‘The Matrix’, Surveillance, and Coronavirus
What’s one of the most effective ways to keep a national secret, or cover up an insidious government agenda, or dupe the masses into a state of obedience?
Conspiracy theorists purport that is it the Hollywood machine, as movies provide us with ‘harmless’ entertainment, a little bit of thought-provocation, and a shit load of subliminal messages. For example, if the government is hiding the truth about extraterrestrials, then Hollywood is at the centre of the subterfuge releasing films such as Independence Day or War of the Worlds that represent extra-terrestrials as a threat to the human race. If the population fears an alien invasion, then it inevitably turns to the government for safety and protection, thereby valorizing both the power of the State and its attempts to cover up the truth. If aliens do exist, then our fear-based reaction is that we don’t want to know. Fictionalized or not, sometimes the best way to hide a secret is in plain view: on our TV screens.
The Matrix is often held to be a movie about truth and enlightenment. Here’s the premise of the movie in a nutshell: in a post-apocalyptic earth, the freethinking minds of human beings are enslaved by machines and inhabit a false reality: the ‘matrix’. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is the ‘one’ who is destined to see the matrix for what it is and bring enlightenment to the world. Many metaphors have been drawn from this movie, equating the matrix to our own ‘reality’ of thought-control through the media; but if we follow the conspiracy theorist’s belief that Hollywood — one of the most powerful, influential, lucrative institutions in America — is part of the ideological apparatus that maintains the status quo, then how can we believe that such films as The Matrix point to any sort of liberating truth, when they are a very part of the Hollywood machine itself?
The movie is by no stretch of the imagination an underground or independent film: it was produced by Warner Brothers, one of the biggest players in the Hollywood oligarchy, and it was the highest grossing film released in 1999, grossing $463,517,383 worldwide. In the early 2000's, Keanu Reeves was the highest paid actor in Hollywood for its two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both of which were shit compared to the first film and a clear example of cashing in on its success.
And so the movie is very much part of the Hollywood machine that keeps the masses in check: is it really as liberating and ground breaking as we think, or simply part of the government-Hollywood agenda of mind control as much as other Hollywood movies that represent the version of ‘reality’ that America wants us to see? What also interests me is how the movie is pertinent to us right now, twenty-one years after its initial release, as we endure the worldwide coronavirus crisis. But first we need to understand two interrelated themes that run throughout the film: the themes of simulation and mass surveillance.
The Matrix is essentially about false, constructed, or simulated realities. Many scholars and critics have linked to the film to the book Simulacra and Simulation by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who defines the concept of simulation as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyper-real”. The matrix is essentially an ersatz ‘reality’ generated by machines: it is “the desert of the real”; a constructed reality which provides all the signs of the real but which is itself a non-reality, a ‘hyper-reality’, a dream world.
Ideologically, the film itself is an eclectic synthesis of disparate cultural elements including Eastern mysticism, Western mythology, existentialist philosophy, and Christian ethics. Aesthetically, the film is a patchwork of film noir, science fiction, cyberpunk, martial arts, and the spaghetti Western. The idea that the film is a syncretic, composite art form is related to the postmodernist concept that contemporary Western ‘culture’ is a hybrid construct or ‘simulation’ of diverse cultural facets characterised by the ubiquity of mass media and informational systems. As an amalgam of multiple discourses, the film itself is a reflexive embodiment of that which it purportedly critiques: it is a discursive simulation that it is without a single origin. The notion of a synthetic reality is constructed in the film in multifarious conceptual, technical and practical ways. For instance, in order to represent the dichotomy of the ‘real’ world and the simulated world of the matrix, different design styles are deployed: the simulated world of the matrix is precise, monolithic and mathematical, much like a machine would assemble it; and the use of grid-like patterns on the walls, ceiling and floor of almost every indoor set in the matrix world represents its systematic and symmetrical design, conveying a sense of artificial control.
This idea of simulated realities is related to theories on ideological control as espoused by the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, namely his concept of Panopticism, or thought control through systems of surveillance. This is where the relevance to coronavirus becomes clearer.
In his book Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Foucault offers a comprehensive historical and ideological analysis of the Panopticon; a disciplinary mechanism devised by the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham which functions on the principle of perpetual surveillance. The Panopticon is essentially an all-seeing tower placed in the centre of a prison, serving to keep inmates under perennial surveillance; and yet any prison officer can come and go from the tower, so that the inmate never knows whether they are being watched or not. It is this feeling of being constantly watched that keeps the inmates in check. It works on the same principle of evoking fear through the idea of an omniscient God in Christian religion.
But for Foucault, the panoptic gaze of authority is omnipresent and extends beyond prisons: it penetrates every aspect of social life. We are all being watched, all of the time, and we don’t even know it. To establish the scene in which Neo is questioned by Agent Smith, the camera zooms in on a surveillance screen and seamlessly moves into the actual scene of the interrogation room. This signifies that the world of the matrix is at once under perennial surveillance and that the matrix itself is the very mechanism of that surveillance: the matrix exists as a “prison of the mind” designed to detain and control humanity through permanent visibility.
At one point in the film Morpheus states “the matrix is everywhere. It is all around us…You can see it when you turn on your television…You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes”. The control that the matrix has over humanity is unable to be perceived directly — it is, in Foucault’s words “unverifiable”; it is unknowable, unidentifiable and yet pervasive; a “prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch” (as Morpheus says) and which infiltrates various institutions or components of the Ideological State Apparatus, such as the media, the police, major business corporations, the church and so on.
As Foucault explains, modes of policing in our contemporary society no longer involve the public display of punishment but rather the ubiquitous and yet elusive gaze of authority in which the individual is fabricated within it: in buying mobile phones, ‘Alexas’, and other gadgets that enable us to be watched, listened to, and tracked, we are complicit in that surveillance. During the interrogation scene Agent Smith says “We’ve had our eye on you for some time now, Mr. Anderson”. In this context, surveillance relates to the singling out of an individual as a specific subject for knowledge — a process which Foucault refers to as “individualizing observation”, which is an integral function of the Panopticon: thanks to its mechanism of observation, the Panopticon acts as a laboratory of power in its ability to penetrate into human behaviour; for indeed, knowledge of human behaviour — how to understand it, pre-empt it, and influence it — is the cornerstone of power and control. In this scene Smith places a large file on the table, presumably containing details of Neo’s criminal history, and we can infer that there are files or repositories of knowledge on every single human being in the matrix. Indeed, in our modern Western world there is no one who does not now have a digital footprint or a means by which our behaviours can be tracked, studied, and subsequently influenced: long before mobile phones, GPS, ‘Alexa’, 5G etc, every time we used our credit card in a shop was an opportunity to track us and to collect knowledge about our whereabouts and our behaviours for surveillance purposes. The only way to be free from this perennial gaze is to go off the grid: to disappear, to erase our digital identity.
At the end of the film, Smith speaks of a “revelation” that he underwent whilst trying to “classify” the human species as an object of knowledge. He says: “human beings are a plague…and we are the cure”, and this notion of plague and its cure/containment relates significantly to Foucault’s historical analysis of the plague as “the trail in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power”. Foucault observes that, during times of national endemic, discipline and control is maintained through mechanisms of surveillance: inspection functions ceaselessly, the gaze is alert everywhere. This idea is based on a system of “binary division” or “branding” whereby each person is classified according to their state of sickness or health, their insanity or sanity and so on. Neo, who is under the perpetual gaze of the matrix, is located and examined by the policing Agents who construct him as a subject for knowledge; and humanity itself becomes a subject for knowledge as it is classified or branded as a virus. For Foucault, the knowledge acquired via disciplinary surveillance mechanisms is a mode of power; but it is also a means of control. The Agents function as an instrument of omnipresent surveillance — upon their initial meeting Trinity warns Neo that “they’re watching you” — and this notion of surveillance is pertinent in that the law and its various means of policing and control are seen to be artificial constructs or simulations. Indeed, the Agents who stand for the law within the matrix world are themselves simulations, a part of the system, a defence programme devised by the matrix to ensure the maintenance of power.
Foucault argues that the disciplinary techniques of control through surveillance pervade contemporary society and govern the minutiae of daily life (Smith knows that Neo takes out the garbage for his landlady, for example). This micro-physics of power extends beyond the limits of law and repression to construct the individual as a subject in, as well as subject to, the disciplinary mechanisms of the State. Power thus regulates the self; it invades our consciousness and our will. Indeed, Morpheus explains that those minds which remain incarcerated within the matrix world are their potential enemies: they are a part of the system and so are willing to fight to protect it; or they perceive the simulated world to be more favourable and more ‘real’ than the real world itself, as in the case of Cipher, who believes that “ignorance is bliss”. Power, however, is not exercised by a single authority but is rather distributed in a network of relations that encompass the rulers as well as the ruled. In this respect, there is no ‘outside’ of power: power is ubiquitous, non-localised, and ineluctable.
In the context of coronavirus, some people believe that the virus itself is an exercise in international surveillance and the surreptitious acquisition of knowledge: through modern technological means, it is possible to locate individuals and track their behaviours as means to ‘contain’ and police them; but surveillance is used to protect people, to trace patterns of behaviour to localise containment of the pandemic, and to enable better understanding of its spreading. When a virus threatens human life on a global scale then policing is necessary to ensure people’s safety, and tracking their location and behaviours is part of that policing mechanism. Good or bad, surveillance is intrinsic to social order and, in the case of coronavirus it is intrinsic to saving lives; and if knowledge is power, then knowledge of people and their ‘classification’ provides us with the power to combat the global threat of the virus. In 1918 when the world was threatened by the Spanish flu, millions of people died in the absence of sophisticated surveillance technology. The mortality rate associated with coronavirus is far less, largely due to the policing mechanisms put in place as well as the knowledge we have acquired about people, their behaviours, and their state of wellness: policing isn’t always about power and control; it is about safety and the preservation of human life.
Indeed in The Matrix the concept of surveillance is not only presented as a repressive means of control and of accumulating knowledge, but as a means of survival: the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar are able to survey every detail of the matrix world as it appears in ciphers on their control screen; they can pinpoint people, places, threats and means of escape. In the opening sequence of the film Cipher says to Trinity “you are watching him”: he is referring to Neo who is under surveillance, not only of the Agents and repressive authorities, but of the human resistance. Moreover, Neo is an object of knowledge for both the Agents and the rebels: upon their initial meeting Trinity says “I know a lot about you, Neo”. When it is discovered that Neo is a “target” of the Agents, Morpheus says “we’ll need a search running”, and as soon as these words are uttered, the camera pans out from a computer monitor displaying the word ‘searching’. The word ‘search’ means to seek out, to look for and also to investigate, to survey. In computer jargon the word refers to the process of searching for, recovering, and displaying information via a ‘search engine’. Neo is sought-out in order to be saved by Morpheus principally by tracking him on the computer by means of targeted surveillance.
In a brief interview in The Matrix Revisited, actor Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus) states that “it is almost a miracle” that the film was made due to its esoteric subject matter: art and industry are seemingly opposed. Moreover, in the audio commentary on The Matrix DVD, Special Effects Supervisor John Gaeta explains how the producers of the film decided to alter the Warner Brothers corporate logo at the start of the film: the logo is given a metallic green finish, thus invoking a visual and metaphorical parallel with the bleached greenish colour of the matrix world. The inference? Like the matrix itself, the film corporation is a hegemonic system of ideological control. But rather than being an act of creative licence and subversion, the film was still funded, produced, and distributed by Warner Brothers and subsequently made the film corporation masses of money. If the moviemakers had a subversive statement to make about the hegemony of Hollywood, then it is lost, for the means by which they conveyed their critique of power was, ironically, via the very Hollywood system it sought to undermine.
So is The Matrix as subversive, as liberating, and enlightening as we think?
Who knows, for if the message at the heart of the movie holds any weight, then every facet of our postmodern reality is a simulation or a hyper-real with no centre, no origin, and no absolute truth: that goes for the movie itself, and it goes for everything else we consume, including conspiracy theories. If anything, the movie invites us to challenge our assumptions about technology and power, in particular the idea that surveillance is always used as a repressive mechanism for social and ideological control. As both the movie and our current experience of coronavirus shows, surveillance is not entirely bad: in the case of the movie, surveillance enabled the discovery of the ‘one’; in the case of coronavirus, surveillance saves lives.