I’m a fan of the Matrix movies. This is not an interest shared by my family, however, so when the occasional “movie night” surfaces on the calendar and the discussion of what to watch begins, my suggestion of the Matrix trilogy is usually greeted with the rolling of eyes.
The trilogy of films is set in the distant future in a world where “machines” have overtaken humanity and created a system that conceives, grows and plugs an unsuspecting human population into a computer-generated world of illusion called the Matrix. This existence placates most, but the system is designed to create some element of choice allowing for the human instinct for independence to be managed over long periods of time. A few break free of this system to find the real world decimated and actual human life lived far below ground in a city of caverns call “Zion.” The Matrix is an impressive modern virtual world; Zion is a primitive place for cave-dwelling refugees. The hero, “Neo,” is rescued from the Matrix and is considered to be “The One,” whom prophecy describes as the human who can bring an end to this troubled existence. The clash between the real world and the virtual world grows as the story unfolds.
Through many travails and very impressive action sequences, Neo and his companions are confronted by a set of fundamental philosophical questions: freedom and determinism; cause and effect; morality and logic; and the problem of choice.
At the pivotal scene in the trilogy, Neo is led through the Matrix to the “Architect,” a computer program represented in physical form as an aging scientist or mathematician. He designed the Matrix. Neo’s love interest, “Trinity,” is in great danger in her attempt to help Neo save Zion. During the exchange the Architect boils the situation down to the following statement in which Neo is confronted with a choice to either give in to the control of the machines and save humanity or rescue Trinity. The choice sends Neo on the next phase of his journey…
Architect: “There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the Source and the salvation of Zion. The door to your left leads back to the Matrix, to her and to the end of your species. As you adequately put, the problem is choice. But we already know what you are going to do, don’t we? Already I can see the chain reaction: the chemical precursors that signal the onset of an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason. An emotion that is already blinding you to the simple and obvious truth: she is going to die and there is nothing you can do to stop it.”
Societies around the world are facing big choices these days. They involve questions of freedom and determinism, cause and effect, morality and logic. The problem is choice. Yet, no choice we face comes without a cost. Discontent in the United States and around the world tells us something about the human desire for freedom from control, but when is the pursuit of freedom simply an exchange of one control system for another? When we see and experience the effects of previous choices, but disagree about the causes as well as the potential solutions, can we find our way to another choice or is the result simply to assign blame? When logical solutions to tough problems press against our moral imperatives does the end justify the means?
Neo’s fictional world suddenly feels more like our own real world.
Today we find societies around the world reaching one impasse after another. Choices made are leading to continuing power struggles within and among nations, people groups, religious sects and political parties. The consequences of choice by one group in power are rejected, nullified and recalled by another. Sometimes conflict leads to uprising; in extreme cases, to war. Most would agree there are bright lines of choice that stand against aggression, inhumanity and oppression. The lines, however, are blurring on choices related to collective economic well-being, individual freedom of expression and the rule of law. As scarcity increases, the choices only will become more difficult to make and implement.
I’ve been wondering lately about what may happen if choice remains so illusive for a prolonged period time. First, we may lose our willingness to choose. When problems become so complex that solution can no longer find choice, people retreat into what they can positively impact. If I feel I cannot impact the choices of a nation, I may then begin to look at what I may be able to influence in my province or state. If fatigue continues, I may retreat further into my own local area through a municipality or neighborhood. Eventually, I will narrow my sphere of interest to the exclusive needs of my family. At this stage, collective action and common well-being are lost to my own needs. Any notion of a public good is subject to my own interests. My choices are my own, to the exclusion of others.
Second, we may lose our ability to choose. Living in a civil society requires practice. A set of skills and commitments associated with citizenship in a democracy exists, which involves things like listening respectfully to others, avoiding ad hominem attacks and challenging ideas, but not people. We can add to this list the need for sharing a commitment to fairness and equality, balancing individual liberty with the common good and living under the rule of law. We also see the need for strengthening our social fabric as human difference and diversity test new levels of tolerance, as well as the need to grow economic prosperity for all citizens. If we lose our ability to choose through civil discourse, we will fracture society to the point where choice is a function of power alone.
Third, we may lose our opportunity to choose. As time passes and options are gradually eliminated, the choices will be made for us. As competing interests pull harshly at our loose ends, our threadbare social fabric will gradually unravel. Instead of an unfolding future, we will find our fabric frayed to the point where it can no longer serve us. Five years ago, few would have predicted the news headlines today referring to the possible collapse of the Euro Zone, with Greece on the brink of financial failure and ongoing threats to other nations. We could not foresee the onset of a region-wide Arab uprising that would lead to regime changes in countries like Egypt and Libya, with Syria descending into civil war. The opportunity to choose is rapidly diminishing around the globe as the inevitability of consequence arrives.
In the end, the Architect was right. Yet the story unfolded in a manner different than he prescribed. Neo saved Trinity for a time, but eventually they both sacrificed themselves to save Zion. They demonstrated the power of choice in determining an outcome they both desired more than their own interests. They did so for future generations.