The Matrix: A Modern Allegory
“The Matrix “ is a movie that was and continues to be much beloved by millions of people. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. The ground-breaking special effects have been copied in movies ever since, the action sequences are first-rate, and the struggle of humanity vs. machines has been a favourite since the beginning of the 20th century. There is even a philosophical teaser in the form of “what if,” as people ask themselves if it could be true that the everyday reality they experience is merely some fabrication of forces they don't know or understand.
Of course, such blatantly far-fetched possibilities are beyond the realm of consideration. Or are they? The idea of machines enslaving the entire human race to use as living batteries while keeping them “asleep” in a virtual reality environment has so many obvious flaws that they scarcely need mentioning. The most obvious one would be that the power output of a human being would hardly be worth supporting the apparatus to collect this energy, never mind keeping the humans alive.
Yet the possibility continues to titillate the North American public. Could it be that this movie, like many before it, have struck a cord deep in our collective psyches, leaving us wondering what really is going on, and if there really is more going on that we are aware of. Much like our hero Neo, who spends his life in search of something that he doesn't even know what it is, driven by some mostly subconscious knowledge that there must be something that he, and everyone else, is missing.
In the movie, Neo is contacted by a group of people that live outside of the collective artificial reality known as “The Matrix,” and they “extract” him from it in order to show him what the “real” world is like. Morpheus, Neo's guide on this journey, explains the history of mankind to him, of how machines fought with humans and the humans lost, becoming enslaved by the machines as a source of power, and kept docile with the Matrix. He also shows Neo the tools the machines use in this endeavour, and how a few humans who've managed to escape the Matrix, fight to free humanity from their collective illusionary lives.
Neo, of course, reacts with great scepticism, even distrust. The whole idea is so preposterous, so alien, that he has trouble assimilating the ideas presented to him into the world he already “knows” so well. Morpheus apologizes to Neo, saying that there is a rule that he has broken about “freeing” a person after a certain age, because it becomes too difficult for them to rethink their entire reality, regardless of how much proof they are presented with.
Eventually, Neo comes around, especially once he finds himself fighting for his very life against the machines who would rather see him dead than live with the knowledge he has. Knowledge that could cause the rest of the humans to question the world that has been constructed for them, and thus jeopardize the nice little scam that the machines have set up.
But for any of us here in the real world to consider this a valid possibility is purely academic. Even if it were true, there would be no way to “prove” that this was what was occurring without the aid of someone “from the outside,” assuming that there was an outside for someone to be from.
Thus far, I know of no such people, nor does anyone I know. Thus, the option remains academic, an interesting fantasy that could be as likely proven one day as me waking up one day to discover that my whole life has been merely a dream.
But does this make the entire concept useless? Is there still something to be learned in this movie? On the surface many people might look at it as a warning to humanity about allowing our machines to grow too powerful, that our reliance on them allows them to control us, even to the point of controlling our very minds. We are hardly at that stage yet (as far as we know), but are machines the only thing that we have to worry about this with? Is it possible that the “machines” in this movie are merely analogies for something else that we should worry ourselves about, that might one day surpass us in power and enslave us beyond our ability to even recognize that state? Dealing with science fiction, one might point to other fantasies, such as aliens, or wizards with magic powers. Or, could it be something that we consider mundane and common in everyday experience?
Let's take a look at corporations, another one of humanity's inventions, like the machines. Also like machines, they began with humble beginnings, simple constructs of laws and procedures that allowed us to do things that we never could before. As time grew, both corporations and machines grew in complexity and size, with today's massive multi-national companies with thousands of employees, just like our huge earth movers and nuclear power plants.
One of the results of the increasing complexity of machines has been the rise of machine intelligence. Computers today are capable of far more mathematical calculations per second that even the massive information stored in a DNA molecule took us only years to decode. Corporations have an intelligence too, as they develop procedures for everything from how to manufacture products, to how to sell them, transport them, store them, learn what the public wants, as well as how to sway public opinion in their favor. Today's companies, like people themselves, have learned from past mistakes and are now in charge of massive assets, material and personnel alike, and this requires a high level of sophistication that is certainly comparable to the many calculations and decisions made by today's complex computers.
And as our science-fiction authors think ahead, they continue to project what the rise in the complexity and intelligence of machines will mean for us. Seeking to both warn and entertain, they show us how machines may eventually become as intelligent, or possibly even more so, than humans. They also show that the cold logic of a machine only cares to fulfil its programming, and that if that programming in any way can be interpreted as meaning that humanity is an obstacle to that goal, that we have something to fear indeed, as we will have just produced our own enemies, and maybe ones that we are unable to control, or stop.
But the beauty of computers is that they do do as they are told. They are neutral in the struggles between good and evil, order and chaos. They can be just as easily programmed to help and serve humanity as to hinder and harm it. All that is needed is a little caution and care, a look towards the ramifications of decisions we make today on the events of tomorrow.
But can the same be said of corporations? Like machines, they too are our instruments, our tools for bettering our lives and allowing humans to extend their grasp on what is possible. They are an excellent example of what can be accomplished by a group of people cooperating for each other's benefit.
But perhaps we need to look a little closer at the attributes that make up corporations. Let us first look at the non-profit variety. Many of us don't think of these typically as “corporations,” but they are. They are organizations incorporated under the laws of the country or state in which they operate. They are typically formed for the purpose of accomplishing something that an individual person could not do alone. These purposes range from entertainment, to education, fund-raising, community service, research, etc. These are the primary goals of such non-profit organizations, and all their actions will stem toward that goal.
In an environment of abundance, where the group has ample funds collected from either members, sponsors, subsidies, or popularity, then the groups can concentrate its efforts primarily on actions that will allow it to accomplish its goals, by buying books and equipment, holding classes, planting trees, or putting on television commercials. Those that lack this abundance find themselves in trouble. Most activities in our society require the use of money, and thus the group needs funding from somewhere. If they do not have enough, they must first concentrate on getting it. Their activities will then instead focus on the acquisition of capitol that they can use to accomplish their goals. Once they have them, they only need to maintain their income to support their activities, and are free to pursue those activities. Competition for funds sometimes makes this difficult to do, since people have only so much money to donate to these causes, and many NPOs end up also “going out of business.”
Then there is the for-profit corporations. These were designed as a means whereby a person or group could acquire the wealth due to him/them if the jobs they performed are useful or desirable to society. If they are not, they don't succeed, and go out of business, which only sounds fair. But let us take a look at this closely: the primary goal of the corporation is wealth. It is not like the non-profit organization that only needs it to survive; for-profit corporations require wealth even beyond what they need to survive. Competition is even worse for these entities, as they struggle for the big markets and the big bucks, survival of the fittest again becomes the rule of the game.
Like a sophisticated computer, a large, well run corporation has many assets available to it. The first and foremost is a ready supply of cash. Many smaller problems can be solved with the simple application of money to it. A lawsuit that might harm the company's image, for example can often be side-stepped with a cash settlement. Larger problems require assets that no individual can have, such as large teams of lawyers, research laboratories, high-paid scientists and engineers, and “friends” made by generous donations to political campaigns.
Thus we see that corporations not only have the ability to become quite powerful, but indeed many already are. How powerful are they, and how much more can they get are very valid questions we should be asking ourselves. Can they become as powerful as the machines in the Matrix? Or are they already? Let us look at some of the similarities. The machines in the Matrix required humans for energy, without it they would die. The humans, not liking to live in a society controlled by the more powerful machines would never allow this. Since the chief aim of the machines is to survive, they will do whatever it takes to obtain that energy. Thus, the humans were put into a reality that made them not even realize what was going on, and the machines could reap human energy with impunity.
Corporations also need humans to survive, not as producers of energy, but as consumers. This makes the humans give the corporations money which they need to survive, and be able to compete for their share. And we allow this. Why? Is there something that they are hiding from us, or is everything exactly as it appears to be? Are we living inside some form of manufactured reality that they have created for us? And if so how could we tell?
Like the argument over the existence of the Matrix, these questions are basically academic. And like it, it would require some sort of “proof” that there is something else. It would require someone on the “outside” to let us in on what's really going on. But what kind of “outside” could there possibly be? If you're like Neo, you know that there is something weird going on, and may even have some clues and theories as to what it is. Right now allow me to take the role of Morpheus and ask you if you will take the blue pill, and go about you life as normal, or take the red pill, and follow me down the rabbit hole to a world and reality that is likely very alien to you, but likely the one you are searching for. So what will it be?
If you were to follow me out of the corporately created Matrix, the world you would see is one that looks like our own, but is obviously very different. You would see a world where poverty is not some incurable or self-inflicted condition, but rather manufactured like a cheap commodity. A world where huge machines are built specifically in a way as to be the most resource depleting and the most damaging to the environment we live in as could be possible, and we are the ones at the controls. A world where people are raised from birth to compete in numerous arenas like animals, pitted against each other for anything from scraps of food to golden baubles, to the amusement of our “benefactors.” A world where people are kept distracted by information systems that not only construct our reality for us, but overstimulate our senses so that we can accept no more, and nothing else. It's a perfect scam, like that of the machines in the Matrix. Are you feeling a bit bewildered and dizzy like Neo yet? Good. “That's your muscles being used for the first time.”
So now we step into our own little matrix. There is a television and an armchair here. Feel free to sit while Morpheus tells you the history of the world since the machines (or corporations in our case) first started fighting the humans, and how we lost.
In the 1920's a group of scientists, engineers, economists, and other specialists gathered for the purpose of studying the impact of technology on society. They studied everything, from the products we produced and consumed, to the places we worked, to the ways we played. The resources consumed, energy expended, efficiencies achieved, and the effects of byproducts and waste were all recorded and analysed. After several years, one thing began to become quite apparent, that machines were replacing people.
Now I am not talking about android duplicates here. Simple machines, from the loom up through to mighty factories, were performing work at rates, speeds, and accuracies that very quickly outstripped a human's ability to do the same job. A machine might do the work of two people, only to be replaced several years later with one that could do the work of five. Then ten. Then 25, 50, 100, 250, 1000, and so on. This group of researchers found that while this allowed us tremendous advantages, such as cheap transportation, power, and heating, as well as mass-produced consumer goods, that it also meant that less workers were needed to produce this abundance of goods. During the 1920's this began to put greater and greater amounts of people out of work. The growing mass of unemployed people naturally were spending less money, and this began to affect companies' ability to continue running the machines.
From this data, which spanned nearly every sector of the economy, the group had calculated that if the trend were to continue, that the economy would come to a collapse, a dead halt. We as a society found ourselves in the paradoxical situation of having more goods than ever before in history, and yet had no ability to buy them. Obviously something was wrong. The technological production of goods increased to unprecedented levels, but the distribution system had somehow collapsed, unable to even affect previous levels of distribution. The problem had to be found, isolated, and a solution found, and quickly.
And collapse the economy did. The first indication of trouble came in late 1929, 6 months earlier than the scientists had anticipated. The stock market had crashed as fear of massive unemployment caused people to sell all their stocks. Runs were made on banks that caused them to shut down. Everyone was affected, and chaos threatened to tear the countries of the world apart. No one had seen it coming, and no one had a clue as to how it had happened. In the midst of this confusion, the research group finalized their solution. They formed a non-profit organization specifically to tell the people of North America what had gone wrong, and how to fix it. Their facts spread like wildfire, and of all the solutions proposed to fix the Great Depression, their scientific approach quickly became the most popular and lauded. Finally a solution had been found, and it would work. Not only that, but the new system was able to actually take advantage of new technology, providing everyone with an abundance of high-quality goods and services, while requiring little physical labour in return. A high standard of living coupled with much leisure time and the opportunities to excel in any area appealed to virtually everyone.
There was only one flaw in the plan. It excluded the corporations. Not only did it make no provisions for the existence of for-profit corporations, but it systematically excluded the elements that the corporations needed to survive and thrive, namely money. The reason for this, the Technocrats said, was because North America had, through technology, successfully moved from an environment of scarcity, like all societies were before them, into an unprecedented era of abundance. This abundance had destroyed the economy's ability to work, since it was based on scarcity. This can be seen if one tried to sell air; it wouldn't work because there is too much of it, it would have little value and therefore no price. Now, virtually everything was like that, and therefore could no longer be sold. A new system for distributing goods and services was needed, and the Technocrats had provided that. But the new system did not include money, nor did it include profit. Corporations, even if they tried to exist, would dry up like a tropical fern in the desert.
This quite obviously went against the self-preservation instinct of the corporations, and most notably those that had worked hard and long to become as wealthy as they were. The people that worked in their highest ranks were benefiting quite handsomely from their endeavours, and were not about to give it up. Working in conjunction with politicians, another group that would become obsolete in the new system, they sought to do anything they could to fix the economy and thus avert the radical changes that would end their existences. They quickly found themselves that this was impossible, as the facts facing them were incontrovertible. They could still prolong the end of the collapse, however, and quickly came up with an army of “solutions” that were designed to “fix” the problem. They had, at best, a few more years before the end, however.
Then, a saving grace came like a prayer answered to the corporations. World War II broke out when a country in Europe even worse off than the North American ones decided that the quickest way to end their economic woes was to conquer and exploit their neighboring nations. It had been a seldom-failing trick used throughout history by countries not afraid of killing scores of people. While such a notion was unthinkable to the North Americans, the opportunity to fight back in the war was very much welcome. The governments were able to spend billions of dollars by going further into debt than they ever had before, and before long, the money was again flowing in North America, people had jobs, and they were spending.
The corporations had their solution, but new it was not going to last. They needed money to survive and the money that people had had been too devaluated to be of any use to them. Only fresh supplies of money, in the form of debt, could keep the system going. This debt would need to be both public and private, and even that would reach limits. Even worse were the conditions of increasing poverty, unemployment, waste, and environmental devastation that would be created in the process. It was unavoidable. The money required to fix those problems was more than even the wealthy corporations could make. That was the trick with money: being scarce itself, there could never be enough. This was despite the fact there were, for the time being, sufficient resources and technology to solve these problems, but as long as we relied on money to provide those solutions, there would never be enough. And these problems were ones that people were already beginning to notice. Environmental groups, anti-poverty organizations, and other scientific think-tanks were being formed in response to the symptoms that were cropping up as the continent slowly began to spiral into a corporate-run wasteland. And if the people started noticing, they would stop buying, and that would be bad.
Mass-media, in particular television, turned out to be as terrific of a tool in peace time as they were during wars for misinformation. The corporations needed the people of North America to continue to spend at any cost. Thus they began a tacit campaign to mold North Americans into a primarily consumerist culture. It had started with catch-phrases in the 1950's such as “keeping up with the Jones'”, and continues today with commercial slogans like “Everybody in vests” and “Obey your thirst, drink Sprite.” The nations of North America became so saturated with media that they quickly became dependant on it, allowing the corporations to see the world as they would like you to. Get a good job, buy lots of products, work hard, get a better job so you can buy more products, and thereby enjoy a better life. “Consume” is the mantra by which we live and breath, and the money that corporations continue to collect in massive amounts makes them even more powerful, as they drive us down even further into ignorance and complacency.
So much so that today, most of us are little more than living batteries, using our labor to generate wages that we spend in the form of cash that goes straight to the corporations. What time most people have outside of working in jobs that no longer require human muscle power, they spend either consuming or subjecting themselves to even more media. After work, go the bar, have some drinks, go home, watch the game, have some beer, go to bed, wake up, read the paper, buy a quick breakfast at McDonalds, and go to work again. On the weekend talk with your buddies about the new car you plan to buy, or go shopping for new clothes, shoes, and fashion accessories. Think on the types of activities performed day after day by most of the people you know or see around you and then go back and read the paragraph before we entered our own little training matrix, about how the world looks outside of the corporate-matrix.
Ok, so now this might all still sound pretty far-out. I only have words here to describe the scenario, whereas the real Morpheus has his own virtual reality matrix, and live contact with Neo to provide one-on-one tutoring. But you could have this too. There are people outside the Matrix. They are called Technocracy. They have the facts to present if you wish to swallow the red pill. Swallow the blue pill, and everything will remain as it was before for you, watching movies and casually wondering if there is any more to reality than you know right now.
For more information about corporations and their effect on society, I strongly recommend the movie: The Corporation.