Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Matrix: Man or Machine

The original version of this post appeared on my other blog about a year ago

Bluedeluca pointed out on a bulletin board shortly after the release of the final Matrix film (and it's now been deleted) how the final movie in the series seems a little frustrating because it ends in a sort of "stalemate in the war for humanity." We know that Neo has sacrificed himself, trying to bring about balance and peace between humans and machines. To some degree, he has been successful -- the machines have turned back in their attack on Zion. But how complete is the truce? The film ends with a dawning of the new Matrix, from which we can only assume that the machines continue to use human bodies as their battery cells.

However, there are a few points to note here. Firstly, Neo has come to understand some important things about the relationship between humans and machines. There is an interdepence that he becomes aware of in the second and third movies, whereas the first movie seemed to focus on a more adversarial relationship. In the second movie, immediately after the great celebration of what it is to be human in the form of an communal ecstatic dance and the more intimate scene between Trinity and Neo (showing the very essence of human inter-relationships, the desire for real connection with other humans in both the communal/public and the private), Neo finds that he can't sleep. In his wanderings through Zion, he meets Hamann, who tells him that his insomnia is a good sign -- it shows that he is still human. Their midnight walk and discussion leads them to the heart of the Zion. And what does Neo find in the heart of this human civilization? Machines. The machines are needed to keep the city running smoothly, and indeed to sustain human life. So, just as the machines use humans as a power source for their "civilization," so the humans use machines for the same purpose.

This leads Neo to observe, "So, we need machines and they need us." From this point in the movie, we see Neo move toward a greater understanding of what is needed to bring about some form of truce, or preferably a real peace between Man and Machine.

As technology advances, the machine becomes more and more a part of our every day life. And the difference between Us and Them often becomes more and more difficult to identify. The anxiety this breeds is often to be seen in popular culture. Examples are everywhere. Think of the original Star Wars movies, and the emphasis on Vader being more machine than man now. For Obi Wan and Yoda, this means that he is beyond hope. But Luke, who is very aware of his own mechanical hand and what that might imply, is certain that there is enough that is still human in his father that he is not beyond redemption. And of course, he proves right in the end. This is a concern that shows up again and again -- think of the 80's pop song "Mr. Roboto" by Styx. Or the Star Trek movies. In fact, if you trace through sci-fi movies and books over the past few decades, this might just be the concern that pops up most often -- what will man's relationship with machines be as technology advances?

Bluedeluca, in that fine post that is no more there, makes a wonderful observation about how The Matrix movies answer this concern. They don't. They present the problem. Then they present the reality, that man and machine need each other to survive. Machines are a natural extension of ourselves, he says, and we are now left in a situation where we will evolve together.

Slavoj Zizek, in his book On Belief, has a good observation about The Matrix movies. He too points to the relationship between man and machine as a central concern of the movies. Indeed, he says, the difference between Man and Machine seems to have replaced, in the films, the more traditional contrast between Man and Woman.

I like the way the point is handled in the films. Instead of an adversarial relationship, it presents the possibility for harmony because the two are interdependent. Just like male and female.

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