I’ve been writing a lot lately in my newsletter and on social media etc about ‘politics,’ broadly speaking: how to get through the weird times we find ourselves in; what they mean; why we are in them. I’ll write about that a whole lot more in the coming months and, I expect, years, but today I want to talk about something a bit different.
I want to tell you a story. A true story. A story that happened to me just this summer gone.
The Matrix came out in 1999. We lived in a different world then. That was before 9/11, before mass electronic communication had really taken hold (I remember being taught in French class how to write a letter to a pension to book rooms!), before gender fluidity and pronouns and all the rest of it. Political correctness was still mostly a joke.
Everyone was very excited by the scenes in which the action is paused and the perspective rotates around the character, because it was a new technology, the future of cinema and all that. And the film combines guns and kung-fu with a sort of secular spiritualism, so of course it was always going to be a hit.
Most people think The Matrix is about waking up from the daily grind of modern living. They imagine the metaphor is about unplugging yourself from the rat race, by which they broadly mean capitalism, and embracing a kumbayah sort of brotherhood of mankind. They think that because that’s the world they live in.
Park that thought.
This summer just gone, I was sharing an apartment with a good friend of mine, an Arab mystic who sees the world in a very different way to the rest of us. We see walls and regulations, conventions and necessities. His is a world of hummingbirds, magic, and the fragility of possibility. We spent the summer eating ice-cream and kanafe, and drinking coffee and talking about kabbalah.
He has a game he likes to play: the T-shirt game. It’s pretty simple — you walk through a crowded place, say, a market or main street, and you read the messages on people’s T-shirts, and whatever they say is what the universe (or God, if you prefer) is trying to tell you.
We did this over a number of weeks, both when together and alone, often reporting to each other in the evenings any we’d seen during the day that had particularly stood out. Over time, I noticed that a pattern had started to emerge.
He’d had a bad run of luck over the last few years. Some people, life just picks on them and grinds them down way past what most people would assume would be breaking point, and he’d had a run like that, which is how he came to be living with me in the first place — I noticed him and offered him some shelter and respite, which he’d gladly, if a little warily at first, accepted.
The T-shirts that he spotted reflected that. They were basically all motivational poster stuff: ‘You got this!’ ‘Think big!’ ‘Adventure awaits!’ Some of them, a reflection of his soul I guess, were really quite profound and beautiful. I can’t remember any of those ones specifically and won’t be able to do them justice by making something up.
Meanwhile there was me, left on the shelf and hoping (but not looking) for love. Most of the T-shirts I spotted reflected that too: ‘Love Is All You Need,’ just plain ‘Love,’ or hearts. One of them said something as startlingly mind-readerish as ‘Boyfriends are the Best,’ or something to that effect.
Time moved on and so did he. One afternoon, not long after he’d left, I sat down to watch The Social Dilemma. For those who missed it, this was the big Netflix documentary of last summer. Through interviews with a number of people who were involved at a high level in creating social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and so on, it examined how the algorithms of those sites were purposefully written to keep us hooked by showing us what we wanted to see.
Facebook is particularly notorious for having done this. Its programming keeps tracks of every tiny piece of data collectable on our activity and attention, then feeds that back into the system. Linger on a particular photo for half a second longer than average as you scroll through your feed and the system will record that data point before finding a similar photo to offer up to you to see if it has a similar effect. The result is a feedback loop of your own making which can amplify to some pretty surprising heights. In effect, you end up creating your own personal echo chamber. What you imagine to be a neutral reality, an impartial cross section of all the available options, identical for each viewer, is nothing of the sort. Instead it’s all carefully created just for you, to reflect the reality that you shaped for yourself through hundreds of your own tiny, almost imperceptible choices.
The documentary finished; I thought “That was interesting,” and I headed out to get some ice-cream. And on the way I played the T-shirt game…
While we’d been playing it all summer, I’d assumed the effect was created by confirmation bias — that is, I’d assumed that in reality there were a wide range of messages on the shirts and I was only noticing those which meant something to me. But that evening, for some reason, I decided to test this. I made a concerted effort to look at every shirt as I walked along the road, to make note of every single message that came my way.
Most T-shirts are plain so can easily be discounted, but of those that did contain messages… well, they almost exclusively fit the pattern. “Love, love, love!” Big teddy bear with heart. “Love is universal.”
Over the next few days I did the same again and again, my fleeting eyes scanning the crowds methodically. Obviously there were other shirts thrown into the mix: “Vamanos!” in bright green letters; yet the data from my little experiement appeared to confirm that the universe had some sort of message for us. But what could the message be? Clearly it couldn’t actually be love as I was back to living on my own again.
And then I realised what I was seeing. It was Facebook’s algorithm, only… in the real world. The realisation was quite disconcerting. It sort of gave me vertigo. Here I was watching a computer algorithm in action, a computer code written by an intelligent creator, only, I wasn’t looking at a computer and there was no code. I was looking at streets full of living people who had woken up that morning and pulled on a t-shirt. And yet, it was as though someone, somewhere had written a code capable of reading where my attention was, and feeding me more of what I wanted. I was, in effect, curating my own reality through my tiny imperceptible choices.
Most people think The Matrix is a metaphor for waking up from the rat race. Some people understand it as a metaphor for the teaching of esoteric religions: gnosticism, kaballah, kyballion, the hermetic teachings and so on. Those teach that the material world isn’t real, only the spiritual world is real, and that when you exit the material world and live within the spiritual world you can mess around with the fabric of the material world.
They’re probably right on one level, but I know that The Matrix isn’t a metaphor at all. We really do live inside a giant supercomputer, one that’s programmed to record our tiny, imperceptible choices and give us more of what we want.
So what do you want?