BIG BROTHER AND THE MATRIX

On Expansion of Internal Control

By Odin Kroger

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis, 8/20/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/magazin/lit23294/1.html.]


“1984,” Orwell’s anti-utopia of a totalitarian state where everybody is watched by “Big Brother” and the thought police is still scary today but differently than Orwell may have intended. The form in which it is presented as a future vision is disconcerting. What Orwell feared has long been real. The idea of total surveillance is not as strange as the recurring invocation of a horror to which the monitored have long grown accustomed. How often were people warned to protest against intensified surveillance before “1984”? Whoever repeats this warning today often receives the answer: “1984 is already long past.” Video surveillance of public places, bio-metric identification, centrally-stored health histories, secret services that can read e-mails unnoticed and monitor critical voices are the daily routine today – without outcry and without noticeable resistance. How could one of the most prominent horror visions become accepted?

The tension between total control and indifference to that control is the subject of another depressing vision of the future: the “matrix” that controls and creates a whole world as the opposite of Big Brother. The matrix is a fictitious symbol that dominates a real world through its omnipresence. On the other hand, it is real and rules a fictitious world completely invisibly. In its world, the matrix is omnipotent and necessarily omniscient. Since it creates everything in its illusory world, there can be nothing in this world that it does not know. Total surveillance implies its totality.

Since the matrix is invisible, those living in it cannot see their monitored existence. However the others who have broken out of the matrix cause problems. They are outside the sphere of its omnipotence and cannot be constantly monitored or controlled. Only in this way are they a threat. But even though they threaten the matrix, they face it helplessly because they cannot free the prisoners of the matrix. The matrix is the modern conception of total control.

The matrix like science fiction is always the projection of a radicalized present into the future. It symbolizes the modern society that rules those who created it. This society appears completely dehumanized. The matrix is a machine kept going by people – people are its batteries, parts of the great machine. Nobody knows any more why or whom this machine serves. People have estranged themselves from the society they created. Since they do not see any meaning in the machine any more, they also become meaningless themselves as parts of this. People obey the machine; the machine does not obey the will of the people.
Without their will, people become the instrument of the machine. They estrange themselves from human existence and from one another. They only face each other as instruments since everybody becomes an instrument or mere means to an unknown goal lying outside. Their neighbor is no more than a tool for them. The matrix arises to support this state. Its dream world must provide the meaning that the machine cannot offer. Fear and mistrust rule since people no longer see each other as autonomous free wills but only as means. Therefore the matrix must monitor all of them. They have the most fear of those who have awoken from the dream, those who do not function any more because they do not accept the reality. They threaten to tear everybody else from their dreams and are combated by the matrix as its archenemy.

The matrix is the synthesis of control and anesthetization or numbing. The society must become a great machine so all people can remain instruments to one another.

MATRIX AND THE CONSPIRACY THEORY

The metaphor of the matrix offers a narrative of estrangement, a conspiracy theory, not an explanation. Only a group of the “elect” know the truth; everybody else is deceived by the matrix and cannot see through its intrigues. Everything that contradicts the conspiracy theory is part of the conspiracy and only disguises this. (The classic conspiracy theory is the “Jewish world conspiracy.” All conspiracy theories have structural similarities to anti-Semitic explanations of the world.).

Conspiracy theories interpret estrangement and also have their cause in estrangement. They give meaning to the meaningless so one imagines understanding and reclaiming control and no longer being only part of the machine.

Conspiracy theories usually lack a well-founded theory of society. Without such a theory, they describe the world through two distinctions: good and evil and knowing and ignorant. The knowing are those who decide for one side while the ignorant have no idea of good and evil. Both imply they are the simplest “explanation” for the motive of conspiracy and the blindness of the “multitude.” It cannot be any simpler. Without good and evil, there is no motive. Without conspiracy, there are no ignorant and no “elect.”

The motives of the matrix and selection of the “elect” must be discussed. The metaphor “matrix” should be referred back to its reality and confronted with a theory of this reality. The central power symbolized by the matrix is the state; the order symbolized by the matrix is society.

THE STATE IS THE MATRIX

The task of every state is guaranteeing and administering the dominant order. While the state is a central power, it always remains the specific state of a specific society. Both determine one another. When the state monitors society, it does this to maintain that order characterizing this society. Thus it would be naïve to believe society can control the state. Monitoring is a manifestation of a society defined by estrangement whose members fear one another and therefore want a Big Brother who constantly accompanies and protects them.

The constant observation by the Big Brother creates control and a deceptive feeling of security. Whether control or security is mediated depends on one’s relation to Big Brother. Those who call upon Big Brother have either internalized its norms or alienated their own norms in Big Brother and are protected. But whoever does not accept these norms faces the Big Brother as a guard, not as a protector.

Thus the state is servant of one and master of the other as one and the same person is master and servant. The state executes the will of the abstract majority but nobody always belongs to the majority. Thus the relation to the state is always ambivalent according to the subject and the person acting out the commission. It is like the spirit in Goethe’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Once called, it follows its own laws and forms the society according to its conceptions by securing the dominant order. Not without reason, it is called “Father” state because it acts for the well being of society, if necessary against its will, because it knows best what is good for it. (This “fatherly” characteristic may also be the reason why only men are “agents” of the matrix. When they arrest Morpheus, the leader of the resistance, they try to convince him that the matrix is the best of all possible worlds.) The authority of this kindly father may not be questioned. Therefore anxiety exists about terror attacks and the security of soccer world championships, not about dilapidated stadiums. Although the latter endanger more people, they are not directed against the dominant order. They do not put the power of the state in question.

The symbiosis of state and society leads from Big Brother to the matrix. The matrix is the unity of state and society, the total order. To guarantee the existing order forever, the state must melt away with it. It must annul all contradictions and deviations and become the matrix.

FROM BIG BROTHER TO THE PANOPTICON

To accomplish this, Big Brother uses “newspeak,” a language that makes the horrifying appear banal and the true false. The “thought police,” a powerful secret service, enforce this. By describing the world in newspeak, a beautiful pseudo-world is created offering no more occasions for dissatisfaction. The thought police worry about those who see behind the pseudo-world.

If the permanent monitoring becomes an unquestioned reality, its power passes from visibility to invisibility. Big Brother dies and is replaced by the Panopticon. Because monitoring is assumed and invisible, it can be everywhere. If the absence of Big brother was possible, the Panopticon is omnipresent since it can be everywhere. Thus a permanent feeling of being monitored arises irrespective of actual monitoring and leads to the self-disciplining of the supposedly monitored. The Panopticon is more omnipotent than Big Brother ever could be. The Panopticon does away with malfunctioning in the machine. The gear wheel begins to turn more quickly. Through the constantly increasing economic pressure, the readiness grows to adjust, sacrifice others and inform on them. The instruments should have no more opportunity to know themselves.

As soon as the Panopticon sufficiently represses criticism of the pseudo-world, the illusory world becomes the new reality. The pseudo-world and the Panopticon become one with the machine. They fuse into the matrix.

The matrix is a diffuse power with a center but its power starts from its “agents,” not from this center. Those who have internalized its norms identify with it beyond the ambivalence and defend it. They want the matrix because it serves them and they serve the matrix because they want that. The middle class plays a special role here. On one side, it thinks of profiting from the dominant order and on the other feels constantly threatened by social descent. To prevent this descent, the middle class is willing to defend the matrix whether in the Grazier “civil defense” that sees its main task in defending city parks against disagreeable persons or as “minutemen” helping US authorities monitor the border in Arizona to repulse immigrants. The powerful certainly profit from the matrix. They do not hold to it out of fear but because it represents their interests. The matrix stands for the dominant order and the dominant distribution of power.

The matrix does more than Big Brother. Both symbolize omnipresent monitoring but Big Brother draws its power from its visibility. Its surveillance is always noticeable. Nobody may forget it. The monitored follow because they know: the Big Brother watches them. On the other hand, the matrix draws its power from its invisibility. It creates a pseudo-world where people control themselves. It is the internalized Big Brother. The matrix is where Big Brother wants to be but cannot be – in the heads of people. Those who have completely internalized it become its agents and worry about those who deviate.

To have a chance against the matrix, criticism of the surveillance state must be supplemented with a criticism of the surveillance society. The state as a central power cannot reach to its periphery. The society and its self-surveillance first lead to total control. To meet this challenge, surveillance criticism must be embedded in a theory of society. This task is difficult and full of conflicts. But this is the nature of the struggle against the matrix. Facing the challenges of the real world is not simple.

Link to “What is the Matrix?” on www.systemfehler.de (system error):
 http://www.systemfehler.de/matrix.htm