The agents in the Matrix

::: a special four-part series

"I can visualize a time in the future when we will be to robots as dogs are to humans."
—Claude Shannon, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, 1949

What is the Matrix? Your senses of sight and sound will be placed on continuous red alert as they experience information overload on a scale almost unimaginable. The Matrix is Marshall McLuhan on accelerated FeedForward. Scene cuts are visual hyperlinks. Fight scenes are Playstation incarnated. What is The Matrix? It’s the Technological Society come to its full fruition. It’s Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for the 21st Century, in which we don’t simply work for the machine (rather than the machine working for us), but we are created, given life, and used by the machine exclusively for the machine’s purposes. It’s a modern pastiche of Hollywood’s latest special effects combined with John Woo kung-fu and more bullets, explosions, and gothic horror than Batman meets Bruce Lee under the aural assault of a cranked up electronica. But don’t let the packaging fool you. Because far more than the eye-popping special effects and ear-shredding soundtrack, it is the ideas and the dialogue that dazzle in The Matrix.

In other words, the Wachowskis seem to have posed themselves this question: How do you speak seriously to a culture reduced to the format of comic books and video games? Answer: You tell them a story from the only oracle they’ll listen to, a movie, and you tell the story in the comic-book and video-game format that the culture has become so addicted to. In other words, The Matrix is a graduate thesis on consciousness in the sheep’s clothing of an action-adventure flick. Whether you’re illiterate or have a PhD, there’s something in the movie for you.

What the word "matrix" actually means, according to the dictionary, is 1. The womb. 2. Hence, that which gives form, origin, or foundation to something enclosed or embedded in it. 3. The intercellular substance of a tissue, 4. The earthy or stony substance in which an ore or other mineral is bedded, 5. The hollow in a slab to receive a monumental brass, and 6. Math, The square array of symbols which, developed, yields a determinant. In the film The Matrix, we see that the filmmakers intend almost every one of these meanings, and then some. Put another way, to understand The Matrix, it helps to know a bit about the history and theories of communication. In the above quote by Claude Shannon, we see the main premise upon which The Matrix hinges. The Matrix is the robot, and we are the dogs acting as servants to our technological masters.

But technology and theology aren’t far apart in this world where the Cartesian split between mind and body is made manifest, tangible, and interchangeable. Like 2001, Terminator, and Robocop, The Matrix envisions a world where artificial intelligence is not only more appealing than flesh and bone reality, but more intelligent than the species that created it. In Morpheus’s analogy, the purpose of the Matrix is to turn humans into batteries (i.e., energy sources) for the machines to do their work. What is their work? To keep us humans enslaved by our own illusions, chief of which is that technology is not enslaving us, but actually liberating us.

Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson by day and "Neo" the computer hacker by night. In his analog existence, Anderson works as a top-notch programmer at the MetaCortex software corporation, in the most despairing of Dilbert-like cubicles, until he is freed by a FedEx delivery of the latest Nokia cell phone. Product placement in this film works so well you actually want to own what they own, especially Fishburne’s ultra-cool wrapless sunglasses, the most talked-about item on the film’s website.

Morpheus tells him that the secret he is on to is one that won’t go away, like a splinter in the mind. It is this: he’s a slave. Reeves’s character is a slave to technology, and to free his mind he must choose between a red or a blue pill. By the film’s end, his identity is made clear when he tells arch-enemy agent Smith, "My name is Neo" just before "killing" him in the subway. By choosing his digital identity, he rejects a lifetime of programming and shows that he now knows that "The Matrix cannot tell you who you are." Now he can rapidly learn to override the physical limitations of five senses, the laws of physics, and other unpleasantries of analog existence while he is in the Matrix. The intimation is that we can all be The One simply by choosing to see.

The almost universal understanding of the battle scenes at the end, where the most sensory overload takes place, is that they are simply what audiences demand in a movie these days. Initially, they appear to avoid answering the questions raised by the plot with any "deeper meaning." The big shoot-out at the end seems more like a cop-out. But in fact it serves to open the audience’s mind to the deeper meaning in a profound way. The best way to question whether the path you are on is correct is to see where it leads. In a culture demanding ever faster, louder, more dazzling everything, the only way to call this into question is to give them more than they asked for. The Matrix is technological speed and volume dialed up to 11, screaming at the top of its lungs, asking if you want to go any faster.

The telephone serves as the connection point between the two worlds. Interestingly, it must be an analog line, and not a digital or cellular/wireless phone, that makes this connection. The telephone, according to Marshall McLuhan, is an extension of the human voice. Walter Ong points out that the voice is the only medium that cannot be frozen; words disappear as soon as they are spoken. No freeze frame is possible, making the voice the only organic, living medium in the history of the species. The voice’s isolation from all the other senses, as we experience it on the telephone, highlights the fact of our most deprived sense: touch. It was from this principle that McLuhan created the tagline "Reach Out and Touch Someone" for AT&T in 1979. Thus, the analog phone call, and the human voice it represents, are the only possible way to retrieve someone who is trapped in the Matrix. Orality and an oral culture are what’s needed to escape the Matrix. This is why Trinity’s kiss saves Neo from death. She speaks and touches with the same organ of orality, and the content of her speech is love, the power that drives all true communication. Neo’s final voice-over shows him telephoning the audience, asking them if they want to become real.

As the credits roll, one of the website’s nine passwords is revealed, and we can enter it to find out more. Entering your own e-mail address gets you an e-mail from with the line, "The Matrix has you." If you’re getting e-mail, it certainly does. Or does it?

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