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The Matrix: A Postmodern condition?

Sunday, 20 September 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

A few years ago, the American anthropologist David Graeber, who sadly passed away this September, wrote a provocative book he called “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory”.

The book caught many people’s attention as it pointed out at contemporary society’s increasing difficulty in finding real meaning in their professional life. What Graeber found is that many people today are dissatisfied with their jobs because they don’t feel their participation has any effect on the overall process, if not actually doing harm to society altogether.

One of Graeber’s main insights was that today’s complex job market offers little “pleasure at being the cause”, a phrase coined by German psychologist Karl Groos. Graeber cites Groos’ study which found that children experience great joy when they discover that they can move a pencil by randomly moving their arms. “The foundational “pleasure at being the cause” remains, as it were, the unstated ground of our being” Graeber wrote.

Other studies also showed that adults as well have this urge for a cause, in fact any cause, even a painful one. A 2014 study in Science found that if people are left alone doing nothing for 15 minutes facing an electric shock button, a surprisingly large number of them would opt to press the button and cause themselves harm rather than do nothing. Sometimes even a painful cause is better than no cause at all, because it turns out that this is what makes us feel alive. In Dante’s Inferno the highest punishment was not fire but a frozen lake. Dante’s ultimate hell is where there are absolutely no causes and effects, even the ones causing pain.

But this lack of “pleasure at being the cause” is not merely a problem of the labour market. Postmodern thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard would say that this is a new reality of modern times. The labour market is more complex because simply everything is more complex. Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulation inspired The Matrix Trilogy, which became a modern classic not without a reason. Tough the author distanced himself from the movie, some of his ideas were well reflected in it.

Neo’s main struggles of living in the Matrix was that he began to realize his life doesn’t have any meaningful effects from his actions. “Do you ever have that feeling when you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?” he asks his friends. His life in the greenish Matrix turns out to be nothing but a computer simulation. So, to prove that he is ‘The One’ capable of saving everyone from the Matrix, Neo (Neo an anagram for ‘One’) had to learn to be the cause of everything himself, step by step. Before he was able to stop bullets with his own hand, Neo’s first lesson was to bend a spoon with the power of his mind, a trick he learned from a child (which is ironically similar to Groos’ study).

Room full of mirrors

To simplify Baudrillard’s terms Simulacra and Simulation, we can consider an object such as a mirror. The purpose of a mirror, or the “the ground of its being” to use Graeber’s terms, is to have a content – which is everything the mirror reflects. The mirror has a linear, comprehensible cause and effect because it reflects something that needs to be reflected. Simple. But if we were to put another mirror in front of it, the content itself disappears so now both mirrors only reflect each other’s reflection, but no content as such.

Without actual content, both mirrors cancel each other out as we are left only with information about information, but nothing actually to inform about. Each mirror becomes a simulacra and the whole process of reflection of a reflection becomes a mere simulation. The infinite reflections no longer contain anything ‘real’ in them because nothing is any longer the cause of anything. Instead of being comprehensibly linear, information is now confusingly circular with no beginnings nor ends. Neo’s unreal life in the Matrix felt like he was in a room full of mirrors, as is illustrated in The Matrix Reloaded when he meets ‘The Architect.’

This Postmodern confusion, in Baudrillard’s view, mainly owes to the overly complex information environment of our times. Especially in the era of the smartphone, we no longer have one, even two mirrors, we now have millions of them, each canceling each other out simultaneously. And within this circular information cacophony, it is hard to trace any causes and effects, any genuine distant goals or real political projects. With today’s technology, information no longer travels from here to there like in the days of the telegram, it’s just simply constantly already there, like a well, waiting to be used as standing reserve.

The explosion of content eventually leads to an implosion of mere information about information, while the ‘real’, original content is lost like a drop in that well. “How sweet was information in the days of truth!” Baudrillard wrote back in the 1980s, “how sweet was science in the days of the real! How sweet was objectivity in the time of the object!”

Though the French thinker belongs to the often criticized and confusing Postmodern philosophical school for its denial of truth and objectivity, Baudrillard merely conceptualized the confusion but in no way influenced it. In fact, it might have been the originators of modern information technology themselves who warned about its potential effects.

Heinrich Hertz, the discoverer of electromagnetic waves cautioned that the “consequences of images” will eventually become mere “images of consequences”. In other words, as electric information technology proliferates, illusory images will eventually replace real-life consequences, as well as their causes altogether. Hertz predicted that the times of linear transmission of information were coming to an end and would be replaced by circular information.

The Secret of a Secret is a Secret

The complexity of information dissemination today could sometimes impress even Kafka himself. In 2006 a best-selling self-help book called The Secret sold around 30 million copies worldwide. But unlike the usual linear process where books, which (due to their length, density and complexity) generally serve as content for their shorter and simplified ecranisations, The Secret was actually based on a documentary movie bearing the same name. An unusual reversal whereby the book (the content) was derived out of mere information (the movie). But the most interesting part is that another 2020 movie The Secret: Dare to Dream was now based on the book The Secret, which itself was based on an earlier film The Secret!

In fact, this circular reversal of content vs. information became a wider phenomenon. Social media is an example. The original intention of social networks, and Twitter in particular, was to simplify and rapidly transmit more complex content – news articles for example. But rather recently, especially after Donald Trump’s election, Twitter has become the platform which itself generates content. It is now possible to write a 3-page article based on a few tweets of 240 characters only.

Analysis is no longer just simplified from long-to-short, but also extrapolated from short-to-long. As Hertz rightly observed, it has become a two-way street where not only consequences become images, but also images themselves become consequences. Information now generates content ex nihilo. Having grasped this reversed process, a media-savvy president like Trump could therefore boldly announce that bleach can kill Coronavirus.

Information travels so fast, and there is so much ‘catching up’ to do that newspapers are now placing ‘long-read’ disclaimers and showing average reading-times for an article. The Guardian even flags articles that were written just one month ago. And it does indeed seem that reality itself changes almost on a monthly basis: The Atlantic writes that “in a matter of months, a highly driven teen [on TikTok] can build an audience that translates into millions of dollars in endorsement deals.”

If the information from a month ago is no longer applicable today, then it almost becomes humanly impossible for the world to deal with such complexity in a coherent, rational way. Baudrillard’s aim was precisely to explore the tricks of our consciousness to cope with such cosmic speeds.

More real than real

For Baudrillard, what comes after the real is the “hyperreal”, meaning that a replica of a replica becomes more real for our perception than the original – “The Disneyland Effect”. Were he still alive today, the philosopher would probably not have been surprised to see an actual hyperreal president as well. This is the story of Ukraine’s Vladimir Zelensky. His road to the presidency started from a famous comedy TV show called “The Servant of the People” where Zelensky played the role of the president. Later on, he eventually became the president in real life and “The Servant of the People” bears the name of Zelensky’s political party to this day.

In Hypernormalisation, BBC documentary film director Adam Curtis illustrates the gradual replacement of actual political goals and purposes with mere simplified images of them. The general confusion of today’s complex environment, Curtis argued, obliterated any political need for genuine action. Trump’s election, among other things, was the public’s satisfyingly simple answer to an overly complex reality. It was a collective push on the electric shock button to shaken things up and ‘see what’s going to happen’ amid this general confusion.

We live in the most informed times of human history, yet there are large groups of people such as the QAnon conspiracy theorists, who actually believe that “Satan-worshiping pedophiles are running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Trump.” Heraclitus was right 2500 years ago when he said that “abundance of knowledge does not teach men wisdom.” The well of over-information seems to be poisoned.

This circularity and confusion of information overload eventually spills over into real-life confused action as well. When everything is happening all the time, then it is almost as if nothing was actually happening. And when nothing is happening, people would be willing to cause a happening themselves, even if that means, metaphorically speaking, inventing the electric shock button to press on.

The new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma illustrates well how in the status quo of our information environment there are ever-new strange movements and strange leaders appearing on the world stage, as if taking turns to steal the information show.

Fatal Strategies

For Baudrillard, the problem is not just “fake news” which come from certain sources (he wrote in the times before the internet). There are no sources. Nothing ‘comes’ and nothing ‘goes’ anywhere on the web, this is out of date linear thinking from the days of the post-mail.

As our consciousness creates images to deal with the complex, rapidly changing reality, many people search for causes and consequences in themselves to bring this reality back. Graeber saw there is a problem in the labour market, while Baudrillard framed it as a wider issue.

Baudrillard’s own strategy for a way out of this Matrix is “objective irony”. In a deliberate pun, he called his later book “Fatal Strategies”, stressing the ironic contradiction between ‘strategy’ and ‘fatality’. While being himself preoccupied with the proliferation of images, his real-life hobby was taking photos with his camera. “One must push what is collapsing” he quoted Nietzsche summing up this tactic. This made Baudrillard a real-life Neo in his own terms, adapting to the circular, confusing world and being a cause in it himself.

Serghei Sadohin