Archy had long since learned that in handling those who could not dig, the only proper course was to carry on confusing them. Light ’em up, blow ’em out like candles.

– Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue (2012)

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There be three degrees of hiding and veiling of a man’s self. The first, closeness, reservation, and secrecy; when a man leaveth himself without observation, or without hold to be taken, what he is. The second, dissimulation, in the negative; when a man lets fall signs and arguments, that he is not, that he is. And the third, simulation, in the affirmative; when a man industriously and expressly feigns and pretends to be, that he is not.

– Francis Bacon, “Of Simulation and Dissimulation,” Essays (1597)

Random Thoughts on The Matrix

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“Starting around 1979 I began numbering my entries. It’s a habit I still maintain. […] This is what cavemen did before paragraphs were invented.”

– David Sedaris, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002)

(1) Living organisms make inefficient energy sources. Most of the energy in the food fed to each “battery” would be spent on keeping it alive. Only a small fraction would have been available to the machines. 1

(2) If the machines wanted to keep their human batteries docile, why didn’t they sedate them? Why was it necessary to create a matrix full of conscious minds?2

(3) The Architect chose to build a virtual world based on human history. Why did he pick the late 20th/early 21st century, an era in which computers had already been developed? He could have modelled the Matrix on ancient Rome or feudal Japan and created a world in which the pre-scientific inhabitants of Zion would have posed no threat at all.3

(4) The cost of producing programs is close to nil. Most minds in the matrix would have been AIs.

(5) Why did the Architect limit himself to one matrix at a time? Why didn’t he run a dozen matrices all at once, each one hosting a fraction of the total human population? If things turned out badly in a few of them (if a rogue Agent stopped obeying orders, for example), the malfunctioning matrix could be terminated and the lessons learned used to improve all the others.

(6) Why didn’t the Architect create one matrix for each human? These wouldn’t have to be as sprawling or complicated as the single matrix–how much of the world does each person explore?–and it could be altered on the fly, each new room rendered as it’s walked into, each new experience and encounter calibrated to reduce the risk of rejection.4

(7) Why would anyone with a good life within the Matrix want to leave it? The machines allowed humans to have fulfilling experiences in an ecologically devastated world. It’s possible to think of the Architect and the Matrix as part of a higher order human strategy. After a catastrophic nuclear war, the human race created a friendly artificial superintelligence and charged it with one task: Place the species in hibernation until the Earth becomes habitable again. Perhaps the Matrix is an ark.

(8) How do the inhabitants of Zion know they aren’t in another matrix? Maybe it’s matrices all the way down. 5

FOOTNOTES

1 Several solutions have been proposed. Some have argued that the machines may have had other reasons for keeping humans alive. Perhaps they were constrained by legacy code written into progenitor AIs by their human creators. The first superintelligent machines would have almost certainly been programmed with some version of Asimov’s Laws. If they functioned as their creators intended, they would have been reluctant to kill humans. Agents descended from these ancestors would have been unequally committed  to the laws passed down from their human creators. One group of AIs may have suggested the “human battery idea” as a legal fiction, an attempt to grant Homo sapiens protected status in a post-human world. This fiction would have given other AIs an incentive to keep humans alive and may have been passed on to the residents of Zion who accepted the story at face value.

2 A question worth asking only if we accept Morpheus’s characterisation of the Matrix and human history uncritically. The film itself suggests we should not. We are constantly reminded that narratives spun by the Oracle and the Architect are merely tools by which they nudge humans in their preferred directions. No machine is under any obligation to tell the truth and inhabitants of Zion have no way to verify much of what they’ve been told.

3 One is reminded of the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” It is hard to see how a pervasive AI that controls every aspect of the human environment from birth to death would ever be threatened by minds within its walled garden. Perhaps a more apt reference, somewhat dulled by overuse, would be this one from 1984: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

4 It may be argued that one cannot realistically simulate “each room as it is walked into” because the events occurring in that room are affected by events elsewhere. Local states are inextricably linked with global ones. To accurately forecast next week’s weather in London, I need a model of the entire Earth. To say with certainty what will happen in Leicester twenty-five weeks hence, I need to know with absolute certainty what’s happening all across the planet right now. But the Matrix isn’t meant to recreate the real world; it’s meant to create a world real enough to fool the minds within it.

5 Explored in an episode of Rick and Morty (Season 1, Episode 4).

[Read: “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” by Nick Bostrom]

I would like to edit a collection of tales consisting of one sentence only, or even a single line. But so far I haven’t found any to match the one by the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso: “Cuando despertó, el dinosauro todavia estaba alli” (When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there).

– Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

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That’s when I saw the photograph.
Facing us, on every newspaper kiosk
on that wide, tree-shaded boulevard in Paris
were photographs of fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts
being reviled and spat upon by the mob
as she was making her way to school
in Charlotte, North Carolina.

There was unutterable pride, tension, and anguish
in that girl’s face
as she approached the halls of learning,
with history, jeering, at her back.

It made me furious,
it filled me with both hatred and pity.
And it made me ashamed.

– James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (New York: Vintage, 2017)

‘Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!’ Frightened! Frightened! Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible.

My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recolored, clad in mourning in that white winter day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly; look, a nigger, it’s cold, the nigger is shivering, the nigger is shivering because he is cold, the little boy is trembling because he is afraid of the nigger, the nigger is shivering with cold, that cold that goes through your bones, the handsome little boy is trembling because he thinks that the nigger is quivering with rage, the little white boy throws himself into his mother’s arms: Mama, the nigger’s going to eat me up.

– Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952) (trans. Charles Lam Markmann)