Mar 27, 2005

The Matrix experience

Let me start my blog with one of my favourite topics that deal with one of my favourite movies of all time - The Matrix (1999, Warner Bros.). I must admit that I don't recollect the exact details about when I saw the movie but I am very sure that I didn't understand a lot the first time. I do remember the breath-taking visual effects, and the cool and stylistic theme in which the movie was set, with the protagonist and his team clad in black leather and sunglasses that would leave you drooling. It was only after I saw the movie on my computer, rewinding the bits that I didn't understand and watching them over and over again that I found what it was all about. And when I did, I fell in love with it.

The idea of creating machines that can think and are also sentient (self-aware) has fascinated man for ages. Hollywood and its sci-fi community are no exceptions to this fact. Movies like 'Terminator' and 'The Matrix' depict a world in which the machines, after becoming self-aware, attempt to take control over the world, till then dominated by the humans. While the 'Terminator' and its sequels portray the machines as a super-intelligent entity that is hell-bent on eradicating humans from the planet, 'The Matrix' movies give a new twist to the terms 'artificial intelligence' and 'virtual reality.' With the basic distinctions in place, let us delve deeper into the Matrix world.

(Spoiler warning: Please don't read the text below if you haven't watched 'The Matrix' and its sequels already as it will surely take the fizz out of it when you see it later. In case you haven't watched them, you don't know what you are missing. And I wonder why you are reading this anyway.)

The movie is set around a computer hacker, Thomas Anderson (a.k.a. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves), a young man disillusioned by the modern world, and working as a program writer for a software company. He is met by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), branded "the most dangerous man alive" by the authorities. Morpheus offers Neo a chance to know "the truth", about what the Matrix is - a question that Neo is desperately trying to answer. Neo accepts the offer and takes the red pill and the world goes topsy-turvy for him.

What is the Matrix?

As Morpheus explains to an awe-struck Neo, "The Matrix is a world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth." The explanation: The year is actually closer to 2199, instead of 1999, as Anderson believed. Human beings had succeeded in creating machines (computer systems) that had developed the power to think, super-systems with "artificial intelligence". The machines had decided that they would no longer be slaves to humans and a long battle between the machines and humans had started. Human beings, in trying to deprive the machines of solar energy, had "scorched the skies", hoping the machines would give in. But the machines were even more intelligent than their enemies thought.

By utilizing the body heat and bioelectricity generated by the human body and "combined with some form of fusion", the machines had found the source to all the energy they would ever need. But the problem was that the human beings were their enemies and wouldn't let the machines just feed off them. For this, the machines devised an ingenious method.

They created a "virtual world" (referred to as "The Matrix" by the rebels) and linked up the human beings as individuals of this artificial world, while in reality, their bodies were lying in pods, their brains linked to the Matrix, their bodies powering the entire machine world. To someone jacked into the Matrix, the world would seem just as if it was "real". They would be born as babies, grow up into children and adults, and die of old age or whatever. They would be no more aware of this "virtual reality" as you and I would be aware of the artificiality of a dream while we are sleeping. In a way, everyone connected to the Matrix were sleeping all the time, dreaming his or her lives out.

What Morpheus had done was to free Neo from the Matrix, by "waking him up" from his slumber. Morpheus tries to convince Neo that he is "the One", somebody who has the power to overthrow the Matrix and free his fellow humans. He tells Neo that the Matrix is just like a computer system: "some of its rules can be bent; others can be broken." Morpheus tells Neo that he can defeat the Agents and free his people because the rules of the Matrix do not apply to him. As he puts it when Neo asks cynically whether he can dodge bullets, "When you are ready Neo, you won't have to."

A word about the Agents: Agents in the Matrix are computer programs, that try to keep order in the system, a kind of control and the first line of defence against the human rebels, like Morpheus and his friends. They are computer programs and hence, faster than the humans. They are so fast that they can even dodge bullets shot at them by the human rebels. Agent Smith is the lead agent in 'The Matrix'.

Following a dramatic turn of events, Morpheus ends up in the custody of agents and it is upto Neo to rescue him. With the help of Trinity (Carrie Ann-Moss), Neo does succeed in rescuing Morpheus but gets trapped in the Matrix before he can get out. He chooses to fight Agent Smith rather than run, and almost defeats him the first time. But Smith, being the computer program that he/it is, escapes and kills Neo. Neo had begun to believe that he is the One, but his belief was not complete (he couldn't see through the Matrix fully yet) and that cost him his life.

Trinity had fallen in love with Neo and she kisses and tells the dead Neo that she loves him and since the Oracle had told her that she would fall in love with The One, Neo can't be dead. Miraculously, Neo does come back from the dead, and this time, he is invincible. Smith and the other agents shoot him and Neo stops the oncoming bullets with a gesture of his hand. He destroys Smith and comes out of the Matrix, this time, a free man.

Perception is reality

As the movie emphasizes from time to time, the "reality" of the Matrix is so great, its impact so profound on those who are jacked in, that their experiences do become reality. Morpheus tells Neo that if you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world because "your mind makes it real." If you are connected to the Matrix and you are being fed the signal that a man sitting next to you shoots you with a gun and you actually "feel" that the bullet has struck your heart, then it may kill you, "really" kill you.

"There is no spoon"

Morpheus and his friends, with the exception of Neo, are aware of this fact and this is why they can do things that normal people (still jacked into the Matrix) can't, like jumping over skyscrapers and escaping from agents. However, Neo is aware of this fact to such a degree that he sees the Matrix for what it actually is, a virtually real world, but in the end, it still is all virtual; a sensory deception. That is why he knows that the bullet coming at him is just an electric signal sent to his brain by the Matrix, and by choosing to exercise his free will over the sensory input, he is able to dodge, and later, even stop the bullets. (Technically speaking, he is able to send a reverse, more powerful signal to the Matrix from his brain that ends up as "stopped bullets" to others in the Matrix.) He gets this realization from the yogic boy in the movie who tries to reveal the truth to Neo that it is all in your mind. If you think there is a spoon, there is; if you don't, there is actually none.

Referring back to the point mentioned earlier, some individuals are said to have the rare gift of lucid dreaming (conscious dreaming). This means that they are actually aware that they are dreaming and hence can take control of the dream and turn it into anything they want. To take a well-quoted example, suppose you dream that you are falling from a tall building and then suddenly realize that you are dreaming and yet you don't wake up, you can do miraculous things in your dreams. You can suddenly grow wings and fly away or just freeze in mid-air and stop the fall and what not. Neo, in a way, has this gift, as he knows that he is actually in a dream-like state and thus can take control of the dream, which is of course, the Matrix. His friends (Morpheus, Trinity and other rebels) are also aware of the fact but they just can't let go, as the "reality" of the Matrix is just too much.

The science part of the Matrix may be a bit flawed. Case in point: To provide life support facilities to all the people connected to the Matrix will perhaps consume more power than that is being generated using the "fusion method" described in the movie and to keep the humans in this sleep-induced state is almost impossible without some kind of medication or hypnotism (I am not quite sure about this, so please correct me if I am wrong here.) Also, the amount of computing power needed to create this virtual world and make it "feel real" to all the persons inside will be simply enormous. Just think about this simple illustration: You and your friend are standing in the Matrix world and you take up a pile of sand in your hands and let it go from a height above the ground. The computers of the Matrix would have to simulate every single grain of sand with all its aspects correctly; its size, shape, velocity, dynamics, trajectory, and what not so that you will actually believe that you are doing what you are doing. Ditto for your friend who is watching from a different position. Now imagine all the processes going on simultaneously, and, most o f them are infinitely more complex than the process just described and it will give you some idea about what amount of data processing tasks I am talking about, to say nothing of the thought process of every individual connected to the Matrix. There are lots more, but this article wouldn't go there.

However, the underlying theme of the human race "waking up" from the maya (an illusion, according to the Hindu concept) is illustrated beautifully using technology as a medium. And perhaps that will be the reason why the movie will remain as one of my all-time favourites.

This blog has intentionally left out the numerous references of the movie to mysticism and many religions through symbolisms because there are many well-referenced and better articles out there on the Web, written by better authors. (Just a hint: Did you notice that Neo is supposed to be the "savior" of the world and he comes back after dying to save the world?)

For more interesting ideas, visit the Official Matrix site