by John Lamb Lash
from MetaHistory website
In this exchange, Agent Smith speaks for what created him: the power of AI, artificial intelligence. In another scene where Morpheus initiates Neo, a new recruit to the rebel team, he says:
This sentence encapsulates the attitude of many technocrats who believe that advanced computer science will produce astounding miracles of a beneficial kind.
Confidence in the miraculous possibilities of AI is one of several technocratic beliefs at play in the complex plot of the Matrix trilogy. Morpheus explains to Neo, whom he has extracted from the Matrix, that sometime at the start of the twenty-first century war broke out between the humanity and a race of machines spawned by the advanced technology of AI, itself the product of human minds.
Thus humanity, instead of using AI to
engineer a new world, has become enslaved to its own invention.
The Machines themselves are horrible
gigantic insects, depicted with erector-set carapaces, octopus-like
tentacles and high-tech sensors, who swarm like locusts over the
surface of the earth. The planet has been demolished by nuclear war,
the atmosphere plunged in perpetual darkness.
Neo, who is the "One" predestined to
free humanity from the illusion of living in a real world, must
first realize that the world from which he was extracted, and which
he took for totally real, is "a neural-interactive simulation that
we call the Matrix."
At first the viewer is unaware that scenes occurring in this setting are not real-world events but simulations. In this perfect replication of ordinary urban life, a message appears on the screen of Neo’s computer telling him,
At the moment we read these words, we the viewers
are also caught in the same illusion.
The heroic quest of Neo consists in realizing, when he is in the Matrix, that he has the power to master it through his own mind.
To this end, Morpheus and his team of
rebels, who have extracted Neo from the holding, voluntarily return
with him to the Matrix so that they can test their human mental
powers against the AI that drives the simulation. Many scenes in the
film unfold as if the characters were functioning in a video game.
Although the actors who play these two
lovers are almost totally devoid of emotion, this romantic angle is
perhaps the most appealing twist of the film.
This scene contains some of the more profound moments in the film. (It must be said, there is a lot of terrific dialogue in the Matrix - in the first installment, anyway.) It takes some brainwork during and after the film to realize that Agents like Smith are human replicas with no human counterparts.
They are not linked to the real humans held captive in the holding tanks, but are pure constructs of AI, like Lara Croft and other video-game "avatars." As such they are invested with superhuman power: Agents can kill human replicas in the Matrix, and when they do, the real human body attached to the replica dies.
Humans who appear in the Matrix,
including ordinary people on the street as well as the rebel
escapees, all have their doubles outside it. The difference is, the
rebels live as free beings in the real but devastated world beyond
the Matrix, conscious that the Matrix is an illusion, but all the
other unplugged humans who appear to live normally in the Matrix are
blind to the illusion.
Material on the Internet devoted to Baudrillard’s theories as represented in the films runs into hundreds of pages. The Wachowskis acknowledge Baudrillard as a major influence by inserting a visual cue to one of his books, Simulation and Simulacra, in the opening scene of the first film.
He says that no film can fully explore
his ideas and that the attempts to do so in these films are
"misinformed and misguided." (Taking
the Red Pill, by Glenn Yeffeth, p. 290)
If the message here is "let’s get real" and wake up from the Matrix, i.e., the artificially simulated world of electronic technology in which the human species is rapidly cocooning itself, then the question remains,
The life of the rebel escapees unfolds entirely on Morpheus’s ship, the Nebuchadnezzer, which navigates continually through massive sewage tunnels bored into the earth.
The rebels talk of a place called Zion, the last refuge for humanity, somewhere in the interior of the planet, but Zion is never shown in the first film. The life of the rebels aboard their tunneling spacecraft is anything but warm and cushy. One of them, Cypher, plays a Judas figure who prefers to return to the Matrix.
He cuts a deal with Agent Smith who promises, when Cypher is reinserted into the mainframe of simulation, to provide him with a life of,
This is clever play on the theme of simulation, but it is cynical play.
There are endless pleasures in the Matrix, all the sensory and material gratifications promised by the modern world. Weary of the tough side of being real, Cypher aspires to be an actor in an illusion, a simulation squared. The options of the film are stark: accept the illusion provided by AI, masking a horrific reality, or accept the hardship of living in a world devastated by the conflict between humanity and AI.
Thousands of pages of commentary on the Matrix have been published on the Internet, and several books are dedicated to close analysis of the plot and its metaphysical ramifications.
All this scrutiny fails to pose an
essential question, however: What is the fate of the natural world,
the original habit of the human species?
The lily-white lovers, Neo and Trinity,
played by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, stalk around wearing
super-cool shades and looking for all the world like Jesuits in
leather designed by Armani. Almost nobody smiles except the sinister
Agents and Cypher, the traitor.
Presumably, if you want to go skiing in the Alps in the Matrix, the mainframe will download the required program to your cortex and you will have the entire experience exactly as if it were real. (In the second film, Neo succeeds in penetrating the mainframe where he encounters a simulated figure who claims to be the creator of the Matrix.)
This recalls how VR, virtual reality, is expected to work according to the prophetic vision of many technophiles today. Captives of the Matrix can enjoy simulations of nature and never know what they’re missing. Theoretically, escapees from the Matrix could return to nature, but there is no motivation to do so if the natural world is devastated, or rendered almost unlivable.
The Machines do not require the
conditions necessary for human survival on the surface of the
planet: oxygen to breathe, for instance. According to Agent Smith,
these Machines consider the human race to be something like a virus,
a plague for which AI is the cure.
This is perhaps the most telling line in the first film.
At this point the story line presents a comment on the audience:
In Agent Smith’s ominous words, the voice of AI condemns the human species for its rapacious consumption of natural resources and its cherished habit of over-breeding.
These behaviors are inconsistent with mammalian intelligence and they devastate the natural world, as we all know so well, but our obsession with AI is also part of this auto-destructive syndrome. Indeed, it may represent the endgame phase.
Some sci-fi writers script into their stories the belief that
our species has developed AI so that we can "download ourselves into
the hardware" and thus eliminate ourselves as perishable humans. One
could say that AI is a means to end the human narrative. The Matrix
carries this belief to its ultimate ramification: there will be no
human life beyond or apart from simulation produced by the Machines,
the non-human cyber-species.
(During their interventions into the
Matrix, the rebels appear as human replicas but remain in their
human physical bodies aboard the Nebuchannezzer, strapped into
reclining chairs and temporarily plugged into the Matrix so that
they can access and subvert it. However, if they are killed in the
Matrix, they can really die in physical form, like a dreamer killed
in a nightmare who actually dies in bed.)
It recalls the esoteric practice of developing siddhis, magical faculties possessed by yogis, Zen masters and Buddhist warrior monks. To remain a liberated human and at the same time penetrate at will into the Matrix is itself an occult feat of the highest order: bilocation. (Full physical bilocation is no mere fantasy. Actual cases are attested: see Supernature by Lyall Watson, in orientation reading for Metahistory.)
A sort of bilocation occurs
spontaneously in out-of-the body experiences as well as in lucid
dreaming, when someone wakes up in a dream knowing that they are
simultaneously asleep in bed.
Baudrillard’s effete and largely impenetrable writings on simulation, but this may be a red herring, as there is another way, perhaps a better way, to explain what is happening in the Matrix.
In a long article entitled "Gnosticism Reborn - The Matrix as Shamanic Journey," author Jake Horsely considers how the Matrix films reflect the Gnostic myth of the Archons, alien entities who attempt to deceive humanity by simulating its thoughts and behavior.
Although Horsley delves into Gnostic
mythology only superficially, and does not mention the Archons
except in a footnote, his essay introduces an entirely new
perspective on the plot the Matrix trilogy.
Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents in 1945, almost nothing was known of the core teachings of Gnosticism. The word Gnostic means simply "one who knows" but carries the implication of special insight that penetrates to the hidden core of human experience. Certain Gnostics taught that humans are deviated from their proper course of evolution by a bizarre species of inorganic beings who inhabit the solar system beyond the earth, and named this species the Archons.
The Greek word archon means "authority," and the Archons are sometimes called "the Authorities." In the Matrix, the Agents are the authorities who police the simulated world looking for human replicas like Neo who show signs of waking up to the scam.
Horsely explains the Gnostic idea that the Archons try to impose,
A Gnostic perspective thus suggests that the Matrix scenario presents a cyberpunk version of a genuine spiritual dilemma, a true and daunting challenge that faces humanity, perhaps its ultimate challenge.
In their warnings about deception by the Archons, Gnostics may have foreseen the risks of AI two thousand years before it emerged. However, the manner in which the Archons operate, their strategy of simulation, as it were, as described in certain Gnostic texts, does not involve advanced technological devices but religious ideology. (Horsely does not explore this point.)
According to the Gnostic texts, Archontic deviation of the human species is a form of mass behavior modification achieved through blind conformity to certain false religious beliefs, such as the belief in salvation from a sinful condition by the intervention of God or God’s only representative.
In short, Gnostics rejected the salvationist ideology common to
Judaism and Christanity (and later, after their elimination, Islam).
This characterization of Gnostic ideas is suggested by scholar Richard Smith in the afterword to The Nag Hammadi Library in English:
In Valis and other works, Dick developed
the idea that humans live in a "two-world hologram," part of which
is genuinely real and part of which is the deceptive projection of
an alien mentality that distorts our humanity. This schizophrenic
model is consistent with the Gnostic mythos.
Many scholars declare that Gnostics "condemned matter" and regarded the natural world as evil, purely a product of Archontic deception. Nonetheless, a few dissenting voices argue that the Gnostics rejected, not the physical world per se, but our distorted perception of it. This view confirms the uncanny insight of Agent Smith: the behavior of the human species is inconsistent with sane mammalian activity.
Could it be a distorted perception of
nature that makes us act like a plague upon Earth?
Cosmos in ancient Greek did not mean the natural world or the physical universe at large.
It meant "system," recalling the use of
that word in computer terminology: "operating system." It is perhaps
a ripe coincidence that the Coptic word for simulation found in
Gnostic texts is hal, recalling HAL the rebellious
computer in Kubrick and Clarke’s
But if this is the case, how come the simulation that threatens to absorb humanity is technological rather than ideological, as the Gnostics believed it to be?
The answer may be that the technological takeover of our species has actually been prepared long in advance by ideological deviations in our religious belief-systems, especially those religious beliefs that determine our response to the natural world.
This implies a deep intrusion into the
psychic territory of humanity, but it is totally consistent with the
Gnostic argument that erroneous religious ideology is a kind of
virus insinuated in the human mind by an alien intelligence, a
non-human species comparable to the Machines in the Matrix.
He notes that,
This observation returns us to the central question, here rephrased:
Alluding to the Romantic poet William Blake, Horsely compares Neo’s heroic quest in the Matrix to,
It remains to be seen if the imagination of the creators of the Matrix trilogy is up to this high standard of achievement.
Whatever the case, this cinematic story
challenges us to break out of the fierce technological spell of
simulation and to recover our humanity through the realization of
our imaginative powers. The Gnostics held imagination to be part of
our divine endowment, that which distinguishes us from other