EESE 3/2001


The Matrix Problem II - The Human Survives: Virtual Reality and the Liberal Tradition

Fritz-Wilhelm Neumann (Erfurt)

Whatever the effort of technical inspiration and extrapolation of the dangers we are currently undergoing in the face of information technology, in popular movies such as Matrix (1999), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), which is a filmed version of William Gibson's legendary cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984), and in television serials like Star Trek with its episode Ship in the Bottle (1990), the human survives in every sense of the liberal tradition. At the beginning of the new century, we are wondering what turns the dynamic evolution of information technology will take, if artificial life devices ensuing from research in artificial intelligence will ultimately control the fate of mankind by entirely enslaving man's consciousness, or if, at least, trusts operating globally will misuse their superiority in information technology in order to exploit the world with ruthless cruelty. The dataverse with its rapidly growing amount of information still resembles the state of the universe before creation. The impact of information technology is likely to be extensive. In his book on the Control Revolution, the historian James Beniger reminds us of the fact that the evolution of information technology, which had begun in the nineteenth-century with the endless lines of telegraph poles runinng alongside the railway tracks, was conceived to control the flow of information and of goods. If you use IT to book a seat on a plane, IT provides the means of communication to secure the exchange of the service required and the money paid for it. The quality of this process, which has become an everyday experience, is based on a high-speed network of computers. To a large degree, life in the industrialised countries of this world depends on a system of microcomputer applications in transport and traffic control, logistics and distribution management. To a lesser degree, knowledge logistics in the academic world have followed suit.

While the history of science fiction begun more than a century ago, teaching science fiction classes at university level as part of the regular canon was launched in the 1950s, when there was obviously a cleavage between scientists and the humanities intellectuals.1 Is science fiction still held in low esteem even in postmodern times? Science fiction may easily dissatisfy the literary critic aiming at the aesthetic assessment of a movie such as Matrix which is a pretty mixed bag of cultural issues transferred from a whole book tradition to the big screen. Although it is 'non-elitist literature', which one should not mind any longer in the age of postmodernism, the mind-stretching force of science fiction2 will be helpful in teaching cultural awareness. Apart from literary history, principal learning targets are the reality problem, the assessment of current technology and the media problem. Ethically, the movies under discussion support the tenets of the liberal tradition and the problem of being enslaved by the pictorial media. As this seems to be the key issue at the beginning of the 21st century and as students are deeply involved in the pictorial world produced by the media, the basic knowledge of computer technology will help analyse the potential of the mind-enslaving machine. In this way teaching science fiction might be more rewarding than discussing the traditional canon of English literature.

From the point of view of the present generation, IT has benefited the progress of mankind. Critics of civilisation, however, fear that machines will be able to generate states of consciousness, as western culture reflects itself no longer in the logic of the word but in the picture. The twentieth century has brought forth new pictorial media, and there are growing fears that as soon as the interface between the neuronal system and the machine has been decoded - in Gibson's imagination nerve-splicing - , human consciousness will be entirely replaced by computer simulation, which is the true meaning of virtual reality. Although communication experts argue that any new medium will be "domesticated" to meet the demands of the current media system and that the public has become more or less media-resistant. Even the understanding of the future Wells and Huxley had in their utopian novels was based on a totalitarian form of enlightenment. There was still an elite of middle-class intellectuals to run the system as world controllers or, picturesquely, as samurai in order to secure a state of paradise which was provided by drugs and sex without harmful consequences; the tensions arising from social inequality have been overcome owing to stability and hypnopaedic teaching. The latter one, which takes up the progress and the visions of early twentieth-century biology, foreshadows a subtler form of generating human consciousness. Consequently, in Matrix machines have taken over. But whatever the potential of artificial intelligence, the enslavement of mankind would make sense in terms of fiction only as a case of imminent danger and a lesson on the vulnerability of the human species, the motifs of early twentieth-century classics will perfectly do. While the visitor of the Brave New World commits suicide for being constantly harassed by nymphomaniac and "pneumatic" Linda, sexuality is not the issue in the science fiction movies under discussion. This in itself seems to indicate that the cultural criticism conveyed by them heralds a turn of the tide in the current intellectual climate. Only in the bleaker forms of cyberpunk, can the world not be redeemed from the totalitarianism inherent in technology and global economic structures. Even if man's environment in a post-apocalyptic world is a bleak one, the longing for a better world which is to be achieved by a quest hero is still extant. Man fights for freedom and for dignity, whatever the superiority of machine intelligence or his own degradation. One might even argue that, at the beginning of the 21st century, the renaissance of the liberal tradition with its individualism in the popular media is an improbable attempt at reversing the anti-humanistic efforts of late 20th-century deconstructionism and nihilism. In the following, I would like to argue that we have to explore the significance of popular entertainment, the more so as postmodernism has blurred the boundaries between high and low in our culture.

The post-apocalyptic world of Matrix reminds one of E.M. Forster's short story "When the Machine Stops" (1909). Mankind has lost the final war against the AI machines they had once designed. Obviously, artificial life has reached the state of consciousness and self-reflection, which is hardly ever discussed in the film apart from the scene where the agent seems to falter. But this may be a ruse to trick Morpheus into disclosing the password of the Jerusalem computer. The Jerusalem system is the last stronghold of the human race who is to survive in a desert called reality, which makes appear the consciousness generated by the artificial intelligences the more attractive to the survivors. But this movie, which is consciousness, within the movie presupposes that the humans are kept on farms where they live in pods and where they are wired to the central computer providing the virtual reality they believe to be existence. Artificial life feeds on the bio-energy produced by the plant-like humans. The steak is no longer a steak, but digital information fed directly to the brain. The traitor among the Nebuchadnezzar hovercraft crew pleads for a better role in virtual reality, more money and better wines. The Judas and Satan impersonator defends virtual reality as did the workers in Brave New World, when John Savage tried to get them off their soma rations. The problem of the true level of consciousness and self-reflection involved is as old as philosophy itself; to quote Sartre as the most immediate source will obviously not do. Man is always enslaved to his own desires. At the end of the twentieth century, intertextuality has produced comprehensive myths. In the chat room, the Machowski brothers confirmed any question concerning models and influence on the Matrix theme to such a degree that nearly everything that has been central to western as well as eastern cultures is involved. This is not just a problem of public-relation policy by film makers but the strategy of modern myth making, which is becoming all-comprehensive in the age of postmodernism. Into this post-apocalyptic world, the skilled and talented hacker Neo emerges as the possible redeemer coached onto the quest for his own messianic identity. The following still could carry the subtext "Welcome to reality". The white background, like a blank sheet, enhances the potential of a world to be generated by the machine. The persons on the screenshot (fig. 1) are the virtual alter egos of Neo and Morpheus, which can be recognised as such by the absence of their neck plugs as they are going to be projected into their 'mindscape', i.e. the virtual environment in the same way as the television set (pre-21st century) and the armchair.

Figure 1: The Matrix is being built up step by step. Most of the screen still being empty.

Good utopian writing reacts to the principal concerns and fears of the age: class war, mass consumer society and pictorial mass media, which one may call "consciousness industry". While H.G. Wells's famous Time Machine extrapolated the laws of social darwinism on the cleavage of late 19th-century society and while Huxley satirised the lack of culture in prosperous America of the early 20th century, the Machowski brothers imagine what will happen when information technology and artificial intelligence get out of human control. Furthermore, Matrix caters for the viewing habits of its public by using cartoon-like acting, as it was designed in the storyboard (the directors had hired experienced cartoonist drawers to submit a draft version of the film to the producer), high-tech stunts combined with unique special effects (a helicopter crashes into the glass front of a skyscraper creating a beautiful shower of glass fragments) and martial arts rendered in slow-motion shots. The emergence of artificial life is conveyed by techno-organic devices or contraptions attacking the hovercraft submarine or "harvesting" the human bodies from the pods. The density of highly imaginative special effects surpasses any James Bond film so far. If Matrix proves to be a trendsetter in this way, the message will be twofold, while Schulte-Sasse's warning of catatonic images swamping the human mind may come true only in part (1995).3 Owing to the means of image production, which is boosted by computer technology, images seem to get an ever firmer hold on man by driving him into sheer narcissism; however, if there is a message in the hero myth acted out by Neo the redeemer, it is both the dream of individualism and freedom and the eternal clash of the forces of good and evil which has made up a good part of popular romance.

An earlier version of virtual reality is to be found in the Next Generation episodes of the StarTrek epic. As a preventative measure of mental health care, the Voyager crew are ordered to keep continuously in mind the stories which make up the core of their own culture.4 The virtual space created on the holodeck substitutes concrete experience on earth, and, not surprisingly, some of the episodes lead into the red-light district. Fictitious scenarios expand the space of everyday life where crew members work and which is otherwise extremely restricted. Space travellers are menaced mainly by boredom and the emptiness of experience on board the ship and by the ensuing deviations of the human mind. The most fundamental achievement of human reason, i.e. to distinguish between fiction, or desire, and reality is threatened so that any story-like hallucination or wishful delusion can get hold of the minds of the crew. Space travelling, as depicted in StarTrek, puts man under tremendous pressure to cope with an increasing amount of information which does not fit into any pattern of perception and knowledge. Especially in conflict, there is a high risk of taking the wrong decisions, because the crew cannot refer to established patterns of action.

In Ship in a Bottle (The Next Generation 1987-94: Sixth Season; writer: Rene Echevarria) an interactive Sherlock-Holmes game is staged on the holodeck. The question is how far artificial intelligence will evolve. Will artificial-life creatures outwit man one day? Dr. Moriarty, member of the AI cast, decides to leave the holodeck and to take over the Voyager, as he had developed consciousness up to the degree of self-reflection in a life, as he presumes, entirely on his own. Obviously, an algorithm written by one of the programmers in order to simulate real-life stories has separated itself from its original environment and has gained access, as it appears, to the main frame of the spaceship, which is the nightmare: an algorithm evades the system and installs itself at the top of it in order to replace the human programmer. This must have been the case in Matrix before the war had started. According to Wagner and Lundeen Star Trek writers did not envisage the human mind being replace by artificial intelligences:

Although "Ship in a Bottle" goes far in problematizing reality, it stops short of wiping away the distinction between illusion and real life. Virtual reality may be okay for virtual beings, but it's not enough for red-blooded humanity. In all, Star Trek's message is that determined humans, through strength of character and will, can finally penetrate even the most seamless illusions and restore themselves to an authentically "real" plane of existence.5

Human supremacy is duly restored. Owing to a sophisticated form of encapsulation, the virtual-reality character is outwitted and provided some consolation. His system is fed a first-class sentimental movie which Moriarty believes to be authentic.

Figure 2: Space travellers rely on conventional computer technology including portable high capacity storage devices.

The above still shows the crew handling a kind of high-capacity storage device which is Moriarty's world. Human reason will prevail, whatever the dangers. This has been the message of the epic since antiquity.

Figure 3: Dr. Moriarty seems to be securely and deservedly trapped in or restricted to, what appears to be a high-speed games console.

In Sartrean terms, the dataverse has so far been a case of bad faith, i.e. a poor awareness of reality. The third example under discussion derives from "cyberpunk" literature, although agent Johnny Mnemonic works for international trusts and wears pinstripe suits when he smuggles load of some 320 GB of data from Japan to the U.S. In Johnny Mnemonic the redemption from all possible ills of 21st-century information society lies hidden in cyberspace itself. As the complete data transfer can be monitored and controlled, agent Johnny has to use a storage system which is implanted as an extension of his brain. The data Johnny has to transfer to Newark comprise the entire database of a large pharmaceutical company including the formula of a treatment against the epidemic of information society called NAS, nervous attention syndrome. The disease has spread during the second decade of the new century. NAS causes epileptic fits which ultimately lead to death. They derive from the human brain overburdened with more or less meaningful information. The company makes billions of dollars from worthless drugs and tries prevent the release of the new treatment. In the slums of New York, opposition groups have formed fighting the disease and the company. Johnny manages to escape from the company killers who literally want his head. He is protected by the Lowtecs who have developed bio-technological skills and who are able, owing to the

Figure 4: The wired dolphin brain is the lowtec solution to modern high technology. The animal 'motherboard' guarantees the superiority of nature.

brains of a dolphin to whom Johnny is wired, to crack the code of the company's database in order to download it from Johnny's brain. Thus the world is saved, the company goes bust, the forces of evil - among them some weird parish priest ( are defeated, and Johnny's memory permits access to his own lost childhood again. Contrary to his cyberpunk novel, Wiliam Gibson has put emphasis on man's ability to find authenticity beyond the information society of our days. "Lowtec" means back to the past without giving up the knowledge of technology. As I understand it, their message aims at the wholeness of life in harmony with nature.

One of Gibson's major problems in the Neuromancer was the visualisation of the dataverse. In his 1985 the data flow reminds one of the then state of computer graphics; in Johnny Mnemonic, visualisation has evolved. Nevertheless, data as such form a dimension or space of their own, heaven or hell, beyond reality, the realm of metaphysics. This is emphasised by graphically designing the flow and the decoding of data, which assumes a numinous quality. Contrary to the Neuromancer, the world has regained the supremacy of reason and order, as romance requires.

Figure 5: The downloading of the data is visualised as a quest for the self. Man restores meaning, i.e. he imposes the structure of his own being on the universe again. The quest leads back to childhood and thus the wholeness of being is retrieved.

Even if the public side with the Lowtecs, they will be fascinated with the perfect interface: television, telephone, internet databases and many devices of the periphery have fused to one organic whole. The dataverse has become a part of man. The underlying ideology is thus a positive one, however ambiguous the concurring vision of the information deluge; only the conspiracy of the forces of evil can temporarily topple the rule of reason. Paradoxically, the key to redemption lies in the distribution of information in excess of what man really needs.

To conclude: in the popular films discussed in this paper, a vision of advanced technology is balanced by a conservative notion of freedom. That man is easily enslaved by multinational companies may foster the idea of conspiracy. To the more critical viewers, the special effects in Matrix cover up a number of discrepancies in the plot, which makes it less convincing than Huxley's Brave New World. Advanced information technology presents a significant problem, however media-proof the average user or consumer may be. If there is a change of paradigm imposed upon present culture, this will be the misuse of power. Does mankind depend on those who have been given the power over the media. Mass communication is increasingly taken over by the electronic pictorial media and even less by the tabloids. The problem of information technology is a significant one, because the image and its electronic performance and distribution merge to a hitherto unimaginable degree of perfection. In Matrix the special-effects department has achieved a unique fusion of dream images under a realistic guise. Within ten years time, from the holodeck to the matrix, the quality of virtual reality has improved in a way that makes us watch with bated breath. While "holodiction", i.e. the addiction to holodeck fictions, was a traditional form representing the "potential psychological dangers" of virtual technology,6 the Matrix environment seems to loom larger with every year of technological evolution.


Becker, Gregor: Star Trek und Philosophie. Die edleren Seiten unseres Wesens. Philosophische Aspekte einer Kultserie. Tectum Verlag, 2000.

Beniger, James: The Control Revolution. Technological and Economic Origins or the Information Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Forster, E.M.: The Machine Stops and Other Stories, The Abinger Edition, vol. 7. London: Arnold, 1997.

Gibson, William: Neuromancer. London: Gollancz, 1984; New York: Ace Books, 1994.

Gregory, Chris: Parallel Narratives. Basingstoke etc.: Macmillan, 2000.

Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World. London, 1932.

Johnny Mnemonic by Robert Longo (1996).

Matrix by Andy and Larry Wachowski (1999).

Parrinder, Patrick: Science Fiction: its Criticism and Teaching. London: Methuen, 1980.

Richards, Thomas: The Meaning of Star Trek. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Schulte-Sasse, Jochen: "Von der schriftlichen zur elektronischen Kultur: Über neuere Wechselbeziehungen zwischen Mediengeschichte und Kulturgeschichte." Eds. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, Materialität der Kommunikation (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995), 429-53.

Ship in a Bottle (Star Trek, The Next Generation, 1987-94: Sixth Season; writer: Rene Echevarria).

Toffler, Alvin: Future Shock. London: Pan Books, 1971.

Wagner, Jon, and Jan Lundeen: Deep Space and Sacred Time. Star Trek in the American Mythos. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998.

Wachowski, Larry and Andy: The Art of the Matrix. New York: Newmarket Press and WB Worldwide Publishing, 2000 (including Principal Storyboard Art by Steve Skroce and Tani Kunitake; Conceptual Art by Geof Darrow; Additional Art by Warren Mauser, Collin Grant, Larry and Andy Wachowski).

Wells, H.G.: The Time Machine: an Invention. London, 1895.


1 Patrick Parrinder, Science Fiction: its Criticism and Teaching(London: Methuen, 1980).

2 Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (London: Pan Books, 1971).

3 See Jochen Schulte-Sasse's argument in "Von der schriftlichen zur elektronischen Kultur: Über neuere Wechselbeziehungen zwischen Mediengeschichte und Kulturgeschichte." Eds. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, Materialität der Kommunikation (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995), 435: "Die Steuerung von Gesellschaft als zweckbezogenes Verarbeitungssystem ist in einer solchen Kultur [...] von einer sentimentologischen Synchronisation der bildlichen Sprache des menschlichen Unbewußten mit der ebenfalls bildgeprägten Sprache moderner Telekommunikation (abhängig). Die elektronische Steuerung und Kontrolle gesellschaftlicher Interaktion, die sich gegenwärtig gesamtgesellschaftlich durchsetzt, ersetzt entscheidungsmächtige und -bewußte Subjekte zunehmend durch jene Computerprogramme (Software) und Rückkoppelungstechnologien, die durch die Steuerungsrevolution möglich geworden sind." In plain English, Schulte-Sasse emphasises that "in such a culture, the regulation of society as a purposeful system of information processing depends on the emotional synchronisation of the subconscious pictorial language with a similarly pictorial language of modern telecommunication. The electronic regulation and control of societal interaction which currently imposes itself upon society as a whole will replace the individuals who have been very aware of the decisions they were able to make with those computer programs (software) and feedback devices which have come into existence due to the revolution in cybernetics."

4 See Thomas Richards: The Meaning of Star Trek (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 131.

5 Jon Wagner and Jan Lundeen, Deep Space and Sacred Time. Star Trek in the American Mythos (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998), 196 f.

6 See Chris Gregory, Parallel Narratives (Basingstoke etc.: Macmillan, 2000), 156.