What we like
Matrix IV recommends “stay safe”… or something else
The Matrix IV movie imaginatively presents us with three political anthropologies. Firstly – with humans in vats living a dream existence – we are presented with a homo diabolus sub-human and sub-political anthropology of the complete management of our ‘bare life’ necessities by mute and irresistible power. Here humans are the energy sources for a machine intelligence that is the expression of our own reductively instrumental reason. The political is obsolete here as force and necessity entirely define the actual reality that the dreams of normality conceal. Secondly, the same world is portrayed as expressing a homo deus super-human and super-political anthropology of total rational control. Again the freedoms, uncertainties and responsibilities of human politics are obsolete as perfect god-like super-intelligence manages the world of our experience to our (and the machine’s) optimal satisfaction. The machines represent the very human desire for total power through knowledge and mastery; the attainment of our own divinity. Thirdly, there is a homo sapiens anthropology that is wise enough to know that we are more than merely animal (and hence we need language, freedom, transcendence, truth, love, politics) but less than divine (we will never have total mastery or achieve transcendence). In the movie Neo struggles to uphold a theo-political anthropology of human freedom and meaning against the sub and super-human power anthropologies of our own creation. This ‘review’ of the movie explores the question the film asks ‘what does it really mean to be human?’ in the context of techno-state integrated biosecurity controls of citizens in the covid pandemic, in Australia. This ‘review’ argues that – in the name of public health – we are being tempted to treat citizens in sub-human ways and to hubristically aspire to super-human total (technological) solutions to ‘bare life’ problems, governed by both sub and super human ideologies that makes genuinely human politics obsolete. The Matrix IV movie, then, has much to say to us about the risks to human freedoms and political dignity in the context of the post-capitalist merging of technology, transnational corporations and states in our covid afflicted, climate change denying, and geo-financio-politically unstable times.
After Christmas, but before New Year, I had the bizarre experience of going to the movies under a ‘no jab no entry’ government directive (I live in Brisbane, Australia). Just getting into the cinema to watch Matrix IV made it strangely difficult to work out if art was imitating life, or if life was imitating art. The front story to this conceptual review describes how “public safety” works in Queensland, and it may seem a little tedious. However, I found the controlled public safety dynamic in Australia very pertinent to the central themes of the movie itself. So please stay with me for a few paragraphs whilst I talk about Australia’s famous “stay safe” approach to public life in a global pandemic.
Because I am writing a film review and I live in Brisbane, you can tell that I am vaccinated against covid. Public places like cinemas are required, by our government, to deny entry to patrons unless you show proof of vaccination and also log into to a QR-code movement tracing app on your mobile phone. Only then are citizens considered morally and safety virtuous enough to be allowed to go to the movies.
I have three young adult daughters, one of whom does not wish to be vaccinated, so she did not come to see Matrix IV with us. She is concerned about how safe the vaccines really are, particularly for young people. Contrary to relentless state and media endorsed propaganda, my daughter is not ignorant, unreasonable, or immoral. A close friend of my daughter’s went into intensive care with myocarditis, and we have a relative who went into intensive care with thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, both directly induced by the administration of a covid vaccine. My daughter does not have any interest in distant here-say conspiracy phobias; her reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated derive from her direct knowledge, from within her close circle of associations. So either side-effects for certain groups are much higher than we are being told, or my daughter’s circle of association is extremely statistically unlucky. But on a bigger canvas, it is clear that whatever the vaccination side-effects may be, the commercial opportunities for big pharma are very good in our covid times. It is also clear that the political opportunities for strong and protective government are very good in these times. What government would miss the opportunity to show decisive leadership in keeping us safe via effective emergency public health measures that are obviously saving lives for the common good? Yet in this context, the interests of big pharma and our state and federal governments happily coincide, so commercial and political interests are at least as important as health concerns. Trans-national corporate interests and the state’s invasive biosecurity powers grow ever closer together and my daughter quite naturally finds this a disturbing development. My daughter has intelligent reasons to wonder how safe the vaccination actually would be for her, she is distressed that her personal freedoms of movement and association have been removed, she has discovered that her freedom to withhold her consent to invasive state “recommended” public health measures are close to fictitious, and she wonders if the official communications of our governments are as transparently truthful about public health issues as our government insists they are. These are not lunar conspiracy concerns.
Despite concerted state-promoted advice ‘requesting’ citizens take certain actions to “stay safe”, ordinary people – like my daughter – can still be determined not to comply with the government’s vaccination recommendations. To overcome the new social evil of “vaccination hesitancy” (though my daughter is not hesitant at all, she just doesn’t want to be vaccinated), the heavy use of carrots and sticks has been implemented by our governments to ‘encourage’ vaccination. Schools, universities and other ‘public safety’ concerned institutions are following the government’s lead such that as citizens, consumers, and employees, we are heavily incentivized to get vaccinated, and seriously punished (with unemployment and public space exclusion) if we refuse to comply. Such ‘encouragement’ is necessary because vaccination is not actually mandatory; you must choose ‘of your own free will’ to do as the government ‘recommends.’
How much choice, though, do we actually have?
I chose to exercise my personal free will and not to have a mobile phone. Keeping on top of my emails is socially and contemplatively invasive enough for me. But though I am vaccinated, I need a QR-code movement-tracer to go almost everywhere in Queensland (shops, church, cinemas, university). Surveillance tech is now intimately involved in ‘public safety’. Without evidence of full vaccination (fortunately, paper evidence is OK) and without contact tracing marking where I have been (luckily, one of my daughters has a mobile phone and QR-code included me), I would have been bounced out if I had tried to go to the movies to see Matrix IV. But I did get to the movies, and – wearing my mask, QR checked and ticked, and double-jab checked and ticked – I managed to sit down and see my old movie friends Neo and Trinity in action again.
The Matrix IV is an interesting movie for our times. The movie is about spiritual freedom and technological control; it is about love and power. This movie asks us, do we want governments that give us safety through control, and peace with the techno-feudal overlords who rule our lives and make our life-style possible? Or do we want… something else?
In the movie, the Analyst (Neo’s therapist) puts forward the argument for techno peace and safety. He claims that the large majority of people just want a quiet and satisfying life. People want someone else to be in control, they don’t want to be free, and they don’t want to know the truth. This, no doubt, is true. Plato expressed similar observations about our preference for enslavement in a cave of illusions controlled by public impression generators whose projected shadows we all treat like reality itself. This argument for accepting an illusionary world of peace and safety was given quite a sensitive treatment in this movie. And where peace is possible, of course war should be avoided. But then, the central narrative theme of this movie is that ‘… something else’, something more valuable than peace and safety, is essential for our humanity. Perhaps, even, this ‘something else’ is worth fighting for.
Could it be that there really is something distinctive to our very humanity that make us more than cattle, more than batteries powering those who use us, and more than consumption machines (working-spending, working-spending, working-spending)? The ‘something else’ in this movie is love. Actually, it is Love as a transcendent principle, and a principle that requires truth over convenient lies, it requires the anxieties of choice over the certainties of ‘no option’, and it will accept nothing less than the peril and responsibility of freedom over the passive peace and firm control of total safety. If we trust in the total management of our lives by bio-tech-state-corporate powers who carefully choreograph our moral choices (good means following the safe and reasonable recommendations, bad means non-compliance with these ‘recommendations’) then no-one is going to get hurt and we will all be happy and secure. All we need do is give our consent. But would we be human? Would we be adults? Would we be responsible and free citizens?
Interesting questions. Shall we munch our popcorn and watch this (blue pill) movie as a clever and fun bit of entertainment, or shall we take this (red pill) movie as more than simply entertaining? Is this a movie about special effects, last century nostalgia, philosophical games and martial arts, or is it about politics, today? Should we take this movie as a red pill or blue pill?
Take the blue pill and everything stays the same. The trajectory of ‘the same’ since the first Matrix movie in 1999 is pretty clear. Techno-feudal power has expanded exponentially. We had: Facebook arrive in 2004; the i-phone in 2007; a range powerful of internet aps – twitter, snapchat etc.; fabulous advances in facial recognition technology; fabulous legal enhancements of private surveillance and public control powers by our governments since 9/11; the GFC of 2008 resulting in massive state-funded bailouts to (tax minimising and transnational) financial super-corporations; the commercialization (with ‘freely’ chosen consent) of algorithmic data-use surveillance and the ever expanding supercomputer processing of Google; robotics has been literally weaponized with stunning advances in drone technology; and all these developments were topped off in 2021 with Facebook’s transition to Meta – the promise of emersion virtuality getting us uncomfortably close to the original Matrix idea. We are living in what Shoshana Zuboff describes as surveillance capitalism, which is an extremely commercially and culturally powerful ‘machine intelligence’ facilitated world of individually tailored, total reality management. This is the blue pill world we live in. We all seem to know that what we experience as end users of this world is somehow not real – at least, the illusions of personal freedom and unlimited satiation of whatever money can buy are only experienced by the globe’s super elites, not by us – but this is our world, and we cannot imagine that leaving it would be anything other than a tremendous step down into darkness and deprivation.
Since the first Matrix movie, we have been living at peace with ‘the machines’ and they have given us a world that we more or less believe that we like, and unquestioningly believe that we cannot do without. But in this world we have become the pawns of our own incredibly powerful tools. Mobile phone dependency is now endemic. We are switched on and plugged in 24/7. And in this plugged-in world, what if AI does hit a singularity where it so effectively simulates human consciousness that it starts exercising its own ‘will’? Learning, super-fast, volitional machine intelligence (this does not need to be ‘conscious’) is no longer imaginative sci fi. One of two unpleasant outcomes would result should we manage to see AI evolve under its own direction, and continue its gentle movement from being our servant to being our master: the Homo Deus outcome or the Homo Diabolus outcome.
In a Homo Deus technologically realized eschatology, our IT births a benign artificial super-intelligence that governs our world so as to solve all our problems and make us all happy, fed, bread, and comfortable consumers. Clearly we can’t seem to solve world problems under the limitations of our current bio-individual norms – we just can’t crack hunger, poverty, energy, climate change, disease, economic/financial stability, world peace – so putting control systems in the hands of benign computerized super-intelligence, working out the best win-win options for everyone, is a natural step in human evolution that would give us that long-dreamt of man-made utopia. The promise of the technological kingdom of god on earth (where we or our AI off-spring are god) would be realized. This is a theological anthropology, which makes politics as we have previously known it obsolete. Irrational democratic preferences and the short term political necessities of politicians do not give us the optimum outcome; let calculative total rational management take over.
In a Homo Diabolus technologically realized eschatology, the ultimate ‘political realist’ dystopia would come into being. What if machine intelligence – created in our own image after all – is just as dominating, self-interested and prone to malice and power-lust as we are? Or what if some Evil Master Geek got a hold of world controlling AI and just took over our computer located financial, communications, travel, transportation, military, energy, and civil administration systems. Then there would be war, and we would lose, as we are already profoundly dependent on our machines. Then hell on earth, ruled by the devil (where we or our AI off-spring are the devil) would be realized. Here authority would be reduced to power, and politics and law would be obsolete. Sub-human mere force would rule the world.
Under both Homo Deus and Homo Diabolus theological anthropologies, politics and law as we now understand them would become obsolete. In both cases that elusive ‘something else’ – the essentially human, neither sub nor super human – would be expunged from the world. Our political anthropology is, finally, shaped by a distinctly theological idea that we are not simply animals, and that we are not gods. Remove that tacit cultural theology such that we no longer know the distinction between the animal and the human, or between the human and the divine, and politics and law themselves become mere shells, mere outward crusts. On the outside only, there is the fading vision of the meaning of distinctly human life that has shaped the West since at least the Classical Greeks. Inside the shell, there is nothing but sub-human need and total super-human control.
Max Weber called our instrumental technological and bureaucratic intelligence an iron cage for the human spirit. Aldous Huxley warned against socially engineered hedonistic utopia, as this is a spiritual death-wish for human society. The original Matrix movie was in that Weber/Huxley prophetic tradition, warning against getting what we wish for to the exclusion of valuing what we have. Matrix One was a call to human resistance against the loss of our real spiritual essence to utopian dreams (which are dystopian nightmares in reality) of both total control and mere safety and hedonic satiation.
But the fourth Matrix movie is less sure about any intrinsic difference between us and machines than was the first Matrix movie, and the 2021 movie wonders if machines can be spiritual and if, perhaps, people are not essentially different to machines after-all. So maybe we should take the blue pill and hope for the best, hope that machines can be spiritual and that humans will, somehow, not let go of that ‘something else’ that a purely algorithmic and instrumental intelligence never grasps.
Or we could take the red pill.
The red pill is the truth. But, of course, one does not ‘know’ if it is the truth before one takes it; this is a leap of faith. One somewhat ‘feels’ (but this is not the right word) that it is the truth before taking it. Taking the red pill perhaps even creates ‘the truth’, as this taking is a commitment coupled with action (the walk of faith) that follows a spiritual yearning that cannot be explained in terms of material necessities. (The Analyst in the Matrix IV seriously miss-reads ‘feelings’ through the non-spiritual conceptual filters of his uber-intelligent algorithmic mind.) But maybe there is a genuinely divine Giver to this yearning, and so spiritual truth is created not simply by our faith, but out of some sort of active and receptive partnership with that unseen transcendent Reality that we have unexplainable faith in. We are getting more theological than the movie allows now, so I will back down from that frontier. Thinking back within the theological frontiers of the Matrix movies, what would commitment to the ‘truth’ of that ‘something else’ that escapes algorithmic instrumental intelligence look like?
To be clear, the Matrix movies do implicitly draws on some theological and metaphysical sources when seeking to understand the spiritual predicament of modern humanity in the context of the techno-commercial world we have built for ourselves. But this movie draws on more secular and activist sources as well. Because the West’s old theo-political anthropology is not excluded, the political itself remains a medium of the distinctly human in this movie. Here the movie draws on the Western heritage of the ancient Greek city-state democracy, Roman republicanism, the American Revolution, and nineteenth century liberalism.
Let us briefly look at the politics of human freedom, as a spiritual value, that we are in real and immediate danger of entirely losing to the triumphant archons of our own super-human machine and subhuman animal intelligences.
The Greek idea of politics is that what makes us human is meaningful speech. A human is not simply an animal. Animals have needs and desires that are sub-linguistic. We also have needs and desires that are sub-linguistic, sub-rational. The sub-rational is the realm of instinct and mute force; animal needs and the power logic of territorial and sexual domination and subjugation define this realm. Herein reside the aggressive and submissive drivers of animal competition and cooperation. But the animal is not the realm of the political in Greek thinking. Rationality and speech intimately entail each other, and define the domain of the political to the Greeks. The high capacities of human speech reach towards divine truths, and then poetically seek to reformulate the traces of essential and eternal Reality into the existential world of historically contingent politics. But what makes politics genuinely human is this worshipping, desiring reaching towards eternal moral and spiritual realities; Justice, Goodness, Beauty, Truth. We can never master the high truths that politics seeks to implement in a good civic life, for those truths are divine and we are mortal. The truths political life seeks to serve are super-rational and super-linguistic in themselves, such that our cultural constructions of ‘the Common Good’ are never divine in themselves, but neither are they simply animal. Politics is situated between the animal realm of bodily necessity and the divine realm of eternal spiritual realities. This between space is the realm of the truly human, and it is the truly political space.
Treating people in either the purely animal and ‘bare life’ terms of mute force and instinctive satiation, or in purely utopian terms of supposedly ideal perfection, is to deny them their distinctive spiritual humanity as political beings. It is to deny politics as well. The Roman idea of the republic, the idea of not having a king, but of citizens being responsible to decide together what laws and plans the body politic should pursue, again calls citizens to this in-between responsibility of practical needs being discursively tempered not by divine perfection, or simply mandated by irresistible force, but by the common reaching towards the Highest Good, as we construct it together, by speech. The American Revolution cast off the English crown under the theological conviction that human institutions were readily corrupted by power, and readily preserved the privilege of the already powerful, and so a polity based on the political equality of each individual citizen needed to be one nation united under God, rather than under a monarch. That is, the transcendent horizon for Justice would not be defined by the dictates of any human authority, but would be a function of the constantly striving voice of the people – responsible citizens – seeking true freedom and the Highest Good together. Thus each citizen is equal before God, and no citizen is situated beneath the authority of any humanly constructed power, rather human powers draw their authority from the people who decide together, politically, how to pursue a free and spiritually dignified way of life. Nineteenth century liberalism is a secularized adaptation of the American theo-political idea. Modern liberal democratic politics is premised on an inherently spiritual notion of the human dignity of the individual, and if we lose an understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings situated between the animal and the divine, if we lose the political freedom and the responsibility of each citizen to use reasoned speech to participate in the common good, then we lose liberal democracy.
Given the blue pill trajectory of this century, either through the false perfection of technological and scientifically rational solutions to all human problems, or through the false baseness of a life of purely safe and satisfied animal comforts, liberal democratic politics will be destroyed. Would we lose that ‘something else’, that spiritual essence of our humanity, if we continue to take the blue pill, if we allow ourselves to believe either that we are sub or super human?
To conclude where this review started, what would taking the blue or the red pill mean practically in regard to going to the movies in a covid pandemic?
The red pill makes things complicated. In contrast, the blue pill reduces political choice to a sub-political matter of public control and physical necessity at the same time as elevating some ‘inevitable’ state mandated action to the realm of a realized moral ideal. That is, machine thinking reduces choices concerned with necessity and public control to a binary between a totally controlled order and anarchic chaos, and this firmly controlled order is then sheened with a utopian moral gloss as ‘Good’, and the projected unsafety and anarchy, as ‘Bad’ (or, as in the case of refugees ‘illegally’ seeking to claim asylum in Australia, pretty close to ‘Evil’). In Brisbane those who are not vaccinated are considered immoral, selfish, and a risk to public health, and hence not deserving of normal citizen freedoms or responsibilities. State and private media outlets continually push this line, and woe betide any public communicator not prepared to toe the public health line here.
It seems that the reason we have seen the anti-vax movement grow from almost nothing at the turn of the century to quite a sizeable phenomenon now has a lot to do two forces. On the one hand, the enormous alternative-health industry, promoted largely through the echo chamber of Facebook styled social media, thrives on personal health anxieties and on conspiracies about main-stream medical science. Commerce, knowledge, media and politics – particularly around matters of health – are not the same after the social-media info-bubble dynamic. On the one hand, there is a growing and genuine awareness of how mainstream science, big pharma, other powerful multi-national corporations, and political lobbyists have achieved a sort of mutual regulative capture with governments, such that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the average person to know what the credible scientific facts of any new medication or health threat really are. But regardless of why we have this ‘out-group’ of anti-vaxxas and covid vaccine refusers (‘hesitancy’ people typically do not self-identify as anti-vax) we now have an out-group which, in Australia, defies government public health recommendations. So there is a state sanctioned propaganda war being vigorously launched against these outliers to bring them into the ‘voluntary’ fold of mainstream, government endorsed safety. Key to this propaganda war are the blue pill categories of binary necessity (the sub-political) and the perfect certainty of moral absolutism (the super-political). Economic and party-political necessity dictates that covid will be fixed, and it will be fixed by government policy defined by scientific and technological certainty, and that this fixing is a moral and political victory for a wise and proactive government acting in the interests of public safety. Science tells us facts, governments ‘recommend’ and mandate policies in keeping with those facts, complying with the government is Good, non-compliance is morally degenerate, and thus any sanctions that fall on the non-compliant are just. Simple, practical, and appealing to the consumeristic and eagerly moralistic (in Freudian categories) majority; it’s a political winner. What else could our blue pill governments be expected to do but go with this trajectory?
The red pill makes everything more complicated. Covid requires that governments really should develop public health policy responses to our situation, but if citizens are treated as being genuinely free to comply or not with government recommendations, then those who do not comply should not be out-grouped. But this would mean that governments cannot use covid as a means of showing firm leadership. This would mean that the morality of those who comply and those who do not comply would be left open, rather than decided by the policy settings of the government. This would entail a human tension between bare-life safety and political freedom. The Analyst would not doubt tell us that people want safety, certainty and firm material controls, and do not want the primal health risk of the plague, the anxiety of genuine choice, and the spiritual freedoms of responsible citizens. No doubt our governments in Australia agree with the Analyst. If the Australian people also take the blue pill here, then this socio-commercial laboratory may well lead us across an event frontier into a new level of blue pill reality, from which there will be no return. Perhaps more is going on here than a question of whether we can go to the movies or not.
How should we respond? Blue pill or red pill?