Friday, April 28, 2006

In Defence of the Matrix

The other day I visited the home of an old mate who appears to have landed in the lap of luxury. Not only does he own half a dozen expensive-looking computers, he also possesses a home movie system - you know, that expensive little projector-thingy that makes your wall, or the white sheet you've draped over your wall, into a movie screen. To top it all off, he has somehow managed to get his hands on a copy of the deluxe, thirteen - I repeat, thirteen - volume edition of The Matrix Trilogy.

We soon got down to ploughing through the Wachowski brothers' opus, and my attention focused on a disc devoted to philosophers' interpretations of the Matrix movies. The Wachowskis manage to coax a bewildering variety of philosophers out of the woodwork to comment on their films: there is Cornel West, who served as advisor to the Matrix and had a cameo in the second movie, and who looks more like Sun Ra than your average professor; the hardline neo-positivist Daniel 'we are our genes' Dennett; an aged John Searle; and Hubert Dreyfus, who pioneered the teaching of Heidegger in America.

But this disparate bunch produced quite similar interpretations of The Matrix films: egghead after egghead told us, reasonably enough, that the film was about the way that human beings can be imprisoned by a false picture of reality. I suppose a rough distinction could be made between those philosophers who thought that the Matrix was a metaphor for a natural, permanent obfuscation of reality, and those who thought that it symbolised man-made barriers to the apprehension of truth. An example of the former might be Kant's doctrine of the 'thing in itself' which we can never grasp with our obfuscatory senses; an example of the latter might be an authoritarian state which brainwashes its citizens, or Marx's account of the commodity fetishism that makes us unable to see the inequalities of capitalist society.

What united the philosophers, though, was the very favourable view they took of the efforts of the heroes of The Matrix films to defeat their robot adversaries and destroy the Matrix. It's true that the Wachowski brothers want us to like Neo, Morpheus and the rest of them, but I thought that at least one or two of the philosophers might have dared to be a little perverse and give their solidarity to the robots, rather than to the beleagured inhabitants of Zion City. Another of the bonus discs in the box set is called Animatrix, and consists of a series of short animated films which flesh out some of the gaps the Wachowskis leave in their films. Several of these short films are mockumentaries telling the story of the rise of robot power and the defeats suffered by humans.

Quite frankly, after watching these little future-histories, I think that we deserved (or deserve) everything the robots gave us! In the narrative the short films construct, highly intelligent robots that look alarmingly like humans are developed as labour-saving devices, and eventually end up doing almost all the work for humans. We sit around drinking margaritas while the robots put in a shift at the office and then come home to cook dinner and take out the trash.

Understandably, the robot-slaves get fed up with their lot and, together with 'human liberals' (the phrase is used rather pejoratively) they demonstrate for equal rights. The response of the vast majority of non-liberal humans is swift and brutal. Soon the class struggle between robots and humans has become an international conflict, with the fleshless ones establishing a sort of benign caliphate in the Arabian desert, which they call Zero One. Zero One tries to establish amicable relations with the rest of the world, but the humans aren't having any of it - we arrest the new country's reps when they come to address the United Nations. Bad move.

We humans are daft enough to use nuclear weapons against the robots, when they aren't susceptible to radiation like us. When they go onto the offensive we have the even dafter idea of destroying the atmosphere (don't tell Bush and Cheney about that one) and predictably end up underground, while robots stride the earth. Robots had relied on the sun for energy, and the destruction of the atmosphere deprives them of this resource (how this works I'm not exactly sure), but they soon find an alternative energy source - the human brain. Thus they construct the Matrix, to keep us entertained while they generate enough energy from our grey matter to maintain their own civilisation.

A couple of points, then: weren't the robots fully entitled to rise up and demand rights from humans? And, having been forced to fight a victorious war against the humans, don't the robots wind up treating us a lot more humanely than we treated them? They don't fill our days with the drudgery of work - rather, they recreate the world we destroyed for us and let us enjoy it. And supposing the Matrix didn't exist, how would the vast numbers of humans it houses be able to live, on the surface of a denuded and deadly world?

Quite frankly, I'm for the robots - and the Matrix. Does that make me a traitor?

You can read some detailed philosophical ruminations by Dreyfus et al on The Matrix films here.

Update: I've been told that the first essay on the site I link to - a site which is maintained by Warner Brothers, the distributor of The Matrix, and which seems to feature the philosophers on the bonus disc - is written from a pro-robot perspective. What can I say? With thirteen volumes we had to do a little skipping...


Anonymous paul said...

All this is why the matrix is such a fun film.
The character that betrays them is pretty honest about things and the matrix seems a perfectly nice place to live.
He had a every right to be suspicious of the messiah figure of neo, the sole mechanism of human liberation.
(Maybe so, the inhabitants of Zion resemble the eloi in The Time Machine', lost in 90's dance culture and ignorant of the machines that support their existence. Like the eloi, they needed a deus ex machina to help them out).
With a robot, at least you know where you are and always will be.

8:35 pm  

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