When it premiered Matrix By 1999, the hype about the internet had reached a frenzy. Some enthusiastically appointed Matrix as “the first film of the XXI century”. And more than twenty years after release, it remains the defining film of the internet’s early age. The film led to two sequels, both released in 2003, and with Matrix resurrecciones the franchise returns to a digitized world in whose configuration it has played an important role. However, it is not an entirely positive achievement due to how the internet has developed. After Mark Zuckerberg announced his plans for a “metaverse,” an “embodied internet, where instead of just watching content, you’re inside of it,” the franchise’s marketing team responded by tweeting a new tagline for Matrix resurrecciones: “Now, based on real events”
But even the first movie envisioned a more hopeful future than Silicon Valley now envisions. Without going too deep, the saga presented a clear dystopia: sometime in the late 22nd century, humans are harvested as an energy resource to fuel machines. They have connected humans to a simulation from the year 1999, known as the Matrix, that keeps them passive and distracted. Although after viewing the simulation as a creation (accessed by taking the “red pill”), people have the power to reconnect and walk through it as a more genuine version of themselves.
At this point we get a feeling of nostalgia: not for the representation of 1999, but for the internet that could exist. “A world without rules and controls, without borders or limits, a world where anything is possible,” says Neo, the main character. Dominated by a handful of megacorporations, today’s digital sphere seems to be more aligned with machine coercion than Neo’s dreams. The Internet is now a vast network designed to capture our tastes, attention, and thought patterns and direct them down profitable paths. The goal is not a world where anything is possible, but a world where everything is predictable and achievable.
The promise of digital self-realization from Matrix it was integral to the utopianism of the internet’s early years. One of the pioneering users said that, on the internet, “you can be whoever you want to be … You don’t have to worry about the boxes other people put you in.” Or, as a cartoon from the time put it in a comical tone: “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” However, the internet today does tell you who you are and it is hardly a place free of prejudice. For example, Zuckerberg argues that having a second identity on Facebook is “an example of a lack of integrity.” This is reminiscent of the main villain of Matrix, Agent Smith, a corporate employee who works on behalf of the machines and insists on calling Neo by his real name. “He has been living two lives: one has a future; the other, no “, reproaches Smith.
The main avenues of the internet now value consistency and transparency over the risks of anonymity and reinvention. The idea of the internet as a place to cultivate an identity outside of the boxes others put you in was overshadowed by a social media-driven approach to creating an aspirational personal brand. Self-actualization is now measured in likes, shared posts, and follower count. Theorist Mark Andrejevic has used a provocative term for this: “umbilical commerce.” Just as an umbilical cord meets the needs of a fetus before it can communicate them, technological platforms go to great lengths to satisfy our desires before we express them. Zuckerberg has said he wants to find “a fundamental mathematical law” that “governs the balance of who and what is important to everyone.” Here the internet is equivalent to a large “vending machine” that reads your mind and provides you with products the moment you think of them … or sooner.
Andrejevic’s term matches on a lurid level with Matrix, where humans are connected to the simulation through umbilical-like cords. The configuration indicates our infantilization, a future where all our desires are satisfied in advance, but where the will has ceased to exist. Now 1999 feels a long way off. In our age of climate crisis and extreme inequality, the hours we spend online are increasingly overshadowed by an awareness that, as connected to the Matrix, we perpetuate a system that does not seek the best for humanity. At least in Matrix you can blame the machines. We can only blame ourselves and the internet that we have created
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Matrix, free internet and Silicon Valley