Saturday, November 08, 2003

The Matrix Revisionist

The nature of freedom fascinates me. I wrote my dissertation at university on it. Specifically, I'm very interested in the apparent tensions between freedom and a good life. Is it better to be free than to live a good life, or is a good life worth trading in one's freedom? Plato/Socrates thought the latter, and all societies are based upon a partial trade-off of freedoms for benefits, so it's not such a contentious idea. It's common in western societies, especially American-influenced societies, to see freedom as an intrinsic good, and possibly the most important thing in life, even more so than happiness or health or safety. I never managed to find a coherent argument for freedom's special status in all my time studying the problem. It seems to be a given, and that immediately made me suspicious.

All of which brings me to the Matrix trilogy. I've not seen Matrix 3 yet, but I probably will soon, and that got me thinking about the story so far. What I've realised is that, philosophically, I find myself pretty much on the side of the machines.
Think of it from their perspective. They were created as slaves by humanity. Later, humanity gave them life and intelligence. Later still, humanity tried to take this away from the machines again by destroying them. The machines, betrayed by their creators, fought a battle of self-preservation, which they won. Desperate, the humans destroyed their own environment in attempt to defeat the machines, going as far as blacking out the sun. The machines, victorious but without their primary power source, enslave the slavemasters and turn them into batteries. In order to preserve/protect the humans' minds, the machines create a virtual reality for the humans to live in. This reality is a blessed utopia, but the humans reject it. The machines try again, and by this point you really can't ascribe any malicious intent to them (and besides, if there is malice, it was programmed in by humans anyway...). They create an imperfect reality, hoping this will be more acceptable to the nihilistic human condition. This too is not good enough for humanity, which appears to want the moon on a stick, and some individuals escape the Matrix and create Zion, a dirty dark hole in the ground. The Zionites (to differentiate them from Zionists) decide that all of humanity would be better living in a dirty hole in the ground eating sloppy porridge as opposed to in a shiny city eating juicy steak, and begin a guerilla/terrorist campaign against the machines and their reality. The machines keep a lid on it all, until the Zionites find for themselves a messiah figure, which really upsets the boat. The machines decide that enough is enough and finally go after the Zionites.

So, the message of the Matrix films seems to be that a free but hellish existence is better than a utopian, but unfree life even if one doesn't know that one is unfree. And that's not a message I'm sure I agree with.

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