Jean-Francois Coget’s commentary of
The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix was certainly one of the most successful movies of 1999. Critics were delirious about it. I even remember reading an article in which the journalist was purporting that this movie was a landmark in the history of cinema, which would pave the way to a new way of making movies. This was certainly exaggerated marketing hysteria. However, the movie was admittedly a good action movie.
What vision of future new technologies does this movie give us?
Obviously, the central idea around which the scenario is organized is virtual reality. It is not a coincidence that this movie was created at the time in which the Internet was becoming mainstream and at the height of the financial hysteria around new technology companies and Internet start-ups which promised to change entirely the way we lived our lives, especially thanks to virtual reality.
The idea of virtual reality becoming The next great technology is an interesting switch in the progress of science. So far, positivist science, mostly developed in Western countries, has had for principle that reality is objective and that we must understand it in order to use it to our advantage, to improve our grip on reality. In Matrix, however, the main idea is that if everybody lives in a virtual reality, then nobody needs to care at all about grip over reality, which, after all, only allows us limited freedom. In a virtual world, the one who can change the rules of this world has unlimited power.
Hence, this is somewhat contrary to the traditional positivist views of science, which are mostly concerned about reality.
The idea of virtual reality is hardly new. It has been argued by many philosophers and religious thinkers that there might be no reality out there, or that we cannot be sure whether the reality each of us perceive is really how we perceive it.
To cite only few of them: Buddhists don’t believe in reality in the Western sense. Kant denied the idea that we can be sure that the picture that we have of reality is accurate. Berkeley wondered whether each human being doesn’t imagine his or her own reality. Spinoza developed the idea that we are all part of a pantheist God, in which the physical world is separated from the spiritual world, and that the two are only connected at the bigger level, that of Nature-God, but not at the individual level. One of modern Social Psychology’s principal tenets is that every single one of us have their own subjective perspective on reality.
At a more profane level, George Orwell’s 1984’s world is organized around a virtual reality developed in people’s mind through active propaganda and terror. The book’s most evil character, Owen (?), explains to Winston how the basis of his power: if he can control people’s mind, then everything is possible. If he decides to fly, and people believe that he is flying, then he IS flying.
Now, I don’t believe that virtual reality is going to replace reality. It will certainly become ever more refined, maybe to the point of replicating the experiences of reality almost perfectly (but not so soon), but it will always supplement reality.
However, this new social space will take a place of growing importance along side with reality, and hence will alter the priorities that people have nowadays. We can imagine for instance that the hierarchy that exists in reality will no longer be the prevailing one in every situation. New rules will alter this hierarchy in virtual reality.
But this already happens in reality. For instance, whereas physical strength might be important in a trek in the jungle, it is much less important in the trading floor of an investment bank, in which mathematical rapidity is more important.
The final message of the Matrix seems to be that virtual reality is evil and that we should get back to the “real” reality. I don’t think this is a valid message. We live in different realities. Our own subjective ones, the more objective external one, virtual reality, etc. All of these realities supplement each other. They are neither good nor bad. They simply are, and there is unfortunately not much we can do about it, except be conscious of their existence.