Inside The Matrix, Morpheus, named for the god of sleep, offers Neo the blue pill or the red one, reality as Neo has understood it or reality as Neo might come to understand it. Choosing the red pill, a reborn Neo complains that his eyes hurt. Morpheus explains: “Because you’ve never used them.”
The Matrix, in a trilogy of films by Andy and Larry Wachowski released between 1999 and 2003, is a program created by the artificial intelligence humankind created. If Morpheus and his red pill are to be believed, we all sleep in matrices of decanters and dream our daily analog lives, while our digital masters harvest our life energy. Our lives are illusion. Our reality is nothing more than passively, unconsciously producing energy for a system that we cannot see, let alone manipulate. Such is the life of “coppertops” in The Matrix.
The red pill is the mechanism to escape The Matrix. To “escape” is to apprehend what is illusion and what is not. The red pill might be a concentrated fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, since the first step toward value judgments is to see things the way they really are. What follows the consumption of the forbidden fruit in the Bible is all of Judeo-Christian- Islamic history. What follows from Neo’s consumption of the red pill in The Matrix may be a visual interpretation of Foucault by way of Baudrillard, or just the latest update of a tale from the 19th Century.
Nothing comes from nothing, and nothing is all that comes from nothing, so Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley stands on the shoulders of other storytellers. She just stands a bit taller.
Formerly dwelt on earth all the various tribes of the humanHumankind’s foolishness is an endless source of stories. Icarus thinking that waxen wings could take him to the sun. A man seeking a sexual dalliance with White Buffalo Calf Woman while she was on spiritual business. Joseph Campbell points out the similarities of storytelling across cultures, suggesting that people are responding to the same forces, one being foolishness.
Race, on their own and remote from evils and difficult labor
And from distressing diseases that bring doom closer to each one.
[For in misfortune do humans age rapidly, quicker than ever.]
Using her fingers, the maid pried open the lid of the great jar,
Sprinkling its contents; her purpose, to bring sad hardships to mankind.
Nothing but Hope stayed there in her stout, irrefrangible dwelling.
Under the lip of the jar, inside, and she never would venture
Outdoors, having the lid of the vessel itself to prevent her.
The forces of foolishness typically took the form of greed for food, sex, power, knowledge meant only for gods, or a combination of these. In modern times, I will argue, storytelling has once more put itself out in front of the concerns of humankind, consciously or not.
Losing control of one’s own creation is a particularly egregious foolishness, and storytelling’s response begins with a tale hatched by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in a literal attempt to frighten her intellectual companions. Shelley takes as her inspiration and her subtitle the theft of fire for humankind in defiance of the will of Zeus by the demigod Prometheus. Shelley, however, adds a motif that lives to this day, no pun intended. It lives independent of human will, which was Shelley’s point. Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, unlike animals or gods, is created by man but yet exhibits independent will. Fashioned from organic materials, the creature is nonetheless machinelike, the first robot, the perfect slave—or so it seems until Dr. Frankenstein is faced with the consequences of trying to make a human.
While the Jewish golem is, according to Roger Clarke, “an important precursor” to Shelley, it is the Industrial Revolution’s quest for mechanical slave labor—more and more versatile, closer and closer to intelligent—which has made the created that turns on the creator in a modern archetypal myth. This myth may represent the ultimate revenge of an early victim of disloyalty and the desire for Regicide, the God of the Abrahamic faiths. Myths are, says Joseph Campbell:
…the world’s dreams. They are archetypal dreams and deal with human problems. I know when I come to one of these thresholds now. The myth tells me about it, how to respond to certain crises of disappointment or delight or failure or success. The myths tell me where I am.
Frankenstein to The Matrix
Years ago I was working in Schenectady for General Electric, completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.Vonnegut represents one example of how the Frankenstein trope carries on to this day, having spun from Shelley’s organic machine to mechanical robots to the adventures of androids and cybernauts---actors that blur the distinctions between organisms and machines.
The dystopian literature the Frankenstein trope typifies is ubiquitous on bookshelves and international in origin, and it has imagined social problems in step with humankind’s ability to create them, usually several steps ahead. Literary dystopias have morphed toward technology from the political theory with minimal techno-veneer in Brave New World and 1984, but even the early tales invite political speculation. Is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, wherein firemen burn books, a cautionary tale about governmental excess, or is its point that citizens bombarded by electronic media will voluntarily turn away from print media, willing victims of their own shrunken attention spans?
The Frankenstein trope is seldom so controversial. Fault, if there is fault, is in humankind’s laziness as much as in its arrogation of godlike power. In Colossus, the computers controlling military power determine to use that power as humans have always used it: to rule. Rulers, of course, always claim to rule in the best interests of the ruled. Add time travel to the plot of Colossus, and the result is the trilogy of films that begins with The Terminator.
The science fiction genre was born in an explosion of hard science, and some of the early writing simply transplanted conventional stories into the writer’s vision of a technological future. As the genre matured, social science came front and center. Isaac Asimov imagined psychohistory and feminists like Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ imagined differently arranged gender roles.
In short, some of our most creative cultural imaginations realized that mathematics and physics might change economic and political institutions. Humankind learns new tricks as the toolbox gets bigger, and some writers dropped “science fiction” in favor of “speculative fiction” (SF), reflecting the changing nature of the fundamental question: “What if…?” While the link to current technology became more tenuous, these were, in truth, what Harlan Ellison called "dangerous visions."
The Matrix may be the most dangerous vision of all because we live in it with our eyes wide shut. According to Foucault, the most perfect social control of individuals is done without violence and indeed without a visible mechanism of control. The Matrix is the perfect iteration of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison design imagined as metaphor by Foucault, where people are always seen but can never see. It is knowledge as power as knowledge. The question I raise here is whether the lives of coppertops in The Matrix differ significantly from the lives of consumers in the marketocracy and, if not, what it would mean to “take the red pill.”