawman. You failed to offer up a definition I requested”

    Bullshit. I offered plenty of examples and reasons why I WON’T offer some pseudo definition you demand. Again, you don’t listen; if you did you wouldn’t even begin to say smart aleck stuff like the kidney machine example.

    “And conservatives, for all their faults, are hardly simplistic, but instead rely heavily on subtly nuanced arguments regarding a wide variety of topics.”

    you lost me there big time. but that was good for a laugh.

    “This one, justification of military force, seems to be one that requires much thought, but is instead supported or protested based on which party controls the White House.”

    Again, you are seriosuly misguided if you think war protestors would not protest the war if a democrat was the President.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Thanks for proving my point. I originally said that ‘”sacrifice our humanity” seems to be one of those statements that can mean anything at all, and usually means “do some with which I disagree”.’

    Now you said “insisting on something non-squishy to define humanity (which makes no sense to me, sorry). This isn’t scientific inquiry here.”

    Sounds like the same thing to me.

    Now you’re beginning the round-and-round. Insisting on a lack of any sort of intellectual consistency (“scientific inquiry,” you called it), you’re free to accuse me of missing obvious points, when I’ve actually responded to them.

    For example, you said “Sure, humans war, there’s conflict, but we might be sacrificing some humanity (loaded term, I know, but language is like that) if we aren’t dealing with it honestly.” I then responded by wondering aloud how exactly we might resolve this situation. Would humanity would have been better served if the pilot had instead ripped off the child’s limbs with a knife or his bare hands? Then I guess the pilot would abhor violence even more, right? Or perhaps, as evidence from past wars might tell us, some would, while others would turn into homicidal maniacs unsafe for inclusion in civil society. Still, how would humanity be better served?

    Your ideological amusement amuses me in turn. Let’s laugh together! It’s a shame to watch as people retreat into stereotypes. I wish you could see it. I listen to and read both liberals and conservatives, and both of them snipe at each other and feel superior to the other, which doesn’t lead to much honest discussion between them.

    Of course there are true anti-war protestors who protest any and all wars. But the majority of people I’m seeing post on BC aren’t that at all, and where nowhere to be found while Clinton was in office engaging in several small wars and accusing Saddam Hussein of harboring WMDs.

    Truth: Many Democrats would not protest the war if a Democrat was President. And many Republicans who are very supportive of Bush would criticize a Democratic President.

    That’s why I’ll be very amused if a Democrat is elected in 2004 (though I doubt that). Any Democrat with a chance of being elected would continue to presecute the “war on terror” at some level, and I want to watch all the Republicans and Democrats start drooling out of their ears as they try to figure out what to do about it.

    At least the truly anti-war crowd can continue on as they are now, and good for them, though I disagree.

    I’ve got more thoughts, but I’ll split them into a separate comment.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Back to the original topic at hand: The Matrix viewed as a condemnation of large corporations and media giants.

    First an ideological aside: I note that not many people were very upset about media monopolization back when we all got our news from ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. Throw Fox and Fox News into the mix and now we’ve got a wild cat by the tail, with too much of the media in the hands of too few. Odd, that, and I say this as a CNN watcher and NPR listener.

    Given that, I’ll focus mainly on the corporations argument. I like it. The funny about a company is that it is less than the sum of its parts. That is, you can populate a board room with five people, none of whom are mean-spirited or kick babies and old people on their days off, and together they will make the most amazingly bad decisions. In pursuit of profit, they will accumulate power, sometime more power than the government. I’m pretty fond of the Constitution of this country, but I have to say that I think the founding fathers didn’t see – couldn’t have seen – the emergence of entities even more powerful than national governments. So they spent all of their time trying to limit power in the only form they saw as dangerous, and now we face what many see as an even more dangerous. Worse, we have met the enemy and they are us!

    That’s right, each of those corporate executives goes home at night and probably deals with many of the same frustrations we do. Then they go back to work and feel as if somehow they have to put aside feelings of “right” and “wrong” and act only in the best interests of shareholders, screw the common man.

    The worst part about it all is that none of it is intentional. If it was a bunch of Austrian men with funny mustaches, I would have faith that we could boot them out. Instead, it’s the system. Just as government turns well-meaning people into greedy politicians, so does unfettered economic power turn well-meaning people into greedy CEOs. We have (often-ignored) rules to keep government in check, but few (not enough) to do the same for companies.

    Power corrupts, and some companies are pretty close to achieving absolute power.

    And just like government, each and every step along the way seems like a good idea, the natural extension of the last few good ideas. And then you’re through the looking glass, falling down the rabbit hole, and in over your head.

    The media aren’t trying to keep us all blind to the truth, it’s just how the system works.

    And that’s the scariest thing of all.

  • http://highwater.blogspot.com George

    Good post! (the last one) I’m with ya.

    “it’s just how the system works.

    And that’s the scariest thing of all.”

    yep

    Now, the post preceding it: “you’re free to accuse me of missing obvious points, when I’ve actually responded to them.” I feel the same way.

    I have consistently said that humanity necessarily is defined in squishy ways. You’ve defined it as “people.” I’d rather go with the (intellectually consistent) way that I’ve approached it. That you won’t accept that approach hardly proves anything.

    So, again, the problem seems to be that you want me to explain what entails sacrificing humanity. I could write a book on it, and you’d still say: “it’s just a way for him to say people are doing something with which he doesn’t agree.” well fine, I think we should all stand up and say something about things we don’t agree with. Now, if you or whoever don’t like it or don’t get it or just plain think I’m wrong, that’s fine.

    But I think I’ve given lots of good examples, so thanks for initiating the little exercise. It’s been fun playing.

  • http://highwater.blogspot.com George

    “Your ideological amusement amuses me in turn. Let’s laugh together!”

    Nice, assume I’m an ideologue because I don’t agree that conservatives have more nuanced arguments. Assume I don’t, or can’t, read both liberals and conservatives and weigh it for myself. Real nice. I didn’t know where the statement came from (subtle, nuanced conservatives), and it made me laugh, because I don’t agree with it. That’s *honest*. But hey, apparently only you are honest, only you read all and see all. But you’d never take a superior attitude. (I wish you could see it).

    BTW, speaking of proving my point: “Then I guess the pilot would abhor violence even more, right? Or perhaps, as evidence from past wars might tell us, some would, while others would turn into homicidal maniacs unsafe for inclusion in civil society. Still, how would humanity be better served?”

    OK, round and round; answer: The cost of war, including screwing up some people, would be more apparent, and dealt with more honestly, and that is a benefit. (Nice pulp fiction writing in the example, btw)

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    I didn’t say “conservatives have *more* nuanced arguments.” What I said was that contrary to the oft-overheard statement that “those stupid conservatives just don’t understand the nuances and details of things,” conservaties “rely heavily on subtly nuanced arguments regarding a wide variety of topics” (not all, of course, but more than one, even) and “*anybody* can be as nuanced as they want to be.” I also said that I wasn’t applying that statement to you specifically, but then you responding by laughing at the clearly stated notion that conservatives are equally capable of thinking with sophistication as liberals are, which then, yes, sure seems to make you seem like an ideologue.

    You additionally state that you don’t agree with the idea that a conservative can hold a subtle, nuanced view, and how is that anything but ideological garbage?

    Note that you could have simply misunderstood what I thought I stated clearly. If you thought that I was saying that conservatives are *more* nuanced than liberals, then I would understand the amusement. If that’s the case, I take the label back.

    Obviously, I additionally never stated that I am the only honest person around, or even that I *am* honest. I made no exclusionary statements at all. I assume that many others – probably most others, and possibly you – are just as tired of stereotypes and sniping and the lack of any honest discussion as I am. Superior? To relentless ideologues who won’t listen? Yes. A spade is a spade, and the Ann Coulters and Roger Moores of the world are contributing nothing of merit to the national discourse.

    The funny thing about this whole thing is that I’ve never disagreed with you! I’ve only asked that you state your case clearly so that there could be agreement or disagreement with something less vague than the loaded label you started with. With each post, you get a little closer to spelling things out, but you’ve also ventured off into snide attacks (“pulp fiction”).

    As it happens, I do feel that there are often negative consequences to separating military personnel from the consequences of their actions. I happen to think that the solution to that probably has more to do with the decision-makers being required to face the consequences of their decisions than the pilot his actions, but I can see how that would change things, too.

    There are a lot of balancing factors, of course. If one adopts an anti-war viewpoint, there is only upside, but if one believes that there is such a thing as a justifiable war, then the need for an honest accounting must also be thrown in with the need to accomplish repugnant tasks. I’m in the latter camp, and I’m not sure we’ve got the best balance now.

    But “sacrificing our humanity?” Intellectual squishiness can lead to some sublimely interesting ideas, which is why I stay away from loaded and subjective labels in favor of more objective or factual statements.