Sometime after the attacks on September 11, 2001, I wrote a series of posts to Internet forums in which I expressed concern about the new atmosphere of hysterical public support for wars of aggression and the Machiavellian repeal of basic liberties. I framed it in the context of my long-held critique of technological civilization, and even admitted that I felt an ambivalent sympathy for the attacks as a revolt against the global centralization of power and an attempt to defy modernity. I wondered if expressing these feelings would brand me as a thought-criminal and make me vulnerable to predations by the government agencies which had begun to function as de facto secret police.
Then I attempted to put the whole thing in historical perspective. I pointed out that the triumph of technology, and the modernist worldview that fueled it, did not go unopposed over the centuries. Ever since the Industrial Revolution rolled in with its smoke-belching factories and massive uprooting of people from any semblance of a natural way of life, many of the leading minds of this civilization have been alarmed and troubled by the trend. I mentioned Tennyson and Emerson, but the most striking of the early warnings was the novel *Erewhon* by Samuel Butler, in which intelligent machines take over the world. Present-day readers are often astounded that this was written back in the 19th century, but it shows that the fateful pattern has been clear to discerning minds for a long time.
In the 20th century the mechanization of humanity took a giant stride with the creation of the whole arsenal of tech-driven media, starting with the movies and escalating through phonography, radio, TV, computers, electronic games, and ever onward into the brave new world of the third millennium. The power of these spectacles is so compelling that it has an actual hypnotic effect on the minds of the viewers, listeners, and players, opening them totally to whatever subliminal messages the purveyors may choose to imprint. Once these media had been installed as the primary way for disseminating information in the culture, it created a Catch-22 by which anyone wishing to alert people to their accelerating psychic enslavement had to use the slave-making tools to do it. The result is that it now takes a double leap to escape the double bind: after receiving the message, we must also kill the messenger. For example, if you see something on TV that wakes you up to the insidious mind-controlling nature of TV, then you’d damn well better smash your TV or it will be for nought.
With this proviso in mind, we can take note of some powerful double-edged wake-up calls which have appeared in the modern (and postmodern) techno-media. The 1950s movie *Invasion of the Body Snatchers* was based on a novel by a non-mainstream author, Jack Finney, who sincerely wanted to communicate his vision that people are slowly but remorselessly losing their humanity, and that the real world is getting overrun by legions of soulless zombi-like creatures, even if they are still physically human. Enough of the vision came through in the movie to give it a lot of force as a serious statement, and a sizeable portion of the audience was still human enough to grasp that it was not just science fiction but spine-chilling societal fact. These individuals were heartened by the happy ending, in which humanity heeded the warning and managed to defeat the “aliens” before they could take over the planet.
By the time *Invasion of the Body Snatchers* was remade in the 1970s, this had changed. If anything, the new version was even more horrifically realistic, for anyone with eyes to see; but the movie medium now had such a total grip on the collective mind that it didn’t do any good. Overtly the message was the same, but it’s as if the pod-creatures were now the filmmakers, and were saying to the audience: Yes, we’ve taken you over totally, body and soul, and you can’t do anything about it! We’ve won!! HAHAHAHAHA. . . . And sure enough, the ending of the movie was changed: the aliens won, and the last vestige of humanity died out.
But certainly the best example of this ultimate mindfuck is the recent movie *The Matrix*, which dramatically conveys the hardcore truth that people today are living in a mass illusion. Lots of astute persons understand that the symbolism of the film is the thinnest of veils and that postmodern life really is a Matrix: a global fantasyland compounded from the hypnotic images imprinted into people from cradle to grave by the media. Many individuals try to utilize this symbolism as a way of escape from their enslavement, and admire the makers of the film as revolutionaries. Thus they are not able to make the second leap and realize that the movie itself is just another layer of imprinting, a trap within the trap which is twice as hard to escape from because it seems to expose the game.
In the story-line of the Matrix film, the world that everyone perceives as real is actually a global computer simulation, a merely virtual reality, a literal collective dream. The physical bodies of all these billions of people are asleep in mechanical pods, lying fetuslike in pseudo-amniotic fluid, plugged into tubes which feed them artificial nutrients. When an individual ~ like the hero of the film, Neo ~ begins to wake up to the fact of his nightmarish situation, he is still trapped within the Matrix. Strictly speaking, he has become lucid within the dream but not awakened from it ~ because what he perceives as “himself” is really a simulation, like an animated character in a video game. When he makes the fateful choice to break from the Matrix, Neo is given a red pill which disrupts the computer program and causes him to wake up in his physical body in the pod. Only by means of this incredibly traumatic birth has he finally entered the real, physical world.
People who take the film as a serious metaphor of the postmodern human condition are faced with the riddle of what this concept of THE REAL WORLD might symbolize in. . . well, in the real world. If the literal, physical world is really a Matrix on a deeper level, then there must be a higher, more veritable and solid realm to which we can transcend when we escape from the Matrix. There have already been a number of books written speculating on this and other mysteries of the Matrix mythos, touting their authors as saviors who can help people escape into metaphysical realms or enlightened states of consciousness which are described as “the real world”. In my humble opinion, none of these answers are satisfactory.
I say that the real world is the NATURAL world, with human beings living in it in a natural way. Once this obvious fact is grasped, it can readily be seen that present-day high-tech civilization is NOT the real world! There has never been a more artificial mode of living in the entire recorded history of our species; never before has any people so totally divorced itself from the reality of natural life. Surely this cybernetic, media-addicted lifestyle is the real meaning of the mass delusion referred to in the movie as the Matrix.
Is it possible to unplug from the Matrix? Yes, but only for the intrepid few who are willing and able to forsake its pleasures, snares, and titillations for the harder, cleaner, self-disciplined life that can lay the foundation for a New Aeon.