Directed by The Wachowskis
Oh my god. The Matrix is actually about the Liberal Centrist idea of freedom.
Namely: it’s not about freeing society. It’s just about freeing select special individuals. And how actually that’s all that really matters.
But wait. We should start at the start.
Because yeah The Matrix starts out and it’s just about the personal journey of Thomas Anderson (and I dare you to read that without hearing Agent’s Smith’s delicious voice in your head). Basically he’s a hacker who does computer stuff and then accidentally finds himself as the erm saviour of humanity? (Question: how did Morpheus know that Neo was the one? Like was he running scans or he got a special feeling or what? Or is he just like really hot for Keanu Reeves? Hell – who can blame him?). And so we discover the world of the Matrix along with Neo and learn how all the stuff works as we go along…
(Brief side-note: I’d like to point out that the whole “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself” is complete bullshit. I mean fuck – Neo is a computer programmer. Why couldn’t Morpheus just say “Ok – here’s the deal: you’ve been imprisoned in a virtual reality by evil machines for the whole of your life.” See? No big deal.)
What’s interesting is that in the middle of the film when you know – the learn what the Matrix is and see the farms of human crops and the rest of it (which yes looks like one of the coolest and most evil things ever) you can kinda guess that the rest of the movie is going to be about – well – how exactly Neo and Morpheus and the plucky little gang of terrorists / free thinkers are going to liberate humanity from technological slavery. Except erm… it never happens? (And it never happens in any of the *shudder* sequels either). In fact the whole movie kinda hand waves it away. “Oh yeah – that thing where the entirety of the human race is imprisoned by the evil machines? Forget about it. That’s not really important. What’s important is – Neo becoming the One and doing cool fight stuff.
And the thing that I find so interesting about this is – isn’t this exactly what our modern Liberal definitions of freedom look like? Like in terms of representation and empowerment – people aren’t really looking to change the structure of society (see: the entirety of the human race imprisoned by evil machines). Nah. Forget that. We just want one cool person that we can look up to who spends their time punching the bad guy in the face and looking cool when he does that thing where he keeps his leg up in the air.
Maybe part of the reason for this is that a happy ending for The Matrix where mankind is liberated is kinda almost impossible? Like those little red pods are crazy monstrous freaky Giger like things. You can’t have an uplifting joyful final scene where everyone in the entire world realises that they’ve been living a lie. Like it would be more like an existential global horror movie on a scale never imagined before. Lars von Trier meets Roland Emmerich (actually wait – no that sounds awesome LOL).
Does that mean that maybe one person is all we can handle? Neo goes free and we live vicariously through him and then once the movie is done – we get back in our pods.
Actually no wait – it’s worse than that: the movie is the thing that’s keeping us in our pods.
In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the narrator talks disparagingly about his friend who refuses to learn even simple techniques for fixing his car and it illustrates a very Neo-Liberal perception of the divide between the makers and takers. There is a world view that are those who work with their hands, who understand the world and can remold it to suit their needs and there are the consumers who passively accept the blue pill given to them.
It’s not completely forgotten but it is easy to forget how terrible computers were in the 90s, how we all had to glimpse the Matrix either through the MS DOS command prompt or hearing the dial-up modem bleeps or being told by software we had copied from our mates that we did not have enough RAM to actually run it. But while many of us learned to get along, we also knew that these were devices created by magical people: programmers and hardware nerds who have made sense of these metal boxes full of inexplicable cables and turned them into games machines, have retrofitted copper wires to build the internet, and set about making letters and magazines and face to face interaction obsolete. While we struggled to help baffled boomer parents connect their printers, these programmers walked liked gods through the digital landscape imbuing nonsense words like MP3 and GIF with cultural significance.
The original Matrix captures this battle almost perfectly, while we negotiated with our Agent Smiths and let them take us over blissfully unaware of the code that underpins everything, the hackers and the people who complaint about internet cookies are heroically pushing back against the machines. It is a different war now, as even 6 year olds know how to programme, operating systems have become a walled gardens, and computer workings are rendered invisible behind waterproof phone casing. Whatever it was we were fighting about in 1999 it’s seems clear we were defeated.
Perhaps where the new Matrix movies went wrong is thinking that the battle was between reality and illusion when it was really about the tactile versus incorporeal. Similarly the recently released Don’t Look Up would have us believe that the battle for civilisation is between the enlightened and the ignorant and maybe that is why it only rings true with the most jaded liberals. It feels more like if there is a new conflict it is the ramifications of what is happening at a microscopic level: the 400 parts of co2 per million in our atmosphere, or the Delta variant suddenly finding every door slammed in its face by Omicron, a fallen king banned from the cathedral halls of our nostrils. PCR and mRNA the new meaningless acronyms that capture our clumsy response to the current anxiety about things that are both terrible and imperceptible.
By comparison the Metaverse and the battle for information feels a little quaint. We, or at least beautiful heroes, can fix machines, and shoot the agents, debate the heretics, but we can’t even negotiate or beg for mercy from the pm2.5 particles in our lungs.
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