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The Matrix: What’s so bad?

March 4, 2012

This winter, Kenyon’s new art gallery hosted a discussion of The Matrix, a film that “explores ways that technology has changed our perception of reality, and how experience no longer guides what we know.” As opposed to some mythic “old days” when experience was infallible. According to Wikipedia, The Matrix “is widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.” Um, ok, I kind of preferred Crouching Tiger myself, but never mind.

What I’ve always wondered is, what if Cypher was right? What’s so bad about the Matrix?

Actually, what I’ve just spent the last week on is rushing to finish revising the Microscopy chapter of my textbook before my trip to Cuba. Here’s a riddle: What’s the Matrix got to do with microscopy?

Answer: They’re both virtual.

Your microscope presents a “virtual image” to the eye. There’s nothing “real” about the throat bacteria my students see under the scope; it’s a collection of Airy disk interference patterns that crudely represents what the little germs might look like, if we had retinas with enough resolution to see.

A photon’s a photon, and a neuron  is a neuron, whether it fires due to light from a distant star; from a microscope; or from your eyeglass computers (soon to come, we’re told.)  According to anthropologists, the primary trait defining human society has been the increasing proportion of human experience derived from human-made surroundings. That’s not since television; that’s since the first cave painting. Did cave artists wonder if the animals they painted might be “real”?

The thing is, in real life, how many of us who could be out pounding the trail and smelling the flowers choose to spend umpteen hours a day in front of a big beautiful screen. Walmart sells $15 coupons to buy colored pixels on Farmville. Not Second Life, mind, nor World of Warcraft, nor the Sistine Chapel (Take a look! Please!!) but Farmville. Is Farmville Cypher’s real destination? And who dares to laugh?

  1. paws4thot permalink
    March 5, 2012 7:05 am

    Well, I preferred CT:HD, Forbidden Planet, Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, T2… to the Matrix (even before the sequals came out) but that’s not really the point.

    I’d submit that either anything we can view with an optical device is “reality” because we’ve reached the point where we can’t make better optical devices and we’re observing the photons interaction with the object, or that nothing is real because arguments about interference patterns, gravity lensing etc can be applied to every observation.

    Let’s imagine that I’m red/green “colour-blind”. I’m going to perceive the red “recent posts” list, and my own green germ avatar differently to someone with “normal colour vision”. Equally, someone with an old CRT that has a dodgy gun will see them both as “different colours” to how they’re appearing on my TFT panel.

  2. SFreader permalink
    March 5, 2012 3:10 pm

    Every generation has its existentialism hang-up. Figuring out real vs. not-real (or, self vs. not-self) does seem to get more complicated as technology gets more sophisticated.

    Not to mock — but I wonder whether the first bacterium to incorporate a virus into itself suffered existential dread wondering whether it was still a bacterium. (Maybe Gary Larsen has a cartoon on this … hmmm.)

  3. March 5, 2012 7:12 pm

    The Matrix is not at all bad. If we are not already in one, we will work as fast and as hard as we can to build it and get inside. Everyone wants to be in the Matrix, as soon as they realize they will all be Neo. Who can be Neo in the ‘Real’ world?

  4. March 5, 2012 8:24 pm

    Yes, everyone wants to be Neo. But next, everyone *must* be Neo, just to get by. Only Neos get hired. Also, what if Neo forgets his human body? Isn’t that what Steve Jobs did–with all his virtual life, he made foolish decisions about fixing his organic self.

    • March 7, 2012 6:28 pm

      I agree those are speed bumps on the way to the glorious Matrix style future. But a half step to the full Matrix was visualized in the movie Surrogates, where it was dangerous to just walk the street as an unenhanced human body. But the vast majority of Americans in that movie seemed Very Happy to be in their virtual game. Of course the untreated depression of the movies ‘hero’ caused him to pull the plug on a billion people’s virtual fun and games, rather than press a key and let them keep it. Did he get a medal, or a life sentence?

  5. March 5, 2012 10:27 pm

    Actually, you guys can have the matrix. I want the maintenance contract for the Matrix. I’m sure anything that complex can fix itself. Really.

    Actually, the thing I find interesting is the old Apollonian directive to “know thyself.” That takes on a whole new meaning when so many companies permanently store data on you, spend lots of money figuring out how to unconsciously motivate you, and so on. Knowing thyself these days is not just about hacking your brain to figure out how it works, it’s about getting some control of the data trail you leave in the world.

    A third thought came from a rather flaky article about how Navajos disliked being photographed or reported on in the newspaper, because such behavior would lead to jealousy and envy, two of the causes of black magic attacks. I may be off-base, but I think that traditional Pueblo Indians had similar concerns, and were very private about their ritual lives. I wonder if such concerns will become the new norm, as we get more sophisticated about our privacy. After all, if someone in another country can hack your social media, perhaps your car, perhaps your house and (if you’re really unlucky) your insulin pump, it seems sensible to get really concerned about privacy, and to work hard to control who owns bits of you. Online modesty may be the in-thing for everyone in a few years, not just for aspiring politicians.

    Yes, this doesn’t quite answer the topic, but it is about self-hood and perceptions, isn’t it? It’s not just about what we see, it’s about who sees us, how they see use, and what they want to use us for.

    • March 6, 2012 11:47 am

      My son does IT support, and I’d LOVE for him to get the maintenance contract. 🙂

      You’re right that many pre-industrial communities have strong feelings about “stealing” personal images, as well as parts of the body like hair clippings.

      On the other hand, “privacy” is something of a modern concept. In the “old days” (and today, still, for much of the world) entire families lived/still live in a single room. And you knew all your neighbor’s business in the village. No privacy at all.

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