Do you ever get the feeling that we’re being secretly manipulated? That we’re trapped in a dream world, with some kind of puppet master jerking our strings, while life slips away, and with it the opportunity to pursue the goals that really matter.
I sometimes get that feeling…. for instance when I’m staring at the computer screen, wondering how I’ve ended up chained to a desk, when I’d rather be outdoors, running through the mountains and exploring life.
That feeling is the hook of the 1999 sci-fi thriller, The Matrix, and it must have resonated because the movie sold a lot of tickets and also won four Academy Awards.
Early in the film, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) explains that feeling to Neo (Keanu Reeves):
It’s that feeling you have had all your life. That feeling that something was wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad, driving you to me. But what is it?
The leather CREAKS as he leans back
The Matrix is everywhere, it’s all around us, here even in this room. You can see it out your window, or on your television. You feel it when you go to work, or go to church or pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
That you are a slave, Neo. That you, like everyone else, was born into bondage… … kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind.
The movie’s premise is that in the 22nd century, mankind waged a war against intelligent machines, and when we attempted to destroy their power supply, the machines responded by enslaving the human race in order to harvest electrical energy from our bodies. People in the movie think they’re living in Chicago in 1999 , but actually they’re sleeping in pods, their minds perceiving images fed to them by the Matrix through a cable inserted in the back of the head. The Matrix is a virtual reality that keeps them ignorant and pacified.
The film was inspired by a 1981 philosophical treatise written by Jacques Baudrillard entitled Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard claims that in modern society, symbols and simulations are replacing reality. Urbanization separates us from the natural world, he argues, while at the same time we’re bombarded by advertisements for products we don’t need. Under multinational capitalism, we value goods using fiat currencies rather than on their inherent usefulness, and we’re totally separated from the people and cultures that produce them. We live in a world of “hyper-reality,” according to Baudrillard, from which we will one day lose the ability to unplug.
If you’re a runner, think of it this way: people used to run in the mountains in search of food. Today we jog on roads, dressed in running clothes to keep us warm and running shoes to cushion our feet, fueling ourselves with sugary sports drinks, while we search for the physical fitness that once was natural. And now people can run on treadmills watching a video of a mountain trail. Or they can play video games in which an avatar runs through a three-dimensional simulated representation of mountainous terrain. The idea of running in the mountains is increasingly dependent on commercial products or computer simulations. The reality of the experience is being lost.
In the movie, the answer to the Matrix is rebellion. Dressed in black leather and sunglasses, armed with an exotic array of automatic weapons, Neo and his sidekick Trinity confront the Matrix, outshoot its agents, dodge bullets in slow motion, fly helicopters, leap from roof to roof, and elude their enemies’ grasp when they reach the ringing phone and disengage from the computer simulation.
By the end of the film, Neo has learned to see through the illusion of the virtual reality to the underlying computer code on which it runs. He can now stop bullets in mid-air.
The Matrix is enormously original and entertaining. But watching it today, it feels to me like it’s selling a fantasy. The movie’s message is that we can figure out whatever it is that enslaves us, we can fight back, indeed, we can be like Neo, a “chosen one,” dressed in black, unstoppable. For most of us, this isn’t reality.
As critic Andrew O’Hehir put it, “all this pseudo-spiritual hokum, along with the overamped onslaught of special effects—some of them quite amazing—will hold 14-year-old boys in rapture.” And afterwards, the boys can return to playing first-person shooter video games, including Enter the Matrix, which is based on the film.
Whatever it was selling, The Matrix sold a lot of it. The movie and its two sequels grossed $1.6 billion worldwide, and that doesn’t include sales of video games or comic books.
The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.
Upon reflection, it occurred to me that a Matrix doesn’t have to connect via a cable in the back of your head. Think of a Matrix as a set of beliefs that manipulates people into thinking about the world in a certain way. Under this definition, the Democrats pitch one Matrix, the Republicans another, and so do the Catholic Church, the Chinese Communist Party, Harvard Business School, the American Heart Association, the Boy Scouts, and no doubt every organization that seeks influence and power.
As individuals, we build our own Matrix — it’s our self-identity. My Matrix includes running, observations about the natural world, and reflections about what I’ve learned in the process. As you read this page, you’re experiencing part of my Matrix.
That feeling of being trapped in a fake reality — the feeling that Morpheus explains to Neo, and which I sometimes feel staring into a computer screen when I’d rather be outside — it might be a cue that our actions and goals are out of sync. Or it might be how we rationalize our failures, by blaming outside forces, in other words, a form of self-delusion. It seems to be a characteristic of a Matrix, whether it’s the intelligent machines in the movie or the movie itself, whether it’s a political, religious, or commercial organization or our own self-conception, to sell us a fiction we want to believe.
When I get that feeling that my life is being manipulated, I don’t unplug the computer, I don’t go to the movies, and I don’t dress up in black leather. Instead of worrying about other people’s Matrices, I work on my own: I go for a run.
What do you do?