Take the Red Pill

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New York Magazine devoted a chunk of its latest issue to a discussion of the twenty-year-old film, The Matrix: “From red pills to simulation theory to the return of tiny sunglasses: the movie that got everything right.” Let me just say that I have been a huge fan of that movie since I first saw it twenty years ago. 

If you never saw it or can’t remember what it is about, Keanu Reeves plays Neo, a scruffy computer hacker, and Laurence Fishburne plays  Morpheus, an “enemy of the state”.  Carrie-Ann Moss plays Trinity, a tough, leather-clad androgynous chick who reveals the idea of the Matrix to Neo and introduces him to Morpheus. Neo is offered a choice: take the red pill and discover what the matrix is, or take the blue pill that will leave him in ignorance. Neo chooses the red pill and learns that what he thought was reality was a dream, and the reality is that humanity long before had lost a war against the machines, and now humans are relegated to exist in gross pods, being a fuel source for the machines, while their brains are connected to a computer simulation of reality called The Matrix. In other words, while humans believe we have autonomy and live our day to day lives, we are nothing more than slaves to machines, and everything we perceive as real is an illusion. 

Daffodils starting to bloom

At the time I first saw the movie, my friend Lew Acampora, a physics and chemistry teacher at Country Day and I were co-teaching a senior elective called “When Science Meets Literature.” We read books like The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, exploring the similarities between Theoretical Physics and Zen Buddhism. We read stories by Richard Selzer, a surgeon turned writer who explores the fragility of the human body. And we read lots of essays, such as one written by Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Joy’s thesis is that as we create smarter and smarter machines, we are in danger of falling victim to the machines. Smart computers that can beat geniuses at chess and can run complex systems could easily take over and eliminate or enslave humans. Why would they need us at all? We just take up space and mess up the planet.

I haven’t been able to shake that idea since I first read it. I have nightmares about it. Machines could take over and to a certain extent, they already have. We can’t seem to live without our cellphones, and staring at phones has replaced dinner conversation among groups of people. We keep everything we need on our computers and friends of mine call their I-Phones their “Brain.” 

The notion of virtual currency also interests me. My daughter dabbles in investing in Bitcoin, but I can’t wrap my head around what that is. You transfer “money” from your bank account to a Bitcoin account where it either appreciates and you make a profit, or it loses value. At no point, though is actual currency handled. I read in Time Magazine this week that a multi-millionaire operator of a Bitcoin-type company died suddenly, leaving over 100 million dollars in virtual money in an account. With him died the password needed to access those funds. 

Regular money is as mysterious to me as virtual money. I pay for something using slips of green paper with numbers written on them indicating their value. Or more often I hold out a plastic card and with a twist of the wrist and the shopkeeper gives me merchandise. 


But according to the writers of this series on the Matrix, the idea of the Matrix is bigger than all that.  The Matrix is a metaphor, not a simile, so there are multiple interpretations of what it means. In general, the matrix refers to any system that controls us without our conscious understanding that we are being controlled. Obviously one way of looking at it is that it is an economic system where the very rich hold all the cards and the rest of us scrape by, and we have to just accept it. Those same ultra-rich run the government, as they are the only ones who can afford to run for office, and so they promote legislation aimed at keeping them rich. In the recent government shutdown, tens of thousands of workers were held hostage while Congress still got paid. 

Another way of looking at the matrix is that it represents societal mores that control us and inform how we are expected to behave, This includes assigning gender roles. Many young people today are challenging the belief that gender is Binary. They refuse to be bound to the gender they were assigned at birth and some ask that different pronouns must be used about them. Instead of he or she, they are they and them.

The political right has jumped on the bandwagon, insisting that they are held captive by the agenda of the liberals. Whatever.

Each of us, also is held prisoner to the the ideas of who we are based on our parents, teachers and other influential adults who defined us to ourselves. If we can just find that red pill (therapy??) and see the truth, we can fight to break free.