The film The Matrix (1999) paints a dystopian view of the future in which sentient machines harvest energy from humans while their consciousness exists within a computer simulation. Humans wander the globe doing human things day in, and day out. Things like being an accountant, or a solder, a baker, or a street merchant. Empires rise and fall; states wage war and economies crash and rebuild. All this an illusion, for we are nothing more than lifeless batteries existing in pods. Serving no purpose other than fuel for our machine overlords. This is probably the best case scenario. If you project out from our current behaviors this scenario is a total win-win. If in the future machines harvest us for their survival, and in doing so they choose to build for us a space that is tame, and vanilla, and utterly 1999-ish, we would be forced to acknowledge them for what they truly are – benevolent caretakers. Think about it. There would be no utility for them to sustain us in a simulation unless there was a direct correlation between the hypothetical potential output of our biochemistry and the framework in which our consciousness exists. Meaning, in order to maximize output, the machines have determined that human consciousness must reside in this particular model which has the perfect mixture of safety, wealth, anxiety, and a million other finely-tuned variables. Before you brush this off as nerdy hyperbole remember that the world’s religions and governments have essential done the same thing. They shape the constructs by which we exist and simulate a reality that for the most part continues generation after generation with very few monumental alterations to the ways in which we act and behave within the system. If we get to a place where sentient machines harvest us for fuel we can only hope that they show us as much compassion as the machines in the Matrix. We aren’t this kind. Just look at how we treat domesticated animals in factory farms or wild animals who interfere with our ‘progress.’
I don’t believe that sentient machines are actively harvesting my energy for fuel. Nor do I believe that the reality I exist in is an elaborate simulation programmed by the machines to ensure maximum output from me and all my pod-friends. Sometimes though, it sure as shit feels like it. We live in a time and place that feels a tad to outrageous. I like to play this game where I come up with a completely bananas scenario and text it to a friend as if it actually happened. I then sit back and enjoy the reaction. More often than not the absurd scenario that I make up is too close in nature to current events and they assume I’m paraphrasing a headline from the Post or Times. A short time ago we had an evil billionaire without a heart as a Vice President. Then we had the cool black guy and half the country lost their minds. Now we have the gross personification of everything that is inherently wrong with greed and excess. Our lust and intoxication with fame and celebrity coupled with a degree of personal comfort and relative safety that is only obtainable through the blood and toil of distant others has metastasized into a cultural cancer the likes of which we haven’t seen since Nazi Germany.
In less than a decade our lives have been completely altered to exist within a smartphone and the internet. We are in the infancy of a new type of human being. We are becoming cyborg. And just like in human infancy it will get messy. Sometimes shit doesn’t stay in its container. We haven’t prepared ourselves for the consequences of allowing the market and consumer tendencies to dictate the reach and scope of integrated technologies. We are, in essence, a monkey with a machine gun.
There’s a upswing in this story, I promise. Choice is always present. In the hypothetical Matrix scenario, the story arch of Neo shows that ultimately we have a choice. We can dictate our reality. We can choose to seek out truth or we can hide in the shadows of comfort and safety. Circumstance can seem overwhelming; suffocating. Perspective is everything. I’m as guilty as anyone for allowing myself to get caught up in the nonsense we are surrounded by and giving it too much meaning. To much control over the trajectory of my life. It’s laziness. It’s easy to sit back and be a nihilist. Anarchy is a great way to reject hope. It’s much harder to take responsibility. Put in the effort and work necessary to build a reality that is satisfying for you and those around you. It takes courage to reject the gentle push of God or machine. It takes courage to seek light in an otherwise pitch black room. Existing with peace and clarity in ‘this world’ is something we appear to fight at all costs.
Those who lived after the atom bomb were forced to incorporate a new appreciation for how drastically their species had just modified reality. At any given moment a select few men could destroy the globe ten fold at the push of a button. The internet will do the same for our collective reality. Our hand will be forced, and we’ll need to reconcile its impact on our society. We will be forced to remove it from the realm of consumerism and think of it for what it truly is – an extension of human consciousness. In the meantime it looks as though we are stuck with our current absurdities. The greatest tool humans have ever created is nothing more than a sandbox filled with seven billion toddlers overdue for a nap, fighting over the green crayon.
I find myself too tired to take on the philosophical question of whether to take the red pill or the blue pill. I’d be flattered if a Morpheus type character emerged from the shadows determined to free me from the Matrix. I’d have to pass though. Because in the end it doesn’t matter if this is all a simulation. It doesn’t matter what’s next. What matters is what’s in front of us. What’s important is accepting what we have chosen, and accepting that we can change and modify course. I don’t really want to occupy a reality that puts more importance in the ass of a Kardashian than it does the stomach of a child. I suppose the purpose of all this was to illustrate how it’s ultimately up to us to use this power responsibly and with caution. We have developed powerful tools that will unquestionably change the nature of what it means to be human. I feel like the moral and intellectual battles that future generations will wage are gestating in our current behaviors and attitudes. We need to have big conversations. We need to look closely at how we treat one another. History is full of examples in which we say, ‘how could that have happened!?’ Take a look at how we are acting now and ask yourself, ‘How is this shaping our future?’
Reality is weird in that it can be one thing to you, another to me, and yet we can exist in the same time and place in a common shared reality. Our salvation from the machines lies in our ability to transcend this childishness before it’s too late.