Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Matrix Revisited

Note: I have dusted off an old, unpublished review here as an introduction to a series of speculations on the Singularity, the Great Silence and the Great Filters.

By now everybody who is going to has seen the Matrix trilogy, so writing reviews with spoilers is no longer an issue.

The iconic status of the trilogy has been affirmed by an allusion from the films entering the English language, "Thanks for taking the red pill."

Mostly those who liked it were not disappointed and those who didn’t like it made up their minds after the first installment and watched the second and third only if they were being paid to pan, er, I mean review it.

Those who did like it point out that it has many levels of meaning. Some critical reviewers dismissed the final battle scenes as typical Hollywood FX action fare. I think they missed one of those levels of meaning there.

It is bangup action fare, the kind of guilty pleasure that we don’t want to admit we crave. But in a story about the conflict of the human and the nonhuman, what is more human than battle against hopeless odds to protect the people and things we love? Why else does the epitaph of the Three Hundred at Thermopylae still have the power to move us to tears?

And, it’s more complex and multileveled than that. The machines that attack Zion have no more personality than a landslide. It’s not a battle against competing tribes; it’s more like a battle against natural disaster.

But within the Matrix it is not just Man versus Machine. Humans have allies, programs with personalities who feel love, compassion, jealousy and hate, also traitors and fools who harm the cause of humanity from motives of greed, arrogance or self-delusion.

In short, I liked it very much. I’ll probably see it again many times and continue to find new insights into those levels of meaning. Like all good art, there is more to find in it than even the creators consciously intended to put there.

But… there is something I have to say about it that has haunted me from the first installment. It doesn’t detract from the pleasure I get from watching it but it nags at the back of my mind. Fortunately it also suggests a direction that it might go in any potential sequel, a possibility that the brothers Wachowski cleverly left open.

Surely the scientifically literate among the audience must have noticed that the major premise of the series is absurd? And I don’t mean obscure points of quantum mechanics wrong, I mean basic physics wrong.

Humans are plugged into the Matrix and kept ignorant of the true nature of their existence, we are told at the beginning, in order to harness the bioelectric and thermal energy of their bodies that the machines need to “live”. Early in the war, humans turned the sky black to cut off the solar energy that they ran on. So had we used up all the coal and oil by that time? Nuclear power?

When humans die, their bodies are recycled for nutrition for living humans. Anybody notice that this is a closed system, which by nature will run down in fairly short order? Without sunlight for photosynthesis there isn’t going to be any other food to keep the bodies plugged into the system alive. Not to mention the atmosphere getting bad after a while.

And how does Zion feed its people? Plants under grow lights? Powered by what?

Before the third installment came out, I wondered if the next surprise would be that Neo hadn’t escaped into the “real” world at all, but had instead broken through into a second order Matrix, i.e. that the world of Zion and the resistance was itself a program designed to catch those individuals who could recognize and break out of the first order Matrix.

I’m glad they didn’t do it that way, it would have been the kind of cheap conclusion that writing teachers call the “they all got run over by a truck” ending.

So what I’m going to suggest is this: the machines don’t need humans for energy, they need us so that they can be conscious and self-aware.

I am old enough to remember when Artificial Intelligence, i.e. self-aware machines, was just around the corner. Ten years they said, and we’ll have a machine we can meaningfully discuss the meaning of life with. Didn’t happen and now it doesn’t look like it will anytime soon.

It turns out that consciousness is not simply a matter of sufficiently complex circuitry (a theme brilliantly used in the Arthur C Clarke short story, Dial F for Frankenstein and in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). There is something about self-awareness that goes very deep indeed.

An Irish cognitive scientist told me at a conference in Bulgaria he has come to believe consiousness goes right down to the quantum level of matter.

Maybe the Matrix is not slavery so much as it is symbiosis, it needs a certain number of organic brains plugged into it to be self-aware, otherwise it’s just a big computer.

Hey, did you ask your e coli if they wanted to live in your intestines?

In this scenario, the war is the process by which we and the machines are working out the terms of our coexistence – and notice that the Wachowski brothers chose to end with a truce rather than a melodramatic unconditional victory for humanity. But it is a victory for the most fundamental longing of humanity, for freedom. Henceforward, being plugged into the Matrix will be voluntary, humans will choose their destiny.

Next: From the Matrix to the Singularity.


  • At 6:13 AM, Blogger Jeremiah said…

    Dan Simmon touched on ideas similar to this in the Hyperion Cantos. Twice really. The first iteration was that in his fictional universe humanity had colonized other worlds and connected them with portals, called farcasters if I recall correctly. Each time a person crossed through one, the AIs in the story would borrow their brains for processing.

    The second iteration was built on the idea that neural networks (ie brains) are most active when they're destroyed. So after the farcasters were all rendered inoperable, the machines dispersed these little nanotech/biotech crosses that melded with people and could revive them. Each time someone died (which might even be more likely if one is revivable and doesn't fear the odds) the AIs would hijack people's brains for their own uses.

    I also never bought the whole energy thing either though. The online comic PVP brought up a good point (but still falls short of a self-sustaining system): Why use people? Why not cows? The matrix would be an infinite plain of grass in that case. Or just put people in comas.

    Really, the matrix only makes sense if you want humanity thinking.


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