In the film The Matrix a character called Agent Smith asks: "Did you know that the First Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster." A computer-generated virtual environment, the Matrix is a system designed to control humans. The inhabitants of this hallucinatory world take it to be real; they imagine themselves working and playing, making war and having sex, living normal human lives. In reality, they are floating in pod-like vats hooked up to the machine, their experiences induced in them by the program that runs the computer.
The Matrix (1999) and The Matrix Reloaded (2003) are densely allusive action movies, in which fantastical martial arts scenes are intermixed with cryptic dialogue and a labyrinthine plot. Designed and marketed to manufacture a cult, they have succeeded in generating a thriving industry of interpreters. Philosophers have wheeled their rusty devices on to the set and used them to view the films as exercises in scepticism about the external world. More interestingly and plausibly, scholars of religion have analysed the films in mythic terms, finding traces of Christianity, Buddhism and Gnosticism. With a media product of this kind there is no deep meaning waiting to be deciphered, and it is silly to claim exclusive validity for any interpretation; but the films have a definite political resonance, suggesting a sardonic and uncomfortable commentary on the way our world is ruled.
They show humans as prisoners of the machine, "batteries" that it drains for energy while keeping them entranced and powerless. Such images are easily read as banal signifiers for capitalist exploitation, but a more intriguing reading is suggested by Agent Smith's allusion to the First Matrix. The goal of that programme was not exploitation; it was to design a perfect world. The consequent disaster is not specified, but the two films (a third will appear soon) suggest that the unreal world of the Matrix is the outcome of an attempt to redesign the real world so that it no longer contains suffering and evil. In the past, religion was the vehicle for such fantasies; in more recent times they were expressed in utopian political projects, such as communism and neoliberalism. Whereas the great religions wisely promise an end to evil and suffering only in the hereafter, these utopian cults aimed to achieve the same goal here on earth.
Today, faith in political action is practically dead, and it is technology that expresses the dream of a transformed world. Few people any longer look forward to a world in which hunger and poverty are eradicated by a better distribution of the wealth that already exists. Instead, governments look to science to create ever more wealth. Intensive agriculture and genetically modified crops will feed the hungry; economic growth will reduce and eventually remove poverty. Though it is often politicians who espouse these policies most vociferously, the clear implication of such technical fixes is that we might as well forget about political change. Rather than struggling against arbitrary power, we should wait for the benign effects of growing prosperity.
It may well be true that we cannot cure the worst evils by political action: if an absurdity like the Iraq war cannot be prevented, what hope is there of governments eradicating hunger? Yet technology is not a surrogate for political action. In practice, we simply use it to mask problems we cannot solve.
As traditional forms of social control are swept away, we turn to pervasive video surveillance to stop crime. As terrorism grows, we deploy smart bombs against "rogue states". We use Prozac and similar drugs not only to cope with episodes of depression, but increasingly to suppress normal human responses of frustration and disappointment. New media technologies enable us to blank out the environments in which we live. Plugged into our Walkmans, we can forget the filth and squalor by which we are actually surrounded.
Even when we are not insulated in this way, our view of the world is deformed by the mass media. Each day, we may encounter a filthy environment and dysfunctional public services, but in the virtual world conjured up by interactive television we are all only a moment away from wealth and freedom. For many people, this fantasy world is more compelling than their disjointed everyday actions and perceptions. The Matrix shows the logical outcome: a dream-filled half-life passed in a simulated environment. A degenerate product of the human longing for a better world, the Matrix is the ultimate technology of escape.
The idea of a technology that can create virtual worlds is usually attributed to American computer scientists, who began writing about virtual reality in the 1980s and 1990s. But the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem anticipated it some decades earlier. In his Summa Technologiae, published in 1964, Lem envisaged a Phantomat, a virtual reality machine that allows its users to exit the real world and enter a simulated environment of their own choosing. In the real world we are delicate organisms that can only live once, but in the Phantomat we can live over and over again - as whatever we want to be. The Phantomat gives us what mystics have always sought - liberation from the material world. Rid of our mortal bodies, we can roam cyberspace for all eternity.
But, Lem believed, the more realistic the virtual world the machine creates, the more imprisoned we are in our own imaginations. As our embodied selves, we interact with a world we know only in part, and which operates independently of our desires. In contrast, the virtual worlds we encounter in the Phantomat are human constructions. Fabricated from our dreams, they are worlds in which nothing can be hurt or destroyed because nothing really exists. In short, they are worlds in which nothing really matters.
Lem feared that humanity might come to prefer the virtual worlds of the Phantomat. It is a fear echoed in The Matrix, when a character called Cypher chooses a life of pleasure and illusion over the contingencies of life outside the programme. He is happy to defend his choice. "You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it into my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious . . . you know what I realise?" He takes a bite of steak. "Ignorance is bliss."
Lem's suspicion that humanity might opt for the dream world of the Phantomat over the intractable conflicts of the real world is well founded. Much of the affluent majority in western countries make the same choice as Cypher. They opt to live in the virtual world created by the mass media, knowing full well that it is an illusion. Here I mean not just "reality television", which conjures up a world from which commuting, debt, illness and almost all the activities in which we actually pass our days have been banished. Look at media reportage of war. We know that bereavement, mutilation and unhealed psychological scars linger on for generations after wars have officially ended; but we do not want to be unnecessarily reminded of these things. We honour the reporters who insist on reporting the aftermath of war, but we are secretly relieved when the media move on. That way, we can avoid the pain of too much reality and sustain the virtual world we prefer to inhabit.
It is in no way far-fetched, then, to think that many people might opt for an unreal life in the Phantomat. Even so, Lem's fear that humanity might exit the actual world for an eternal half-life in cyberspace is groundless. The virtual environments that may be possible in future through the use of ever more advanced computer programs may be more realistic than anything that we can now create or even imagine; but they will never enable humanity to detach itself completely from the earth. No computer will ever create a self-sustaining virtual world. The dream of humanity spending eternity in cyberspace is just a nightmare.
There are several reasons why virtual reality machines will always fail in the end. For one thing, all virtual environments have a definite material basis. In the hallucinatory kung fu scenes that are interspersed throughout The Matrix, nothing seems impossible: the human figures that enact these brilliantly choreographed stunts are infinitely reproducible simulacra, not finite vulnerable organisms. Yet the Matrix itself is finally a finite material thing, a programme encrypted in a tangle of wire and plastic; it is vulnerable to decay and accident. As a result, the virtual environment fabricated in the Matrix will not renew itself indefinitely. Sooner or later, it will be corroded by time and chance. Anomalies will creep into the program, and the Matrix will be infected with flaws. The perfect virtual world will be perfect no longer. It will plainly be revealed as what it had never ceased to be - a fragile construction insecurely situated in the material world.
And like the Phantomat, the Matrix is a human invention. Even if they are devised by an artificial intelligence that has evolved far beyond humanity, these simulated worlds are ultimately by-products of human knowledge. They cannot escape the finitude and imperfection that go with their animal origins. They will inescapably contain errors and distortions. The picture of the world we have as humans is a makeshift that has evolved to help us in the animal struggle for survival. We can be certain it contains errors we will never discover.
Perhaps the artificial intelligences we invent will evolve to overcome these built-in flaws but, if they do, they will only develop errors of their own, which will infect any virtual worlds they create. However devised, any virtual reality machine will contain traces of its earthly genesis, which are bound to disrupt the perfection of the virtual world. It is these ineradicable imperfections that make Lem's vision of perfect unreality itself unrealistic.
On some interpretations, there is another source of disruption in the virtual world of the Matrix - human free will. The inhabitants of the Matrix are entranced; but once they become aware that they are living in a dream world, they can rebel. The human longing for freedom is irrepressible and humans are bound to rebel against its loss.
This is an initially plausible reading - much of the films' plots have to do with possibilities of revolt - but it does not make much sense. Recall that Cypher willingly opts for a life of unreality. He is not being controlled when he tucks into his virtual steak. He knows the steak is an illusion, but enjoys it all the same. Cypher has not so much given up his freedom as exercised it in order to live a lie.
If viewing the films as fables of revolt against tyranny is not apt, it is just as wrong to see them as addressing free will in a metaphysical sense. Set aside philosophical disputation about what free will might mean, and whether we have it. However the tiresome old conundrum is settled, freedom of will is not something we can lose as a result of a new technology. If humans possess it at all they cannot be deprived of it in the Matrix: they may be reduced to a state of passivity, but they will still remain agents capable of determining their own course of action. That much is clear, but it would be a pity if the meaning of these fascinating films were reduced to so dull and obvious a thought.
Falling back on hoary debates about free will or conventional notions about the value of freedom does not yield an interpretation that does justice to these films. In a curious, oblique way these are political films, but the questions they suggest are not hackneyed ones about capitalist exploitation or media tyranny. They are about the affluent majority colluding with the media in sustaining an unreal view of the world. More deeply, they suggest that the view of things propagated by the media cannot be other than unreal. Today, nearly everyone believes that technology can remake the world. If only invention is allowed to flourish, hunger will be eradicated, poverty will disappear and tyranny will no longer be a temptation.
It is the emptiness of these hopes that condemns the media to propagating fantasies. There is no market for the truth that many of our problems are actually insoluble. Whereas religion once enabled us to tolerate this awkward fact, today it has become almost unmentionable. Driven from politics by repeated disaster, the dream of perfection has moved on to technology. The Matrix films are amazing feats of technical wizardry. If they contain a message, however, it is that technology is not magic. It cannot alter the facts of human life.
John Gray's latest book is Al-Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern (published by Faber and Faber)