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Covid-19. The Matrix Uploaded!

 

We have all been uploaded to the Matrix!

Given the enduring symbolic and didactic popularity of the Matrix, including among Christian thinkers and writers,1)The Matrix incorporates and explores many religious and philosophical themes through its symbols, allusions and story line, and has been heavily analysed, deconstructed and reconstructed, especially for its postmodernist, Christian, Bhuddhist and Gnostic content. I am a little surprised that no one I can find so far has made this observation.

‘The Matrix’ is the first of a trilogy of science-fiction, action films made between 1999 and 2003. The film depicts a dystopian future in which human beings are unknowingly trapped in the Matrix, a simulated reality created by sentient machines in order to pacify and subdue the human population while their bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source (Wikipedia). Upon learning this, the central character, computer programmer, Neo, is drawn into a rebellion against the machines. A pivotal point is when he is offered the ‘red pill’ (and enter the real world) or the ‘blue pill’ (and remain in the Matrix). He chooses the former. ‘Red pill or blue pill’ has become a “popular meme representing a choice between taking a ‘red pill’ that reveals an unpleasant truth, and taking a ‘blue pill’ to remain in blissful ignorance”.

For those old enough to remember, there actually was life before the Web, email, Skype, Zoom etc! But, since the advent of the Internet, more and more of our social, economic, cultural, political and even religious lives are lived in cyberspace. You would not, after all, be reading this were it not so. This seismic shift has been going on for decades. In common with previous pandemics, Covid-19 is accentuating, accelerating and extending existing trends. And this is one of them. Many people who hardly set their feet on the edge of cyberspace are now Zoom or Skype adepts. Welcome to the Matrix!

Churches were quick to go with flow and go online. There was anyway little choice. Church buildings were and remain closed for public worship, although the lockdown measures allow clergy to pray alone and record or live-stream services from church buildings.2)The Archbishop of Canterbury chose to ban this also, to ’set a good example’ (or was he was taking the opportunity to make a theological point?) But churches went virtual with a vengeance, and with remarkable effect, in terms of the numbers who now watch live-streamed church.

Like many of us, I spend much of my time online. But, I confess, I was uneasy when this all started to happen, and prayed, and advocated praying, that churches use electronic communications “wisely and not be too anxious to carry on ‘business as usual’ using social media, but rather embrace the opportunity for ‘time out’ with the Lord”. Later, I commented that the time will come when the novelty of ‘cyber-church’ will start to wear off and will increasingly hinder fellowship and mission – at which point we shall need to pray fervently for this aspect of the lockdown to end.3)And certainly, we shall need both prayer and wisdom, as churches will be among the last of venues to be allowed or able to re-open. The Bishop of London recently said that churches will find social distancing very difficult and might not return to normal services before the end of the year.

Life in cyberspace has many hazards, from bad backs and poor eyesight to surveillance and security. The latter should not be too much of a surprise – cyberspace is after all public space.

However, a recent article by Anglican vicar, Giles Fraser, highlights a deeper issue, and reading it left me very thoughtful. I have likened lockdown to Lent, a time to take stock, ‘consider our ways’ (Haggai 1:5-11) and ‘set in order the things that are wanting’ (Titus 1:5). Our relationship with cyberspace may be one of our ‘ways to consider’ and Fraser’s article suggests that this may be something deeper than worries about privacy or a stiff neck.

The article concerns Zoom, which now has as many as 300 million users worldwide, with other video platforms catching up fast. As he comments, we are not just using it for business meetings, “but for everything from socially distanced dinner parties to church services”. As a Zoom user myself, I have been very aware of its recent security issues. But this is not what Fraser is concerned about. Rather, it is what he describes as its “existential consequences”. As he puts it, “Zoom takes away a piece of our souls”. Like the Matrix, it makes us ‘less than human’.

Fraser draws a parallel between the difference between an original work of art and its representations and reproductions, and the difference between the original, real, human person and his or her copied, virtual representation. They are simply not the same. Both the originals have a uniqueness, an ‘aura’, an individuality, a ‘soul’ lacking in the representation. The virtual representation is, somehow, dehumanising.4)I do not think the same argument applies to human voices, but that is a discussion for another time.

Zoom, Skype and so on work well for business meetings, for relationships that are transactional and instrumental. But they do not meet the needs of relationships with those we love, family and friends. And, arguably, they do not enable true Christian fellowship. Zoom enters and reveals our private space, yet it is wholly stage managed: we can arrange our backdrop or use one from the photo library; Zoom can even touch up your onscreen image!

Fraser struggles to find the words to express his deep disquiet, but I know what he means. “”It is not easy to express my anxiety about this new tool, and what it is doing to us”, he concludes. “But I feel there is something subtly dehumanising about it. Perhaps that’s why Zoom is so draining, why it makes us so tired using it. It’s like a voodoo doll. We pay the price for our global connections with something that is slowly sucking away at our souls.”

Fraser does not offer any answers, and neither can I. We shall, I am sure, all carry on using social media. For many relationships, with family and friends who are far away, and for those who are isolated, it remains an essential lifeline, for which we are grateful. But, as with any tool, there is an appropriate use and an inappropriate use. We need wisdom to know which is which.

As for the Matrix? Take the red pill!5)As writer, Jessica Barron comments, “in the film, humans only got one chance to take the pill. We get a new chance every day.” For a thought-provoking albeit controversial perspective on our relationship with computers, I suggest watching Adam Curtis’ film series, ‘All watched over by machines of loving grace’.

 

 

 

 

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Notes   [ + ]

1.The Matrix incorporates and explores many religious and philosophical themes through its symbols, allusions and story line, and has been heavily analysed, deconstructed and reconstructed, especially for its postmodernist, Christian, Bhuddhist and Gnostic content.
2.The Archbishop of Canterbury chose to ban this also, to ’set a good example’ (or was he was taking the opportunity to make a theological point?
3.And certainly, we shall need both prayer and wisdom, as churches will be among the last of venues to be allowed or able to re-open. The Bishop of London recently said that churches will find social distancing very difficult and might not return to normal services before the end of the year.
4.I do not think the same argument applies to human voices, but that is a discussion for another time.
5.As writer, Jessica Barron comments, “in the film, humans only got one chance to take the pill. We get a new chance every day.” For a thought-provoking albeit controversial perspective on our relationship with computers, I suggest watching Adam Curtis’ film series, ‘All watched over by machines of loving grace’.
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