It is better to look back on things than move forward. Old age may hold intriguing mysteries, but at the end of the day, it is a bit boring, isn’t it? Strangely, there is something that feels warm and fuzzy in recalling the time I saw the movie The Matrix, about the fantastical near-future time in which our consciousness is uploadd directly into computers.
In the movie, a brilliant man, played by Keanu Reeves, steals parts from an indestructible war machine called the Mind Police and creates a machine that will hack into the minds of others to give them new identities. Obviously, with eyes of steel and a grey set of dentures, this Matrix-style act of transhumanism would be, shall we say, a tricky proposition, and in the film we see him attempt the escapade. He is stopped from fully apprehending the numberless slaves, and the film ends with a satisfying catchphrase: “No one can escape the Matrix.”
But in real life, not everyone is able to escape it as easily, and Keanu, as the awestruck and exuberant generation-opener, would face being caught too. The film is famous for its idea of mind-wiping consciousness via computers. And although this is a fantasy, the question remains: to what degree does this plausibility take into account our still, evidently very limited, means of communication with each other, not to mention the many worldwide economic constraints? The movie’s wish-fulfilment is contrasted with real-life memories of some who have yet to leave the Matrix: to walk across Manhattan with the truly extraordinary social anonymity of John DeLorean and film-maker Stanley Kubrick, for example. And don’t even think about talking to Steven Spielberg’s mother, currently at the centre of a legal dispute in the United States.
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In real life, we have seen quite a few senior people being interrogated on YouTube by users who have known nothing but internet chat. As film-maker Amy Lanzinger showed in her portrait video film The Vanishing Act, there was a splendid irony in this briefest of exchanges being filmed in a £2,000 stereo-ambient set-up attached to a huge iron bed. Unfortunately, when Lanzinger turned the camera on her own naked body, its increasingly heated responses rapidly turned him (that was the studio-producer) cold, so that he fainted. In real life, that’s what I might do: turn my camera back on myself, get sweating, my heart pumping, throw something a bit dangerous at the screen …
There are psychological downsides to cybernetic enslavement: one witness on the National Geographic TV series The Man in the Machine TV series told of being abducted and raised inside a conglomerate computer system until his guilty conscience caused him to return to the real world and abandon it. But in the original film, Keanu’s potential transhumanism was brilliantly countered by the simple-mindedness of the police chief: “Do you really want to fly, or just live by going over the level here on the instrument cable?” He’s old-fashioned, but luckily he has not yet gone incandescent.
• I Saw the Light by Tom Hiddleston: 11 January, Flack – Channel 4, 10pm.