Background Image: Graham Caldwell’s “Compound Eye” (2008, Arsenal Art Gallery). Original Photo: Anne Dagenais. Edits: Adam Ashby Gibbard.
By Tim Kitz
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Wachowski’s pioneering film The Matrix, a 1999 sci-fi masterpiece that seems more prophetic than ever. Here in 2019, machine learning and surveillance capitalism are increasingly feeding off of the raw material of human lives, simultaneously enslaving and entertaining us – and mirroring the film’s premise.
‘Surveillance capitalism’ is a term coined by social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, which she expounds upon at length – for nearly 666 pages – in her 2019 tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. For Zuboff, our economy is increasingly built around corporation’s relentless drive to digitize and monetize our personal lives.
This should sound eerily familiar to anyone who’s a fan of The Matrix. The film presents a vision of a dystopian future, where the natural world has been scorched by human action into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. People cannot recognize this truth because their senses have been filled since birth by a placid artificial reality that enslaves them, enabling machines to feed off them.
The Misogynistic Manosphere’s Misappropriation of The Matrix
Now, before we dive any deeper into what this means for us today, it’s important to dispel the manosphere’s idiotic, meme-mediated misappropriation of the plot point that provides The Matrix’s spiritual centre: the decision to take the red pill.
As the crucial decision every rebel must make in the world of the film, ‘taking the red pill’ is a wonderful metaphor for choosing to awaken to fundamental realities that are harsh but freeing. This decision is set in stark contrast with ‘taking the blue pill’ – choosing to remain ignorant, so you can continue to enjoy life in a comfortable prison.
The red pill is a symbol rich in possible meanings. It’s been enthusiastically taken up by many a subculture. But turning the creation of a couple of trans women into a sexist meme, a shorthand for indoctrination into the cult-like and illusory belief that men are secretly oppressed by feminists, cultural Marxists, and SJWs is… so breath-taking, so ignorant, so ironic… that it would be hilarious if it wasn’t pathetic.
We shouldn’t cede this powerful metaphor to a motley crew of men’s rights activists, pickup artists, incels, and alt-righters. Besides confirming their misguided error and granting them the power of a popular meme and story, doing so would dishonour the work of the Wachowski sisters. As trans women, the Wachowskis represent everything these these misogynistic gender essentialists fear, despise, and seek to destroy. In a dreadful and sick irony, they seek to destroy the Wachowskis – and people like them – with the Wachowskis’ own story of liberation.
After all, looking back at the film now, we can see that the Wachowskis were clearly talking about something very personal with this story about taking a red pill and being transformed. They may have been over a decade from coming out as trans women when they made The Matrix, but were they clearly working with themes of hidden identity and transformation.
Among other things, taking the red pill can obviously be seen as a metaphor for gender transition. In the ’90s, prescription estrogen literally came in a red pill. And the movie’s protagonist lives a double life: by day as the worker-drone Thomas Anderson, by night as the hacker ‘Neo.’
(Notice the gender-ambiguous name? Ambiguity about gender is actually a recurring character trait for the film’s heroes. Before meeting Trinity in person, Neo believes her to be a man. The character Switch – Switch, could this be much more blatant? – was originally written by the Wachowskis to be a man in physical reality, but a woman when she hacked into the Matrix. The studio nixed this idea, but the character was still played by Belinda McClory in a particularly androgynous presentation. Then when Neo and Trinity confront the Matrix head-on, they do it looking almost like androgynous twins – armed to the teeth, head to toe in leather, with sunglasses and sharp haircuts.)
Over the course of the film, taking the pill allows Neo to transcend previous physical limitations and find a diverse group of comrades who accept and affirm this powerful new identity. In fighting alongside these comrades against violently oppressive forces (who insist on using the deadname “Mr. Anderson”), Neo finds freedom, becomes a hero, and makes a life filled with meaning and love.
Taking the Red Pill to Escape Capitalism
Of course, ‘taking the red pill’ has other meanings in the context of the film too. Beyond gender transition, it’s a metaphor for waking up from the numbing, comfortable prison of late capitalism.
This may sound like a bold claim, but note how carefully the Wachowskis choose their examples when they have Morpheus first describe what the Matrix is to Neo. They could have chosen anything – in the movie, the Matrix is literally everything Neo has ever experienced. But the examples are about work, about government, about entertainment and ideology.
“The Matrix is everywhere – it is all around us, even now in this very room,” Morpheus says. “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 to truth – 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.”
Gradually Morpheus reveals to Neo that the system of control of the Matrix is run by ruthless machines – sentient AI who use a computer-generated dreamworld to turn humans into little more than living batteries.
The movie shows what it’s like to live in a world where our technology has developed to the point where it deceives and controls us – where we need to wake up. It’s also about living in a natural world that we have utterly destroyed — and not even realizing it. (“The earth died screaming/while I lay dreaming,” as the Tom Waits song puts it.)
Yet somehow, before Neo learns any of this, he knows that something is wrong. Even if he doesn’t know the truth, he knows something is wrong.
The film’s opening makes it clear that Neo feels deeply alienated from his numbing job – and equally unfulfilled by the recreational and consumerist escape offered by video games, drugs, and nightclubbing.
His whole life is unfulfilling, grey, sickly – every aspect of it permeated by a matrix of lies. “You know that there’s something wrong – you don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad,” Morpheus explains.
How can this be? Neo lives a relatively comfortable, privileged life. Yet there’s at least two ways Neo is alienated and oppressed – setting aside the question of gender for now – which we can look at through the lens of capitalism.
First, as a worker, Neo is directly alienated from himself while on the job. His time and effort does not belong to him, but to his boss and the owners of the faceless corporation that employs him.
“The time has come for you to make a choice, Mr. Anderson,” Neo’s boss announces portentously. “Either you choose to be at your desk on time from this day forth, or you choose to find yourself another job.” In other words, Neo has no meaningful choice.
This corresponds with the first, industrial stage of capitalism and Marx’s classic critique of it. Here the appropriation of workers’ labour drives the economy and feeds capitalism. The surplus value that workers generate is gobbled up by parasitic owners, whose control of the means of production has been assured by the violence of the state.
(As important background to this, let’s remember that to colonize people’s worklives, capitalism first had to colonize the land. By privatizing land and leaving it in the hands of the few, people were deprived of their traditional means of sustenance. Early examples of this include the English enclosure movement, the Scottish Highland clearances, the preventable mass-starvation and resulting emigration of the Irish, the genocidal colonization of Turtle Island, etc. Once people had no home and no means of feeding themselves, they had to sell their labour – and in a certain sense their selves – to those who did own the land and the means of production.)
Second, as a consumer, Neo is equally alienated, since his very identity is mediated through capitalist transactions. After colonizing people’s working hours, capitalism colonized their leisure hours, too.
This corresponds with the early 20th century creation of mass culture and its critique by the likes of Adorno and Horkheimer – and the postmodern consumerism and social theory that followed on hard afterwards.
At the beginning of this era, mass culture displaced folk cultures. All the ways people entertained themselves and socialized were shifted, so they were built around the purchase of products – concerts instead of ceilidhs, movies instead of story-telling, bars and restaurants instead of kitchen tables.
There was something both soothing and entertaining about these new cultural products. The new class of industrial workers needed such diversions. The easy, passive, and individualistic pleasures of consumerism made the monotony of their hours as wage-slaves bearable. The culture industry prospered and expanded. Buying something came to define all social and leisure experiences. Consumerism came to drive the economy. People’s identities became defined by their choices as consumers.
Subculture and the Illusion of Escape
The specifics of these identities never really mattered – even rebellious identities were fine. After all, capitalism doesn’t care if you’re punk or preppy, as long as you keep buying its products. New artistic movements and signifiers of rebellion can actually be used as shiny new wrappers to sell you the same old shit — as we can see by how happily haute couture adopted grunge fashion and homeless chic for a season on its runways.
This subcultureal dead-end can be seen in Neo’s disenchantment with the cyberpunk culture of the film. What once felt transgressive and liberating has become mundane and alienating.
Ultimately, this is because of consumer culture’s maturation – the way it learns to metabolize resistance. Subcultures based around resistance to mass culture became incubators for next year’s new styles and products.
This was never an appropriation of pure artistry by dirty capitalism. Because these arty subcultures still defined themselves by what they bought (and what they didn’t – Bauhaus not Bono, the Meat Puppets not Madonna), they could only feed and never escape capitalism.
The highest thing one could aspire to become in this context was a cultural producer, not simply a passive consumer. ‘Making it’ in the world of ’80s punk, indie, and DIY culture meant becoming a successful small business owner – leading a band, operating a record label, owning an alternative shop of some sort.
It was easy for subcultures to function like the avant-garde of consumerism because mass culture had shifted from fostering conformism to individualism by this time. In late stage capitalism, consumerism becomes driven by a desire for distinction – by customization, by consumer choice, by catering to the customer.
In the scifi opening of The Matrix, Neo is not only involved in some sort of futuristic cyberpunk/gothic raver subculture. He’s also a kind of digital drug dealer, delivering custom highs to scenesters in search of hedonistic and hallucinogenic escape. (Drug addicts, of course, represent the ultimate consumers – those who consume themselves to death.)
There must have been a time when Neo found it exciting and invigorating to participate in this scene; once upon a time, the drugs helped him fly too. But the experience has become as hollow and alienating as Neo’s life as a wage slave.
Ultimately the individualism of consumerism is empty and hollow. It only offers ‘pseudo-individuation,’ as Adorno put it. Pseudo-individuation “endows cultural mass production with the halo of free choice,” Adorno said, on an open market that demands pre-digested standardization.
Life then becomes a multiple-choice questionnaire you can’t refuse to answer – a ballot that you can’t mark ‘none of the above’ or hand back empty. (But can you overturn the table?)
You might have hundreds of choices in what to buy, but you don’t have the choice to not buy. You cannot buy out of the system or buy your way out of the system.
Similarly, attempts to mitigate the devastating effects of capitalism through consumer choice – fair trade knicknacks, certified organic soy milk – founder on their contradictions. Bullshit gifts for consumeristic holidays are still junk shipped from far away; soy is still cultivated in mass monocultures that destroy topsoil and biodiversity. Ethical consumerism is an oxymoron.
The Digital Escape from Capitalism
Dear reader, I have to insist that Neo knows this intuitively, somehow. He flees from the waking world of work and recreation, taking refuge in one thing only – the half-lit, dream-like world of hacker culture – searching, unable to sleep, questing desperately for a way out of the dead-end of capitalistic production and consumerism.
Neo is positive his computerized explorations somehow hold the key, or at least clue.
And Neo is right. The answer finds him. But then something very strange happens.
Once Neo is freed by Trinity, Morpheus, and the rest of their comrades, they all… plug right back into the Matrix!
But now they are conscious, free actors. They are hackers – again, just in a godlike way.
On some level, the Matrix is simply the internet. And the movie gives us Hollywood’s most beautiful and glamorous vision of what internet hacking could be – the hacker as a stylish, rebellious action hero, triumphing over the Agents, soul-less and standardized digital police. (“You all look the same to me,” Morpheus derisively tells Agent Smith, confessing he can’t even tell them apart.)
One of the charming anachronisms of the movie is the way it fetishizes phones and phone lines as the route in and out of the Matrix. Of course now reads as a charmingly old-fashioned tribute to the deeply uncool way we were all using dial-up to connect to the internet.
At the time, though, who could blame the Wachowskis for this glamorization of the internet connection?
See, by the late ’90s, everyone knew the internet was magic.
Ok, sure, this was capitalist hype. It was age-old technological utopianism trotted out one more time to sell products: personal computers and modems, mousepads and floppy disks. But it was something more too.
Even if the internet depended on and developed the technological infrastructure of the capitalist economy, it seemed to transcend and escape from the logic of capitalism in so many ways. This is why joining internet culture seemed so liberating, so exhilarating.
The structure of the network itself was profoundly anarchic and communist, one might say. It was a web that was radically decentralized, egalitarian, distributed, shared. All of the intellectual property, the code and protocols that underlay the internet were given away freely. The programmers who created the internet were often hackers themselves, with anarchic and communitarian ideals, who spoke explicitly of creating a digital world without laws and borders.
The internet then hit mass culture as a network where everything was given away freely.
The computer and phone company may have charged you to connect to the network, but the network itself was free. It belonged to everyone and no one.
Websites were free! People made them for nothing, shared them for nothing – just gave away information and services they produced, the product of their time, effort, and knowledge.
This is why joining internet culture seemed so liberating, so exhilarating. It was tremendously modern – but it was also electrifyingly non-capitalistic, by and large.
The internet also transformed people’s relationship to mass culture. It is difficult to express how profoundly passive cultural life was in the early ’90s, before the internet was popularized.
The definitive experience of the pre-internet times was flipping through cable tv, bored out of your mind, looking for something – you didn’t know what. (In other words, the dominant experience was to feel like Neo at the beginning of The Matrix.) Dozens if not hundreds of channels were at your fingertips, but they all sold the same dreary experience of completely passive consumption.
The internet changed this forever. It revolutionized the way people experienced mass culture. Internet consumption was inherently more active than earlier mass culture, with millions of webpages at your fingertips, opportunities to talk back, and a hyperlink structure that turned every reading experience into a choose-your-own-adventure. More importantly, everyone could become an active content producer.
Even if your cultural production was built around capitalistic products – if you made fansites and participated in forums dedicated to corporate cultural properties – you could be active and engaged with these cultural products in a way that was never before possible. You could build a sense of community and connection with others who also appreciated these properties, no matter how obscure they were, no matter how distant other fans were.
Experiences as cultural producers that were previously only available to indie musicians and zine makers – with great effort, a huge time investment, and connections to the right scene – became easily available to everyone.
These were giddy and empowering times. And the creation of blogging platforms and social media supercharged this invigorating dynamic. After all, the internet may have democratized cultural production, but you still had to be a bit of a geek to set up and code your own website. But all you needed to operate a blog or a social media account was the ability to type. And it was all free!
It was like the net suddenly granted everyone superpowers.
The Colonization of the Anarchist Internet
Yet, gradually, the insidious grey logic of capitalism penetrated every corner of this digital realm. It was halting, but capitalism colonized not just the infrastructure of the internet, but the content.
Of course, capitalism had experience monetizing free content by this time. Radio had, in the end, not doomed but driven the record industry. Network television gave away free content all day long – and dramatically accelerated the consumer economy through advertising, both overtly and covertly. (Outside of the commercials, the programs also sold products, lifestyle, and ideologies that enforced and encouraged consumerism.)
Everyone knew the answer to monetizing content was advertising. It may have been difficult to generate significant revenue from it on the internet, especially in the early days. Yet gradually, the tech start-ups that survived cycles of boom and bust replaced the enthusiastic amateurs who had made all of the internet’s early sites.
These companies weren’t doing it for the love of it, or the joy of sharing information and building community – no matter what their corporate propaganda told you. No, they were selling something. But what, exactly?
They weren’t selling content! The internet’s free model couldn’t be changed, no matter how many companies hung themselves from the ramparts of paywalls. Content and services still had to be offered for free.
So what was being sold?
You were. When content is free, the product is you. Content providers sell your attention to advertisers. This is the attention economy.
Success, then depends on capturing attention. Think of the woman in the red dress that grabs Neo’s attention in one simulation, long enough for an Agent to sneak up on him.
In the attention economy, nothing is too flashy, nothing is too sexy. Sex sells – sells your time and attention to advertisers.
Plenty of internet companies use sex, and I’m not talking about the stunning amount of the internet that’s devoted to porn. Facebook has never drifted far from how it started, as Facemash, a program to present photos of Harvard women for male viewers to evaluate. While the framing became less explicit, male consumption of female’s photos has driven Facebook’s growth and use from the beginning.
The trick is to not just capture attention, but to retain it. Click-bait, yes, but also an endless stream of content following on after each click. Part of the genius of a company like Facebook or Youtube is that it mobilizes its users to generate the vast reams of content that it then uses to sell their attention to advertisers.
By seizing control of how cultural products are distributed and consumed, these tech titans also forced professional content producers – artists, musicians, etc. – to post and stream their work for free or practically free, if they want to people to experience their work. Of course, these technopolies happily pocket the advertising revenue from content they didn’t have to buy or even upload themselves. In some sense, the democratization of content production on the internet takes pros and turns them into peons: now we’re all peasants working for free on the content farms of big tech.
This is how the development of the digital attention economy created vast wealth for the new tech titans. Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and the like succeeded by providing endless addictive content and powerful services for free that captured the attention of billions of people – and the attendant advertising dollars.
We still live in the digital landscape these companies have provided, yet attention and advertising is actually no longer what is driving our economy. Instead, it’s surveillance.
From Attention to Surveillance
Remember when the creepiest thing Google did was scan your email to run a few ads at the top of your inbox? When did they stop? (Why did they stop?)
Because now they don’t even bother. They found a far more powerful and efficient way to make money off of you.
Keep in mind that back in the “don’t be evil” days of Google innocent youth, its business model rested on its stellar search engine, followed by its useful email service.
This is where Shoshana Zuboff’s research comes in. She found that, as Google operated its search engine and email service, trying to capture user’s attention so it could sell them to advertisers, the company found that it collected a surplus of user data – data it had no use for, that was just waste. What could it do with this vast treasure trove of useless data? Instead of discarding it, Google began to feed the surplus data into the algorithms that powered its search engine, using it to improve the search engine, to teach the algorithms’ artificial intelligence – with astonishing results.
Now, knowledge exists to be turned into profit in the twisted world of these tech titans. By capturing consumers’ attention, these companies had created a perpetual motion machine for generating oceans of knowledge. How could they monetize this stream of data? How could they use this artificial intelligence to produce wealth?
Google pioneered a new model in economic production, leading the charge – closely followed by Facebook and a long line of imitators that are still playing catch-up – from the attention economy to surveillance capitalism.
In this model, these digital despots hoover up every possible bit (and byte) of behavioural data they can possibly extract from its users. As Zuboff puts it, this data is fed into the algorithms that develop artificial intelligence, generate predictions, and enable behavioural modification.
These data scientists aim for a kind of digital omniscience because the ability to predict human behaviour is astonishingly valuable to capitalists. The ‘prediction products’ that companies like Google and Facebook sell are enormously useful to the insurance industry, the stock market, and to any field of economic activity directly tied to future events. They also allow companies to indirectly maximize profits on advertising and purchases of every kind and in every conceivable context.
More recently, these companies have begun to apply machine learning to behavioural modification and emotional manipulation. Google’s competitors have been fairly open about this.
Microsoft has patented a digital device for monitoring user’s mental state, preemptively detecting “any deviation from normal or acceptable behavior that is likely to affect the user’s mental state,” in the words of its patent application. Meanwhile, Spotify likely has the inside track on monitoring our moods and emotions, since there is often a link between how we feel and what music we want to listen to.
Once AI can accurately detect our emotions and “unacceptable behaviour,” what’s next?
Facebook has conducted experiments on millions of users without their knowledge and proudly publishing the results. That’s right, Facebook has proven it can significantly motivate users to vote, for example, and depress or lighten their emotions through ‘networked emotional contagion.’
The possibilities these behavioural modification technologies offer for profit and control seem obvious, chilling, and almost beyond comprehension. It brings the idea of living in a digital matrix of surveillance and control out of the realm of science fiction, into the real world.
Production Under Surveillance Capitalism
Again, these predictive products and behavioural modification technologies are created by corporations mining our data and processing it through their artificial intelligence. This new surveillance capitalism is already beginning to dominate our economy. And it offers almost unlimited room for growth.
In her book, Zuboff characterizes surveillance capitalism as a “new reality business” where “all aspects of human experience are claimed as raw material” and “targeted for rendering into behavioral data.” This is typically done under the banner of personalization, which acts as a “camouflage for aggressive extraction operations that mine the intimate depths of everyday life.”
Surveillance capitalism is driven by the overwhelming drive to digitize every aspect of human life – every experience and interaction. Everything must be converted into some sort of digital representation, into a piece of digital data – a process that inherently simplifies, flattens, severs, and deadens every living phenomenon. A digital representation of an experience is less complex and rich than the experience itself. While every thing in an analog world exists on a continuum – partly one thing, partly another, a cloud of atomic paradoxes and probabilities – everything digital is binary.
Yet as our lives come to revolve more and more around the digital world, this world starts to feel more and more real – it becomes hyperreal, to misuse Baudrillard’s term in the spirit of the Wachowskis. (If an event happens in meatspace but no one catalogues it in a virtual space, was it real?) Disturbances in the online world can crash real-world markets. Sweatshop workers “mine gold” in video games so privileged players can buy this virtual currency with real currency. We all cultivate online personas that are fake to one degree or another, but some of the most successful online personalities are fake all the way down. Youtube’s first and most popular video blogging star, Lonelygirl15, was an actor – and the character’s popularity only grew when she was revealed as fake. This is a tradition that continues to the present, with viral influencers Instagram’s Lil Miquela only growing stronger when she was revealed to be a fictional character.
Now, again, this virtual world that permeates and penetrates our lives gets monetized by all the data it generates from our behaviour. Sometimes we actively generate this data ourselves, posting about our lives, uploading photos, videos, and content of all kinds. More often, this data collection takes place in an automated, surreptitious, inscrutable, and omnipresent way.
To cherry-pick one mundane example, researchers discovered a few years ago that Facebook’s app was sending hundreds of pieces of data per second from Android phones – even when users weren’t actively using the app. Now, Facebook was (and is?) almost certainly doing the same thing with iPhones, but the proprietary OS of Apple’s phones makes it impossible to detect this data transfer. The open source origin of the Android operating system – a legacy of the utopian idealism of the internet’s early days – is what allowed these researchers to realize this data extraction was taking place.
That said, researchers still could not read the data Facebook was extracting from people’s Android phones every second the phones were on. They could see data was being transferred – they could not see what the data was. This illustrates the fundamental dynamic of this production process. Surveillance capitalism claims ownership over the data it extracts from you. You have no right to your data; you have no right to secrets. Capital owns your data; it keeps this data secret from you.
Capital owns the means of production in this economic model – not only the artificial intelligence it uses to produce its products and profits, but the raw material it uses for this production: you and your personal life.
This is the devil’s bargain that we all have signed. In order to access all the services of the digital age and participate in modern life, we simply have to give our lives to these companies. Then they can extract every possible bit of information, operate feedback loops that modify our behaviour, and devise ever-newer and ever-deeper methods for extracting and processing this data into profit.
Zuboff told Democracy Now! “We think we’re searching Google; Google’s actually searching us. We think that these companies have privacy policies; those policies are actually surveillance policies.
“That ‘I agree’ is a box that we all click on because we have no choice,” Zuboff continued. “Because for everyday effective social participation, we have no choice other than to march ourselves through the supply chains that are the very channels through which Google and other surveillance capitalists scrape our private experience and turn it into behaviour data.”
On top of this, any data that can’t yet be used by these machines now is happily and indefinitely stored by the tech companies who collect it, until these intelligences grow smart enough to use it.
Back to the Matrix
Now we can see that the basic material of our daily lives then becomes fuel for the development of artificial intelligence. Just like humans in the Matrix, who exist only to power the sentient machines, our lives have become food for AI – and we are fast-becoming its slave.
Perhaps this only inevitable, since we’re already serfs in the service of corporations. Yes, serfs. After all, corporations possess legal personhood and powers that dwarf those of whole nations, much less those of any scrawny human individual. Naming them as our lords seems only honest. Whether or not we work for them directly, whether or not we even know it, we increasingly serve their interests.
AI has no will of its own – it’s simply a tool of control and profit deployed by corporations. Yet, like Frankenstein’s Monster turning on its creator, AI might yet overrun its corporate makers.
Again, the wholesale collection of personal data by our corporate overlords is fed into artificial intelligence machines in prodigious quantities. This enables the machine learning that exponentially increases their ability to develop predictive products and behavior modification tools.
If we really want to get apocalyptic, our data might just be feeding into a process of machine learning that will soon produce a technological singularity – artificial intelligence that, if not sentient, will at least make human intelligence and life irrelevant. Smart guys like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have wondered out loud if this kind of development might spell the extinction of the human race.
At the very least, the transition from the attention economy to surveillance capitalism means that we are no longer the product of late capitalism but the raw material, used to feed the machines and generate profit.
To pull back for an even longer view, the shift from industrial to digital capitalism involved a transition – from using machines to exert control over nature and extract value from it, to targeting humans for control and the extraction of value.
The same logic with which we have assaulted and decimated nature is now getting applied to us. And maybe this is only fair.
Also fair: the industrial and digital machines we have used against nature have produced illusion and alienation in us, which now makes it possible to turn these very machines loose on us.
Industrial civilization, consumer culture, and digital capitalism has replaced our mutual and profoundly human relationship to the natural world with an ecology of screens and mediated experiences. We’re already living in an artificial reality, a half-illusory fever dream shaped and monetized by corporations and tech moguls.
This explains how seductive and comfortable this process has been, at least for those of us living with privilege in the West. We’re living in the Matrix and don’t even realize it.
Escaping the Matrix
Our situation is desperate, but are we doomed? No, of course not – no more than Neo and the others trapped in the Matrix were doomed.
At the movie’s most desperate moment, Agent Smith gives an arresting monologue to his captive audience – Morpheus, the wizard-like mentor who explained the nature of the Matrix to Neo. Smith, a machine agent of the Matrix, wants to explain humanity to Morpheus. He says that humans are “not actually mammals” but a virus. “You move to an area and multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way to survive is to spread to another area.”
“Human beings are a disease,” Agent Smith declares, “a cancer, a plague – and we are the cure.” Looking at the ecocidal course we are still only accelerating down twenty years later, it’s hard to disagree with him.
The movie never explicitly disagrees with Agent Smith, too. Like so many charismatic and repellent villains who only tell harsh truths, Agent Smith gets punched and shot to prove him wrong, never argued with or refuted.
And the film does say that humans created AI and scorched the sky. It seems sympathetic, at least, to Agent Smith’s perspective.
And yet, there’s also an implicit optimism about human nature in the movie.
The sin of humanity in the film is the sin of ignorance. People do not realize they are living in a scorched and dystopian wasteland because they are deceived by a system of illusion and control.
By relating only to a pleasant artificial reality of machines, they are cut off from any relationship or knowledge of the natural world that should be their home. They can neither love, protect, or heal something they do not even know.
Yet just because the sin of humanity is ignorance in The Matrix, that does not mean truth-telling automatically wins people over. It is not easy or even possible to dispel everyone’s ignorance.
The movie has Morpheus tell Neo, “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.”
What enabled prisoners of the Matrix to escape, to become free? They had to have the courage to recognize the truth of their situation. They they had to imagine something different and act on that imagination. Perceiving the matrix of lies that surrounded them freed them to imagine alternatives – new and different realities that became actual when they acted with confidence on this imagination.
This is what turned them into superheroes in the Matrix, able to do the impossible, to defeat machines, to fly.
Ok, sure, there’s a little wish fulfilment in this vision, but there’s also a little truth in it.
We have to recognize that there is nothing inevitable about the corporate ownership of our data – or our service to corporations generally. There are other options besides a world in which machines scrape up our private human experiences as the raw material for their production processes. There are other options than serving corporations – abstract machines pretending to be persons – who only exist to generate profits, usually by exploiting humans and using up nature.
At the time The Matrix came out, there were utopian visions and experimental trials that imagined how a digital future of smart homes and computer-automated lifestyles might look. Zuboff records in her book how she herself was struck, looking back, how “in the year 2000, this vision naturally assumed an unwavering commitment to the privacy of individual experience.”
Those working to make these visions reality assumed that they were creating a world where people would own their digital data and have the right to determine how it was used. These tech-optimists might look a little naive now, but they imagined a future where humans would have individual and democratic control of these computer processes. They imagined a digital future that would empower individuals rather than using and exploiting them.
From our more jaded position today, let’s try to imagine the same, in a new and wiser way.
Likewise, there is nothing inevitable about the corporate personhood or corporate rule. It’s possible to not only imagine but to live in economies that place human need and ecology at the center. Example from traditional Indigenous economies, co-ops and intentional communities, Anarchist Spain, democratic confederalism in Rojava, and the Zapatistas in Mexico all show that, to one degree or another.
Neo and his rebel friends fought the machines in the real world, but also in the digital Matrix that had previously enslaved them. They used the virtual world consciously, for their own ends. We can too.
They also persisted, drawing strength from each other when things looked bleak. It was worth fighting together, even if they might lose. Not everyone felt this way, of course. The movie has Cipher, a character who betrays the rebels because he has concluded, having seen and experienced the truth, that “ignorance is bliss.” For Cipher the material comforts of the Matrix are so obviously better than the difficulty and deprivation of rebel life. Unlike the rebels who persist – and win – Cipher is not able to find meaning in knowing the truth and in fighting together.
You’ll notice something else, if you pay close attention to the Matrix films – films, yes, plural. I know, I know, the sequels are deeply flawed and largely unworthy of the original. But here’s what you can notice, if you can sit through them and pay attention.
It’s not the heroes’ ability to punch really hard or jump really high that saves them. At the crucial turning points, they were able to love and to trust and to put their hope in each other, when machines found this illogical and impossible to imagine. That is what saved them.
Quakers have a catchphrase from William Penn that we might try on for size – “Let us see what love can do.” Of course, during various points in his tumulteous life, Penn also personally owned slaves and one of the largest tracts of land ever held in private hands – roughly the area of present-day Pennsylvania and Delware. Did he ever thoroughly see what love can do? Has anyone?
The Matrix ends with a scene where Neo says, “I don’t know the future, I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end, I came here to tell you how it begins.”
He concludes, “I’m going to show [people] a world without rules and controls, without borders and boundaries, a world where anything is possible.” As Neo flies away and the credits roll, the band Rage Against the Machine builds to a climax where they scream “Wake Up!”