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Is your life an elaborate hoax?

The Matrix movies are a Hollywood phenomenon. The three films generated US$ 1.6 billion at the box office across the world. At one level, they can be viewed as routine Hollywood blockbuster stuff: eye-popping special effects; infantile chases and fights; the regular titanic battles between good and evil. Standard teenager fare. Yawn, say ye of more cerebral tastes – why is he promoting silly science fiction this Sunday?

The Matrix movies are different because of their unique plot premise. The central idea is that everything we perceive to be our reality – all that we feel and taste, love and yearn for – may be just one massive illusion. If an artificial intelligence were feeding simulations directly into our brains, we would experience pleasure, pain, tragedy, growth – everything that we regard as “real”. Yet it would be just an elaborate hoax created by a wicked power for its own ends.

You think the plot is far-fetched? You imagine that you are far too aware of your own reality, for anyone to construct intricate illusions for you to swallow? Really? Let’s try a few simple tests. Start with your clothes. If you are a consumer with an income that allows you to exist beyond mere subsistence, what makes you buy new clothes? What is your primary motivation?

To cover yourself? To be comfortable? Don’t give me that claptrap. If you’re like most people, you buy and wear clothes essentially for their effect on other people, not yourself. We dress to impress, to attract, to show off our bodies (or in most cases to hide our ugliness). We don’t do it for ourselves at all – otherwise why would any sane person wear high-heeled shoes, stockings that tear if you breathe on them, corsets, ties, or three-piece suits in a hot country? Our own comfort is the last thing on our mind when we covet that new ensemble. Impressing others is the main game.

The fashion business knows this fundamental fact, and leads us through an elaborate rigmarole all of our spending lives. We are told via the mass media what’s hot, what’s not, what is for winners and what’s best left to the losers. And when the industry runs out of ideas (there are only so many ways to clothe a body, after all), all it needs to do is recycle the styles of yesteryear, and put its brainwashing machinery to work to convince our enfeebled minds that platform shoes and bell bottoms, or whatever, are somehow “back”. Usually, we accept this wisdom without the slightest reservation.

It doesn’t stop at clothing. Most of the things we buy – food, cars, houses, whatever – are bought to conform to a certain “lifestyle”. This has nothing to do with real life; a lifestyle is merely an array of material goods that other people have convinced you is somehow you. This convincing is done via the usual very effective routes – television, movies, billboards, magazines, the lifestyle sections of newspapers – which you also consume with great avidity. So there you are – a spending machine programmed by clever people who stimulate your brain with the necessary impulses. Not that different from the Matrix, after all?

I may be materially enslaved, some of you might say, but my intellectual life is my own. I know what I think of the world, and I know what should be done to it. Oh yes? The fact is, most of us have our opinions shaped by a very small number of sources. Television is by far the biggest influence, with newspapers, movies, books and admired role models following close behind. All you know is what your peer group or your tribe knows. All you think is what your favourite columnist tells you to think. Your reasoning is second-hand, conducted at some distance from reality. Other people decide for you.

Or are you that rare person who only follows the media for hard, objective news, and makes up his or her own mind based on personal analysis of the actual facts? We have news for you. How do you know what a hard fact is? All the news you get is assembled by other people for your consumption. News is gathered raw, yes – but then it goes through various journalists’ opinion of what is important and what’s not. It is filtered further by editors and producers who decide what the final package that reaches you should look like. And you think you’re observing the whole reality?

Very early in the first Matrix film the hero, Neo, is seen picking up a book from his shelf. It is Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation – a real and very influential work whose main thesis is that modern life has become reduced to mere symbols. We are no longer interested in “real” things, merely their easy-to-consume representations. We have become so reliant on models and maps that we have ceased to exist in the reality that created those maps; in the words of the movie, we are “living inside the map, not the territory.”

And so we no longer want to observe real human beings – we’d rather spend many hours a day watching actors on TV. We no longer want to visit places – just experience them in a movie. We no longer want to work with tangible items – just their digital representations on a computer screen. We no longer want to create or listen to real music – just its synthesised bastard child produced using a simulation programme. We eat highly processed foods – but most of us would have trouble identifying a coffee bean. And we no longer understand the real value, in usage terms, of skills – just their monetary exchange value.

This is how we make sense of modern life – via media images, highly processed goods, and living spaces that mimic something else (“country living” for example). Plato warned of this 2,400 years ago – he feared that we could become like cave dwellers fascinated by flickering images on the wall, with no understanding of the actuality behind the images. And so it came to pass. We know only the material and simulated world, not the reality that stands unseen behind it. For Plato, reality had to be the eternal, immutable thing that gives rise to our material delusions. Seeking it should be our primary goal, but the philosopher feared we would be too lazy to do this. He was right.

We could blame the modern world’s media and marketing machines for this state of affairs – after all, they make a lot of money by feeding us this stream of delusion. But they can only do it because we allow them to. We are willing accomplices in our own enslavement. Why? Because we’re too lazy to confront reality, to think for ourselves, to face the difficult task of realising a higher consciousness. Far easier, is it not, to relax and be spoon-fed all the sensory stimulation we need, and exist at a base level?

Neo eventually takes the “red pill” to free his mind from delusion. The pill symbolises our need to break out of the prison of the mind. Try one. Available at a pharmacy deep inside you.

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