One of the most iconic movie scenes in recent decades is when Neo wakes up from the Matrix. He realises that he is in reality a battery living an artificial life in a digital reality. The world he lives in is one big computerised programme, the Matrix. His mentor, Morpheus, explains to him: “You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo.”
The first film of the trilogy was released in 1999, on the eve of a new millennium. The film was not only iconic for its design and unimaginable battle scenes, but it also made us look at reality in a whole new way. It opened our eyes, so to speak, to the world we live in. The film itself seemed like the ‘red pill’.
However, that red pill of ‘awakening’ can be explained on very different levels. Let’s look deeper into the different layers hidden in the Matrix, and, in the words of Morpheus ‘let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes…’
LEVEL ONE: ADDICTION TO TECHNOLOGY
Looking around us, we see that the cinematic reality of ‘The Matrix’ has already penetrated deeply into our world. We are increasingly dependent on computers, spending hours daily on a desktop or laptop. With the introduction of chatGTP, a whole new phase in the digital age is just beginning. Artificial Intelligence is taking over much of our human actions and thinking with great ease. AI writes faster than we can ever write and produces books, articles, summaries, etc. It creates paintings indistinguishable from real ones, plays chess better than the best top chess players, and performs all kinds of calculations that would otherwise be impossible. “At some point in the early twenty-first century all of mankind was united in celebration,” Morpheus tells Neo. “We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI.”
Through Metaverse, Facebook’s parent company, we can now walk around a digital world with VCR glasses. We can buy houses there, meet people, hold meetings, trade etc. Just like in the ordinary world. Conversely, the digital world is increasingly intruding into ordinary reality: our homes, cars, refrigerators, shops, offices, public transport etc. are increasingly controlled by digital networks such as 5G. Everything is becoming ‘smart.’
This all seems super convenient and effective. Our money system and stock market trading is already fully controlled by global super-fast computer networks. Pro forma, humans still seem to have some control, but the question is: do we? Are we still in control of what we ourselves have created?
We are increasingly weaving a cocoon around us of a computer-controlled reality, à la The Matrix. The best example is probably our smartphone. For hours we stare at it, scrolling along timelines, viewing news, offers, stocks, messages, payments, the state of our health, Whatsapps, Twitter feed, etc. Etc. In the Matrix, people are connected to the main computer with a plug in their neck. With us, there is no need for that; we are plugged into our mobile. The vast digital supply is infinite. We are hooked, addicted to our screen. Look around once in the train or metro, and you know how big the problem is. Indeed, as you read this, you are sitting looking at your screen.
Just for fun, take a minute to look around you. Then you will see – and experience – the difference with the medium through which I am now communicating with you. ‘There’s a world out there, and it’s called reality.’
Apparently, we are exchanging that physical reality with increasing ease for a digital, computer-made reality. This has consequences that we do not realise at first.
At first, it is mainly the advantages that stand out. The convenience, the comfort, the communication possibilities, the innovation, the fun of the game. The sky is the limit.
But after some two decades of the internet and digital convenience, the downsides also start to become visible. We are becoming increasingly dependent on technology. We are creating a dead world in which nature, physical contact, human skills and ‘ordinary’ reality, take up less and less space. Ultimately, our internet use is not only at the expense of the earth, nature and energy resources but ultimately ourselves. After all, we are not made up of zeros and ones, but of cells, muscles, blood and bones. The two do not seem to be in sync for the time being, but that too is going to change in the future. Biotechnology and genetic engineering are making great strides. So-called Organoid intelligence, will eventually replace AI. Organoid is something like brain cells from a laboratory.
In addition, within a decade, it will already be possible to grow a foetus in an artificial womb and have her born too. No more need for a mother. Through genetic engineering, we can thereby modify characteristics, facial features, talents, IQ, and other things at will. In China, they are already well advanced with this technology. For some scientists and consumers, this is hugely interesting; for others, it is a dystopian spectre.
Just as we have replaced all original healing methods and natural medicines for scientific methods and artificially manufactured medication, we are replacing our natural world for a digital artificial reality. We have sat in the chair of God himself, with no view of the complex whole. In fact, according to the same scientific understanding, God does not exist at all and the ingenious ecosystem in which we have been given a place is an evolutionary accident. Knowing that the human mind is limited, we seem all too happy to surrender complex thinking to a computer. Under the illusion that we ourselves will still have the last word. We live under the illusion that we as humanity are getting crunchier and crunchier. We are creating our own world, a modern Tower of Babel. And to think that we are only at the beginning of the digital age….
LEVEL 2: THE ARTIFICIAL HUBRIS
The evil genius in the film The Matrix is a computer programme that has gone its? own way and taken on strongly human forms: Mister Smith. Preferably, he wants to exterminate humanity because he considers it pernicious and underdeveloped. “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.”
Smith is Neo’s antagonist and represents evil. The film trilogy ends in an all-consuming final battle between the two.
“Why, Mister Anderson, why?” asks Smith who just doesn’t understand why that pathetic heap of humans continues to fight.
“Because I have a choice,” replies Neo. And that is exactly what a computer programme does not seem to have. A will of its own, a soul. Apparently, that’s what sets us apart from the computer, making us as humans quirky, complex, vulnerable and unique.
LEVEL 3: THE DEMISE OF FREE WILL
But it is precisely this self-will that is severely tested by digital society. Are we still allowed to choose for ourselves? Are we still entitled to decide for ourselves about our health, about vaccination or medication or not, about what we can and cannot say? With the rise of the digital world, censorship also seems to be increasing, primarily to deal with all kinds of nasty side effects, such as hate, terror, porn etc. But who decides what belongs and what does not? That depends on the prevailing ideology. If that ideology becomes coercive, determining those dividing lines goes seamlessly into a totalitarian society, where the system or the state determines what you are allowed to think, write or do. Whether or not to earn points that determine what freedoms you are still allowed to have, as is already the case in today’s China. ‘Big brother is watching you.’
A programme like ChatGPT is a good example of this. You can have anything written as long as it is not outside the boundary conditions, which are determined by those running the system. Try it out: write an article via GPT that does not conform to any prevailing scientific understanding, and GPT will correct you nicely. There goes the pioneering thinking that ensures our evolution. It thinks for you, but it also determines what you are not supposed to think or feel. And with that, self-will, that unique, creative part of being human, is increasingly restricted. What does that look like? Look at China.
LEVEL 4: WAKING UP FROM THE DREAM
To wake up from this evil dream, it is important that we reclaim our own freedom, that we fight against an evolution that does not match our view of humanity and the world, that we fight for our values. Suddenly, democracy is something we need to take to the streets again for. ‘Freedom cannot be taken for granted,’ reads a bronze plaque at the bottom of the monument on Dam Square in the heart of Amsterdam. We have taken freedom for granted for several decades. But it suddenly turns out that it is no longer so. Totalitarian and (computer) controlled systems threaten our freedom, security and human dignity. Safeguarding human freedom and dignity requires us to stand up for what we care about and make our voices heard. Freedom doesn’t exist without responsibility. Peace not without struggle. Love not without truth.
LEVEL 5: THE REAL WORLD BEHIND THE MATRIX
However, there is another deeper layer in the film that takes us to a completely different level, a spiritual level that is difficult to understand with the mind. The Matrix is, as it were, a metaphor for the world we live in. Regardless of the future vision the film gives, the basic idea is ancient: humans incarnate, take on a body, are born into the ‘matrix’ – in other words the three-dimensional reality we know – and live their lives. Every spiritual movement tells about the reality that is, however, hidden behind this ‘apparent’ world (maya), and only through spiritual awakening do we get in touch with it. The Celts call it ‘the other world’, the Vikings ‘Valhalla’, Buddhists ‘nirvana’, Christians ‘heaven’, and so every religion or spiritual movement has a name for the invisible reality that lies behind this 3D world. Our body is the avatar through which we can experience this ‘creation’. “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a physical experience,” says spiritual guru Deepak Chopra.
Awakening is done in all kinds of ways: through prayer, meditation, yoga, plant medicine, insight or study. There are thousands of vistas in our world that remind us that there is more between heaven and earth. In ‘Alice in Wonderland’, it is a white rabbit that takes Alice down a rabbit hole, taking her into another reality. A mythological world where nothing is what it seems, but where she undergoes important life lessons.
In India, Sri Shankaracharya wrote down the teachings of Advaita Vedanta, the doctrine of non-duality. There is nothing outside ourselves, everything in the world is a mirror of the ‘I’. The way to get in touch with that other, universal reality, therefore, is to look not at the world around us, but purely inward. ‘Who am I?’ Therein lies the key to enlightenment and liberation from worldly duality. It requires us to let go of all attachment to outer things: power, wealth, prestige, status, judgements, our body, wanting to be right, etc. These are all things of the ego, which keep us attached to the material world. To attain enlightenment, we need to understand that all these things are nothing more than echoes of our mind, ‘programmes in the matrix’. Only by gaining this insight can Neo and Trinity move freely, literally, through the matrix.
The same applies to us. If we can see that reality as it presents itself is nothing but a kind of viewing box, which we become aware of through our eyes, our ears and other senses, we can see the difference between the temporary, three-dimensional world, and see the unchanging and eternal truth that lies behind it: the world of the soul. In this sense, it makes no sense to fight the battle with the material world, because that battle too keeps us trapped in duality. It keeps us in the grip of good and evil, heroes and villains, light and darkness.
LEVEL 6: TRANSCENDING THE MATRIX
To become detached (and transcend the Matrix), we need to rise above these polarities and see the oneness that encompasses everything. This is easier said than done, because you don’t get there through a thought trick, or by just believing theory hard enough. Only through direct experience and through awareness can you experience something of the transcendental reality hidden behind and beneath outer experience.
There is no recipe for it, nor any path or method to get there. It is something that happens to you, as it were. You can only create the conditions for it, and learn to let go of what it is not. And sometimes that involves struggle and surrender.
For Neo, liberation from the Matrix means sacrificing himself and travelling to Machine City, where he will form an alliance with the machines. He will eliminate the pernicious Mister Smith, in exchange for humanity’s survival.
For each of us, life will hold its own challenge that no one can tell us, our soul task. All we can do is follow the instructions of our hearts, knowing who we truly are: We are the One.