This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
-Morpheus, “The Matrix”
What is The Matrix?
A lot of people have no idea.
The original movie, “The Matrix”, was released seventeen years ago, in 1999. Today’s college graduates were still in diapers, and many of them are completely ignorant not only of the story arc, the mythology, and the characters in the cinematic cycle, but also of the philosophical allusions and ramifications of the ideas presented therein.
They’re not alone; most of the film’s viewers don’t get it either. To us, it’s a classic sci-fi noir thriller set in a dystopian future. Digital computer animation and pioneering camera work were hallmarks of the movie, which helped drive the popularity of the then-new DVD technology. Add to that stunning artwork, amazing casting, and some extremely impressive martial arts moves and you’ve got a killer flick. It still stands up fine today.
The effect of the film on the viewer is disquieting, however, and it doesn’t take much for even a casual watcher to become aware of an evident subtext, a message that underlies the whole production. After turning it off, we ask ourselves — some consciously, some in nightmares later that night — whether it’s possible that we ourselves might actually be living in some real-life version of The Matrix.
Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
-Morpheus, “The Matrix”
In the mid-90s, this pair of sibling collaborators wrote several screenplays that were picked up by Warner. The first was rewritten; the second was drastically modified; the third they asked to direct. And direct it they did.
In a conscious attempt to copy the styling and flow of Japanese anime films, they storyboarded the entire script shot by shot in advance. They borrowed heavily from other science fiction works including the writings of Philip K. Dick, films such as “Dark City” and “Metropolis”, and Hong Kong’s trademark ‘Wire Fu’ films, importing a master of the latter, Yuen Woo-ping, to handle action and choreography. The combined effect was a visual action masterpiece.
But their goal was not mere visual perfection but rather to create an ideal venue in which to tell a rich and profound story, an allegory based in large part on the complex philosophy of Jean Baudrillard in his seminal work “Simulacra and Simulation“. This, when combined with the premise of intelligence existing not as a central structure but rather a combination of small discrete elements (introduced in Kelly’s “Out Of Control“), produces the unsettling image of a world where the sum total of human existence is but a single complex entity — one which, in this film, is imprisoned and harvested by intelligent machines.
Much of the later work of this sibling pair reflects similar concepts. From the violent anarchy embraced in “V For Vendetta” to the reduction to insignificance portrayed in “Jupiter Ascending“, the single unifying theme is always humanity’s duty to revolt against a hidden oppression of the mind, one imposed not out of spite, but instead as a natural method of ensuring control and stability for the good of the populace.
What is The Matrix?
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work — when you go to church — when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
While seemingly complex, the film’s analogy is a simple one, and it’s revealed both obviously through allegory in the plot and through a string of deliberately placed references, keys, and Easter eggs within the setting. Among these are the White Rabbit – a deliberate reference to “Alice In Wonderland”, the literal use of a copy of “Simulacra and Simulation” as a repository for code in the form of computer discs, reuse of sets from “Dark City”, direct quotes from various influences, and nods to multiple anime works.
The deliberate placement of both the physical book “Simulacra and Simulation” (which was required reading for the principal cast) as well as quotes from it (“Welcome to the desert of the real”) would reveal the strong influence of the writer’s philosophy even if the early plot elements didn’t; they do. The entire story leading up to the pill scene is one of depressing, grim fatalism; it is full of narrative dead ends and cul-de-sacs beyond which the main character cannot continue. The summation is delivered by Trinity thus: “…you know that road, you know exactly where it ends. And I know that’s not where you want to be.”
The message, then, is that every person in the audience who can relate to Neo’s ‘real’ life, who has barely held onto a bad job, who spends their lives isolated even at home, who lives in fear of tax audit and traffic cop — each of us is a person who can grasp this simple truth: That we are all living within a real-world analog of The Matrix.
The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.
Baudrillard’s contention, as presented by the Wachowskis, is that the very system which protects and supports us, which provides the food we eat, the roof over our heads, the jobs we work at until we can work no longer — that this system is a prison. And, viewed only from a perspective of individual freedom, they are quite correct.
We are trained for placement within this system from an early age, through our schools and our television programs. Our play has turned to sports, to regimented activities with schedules and timetables and metrics for success. In our classrooms we are alphabetized, seated at identical desks, all listening to the same lesson at the same speed. We ride the bus to and from school, and the bus seats have no safety belts. It is shown to us over and over that we are but individual components for use in a vast machine, and that none of us has any individual value.
Once we leave high school, the system takes a firmer hold, and so do we. We accept debt in exchange for that education which we know is essential to make a ‘decent living’. We compete for a job that isn’t quite what we’d planned in order to get a better wage. We gladly embrace a mortgage in exchange for a real estate investment. And when we’re done, we’re trapped, securely held in the chains of debt and structure and, most insidious of all, that security which comes from a good regular paycheck.
And then comes marriage and more debt. We have children and medical bills and the debt increases; we buy toys we can’t afford and the debt increases again. Our wage increases but not enough. We’re stressed and need some way to escape, so we pay too much for the privilege of being crammed like sardines into a metal tube and fired across the skies at the same speed as the muzzle velocity of a .45 caliber bullet to a destination where the service is slow, the food indifferent, the beds full of bugs, the scenery trite, and all the other people are more beautiful than we are. When it’s time to go home we’re glad of the change and we plunge back into work knowing that it could be worse; we could still be on that beach that smells suspiciously of the raw sewage that our hotel was pumping straight into the ocean.
And then, when we can work no longer, we have the chance to retire. So we choose a community in Florida that’s all we can afford (hopefully not downwind of the coal power plant or the phosphate mines) and we sit there, scaley and wrinkled as lizards basking in the sun, waiting for it all to end. Because now that it’s all done, we may have finally escaped our debt and gained our freedom — but now we have it, we can no longer remember what to do with it.
It’s hard to credit, but these are the lucky ones, the fortunate fifty percent who don’t suffer through divorce, the expense of raising a family on one’s own — or, perhaps worse, child support payments but no time left to enjoy the kids. These are the ones who don’t come down with something incurable (or curable yet expensive), or shorten their own lives with industrial poisons or by eating themselves to death, or the twenty thousand per year who give in to despair and eat the barrel of a gun.
It’s a grim tale, one lived by too many people — people who either don’t realize, or who somehow forget, that they have a choice in all of this, another option. More than one option, to be sure; there’s more possibilities than the extremes of embracing that second mortgage or instead opting to live off the grid.
But what do we do instead? We work ourselves voluntarily, even enthusiastically, into early graves just as though time weren’t the one precious thing we have. And if we ever get a minute to ourselves, we blame the rich for the situations in which we find ourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve said it before: The problem is NOT the one percent.
The problem, I think, is us.
And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this:
[holds up a copper-top D cell battery]
We live in a consumerist society, which has a consumer-based economy driving it. Put simply, a large percentage of today’s businesses exist to sell luxuries. Working on their behalf is the advertising industry, which pays for the entertainment media out of the profits from our unnecessary expenditures — unnecessary, because, were the purchases truly needful, there would be no need to advertise.
An example of the power of advertising over us is the diamond engagement ring, one of the legendary advertising stories and arguably the most successful ad campaign in history. These rings were virtually unknown before the late Victorian era, and even then they were used exclusively by the wealthy. During the Great Depression they began to fall out of fashion. With the price collapsing, De Beers began an extensive marketing campaign in 1939; the goal was to convince young men and women that it was essential to spend a month’s salary on a diamond. In 1947, the slogan “Diamonds Are Forever” was coined, and today, it is considered unforgivable to fail to spend not one but two months salary on the ring. This is now thought of as a timeless tradition, but in reality it’s a strictly modern development.
Expenditures on these rings alone account for almost half a percent of all the money a man will earn in his lifetime, and that’s pre-tax. The cost of the wedding ceremony can easily run ten times this; in total, the average wedding in America costs a year’s income (after taxes). Add to this the price of honeymoons; the honeymoon industry in the United States nets $12 billion annually.
And none of this was customary before the advent of the present consumerist society in the 1950s. It is entirely a product of advertising.
Viewed impartially, it seems insane to continue this level of spending on luxuries while we as a population remain individually in debt through so very much of our lives. It would seem better by far to dispense with the unnecessary, and instead to simply gift the price of the ceremony to the newlyweds, giving them a sound start in their new lives together.
And yet, viewed broadly, we couldn’t afford to do that.
It takes a tiny percentage of our workforce to provide us with the necessities of life: food, clean water, shelter, clothing. Even if we add to this those people who keep our roads passable and our hospitals staffed, our power on and our heat (or air conditioning) functional, we’re still only at around 15% of the workforce — more than a tenth of whom work in restaurants.
In one fashion or another, the remaining 85% of us perform tasks that are, technically, nonessential. Society wouldn’t collapse if, for example, all the stockbrokers, lawyers, hairdressers, cell phone salesmen, and wedding planners (to name but a few) all stayed home from work. Except, in a larger sense, it would; not only would we all have very messy hair, our entire economy would collapse overnight.
An instance of this was seen during the financial crisis of ’07-’08. As a result of the collapse of the artificially inflated American housing market, the entire world went into financial meltdown. This didn’t end until late in ’09, but even after that point, housing markets have failed to rebound and people have remained reluctant to spend as before on luxuries. As a result, economic growth has remained shaky ever since. Our society, it seems, has come to rely on the sale and distribution of luxury goods and services (let’s not forget those restaurants!) in order to keep itself going.
So what can we do? Is there, in fact, no way out?
The first matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect. It was a work of art. Flawless. Sublime. A triumph only equaled by its monumental failure.
– The Architect
We began with the movie; let us return there.
Our writers created a war of vast and almost incomprehensible scope, one fought on two or more levels at all times. The example they provide us with is one of rage against the vast machine, of fighting against an implacable and overwhelming foe that — horror of horrors — doesn’t even much care about the opposition, which to it is insignificant both in scope and scale.
In truth, this too is a parallel to our lives. We’ve taken the red pill; we’ve identified the situation as it stands, and we’ve decided we don’t like it. On the other hand, attempting to modify something as vast and interconnected as an economy seems a futile task — especially considering that those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo will resist. Bear in mind here that I’m not talking only about CEOs; lots of people are very comfortable in their current societal niches, and they have no desire for change. The difficulties seem insurmountable; the problem is too big.
And yet, De Beers somehow managed to sell us diamonds. It was a small group of people — powerful and wealthy, but still small. The medium they used was advertising; with the advent of internet memes, that has become more accessible than ever before.
Logically, then, instituting deliberate social change is possible. It’s easier if you have a multinational corporation with a massive advertising budget at your command — but it is still possible for an individual to collect a group of like minds. It’s possible through discussion, through education, through creating a movement among reasonable and intelligent people.
And so we find ourselves in a position where we are compelled to ask ourselves the question that, strangely, was never posed in our movie: Should we do it? Do we, in fact, have the right to effect societal change?
The Bottom Line
Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?
Morpheus: You’ve never used them before.
Apocalyptic conflict makes for a compelling story; additionally, our movie (unlike most) presents a solid philosophical argument. The parallels to our real world are difficult to deny. However, those who seek to violently tear down society would do well to remember that, in the absence of that structure which society provides, chaos will inevitably enter and rule until such time as a new structure emerges. Even then, there is no guarantee that the new order will be superior to the old.
And in the mean while, you have neither running water nor toilet paper.
With that in mind, I advise caution, patience, deliberate planned action. Since violent change is unlikely to help, I suggest instead incremental social change through education. Most of all, I suggest calm thought about the real nature of the problem that confronts us, because until we understand it fully — until we have a complete grasp of just what it is that is at the root of our discontent with modern life, we lack the tools required to effectively oppose it.
Some images and most of the quotes featured in this article come from the 1999 film, “The Matrix”, presently a property (last I knew) of Warner Brothers. The intention is to use these for educational purposes only and not for profit — though if someone were to hand me a big stack of cash I wouldn’t turn it down. At any rate (heh!), I’m reliably informed that my references to the movie fall under fair use, especially as this entire article is basically a movie review. A bit late to catch it in the theaters, perhaps, but on the other hand, as I said above, there’s a whole generation that’s never watched this. Sad but true. Perhaps the time is right for a re-release.