- The Virtual Dialectic: Rethinking The Matrix and its Significance
Rather than designating the choice between good and evil, my Either/Or designates the choice by which one chooses good and evil or rules themout.1
The debates and decisions surrounding virtual reality, cyberspace, and other forms of computer-mediated communication have been, like so much philosophical reasoning within the Western tradition, organized around antinomies. One of the principal concerns involves a conflict between the real world and the computer-generated simulations that appear to threaten it. As Peter Horsfield describes it, the question is
whether the essential characteristics of virtual reality as a reality in which the frustrations and disappointments of the actual world do not exist will inevitably lead to a diminishing desire to live in the actual world. So, instead of learning the disciplines of living with or changing one’s individual or communal environment, one finds it easier to escape into a reality where these practicalities do not exist.2
This apparent conflict between the real and the virtual, and the various considerations it entails, is perhaps best dramatized in a pivotal scene from The Matrix (1999)—the first episode of a cinematic trilogy [End Page 193] written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski.3 In this scene, the leader of the opposition, Morpheus, presents Neo, the protagonist, with a decisive choice between two alternatives. “This is your last chance,” Morpheus says stoically. “After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake in your bed, and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.” What Morpheus offers Neo in the form of two pills is a choice between two very different and opposed possibilities. To select the blue pill is to decide not only to live in an immaterial, computer-generated fantasy, but to remain ignorant of the mechanisms of this deception. This fantastic virtual world is, if not perfect, at least vastly superior to the post-apocalyptic real world that exists outside the Matrix. To select the red pill is to choose the truth no matter how disturbing, disappointing, and difficult the “desert of the real” might turn out to be. It is a choice that affirms the undeniable importance of lived experience in a real world that exists outside computer-generated simulations. Consequently, what Morpheus offers Neo is a choice between competing and radically different alternatives: an absolutely seamless immaterial fantasy, or the reality of the material world. It is an important and dramatic decision, and Neo’s choice matters for the film, for advocates and critics of computer systems, and for our understanding of the social position and impact of technology.
In addressing this matter, I do not want to replay the familiar evaluations and arguments that have been publicized about this particular decision. Anthologies like William Irwin’s The Matrix and Philosophy,4 Glenn Yeffeth’s Taking the Red Pill,5 and Christopher Grau’s Philosophers Explore The Matrix6 have already done an adequate job [End Page 194] of exposing the philosophical themes involved in Neo’s choice and connecting the conceptual dots in this curious hybrid of Platonic metaphysics, cyberpunk science fiction, and martial-arts cinema. Instead, I want to submit to critical reevaluation the philosophical and technological assumptions that have been deployed in and that have informed these various writings. Despite differences in methodology and interpretation, the “critical writings” on The Matrix employ a set of very familiar and remarkably consistent assumptions that remain, for the most part, outside the space of critical inquiry. These assumptions go deep, and they influence not only the interpretation of this particular cinematic narrative, but also our general understanding of virtual reality (VR) technology and its philosophical position and consequences. To put it in the metaphorical language of the narrative in question, the available understandings of both The Matrix films and VR technology are already programmed and controlled by a matrix of largely unacknowledged assumptions. We can, on the one hand, continue to...