‘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.’
~ Morpheus to Neo, in The Matrix written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999
I was still in college when I watched The Matrix for the first time with a group of close friends. I vividly remember how we all got wildly excited and animated in trying to decipher the large canvas on which the Wachowskis had painted our future lives.
That was 19 years ago.
Google was still at its infancy and where I lived then, mobile phones were yet to make an entry in people’s lives. Life was simpler, slower, and probably less complicated. We were struggling to understand what the Wachowskis wanted to tell us in their magnum opus. Yet, we understood something. It was inexplicable, but tangible at the same time. Perhaps we understood that something extremely radical was waiting to happen, though we couldn’t define, much less imagine it.
And then came the rush.
The magnitude of technological changes that this planet has witnessed over the last two decades is unprecedented in scale and experience. For the first time, the generational gap in terms of the living experiences between a 20 year old and a 40 year old is perhaps the widest known in human history. My niece, born in 2003, has absolutely no idea what it was like to grow up without a computer, notepad, or a mobile phone. She can imagine it yes, as another piece of fiction her uncle tells her, but that’s about it. To my daughter, who just turned seven last month, my memories of radio devices and landlines are all part of the fairy tales that her father invents at bedtime.
Two decades. That is all it took to us to get here. And where are we now?
The world wide web has indeed created a web with an alternate reality in front us, in which we actively participate every day, maybe enslaved to participate, through tools like Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, TikTok, and whatnot.
Are we happy in this world?
Well, life is definitely more convenient now for a large number of people. Booking a cab has never been easier. Finding an answer or solving a puzzle has never been faster. One doesn’t necessarily have to move their muscles to fetch food anymore, an app can get someone else to do the job for them. So why should we, at least some of us (and the sum of some of us), who seem to be thriving in this era of digital-everything, be unhappy?
I was once subjected to an inebriated rant by a close friend who sternly argued that touch phones have taken away everything that was ever human about a touch. She hated the fact that people aren’t looking out of their car windows anymore, nor at the birds or trees. They would rather spend time typing about them without really looking at them, she complained. She was upset about these ‘bent-neck-beings’ on the metro, trying to find joy in a 5 inch screen. She felt disgusted that people sitting across a table wouldn’t hug any more, but rather send hug emoticons.
While she unleashed her fury upon the rest of us in the room, many nodded in agreement. I laughed out loud to deflect my feeling of guilt.
But you see, we are happy, even though we are slaves to this inner urge to appear good. We are happy because life as its stands now, is easier and more convenient, at least for those of us who can afford it. It is our strongest argument to find legitimacy for this new way of living that we learned as a race, in just under two decades.
So where do we go from here? How far are we from a world where robots do all the work, including fighting our wars, driving our cars, cleaning our dishes or farming our fields? How do we find ourselves and our purposes in a world that would price convenience above all other human needs and values?
Arguably, we have entered that world already. We are not fully immersed in it yet, but we will be soon.
Is it therefore possible to remain human in such a world that treats every aspect of our daily lives, our behaviour, our responses and reactions to different scenarios as mere data points for a machine to learn so that it gets better at predicting our every future thought or move?
It is impossible, I insist that is.
The defining characteristic of the modern world is to find joy in our own private and virtual space, in a private and virtual way.
In this make-believe world, we become everything that we actually are not. We become trolls. We become feminists, intellectuals, liberals. We become revolutionaries. We become reactionaries. We become our imaginations. The worst, the best, the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful – depending on what suits us, at a given space and time. I could be kind and helpful to one person, while being abusive and harmful to another, at the same time, in the blink of an eye. The anonymity offered by the web allows me to pretend to be someone I am not, or to hide who I really am. It can present me as someone humane and considerate, without me really being that way.
AI will only accentuate this ‘world of appearance and pretence’. AI presents me with a set of choices based on my digital habits and the trail that I leave on the Internet. But what if I have been manipulating those trails to present an image of myself that is more favourable and acceptable in this virtual world? Indeed the technological revolution so far has made many people more individualistic and self-obsessed than ever before. Therefore, AI will only replicate the manipulations manifold. In a world of self-driving cars, robot doctors, and machine poets, truth be told, I can afford not to adhere to the human values of equality, fraternity, and liberty because I can just pretend to do so.
That is what will most certainly happen with most of us. We will remain in the pods, with machines feeding off of our energy, while presenting us with a ‘matrix’ in which everything looks stunning, orderly, and predictable. Everything will appear real, only enough to keep us alive.
The Wachowskis warned us about this two decades ago.
The tragedy lies in the inevitability of this world, and our inability to stop it from coming. So we wait.
Abhilash Babu Vinayak is a communications consultant in the development sector and lives in Bangalore. He has successfully completed Diplo’s online course on Artificial Intelligence: Technology, Governance, and Policy Frameworks.