Digital Technology and Cultures/Marxism in the Matrix - The Frankfurt School and Virtual Reality

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Marxism in the Matrix - The Frankfurt School and Virtual Reality[edit]

In the film world of The Matrix (1999) and its sequels, humanity has been enslaved by robot overlords and kept docile by a massively networked virtual reality system. While the most obvious questions posed by the film are existentially skeptical in nature (e.g. “What is reality?” or “What is consciousness?”) when focusing on the virtual reality technology we can also gain much from Critical Theory, a tradition of thought born from the Frankfurt School.

The Frankfurt School sought to apply new theoretical frameworks to the ideas of Karl Marx, in an age that posed socio-technological challenges, Marx may never have conceived of electronic mass media or artificial intelligence. Marx would certainly have recognized the human predicament of the world of The Matrix as similar to his own time after the Industrial Revolution, with humanity reduced to "an appendage of the machine" (Marx, 1969), or in the case of The Matrix: batteries (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IojqOMWTgv8).

The scholars of the Frankfurt School were concerned about the commodification of culture as a result of technology, and that the result of such a phenomenon would be a public easily influenced and pacified by such a culture:

"They theorized that this experience made people intellectually inactive and politically passive, as they allowed mass produced ideologies and values to wash over them and infiltrate their consciousness. They argued that this process was one of the missing links in Marx's theory of the domination of capitalism, and largely helped to explain why Marx's theory of revolution never came to pass." (Cole, 2017)

The film WALL-E (2008) imagines how far this inactivity and passivity might go even without The Matrix's malevolent AI hegemon running the show. In that future, the humans are simply oblivious to the world around them, captivated as they are by the augmented reality interfaces on their hover chairs (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1BQPV-iCkU).

However, of greater concern is VRs potential for abuse as a tool of persuasion. Its immersiveness can create intense emotional responses that have been shown to impact future behavior. A study at Stanford found that subjects who chopped down a tree in a virtual reality system later used fewer napkins to clean up a spill than subjects who merely read about and imagined the act of the tree-cutting (Gorlick, 2011). The visceral VR experience resulted in more eco-friendly behavior in this case, but it stands to reason that minds could be swayed for more nefarious purposes with this technology as well.

The artificial intelligence antagonist in The Matrix trilogy also arrives at this conclusion, albeit through some trial and error. As the character Agent Smith reveals, the first attempt at the Matrix was a comparatively benevolent one, a Utopia by human standards. However, this attempt was ultimately unsuccessful as the human brains would not accept a world without suffering; it was "a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Whole crops were lost." (Agent Smith, The Matrix, 1999)

It is telling that the simulation of human civilization that best serves the AI’s goals of pacifying the human psyche is that of the late 20th century. Not just because it is relatable to the contemporary audience of the film, but also because it is the period in human history of what the members of the Frankfurt School might have considered to be the peak of mass culture, intellectual inactivity and political passivity.

More telling is that, even in this “optimum” simulation of human experience, the people are required to have boring cubicle jobs, where they lament being cogs in the machine and dream of the better life that is sold to them on television. This dilemma seems almost directly lifted from Marx's Theory of Alienation, the idea that capitalism strips laborers of their humanity to make them more efficient tools. The human minds in the Matrix thus only accept such programming because it feels like it is required - as we learned earlier, when the minds were allowed complete freedom, they rebelled.

Further, this particular point would not surprise Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse, who wrote in One Dimensional Man [person] about the ways that mass culture provides people with a sense of fulfillment, allowing them to fulfill "needs" created by the culture itself. So that not only would "working" in the Matrix feel required, but it would also feel rewarding, and thereby pacifying:

"The means of mass transportation and communication, the commodities of lodging, food, and clothing, the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers and, through the latter, to the whole. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood. And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity; it becomes a way of life. It is a good way of life--much better than before--and as a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of onedimensional thought and behavior in which ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe. They are redefined by the rationality of the given system and of its quantitative extension.” ( Marcuse, 1964)

This is the exact sentiment expressed in a conversation between the characters Neo and Morpheus as Morpheus explains the Matrix to Neo:

“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or 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. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qedAzTA8nY8&t=37s)

In fact, the simulation is so convincing, that even those who manage to escape it may find themselves longing to return. This may be the real danger to humanity, if the Stanford study is any indication; if one could be compelled to alter their real behavior by a virtual experience, what is there to stop the virtual world from making you want to stay in it forever? Perhaps the character Cypher, who will betray his friends in reality for a chance to return to the virtual world as a battery, puts it best (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5y68ErffgM):

“Ignorance is bliss.”

Famous Frankfurt School/Critical Theorists[edit]

  • Max Horkheimer
  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • Herbert Marcuse
  • Friedrich Pollock
  • Leo Löwenthal
  • Jürgen Habermas

References[edit]

Cole, Nicki. 2017. “An Introduction to the Frankfurt School.” ThoughtCo. Accessed 2/27/18 from https://www.thoughtco.com/frankfurt-school-3026079

Gorlick, Adam. 2011. “New virtual reality research – and a new lab – at Stanford.” Stanford Report. Accessed 2/18/2018 from https://news.stanford.edu/news/2011/april/virtual-reality-trees040811.html

Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. “One Dimensional Man.” Boston, Beacon. Quotation accessed 2/27/2018 from http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/64onedim/odm1.html

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. 1969. Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow. pp. 98-137. Quotation accessed 3/8/2018 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.

WALL-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2008.