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THE MATRIX HAS US :: The Sci-Fi Classic's Startling Modern-Day Relevance

THE MATRIX HAS US :: The Sci-Fi Classic's Startling Modern-Day Relevance

By Devin O’Neill

“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.”

When my friends and I went into the theater that fateful night in 1999, we really had no idea what to expect. We’d seen the mind-blowing action sequences and heard the industrial tunes in the previews, and those drew us in, but the actual idea behind the film remained vague, the plot obscured by a fog of ominous hand-waving, like a conspiracy theory.

“What is the Matrix?” This question got asked over and over again in the trailers, and it was the question foremost on our minds. Like Trinity says in the first act of the movie: it was the question that drove us. All the way to the cineplex.

During the film’s 136 minute running time, my friends and I would undergo a spiritual transformation. We cheered with the packed theater when Trinity said, “Dodge this.” BOOM. But we would also undergo slower and more subtle indoctrination. There’s a basic way of thinking embedded in this movie, and if it connects, the person watching will never be the same again.

My friends and I were nerds. We loved computers, technology, and science fiction. But back in 1999, these were still niche interests for people my age, and school computer clubs were a refuge for weirdos and losers. We were also just beginning to ask questions about our place in the world.

The Matrix had answers. Or it knew how to stoke those questions, at least. It served us a concentrated cocktail of accelerated personal development, a deep drive for mastery—Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins for bespectacled social outcasts. And it did this with, like the clickbait refrain goes, One Weird Trick: it mainstreamed the connection between technology and spirituality.

The blindness with which we went in was crucial to our transformation, because we were forced to experience Neo’s journey right along with him. He was holed away from his mind-numbing day job, doing questionably legal things with his computer, and growing bleary-eyed from screen-glow. Then, all of a sudden, after a surreal message appeared on his computer screen, there was a knock at his door.

What followed was a rabbit-hole indeed: a cryptic meeting in an underground industrial nightclub, a mysterious phone call from a terrorist, a red pill, a blue pill, and an awakening into a terrifying yet liberating new world. Neo receives training to deal with this new world, and he discovers new powers and abilities that are a direct product of his awakening: a product of the knowledge that the life he’d lived was a computerized simulation, a massively multiplayer video game.

Morpheus, the “terrorist,” prepares Neo for combat against the architects of this game in a small facsimile simulation, and beats him up and down a dojo after downloading a library of martial arts skill instantaneously into his brain. After this mind-bending exercise, Morpheus looks down at Neo, on the floor of the dojo with blood in his mouth, and asks:

“How did I beat you?”

“You’re too fast.”

And then, the kicker.

“Do you think how strong, or how fast I am, has anything to do with my muscles in this place?”

This was the moment we learned that in a digital universe, if you use your mind properly, you can do anything. This was the lesson of the film, sucked greedily in through our eyes in that dark, small-town movie hall. Free your mind.

[Neo had] “a splinter in his mind”: a native suspicion that there was something beyond the user interface—something underneath the world as it was presented to him.

In that moment, for us, spiritual enlightenment and technological empowerment became one thing. The latter became a direct path to the former. The code became scripture, and we became potential priests—or, if you fully buy the Neo mythos, gods. In the film, he died and was resurrected, and in the process, he saved the world. The Deepak-Chopra-esque injunction that “your mind creates your reality” became, in the context of the internet, literally true.

Douglas Rushkoff, one of my favorite media theorists, likes to call computers “anything machines.” His point is that in the beginning, computers were programmable boxes that could perform rapid mathematical calculations, generate graphics, and do tasks for you. That’s all. There was no Windows, no Facebook, no pretty user interface to restrict the computer to a specific job or set of jobs. This made these machines much harder for the average person to use, but it also meant the only and specific purpose of a computer was to do whatever you wanted it to do.

This idea was the big bang—the kernel that led to the digital revolution of the past several decades. Those earlier students of digital language like Gates and Jobs and Wozniak saw that they could craft products and experiences that everyone else would use to define their daily lives. After the advent of the internet, later code acolytes like Zuckerberg, Bezos, Page, and Brin realized they could create enveloping digi-social worlds and shift global economics and culture.

They were able to do all this because they could see and understand the code, just like Neo. They were The Ones. They could use computers to create anything. They didn’t just use them to check their email and post on Instagram.

Steve Jobs used to talk about how humans were weak and inefficient compared to other animals. He would say that pound for pound, by energy expenditure, the condor was the most efficient animal, gliding on the wind. We were way, way down on the list. But give a human being a bicycle—just a simple bicycle—and all of a sudden, we were off the charts, way more efficient than the condor. He realized that our ability to imagine and create tools makes us unique. He called the personal computer “a bicycle for the mind.”

Douglas Rushkoff argues that this infinite empowerment is the point of computing, and that we, the non-coders, miss that point. If our computers are cars, we imagine that we’re driving our cars, and that people who know how to code are like auto mechanics.

But he says this is wrong. He says that knowing how to code is driving the car. That’s how computers are meant to be “used.”  He says that we—immersed in simple user interfaces, reacting to push notifications, and being funnelled by algorithms constructed by other people—are much more like passengers than drivers.

This is a sobering thought to anyone who’s spent the last twenty years “using” computers almost every day, whether in the form of a desktop or a laptop or a touchscreen phone. It means that, for better or worse, we’ve all taken the blue pill.

With Neo, it was his status as a hacker that granted him entry into the real world; that made Morpheus notice him and summon him. He had what Morpheus called “a splinter in his mind”: a native suspicion that there was something beyond the user interface, something underneath the world as it was presented to him. He had been trained to think about the underlying mechanics of the world precisely because he had taught himself to think like a hacker. If you think like a hacker, when you’re presented with a user interface, you want to take it apart to see how it works underneath, to see if maybe you could build a better one.

A real-life hacker who called himself The Mentor wrote a short manifesto after his arrest, way back in 1986. The similarity in language and mentality is shocking: the loner-geek narrative. The feeling that beyond the user-friendly surface, there’s more going on. The hunger for knowledge, for information, for mastery. Even the goth-underground-rebel aesthetic of Phrack magazine: clearly The Matrix didn’t erupt out of nothing, fully formed. It’s a tribute to this mindset, this culture.

How did human beings lose sight of the potential of computers to be anything-machines, instead of just another media pipeline?

It should be emphasized, and emphasized again, that this script, this mindset, this culture, can be followed to perverse conclusions. Less than a month after the film was released, the Columbine massacre happened. A pair of trenchcoat-sporting social misfits walked into a Colorado high school strapped to the teeth with firearms, echoing a scene from the film to a degree that is unsettling even today.

For blatant reasons, the longer-term legacy of The Matrix in the wake of that Columbine moment, and especially in our current national climate—has become inextricably connected to white male rage. The Elliot Rodgers of the world are high on exactly this cocktail of nerd culture, tech culture, gun culture, woe-is-me lonerism, and toxic, violence-is-the-solution masculinity. Men’s Rights Activists talk about taking the Red Pill, and Alex Jones and other Alt-Right conspiracy theorists talk about seeing beyond the immersive, false reality of “fake news.”

In an even subtler way, this white, male, lone-hacker ethos has given us the blind user interfaces we’ve all become addicted to, via the Ayn-Randian idea that a single Chosen One, molding reality, will save us all. The excitement and creative potentiality of building worlds out of code gave way to modern Silicon Valley startup culture, with all its attendant sexism, racism, and megalomaniacal myopia, as power became concentrated among the select priests who understand this sacred language. Now we can call an Uber, order dog-food on the internet, and entertain ourselves on YouTube for mindless hours, but this awesome power hasn’t solved all the world’s problems—and it created whole new ones. There are rumblings that the platforms we inhabit online are making us more depressed, less creatively productive, and have contributed to national unrest and the election of Donald Trump.

The film’s missives about the power afforded by digital knowledge have only been proven more and more right by history.

Yet The Matrix, the film itself, is a work of groundbreaking technical and narrative art created by two trans women. It features a black man as mentor, guide, and teacher, along with other characters of color like Tank and Dozer and The Oracle—and this is without considering Will Smith’s decision to turn down the role of Neo. Morpheus, cast as a terrorist by white men in suits, is a warrior for good, and Trinity is a complex, gender-nonconforming, high-ranking resistance officer more compelling than the majority of action heroes coughed up by the blockbuster machine. The film credits famously close with Rage Against The Machine’s “Wake Up” which (not-so-famously) contains the lines:

All these punks got bullets in their heads,
Departments of police, the judges, the feds…
Networks at work, keeping people calm...
…You know they went after King
When he spoke out on Vietnam.
Returned the power to the have-nots…
And then came the SHOT.

This film is, in other words, a potential cocktail of explosive progressive-left politics. But it’s also abstracted enough to be a Rorschach blot: if you’re Richard Spencer and you’re watching it, maybe you’re the chosen one.

Despite this ambiguity, I was struck, when I re-watched it, by how potent and radical a statement it still is. Whether you liked The Matrix when it came out or not, we’re living in a world defined by this movie. Its message of empowerment through digital literacy is so relevant as to be embarrassing to those of us who haven’t bothered to learn more about tech, especially in an era when our daily media intake and social experience depends on net neutrality and other regulatory debates we barely understand. The film’s missives about the power afforded by digital knowledge have only been proven more and more right by history.

Rappers like Drake and Kendrick mention The Matrix in their lyrics, in order to evoke a kind of god-like power granted, not via brute strength, but via knowledge of the system. They talk about being in the Matrix as a positive thing, implying they, as black men contending with the system, see a way to liberation through the hacker ethos.

We haven’t really figured out what can be disrupted and what can’t.

The crucial question, then, is: how did progressives, people of color, and empowered queerdos lose control of this narrative to predatory tech oligarchs and angry white men? How did human beings more generally lose sight of the potential of computers to be anything-machines, instead of just another media pipeline à la television? The Matrix so readily maps to a narrative of cultural empowerment, liberation, and media and tech literacy– so how did those on the left become the non-rebellious ones, the non-cool ones, the non-hackers? Why does being Red-Pilled now mean becoming a racist misogynist?

We may have to come to terms with the fact that rugged, rebellious hacker-individualism just didn’t lead where we wanted it to lead. Julian Assange and Ross Ulbricht are cases in point: initially heroic, but then things got dark and weird. Those are extreme examples, but we could even reference someone like Zuckerberg—with all of us as data-batteries plugged into his Matrix, he has more in common with The Machines than with Neo at this point, whatever his early intentions might have been. The hacker ethos can be used for good, but it can be directed toward evil, and the devil is in properly telling the difference.

File sharing, for example, seemed like a disruptive utopia, until musicians and artists started losing money hand-over-fist. We’ve arrived at a place where our civilization’s desperate need for free and open information is clashing with our capitalistic economic incentives. We’ve even lost warriors in that conflict—bright stars like Aaron Swartz, caught and killed in the gears of the information war for his attempt to apply the hacker ethos to siloed academic journals like JSTOR. We haven’t really figured out what can be disrupted and what can’t.

Some believe we’ve already gone too far—that we need to impose controls to restrict the flow of information, and to temper the disruption, in order to have a viable culture and economy. Others argue that we haven’t gone far enough—maybe we haven’t hacked our content networks, our government, and our laws to the point where they’ll be a sustainable open utopia yet. The old system clearly didn’t work for everyone. To discover the future, we’ll need more queer hackers, female hackers, and hackers of color, especially if we ever want to achieve fully automated luxury gay space communism.

The Matrix deserves re-watching, and re-thinking, if only as a way to examine these questions. We accept so many things at face-value and parse them as inevitable and inescapable—these uses of technology, this political climate, this atmosphere of hopelessness. We live in a dystopia, not a utopia. We don’t dream about jumping so high we’re flying, or bending spoons with our thoughts, or downloading entire works of literature into our brains at once. We’re busy just trying to survive, and we all have a vague sense that there’s something not quite right about this capitalism, this culture—like a splinter in our minds, driving us mad.

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