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The Matrix Essay, Research Paper
Reality Bytes: A journey through perceptions of reality in ‘The Matrix’ and the technological world.
The idea for this dissertation arose from the culmination of a number of thoughts that have interested me for some time. The question of ‘reality’ has always intrigued me. I perceived it as tangible and exact but at the same time intensely vulnerable. I saw the frailties of ‘reality’ exposed by the many differing ways it can be perceived. These differences of perception can be attributed to factors such as age, sex, colour, nationality, religion, political views, all of which alter the way we process what are presented to us as ‘facts’ by our senses. So numerous are these factors, I reasoned, that every person living, or that has ever lived must have a unique sense of reality. A point of perception so tailored to his or her own identity that it could never be shared exactly with anyone else. Having considered this idea, I arrived at a primary solution that there was no such thing as a shared reality. Furthermore, the word ‘reality’ should only be used tentatively and only accurately in relation to a specific individual’s view of a subject. However, having arrived at this conclusion I became aware that allowing individual realities was not a solution, indeed it merely raised more questions. The brain is a complex organ relying on naturally produced endorphins and chemicals such as seratonin to maintain a state of perceptive normality, if this chemical balance is altered then the individuals perceptions of reality are also subject to change. How is the reality of the individual affected if they are suffering from depression? Is it the bleak or the hopeful that forms the reality for that individual? How are we to view the differences that occur in the mind when intoxicated through drink or drugs? These were complex factors that I realised would need addressing in order to solve the ‘reality’ question. Having run into issues high above the plains of my idle considerations I mentally shelved the problem and it was not until the summer of 1999 that questions of reality were raised once again.
My reason for questioning reality once more was the release of the Wachowski Brothers film The Matrix. This science fiction film presents the idea that the world around us is an illusion. What we perceive to be reality is in fact a computer simulation (called The Matrix) which is inputted directly into our brains making us believe that we are living normal lives when in fact our inert bodies are providing heat to power the machines which, after years of human service became intelligent enough to have taken over the world.
In addition to the basic questioning of reality within the story line, The Matrix explores the importance of other areas concerned with perceptions of reality such as dreams and fate. Coming as it did at the very end of the 20th century, The Matrix as with many works of fin de si?cle deals with the ultra-modern and an apocalyptic view of the world. At a time when the end of an era is approaching, especially an ending/beginning as hyped as ‘The Millennium’, subconscious fears abound. While advances in technology have left us less to fear than ever before in terms of injury and disease, technology itself fills the void. In this case, The Matrix deals with the common fear of an over dependence on machines. At a time when the world at large was concerned about the effects of ‘The Millennium Bug’ machines turning on humans was a valid concern and it was this aspect that also interested me. While not c
ncentrating on the likelihood of machines taking over, the growing part they play in constructing and maintaining our realities is important to consider. Where do we draw the line between what we perceive as ‘reality’ and a computer generated representation that may be more ‘real’ than the original? In answering this question I will refer to the work of Aldous Huxley, specifically The Doors of Perception in order
to provide a view into the significance of enhanced hallucinogenic realities. Building on the idea of chemically enhanced reality I will examine, using the writings of Jean Baudrillard, the extent to which artificially created reality in terms of media presentation and has affected our perceptions of reality. I will also refer to Baudrillard’s work on simulacra and explore the significance of duplication and reproduction on commonly held ideas of reality. With this in mind I will explore the idea of ‘reality’ being distilled into a matrix of binary code and if so, what does that tell us about our supposedly organic realities? It is these questions, along with numerous others that I hope to answer during the course of this paper. I also wish to examine in detail how the human mind has adapted to the outside world, how ‘reality’ has been constructed to provide an acceptable platform on which to live, how that reality may be maintained and ultimately the significance of how it may be undermined.
Chapter One: Constructing Reality
“The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”
The importance of a solid base on which to construct the events of everyday life is apparent throughout literature. The first lines of The Bible read:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void”
To have this statement at the very beginning of The Bible illustrates the human need to organise the world into a recognisable reality where the unknown can be explained. In early times the creation of the world was, from a scientific point of view, a mystery. In order to create a base on which to build their realities, mankind devised explanations for the creation of the world. Much as God moulded the shapeless earth into its current form, mankind fashioned a belief system as important to life as the world itself.
Two thousand years later, the issues of reality are still unresolved and new questions are being raised. In biblical times, man was unique in his ability to reason and communicate thoughts and ideas. He was God’s chosen subject and the reason the world and all its ‘realities’ had been created. Nowadays machines and computers form such a large part of our lives that mankind’s uniqueness is called into question. Computers now perform complex calculations millions of times faster than the human brain and are able to take actions based on those calculations with reaction times far in advance of human physiological attributes. In addition to areas where machines have been made superior to human capabilities, the distinction between man and machine has become blurred:
“What is Real? How do you define Real? If you’re talking about what you can
feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then Real is simply
electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
Here the connection is made between the world of man and the world of machines. We are as dependent on electronic information as the computers and machines that we have created. More significantly, if external stimuli can be coded into electrical impulses that our brains decipher, can higher thought processes and emotions be similarly synthesised? This is a question I hope to explore in this dissertation but it is here, where we realise the similarities between physiology and technology that the name ‘The Matrix’ , ascribed in the film to the virtual reality computer programme fed to the humans, is so significant. The root of the word ‘matrix’ is the La
in ‘mater’ meaning mother, pluralized to ‘matris’ signifying at the basest level a number of wombs or animals kept specifically for the purpose of breeding. Further definitions are listed as,
1 a mould in which a thing is cast or shaped.
2 an environment or substance in which a thing is developed, a womb.
3 Math. a rectangular array of elements in rows and columns that is treated as a single element.
4 Biol. The substance between cells or in which structures are embedded.
5 Computing a grid like array of interconnected circuit elements.
It is interesting to note that the word can refer to both the organic nature of gestation and birth and also the electronic code used by a digital camera recording the process. Additionally, in its first definition, the word is used in relation to manufacture and duplication. The selection of the word ‘matrix’ for use in the film is therefore carefully chosen, and is accurate in describing the numerous functions that The Matrix performs within the film aside from the main aspect of creating a living, ‘real’ world from electronic code.
In suggesting a world that is entirely manufactured from a code, The Matrix questions that which we base our realities upon as well as the significance of the reality that is presented. The concept of one’s surroundings being constructed from computer code is difficult to grasp and according to The Matrix, difficult to implement. According to Agent Smith, when the machines first enslaved humans,
“the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none
suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would
accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the
programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that as a
species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The
perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake
Interestingly, this aspect of The Matrix echoes The Bible in terms of The Garden of Eden. Just as Adam and Eve could not live in paradise, it is suggested that the human brain constructs its reality based upon curiosity, hierarchy and suffering. The human mind is inquisitive and the reward for success is advancement among one’s peers, the punishment for failure is suffering. In addition, this concept is also a base for the manner in which Buddhism constructs reality, the Four Noble Truths:
1 That existence is suffering.
2 That all suffering is caused by ignorance of the nature of reality and the greed that is
created by ignorance.
3 That suffering can be overcome by mentally rejecting ignorance and attachment.
4 That overcoming suffering is achieved by following the eightfold path to
The Buddhist view is also present in The Matrix. For Neo, existence is suffering. He is uneasy yet does not know why. Morpheus later tells him,
“You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind.”
Neo later discovers the true reality, first of the existence of The Matrix then of his own power to change it and adapt the rules of the code. Ultimately he rejects what he
believed to be the real world, repeating his mantra, “There is no spoon” in order to reject the ‘real’ world, to step away from his senses and concentrate on the code, the life blood of The Matrix. With these truths learnt he is enlightened and becomes The One as Morpheus has predicted.
In The Matrix the path to enlightenment is through the code that constructs reality. We must ask ourselves how similar is The Matrix code-based framework to our own organic reality? This is an issue that is tackled in modernist writing. With the rise of the importance of industry, many writers discussed the concept of ‘the new’, how to decipher the modern world and man’s place within it. In Soft City Raban discusses problems of individuality that occur in ‘the city’. He acknowledges the
significance of the codes that shape an individual’s reality:
“People often have to live by reading the signs and surfaces of their environment and interpreting them in terms of private, near magical codes.”
Here Raban acknowledges a subconscious method of constructing reality. It is the ‘sign and surface’ of the environment that is perceived, the sheer quantity of information prohibiting anything more than a cursory examination. This basic image of reality is then encoded and compared to those codes that exist within our memory. In The Matrix this idea is applied literally. Neo becomes aware that when he is inside The Matrix his perceptions are purely computer code as are the objects around him. Through the course of the film he learns that through freeing the mind from the code that interprets reality, reality itself can be altered. This bending of reality takes to an extreme the allegory of changing one’s point of view and seeing the world in a different way, a message found in myriad works from A Christmas Carol to Macbeth but the quantification of perception has frequently been questioned. Just as the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time contributed to the commodification of time, the modern mind, according to Simmel,
“has become more and more a calculating one. The calculating exactness of practical life which has resulted from a money economy corresponds to the ideal of natural science, namely that of transforming the world into an arithmetical problem and of fixing every one of its parts in a mathematical formula.”
In a reality constructed around the importance of time and money, every aspect of that reality possesses an economic value. This quantification can also be seen as a code that makes up reality that man may decipher in purely numerical terms.
So far I have discussed the importance of the codes that mankind has imposed on, and perceived within, his own realities. In addition to these created codes of ethics and values it is important to consider factual, scientific codes that construct our world. A significant thinker in this field was the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who, writing in 1714 in his book The Monadology discussed the existence of countless conscious conscious centres of spiritual force or energy which he names ‘monads’. Each monad represents a singular microcosm that reflects the universe in varying degrees of perfection and developing independently of all other monads.
These inter-related microcosms that construct reality are, according to Leibniz the result of a divine plan that despite its disparate form makes up a harmonious reality. It is a failing of mankind that we cannot easily perceive factors such as disease and death as part of a universal harmony. Leibniz concludes that if our aversion to these evils can be overcome then harmony with the universe can exist and a reality can occur where,
“Every body responds to all that happens in the universe, so that he who saw all could read in each one what is happening everywhere, and even what has happened and what will happen.”
Here we find a further interpretation of reality that relates to The Matrix in terms of a unified system, not unlike a computer program, where all factors are not only comprised of the same code, but are all inter-related in a perfect harmony. However, this is where human reality and the reality of The Matrix diverge. As Leibniz points out the necessity of death is an uncomfortable consideration within human construction of reality, which leads us to be out of touch with the rest of the universe.
But it is the nature of death that also provides a key to another area where codes determine our realities, the code of DNA. DNA is the code that influences more than any other the conditions of our reality. It determines everything about us from height to lifespan. We are in a purely organic manner, programmed on how we will live. Of all the factors that DNA conta
ns, it is lifespan that offers one of the most interesting possibilities. While humans can have some idea of their DNA in terms of skin colour and IQ, an aspect of the code that remains closed to us is that of our own lifespan. This aspect is explored in The Matrix where the Agents, are created knowing that their purpose is to live within what they know to be a false world, eliminating those who threaten it. It becomes for them restrictive, as Agent Smith confesses:
“I hate this place, this zoo, this prison, this reality, whatever you want to call it…I must get out of here. I must get free”
In the light of the concept of increasing knowledge and power through the study of the codes that construct reality we are presented with a quandary. Does absolute knowledge of the codes provide a more fulfilling life? Humans held within The Matrix are unaware of their fate. The Agents, although possessing complete knowledge of the code and its capabilities, enabling supreme strength, agility and knowledge, are the only ones aware that they are imprisoned. In this falsely constructed reality, only those with power are aware of the misery of their condition.
While The Agents have supreme power over The Matrix code for most of the film, the crew of The Nebuchadnezzar, existing in the ‘real’ (non computer generated) world also are aware of the lack of comfort offered by their existence. They are able to define their existence through knowledge of The Matrix but also through their memory of life within The Matrix before they were ‘freed’. It is this condition of possessing memory that forms a significant part of how we perceive reality. In The
Matrix, Cypher, the Judas figure that attempts to betray his colleagues wants his reward to be complete ignorance of reality. He remembers life within The Matrix where pleasure was possible, not, “being cold, eating the same God-damn goop everyday” He makes a deal with The Agents that he will be re-inserted into The Matrix where he will remember nothing of his past life apart from generated memories implanted in his brain by the machines. He sacrifices his unpleasant memories for a fool’s paradise. From this we can conclude that constructing reality in the present must involve an examination of the past.
Where Freud believed that an individual’s psychological mechanism could be explained in relation to the individual’s past, childhood experiences and repressions leading to certain types of behaviour in adult life. This may help to explain the construction of our realities as individuals, but in order to follow the Leibniz model of harmonious reality that encompasses us all it is necessary to examine the writings of Jung. While Freud believed behaviour was based on the individual, Jung maintained that all humans share a collective unconscious. Inherited feelings, thoughts and more significantly, memories, shared by the whole of mankind. Jung believed that this collective unconscious is made up of universally held images known as ‘archetypes’.
These images, he believed, relate to experiences such as facing death, finding a lover, confronting a foe and so on. He states that the evidence for these binding archetypes are the common issues found in myths, legends, religions and folklore from around the globe.
The realities considered in Leibniz’s theory have a definite mathematical and
scientific base, he himself is described by McLuhan in the following terms:
“Leibniz, that mathematical spirit, saw in the mystic elegance of the binary system that counts only the zero and the one, the very image of creation. The unity of the supreme being, operating by binary function in nothingness, would have sufficed to bring out of it all the beings.”
Comparing this with the theory of archetypes, we realise that the Jungian view of reality construction is based much more in the world of art and literature and how these may be used to communicate ideas of reality. Myths, along with proverbs and fables are the encryption of archetypes. They are touchstones of reality, which can be applied to a multitude of situations, communicating a shared perception of reality. It is this communication of realities that exposes the limitations of a reality code. While the individual may use all manner of codes to decipher his surroundings, it is the communication of his findings and inspirations that cause problems. Communication primarily takes the form of language, but in this form the thought must be converted into a code of language (possibly inaccurately) that must then be interpreted (possibly inaccurately) by the listener. As Huxley says:
“Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition…the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things.”
Despite Plato’s view that art can never achieve the accuracy of the thought in the artist’s mind, the inadequacies of language led mankind to use art as a method of communicating the individual’s perception of reality. John Berger discusses the significance of art in the development of human communication in detail in Ways of Seeing . Berger explains how art became a unique form of presentation and initially was used only for religious and spiritual purposes and was inseparable from the place and purpose for which it was created. At this stage, I believe art was as far away from the code of communication as is possible. Of course individuals could observe, and impose upon it their own reality defining codes, but art stood alone communicating as accurately as possible the realities of its creator. Later art was taken into the houses of the wealthy, partly to enhance the self image of the owner and also to confirm the role of ownership, owning the image of a thing translating to actual ownership. It is here that art entered the world of the code. It was used by the wealthy as a sign of their wealth part of their self-defined code by which they judged themselves and were perceived by others. Modern reproduction and distribution techniques have removed art from any preserve it once had. As Benjamin believed, when art is reproduced it loses its original ‘aura’ and enters a new role. It has become ubiquitous, part of the code and used with such regularity that we use it to define ourselves or present our ideas. It has been reduced to the level of the proverb in providing a template for our realities.
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