This weekend marks the fifteenth anniversary of the release of the film The Matrix. Widely praised for both its technical wizardry and philosophically-charged narrative when it was released, I would argue that many of the themes raised by The Matrix are even more relevant today than fifteen years ago and therefore merit revisiting. Developments such as Web 2.0, social media, and the digitalization of culture have created a sort of virtual reality only embryonic in form in 1999. Although certainly not a “Christian” film, in its critique of contemporary culture The Matrix appeals to themes central to the Christian worldview and raises issues that demand the attention of Christian ethicists.
Within the world of The Matrix, at some point in “the early twenty-first century,” humans create artificial intelligence. For unknown reasons, war breaks out between humans and these intelligent machines. In an effort to defeat the machines, the humans intentionally block the sun, eliminating the machines’ source of energy. The machines, however, are able to “harvest” human beings, using their bodies as a source of energy. The machines create “the Matrix,” a virtual reality program simulating society in the year 1999, the pinnacle of human civilization, as a way of preventing these human fuel cells from becoming aware of their condition. A handful of human beings (in the sequels, we learn that it is only one percent) are able to free themselves from the Matrix, and therefore from slavery to the machines; these rebels are then able to lead a resistance against the machines in the real world.
Although the possibility of artificial intelligence certainly raises important philosophical and ethical questions, I believe the intelligent machines in the film are more fruitfully interpreted as a symbolic representation of technology and its role in human interaction, and seen in this way the film was prophetic of our own contemporary reality. Today through the use of profiles, Likes, sharing digital media (images, music, videos, etc.), and so forth, people are able to create a digital self, or better a projection of the self into the digital world. The Matrix helps us see some of the ways this self-projection contributes to alienation and the exploitation of our fellow human beings while at the same time masking these negative consequences.
1. The Body
While The Matrix draws on many religious influences, commentators have noted in particular its reliance on ancient Gnosticism. Admittedly, there are some parallels between Gnosticism and the worldview of the film. For example, within the film the world of everyday experience is an illusion (“the Matrix”) from which we must be liberated, and this liberation takes place through the imparting of secret knowledge by a wise guide. This liberation is only available to an elite, however, the majority of humankind remaining mired in illusion.
In one crucial regard, however, the film is vehemently anti-Gnostic, and therefore has certain resonances with Christianity. In Gnosticism, liberation from illusion entails leaving behind the body for the realm of pure spirit. In The Matrix, by contrast, the illusion is purely in the realm of the mind, and in fact the Matrix’s function is to alienate the self from one’s real body. The experience of liberation is decidedly bodily, and viscerally so. When Neo, the main character of the film, is liberated, we see him awaken in his “pod,” covered in some kind of goo; later, when the other rebels inform him of his new condition, he vomits from the vertigo. The body in the real world is not pretty, but has the distinct advantage of being real. In a telling scene, Neo is exposed to food in the real world, a gelatinous substance described as “runny eggs” or a “bowl of snot” that nevertheless meets all the body’s nutritional needs; in contrast, Cypher, a rebel who betrays his companions, does so in exchange for the sensation of a “steak” eaten in the Matrix. Although in the Matrix each person experiences a “residual self image,” or a projection of an idealized version of their real body, their actual physical body shows the signs of its actual existence, pale, shaven, and most notably with a port in the back of the neck to which a cable was attached to provide access to the Matrix.
Our real life experience of our digital selves also contributes to a sense of alienation from our bodies, although admittedly not as drastic as that in the Matrix. We all likely have experiences of how Facebook “friendships” prove a pale substitute for the reality of face-to-face bodily encounter. We are bombarded with images of beautiful women whose bodies are more digitally manipulated than real, images that nevertheless negatively impact women and girls’ perceptions of their own, real, bodies. The saturation of the internet with pornography has created a sort of digital fantasy of sexuality, particularly for men, so that, in the words of Naomi Wolf, “For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women.” The Matrix, by identifying this alienation, affirms our incarnate nature, even if the body is crucified and wounded.
This allusion to Christ’s suffering reminds us that He did not come to this world wounded, but rather was crucified by those with power and authority. By exposing how digital culture can alienate us from our own bodies, The Matrix also reminds us power is exercised through the control and exploitation of our bodies.
Modernity has always been entranced by technological utopias. In recent years, culturally we have bought into a sort of “cyberlibertarianism,” in which, in the words of David Golumbia:
The digital revolution, we are told everywhere today, produces democracy. It gives “power to the people” and dethrones authoritarians; it levels the playing field for distribution of information critical to political engagement; it destabilizes hierarchies, decentralizes what had been centralized, democratizes what was the domain of elites.
This digital revolution in a sense brings to fruition the dream of late capitalism or postmodernity: self-creation, absolute autonomy, unshackled from the constraints of all authorities and the material world. The Matrix attempts to expose the illusions of this utopianism. The nightmare scenario of The Matrix illustrates that techno-utopianism does not really offer an escape from the body’s limitations, but rather depends on the exploitation of others’ bodies. The cruelly sinister quality of this exploitation is brought home by the fact that living human organisms are fed with the liquefied remains of the dead.
Our own Jason King has recently written on the increasing centralization and elitism of the tech industry, and in her upcoming book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Astra Taylor outlines how social media often reflects and reinforces, rather than leveling, society’s inequalities. The self-creation, the projection of a digital self, that we perform through platforms like Facebook quite explicitly serves as marketing research to generate ad revenues. Does this mean that exploitation is intrinsic to the creation of our digital selves? Answering affirmatively, Laurel Ptak has written a fascinating manifesto demanding wages for the unpaid labor of contributing to Facebook’s profits. Digital culture is a source of power not only for capitalists, but also for the state, as made clear by Eric Snowden’s revelations of how the National Security Agency has taken advantage of the digital revolution to enhance its surveillance, for example by taking digital photos through webcams, impersonating Facebook to install malware on computers, and using the very cookies used by companies such as Google to track consumers as a tool for surveillance. At an even more basic level, we often remain oblivious to how the very technologies we use to participate in this techno-utopia depend on exploited labor in factories in China or mines in Congo, for example.
If, as the theologian Johann Baptist Metz insists, Christians are called to hold to the dangerous memory of the crucified and suffering Jesus Christ, then we cannot close our eyes to the bodies wounded by the power exercised in and through our digital culture. But what to do?
The Matrix is also of interest to Christians because of the way in which the rebels resist the control of the machines. Although liberated from the Matrix, the rebels must re-enter the Matrix to achieve their objectives: to liberate others; to combat Agent Smith, a computer program designed to prevent disruptions within the Matrix; and ultimately to confront the Source, the collective intellect of the machines. This gives new meaning to being “in the world, but not of it.”
Significantly, not only do the rebels re-enter the Matrix, but their knowledge of its true reality gives them a certain power over it. In the real world, the rebels have access to a Matrix-like program called the Construct, a virtual reality in which one can learn new skills and, more importantly, learn to manipulate the “code” producing the Matrix. This power to manipulate the Matrix enables the rebels to perform incredible feats within the Matrix in their quest to end the rule of the machines, including the film’s trademark acrobatics.
Although this is certainly the most “Hollywood” aspect of the film, there is a serious point behind the acrobatics. We are not called to reject or renounce technology. Christians can participate in digital culture, even though they become subject to its limitations and ambiguities. Christians are called to creatively imagine ways of using digital media that further the evangelizing mission of the church while unmasking the illusions and alienation that often results from digital culture.
In The Matrix Revolutions, the finale of the trilogy, Neo is able to negotiate a truce with the machines in which the two sides can live in peace, suggesting that the resolution of the dilemma is not humanity’s victory over the machines, symbolic of a rejection of technology, but rather the elimination of the exploitation that marks our current relationship with technology. This resolution presents an ideal entirely consistent with the Christian vision, which is founded on reconciliation, not only between persons, but between humanity, the earth, and the technology we make from it. Technology itself, as part of the human reality, will be a tool in bringing about this reconciliation, even if it is also a tool of exploitation.
The Matrix and its sequels merit revisiting, not only for their entertainment value, but also for their prophetically relevant critique of contemporary technological culture, a critique which should inform and inspire thoughtful Christians.