Electronic Collectivism and the Matrix
In principle, electronic collectivism refers to the concept of human life and society being dominated by sentient inanimate machines or forms of artificial intelligence against their will or consent. As a film genre, it dates back decades, and probably most famously to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Westworld (1973) starring Yul Brynner, and ten years later, to the Terminator (1984) starring current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. By far, the Matrix represents the most complex development of that theme, notwithstanding several apparent flaws in the plot, at least to this viewer.
Generally, electronic collectivism is presented as a hostile relationship in which human beings are controlled either against their will or without their knowledge and awareness altogether for the benefit of machines and artificial forms of intelligence that evolved from human technology. The theme varies from centering on the deliberate rogue actions of single computers (HAL, in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the results of mechanical malfunction (Westworld) to complex plots pitting the will and objectives of machines directly against their human creators (the Matrix).
Electronic Collectivism in the Matrix
Arguably, the Matrix represents the fullest development of the electronic collectivism conflict between man and machine. Neo, the protagonist discovers that the reality that he and most other human beings experience as their lives is not real but only an artificial construct created by intelligent machines. Westworld depicts malicious mechanical actions against humans as the product of mechanical malfunction in a machine that, presumably, benefits human beings when operating properly. Likewise, while it is never fully explained in 2001, the malicious actions of HAL are not the sole result of autonomous desires of the artificial intelligence of the computer known as HAL 9000, but appear to have been initiated by human action originally within a machine that undoubtedly provided tremendous benefits to human beings otherwise.
By contrast, the artificial intelligence entity in Matrix operate only maliciously toward human beings, harvesting and maintaining them as sources of biological, thermal, and electric energy without their knowledge. Neo-finds out that before artificial forms of intelligence gained dominance over human beings, the last remaining conscious and autonomous human beings had lost a war against the computers in which the skies were artificially darkened by their last attempts to avoid domination by depriving the malicious computers of thermal energy from the sun. In response, the artificial intelligence entity began using human beings for energy instead, suspending them in states of artificial reality to keep them docile.
Several glaring oversights seem to detract from the work, even if the audience is willing to suspend disbelief generally. First, if human beings are already suspended unconscious in aqueous solutions, it would seem unnecessary to create any subjective reality for them. Second, human beings are a comparatively weak source of energy in relation to geological sources such as volcanoes and thermal vents, not to mention controlled nuclear fission. In that regard, non-human animals could be farmed and harvested for their biological, thermal and electrical energy much more easily without any need to worry about their subjective perception, leaving the artificial intelligence entities with the option of simply eradicating human life altogether. Finally, it is never explained who is responsible for maintaining the working telephone lines in the real world without human activity and telephone companies.
Naturally, the plight of human beings in Matrix seems horrific from the perspective of autonomy and free will. However, beyond that level, their suspension in a convincing reality may not necessarily be as bad as it is depicted and assumed to be. Philosophers have realized for many centuries that there really is not objective way to prove that our reality is any more real than the reality of the human beings suspended in aqueous solution in Matrix. It could be that we are currently completely unconscious or in deep comas and merely dreaming very realistic dreams that appear to be our reality. More importantly, it is not clear why that state of existence would necessarily be such a bad thing. Presumably, when suspended in the Matrix, nobody’s false reality consists of living in poverty or of being physically or emotionally abused, or even simply being bored with life. Whereas many human beings suffer through extreme hardship and pain in their (actual) lives, that would not be the case in the Matrix.
Neo-chose to return to his real life instead of the reality of the Matrix, but in a similar situation, many of us might choose the exact opposite. Consider an individual who wakes from an incredibly realistic dream in which he was enjoying a wonderful life of happiness, good health, wealth, good fortune, and fulfilling relationships. He discovers that the life he thought he was enjoying was only a very vivid dream and that his reality is that of a homeless double amputee who has been in a deep diabetic coma for months. If given the opportunity to return to his dream or to the reality of his real life, it is very conceivable that he might choose the former over the latter.
While that concept is not explored explicitly in the Matrix, one could argue that some humans were actually benefited by electronic collectivism. Specifically, the subjective experience of life of any human being whose artificial reality was a higher quality of life than his real life would be preferable to his or her actual reality for as long as that individual remained convinced of the subterfuge. Many of us might very well have chosen the other (blue) pill. In that sense and only in that sense could one argue that electronic collectivism in the Matrix was anything less than entirely hostile to human life and welfare.
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