Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Problem with People

In the film The Matrix, the Agent Smith played by Hugo Weaving holds a short, but memorable philosophical session with his captive, resistance fighter Morpheus. He tells him about the first versions of the Matrix that were created in order to keep the imprisoned human population occupied while their energies were siphoned from them like batteries. In the early versions of the Matrix everything was perfect. It was like paradise, free of conflict and problems. It was a perfect world. That perfection is what made it impossible for humans to accept, and so when confronted with this perfect world humans rejected it wholesale and so those early versions of the Matrix were total failures.

So instead of having the Matrix make people happy and give them a perfect world, the machines decided to give them a world similar to what they already knew. Imperfect, full of struggle, pain, loneliness, doubt and rejection. People accepted this and the Matrix continued to function for several cycles with minimal problems. You might interpret this to mean that the initial design of the Matrix was flawed, but that isn’t he case.

In another Keanu Reeves movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, he plays an emotionless alien (perfect role for him) bureaucrat who is sent to the planet earth in order to investigate how best to save it. His initial determination is that in order for the earth to be saved, humans must be wiped out. He later recants, but the premise of the first half of the movie remains clear. It is true that humans possess incredible potential as they have a unique ability on earth to expand their horizons, challenge their assumptions, but at the same time they also seem to have an uncanny ability to horde an endless supply of reasons to hate one another, to discriminate against each other and develop new ways of slaughtering each other.  In truth the earth would be better off, it would be a safer, perhaps healthier place without the humans that crawl upon its surface. 

It is something that Agent Smith alludes to in his monologue before Morpheus, "Human beings are a disease."

Both films point to the fact that there is something in human beings that make them the problem. When given simple happiness they reject it. When given life and a world to take care of, they find ways to destroy it. What made humans reject the paradise of the early matrix was not that it wasn’t “real.” So humans saw perfection around them and felt that it could not be real since it didn’t have the stains they had no way of knowing “life” is supposed to have? In truth, it was rejected because the humans saw themselves as not worthy of it, not deserving of it.

In the comic Supergod written by Warren Ellis he plays with this dynamic somewhat. Ellis creates a world where countries instead of throwing all their money and resources into creating bombs, decide instead to create superpowered beings that will defend them. None of the superpowered beings act as expected by their creators and leave the world filled with chaos and billions of dead by the end. For America’s superpowered human, they faced an interesting dilemma. The pilot with whom they rebuilt to create their superhuman struggles over whether he is alive or dead and after he is initially completed tries to tear off his scalp because he knows he cannot really be alive. The American scientists come up with the ingenious solution of creating an isolated “perfect” world for Jerry, their superpowered human, that they tell him is actually “heaven.” He can only stay in this “perfect” world that looks like suburban America, if he continues to complete tasks for the United States on earth. This sense of purpose and this explanation for what web he had been caught in works to some extent. But at the book’s end he cannot act as he has been ordered because he feels fundamentally unworthy of a place in heaven. It is not that he doesn’t believe in it (although that is possible as well), but he feels that he doesn’t deserve it.

Human beings are complicated, and while we can marvel in what that complexity can create in terms of positive advances, we should also not forget the ways in which that complexity can limit us and make us miserable and make our lives impossible.

Sigmund Freud liked to collect jokes, symptoms and slips of the tongue and reflect on what they mean about the human condition. One of his more famous examples is the man who is going to Cracow.

  Two Jews met in a train at a Galician railway station. “Where are you traveling?” asked one. “To Cracow,” was the reply. “Now see here, what a liar you are!” said the first one, bristling. “When you say that you are traveling to Cracow, you really wish me to believe that you are traveling to Lemberg. Well, but I am sure that you are really traveling to Cracow, so why lie about it?”

The truth is something that human beings spend their entire existence searching for and claiming to know and claiming to have found. But what Freud’s joke is meant to reveal to us is the way human beings can actually lie by telling the truth, and tell the truth by lying. A human can see several moves ahead in a chess game and imagine the scenarios that allow them to successfully vanquish their opponent. They can also use that same ability to over-interpret the responses of people they are attracted to, to imagine the ways in which those people may or may not spend their nights dreaming about them, and even argue that when someone says no, they really mean yes, and worst of all they can be right.

I don’t know if any of you have ever had this experience, where a woman claims she does not want to have sex tonight and so you leave her alone. She then becomes frigid and cold because you accepted her wishes and decided not to push the issue. When you ask her what is wrong she snaps at you that yes she did say no, but what she really wanted was for you to come on to her and maker her feel wanted and then she would have said yes.

One of the things that Jacques Lacan points out as the difference between human and animal is the ability to lie to yourself. Animals can lie to each other, but if we are to believe this strain of psychoanalysis, they cannot lie to themselves (this can be debated of course). But in simple philosophical terms we can see this all around us. Humans can convince themselves of almost anything, for any reason. They can vote against their own interests and do so enthusiastically. They can spit at happiness in the face and choose sadness. And most importantly in terms of online gaming, they can transform any mistake or weakness in themselves and believe very strongly that the trait belongs to everyone else.

I started writing this post for reasons that might seem to have nothing to do with any of the content thus far. I’ve gone through philosophy, psychoanalysis, cultural studies theory, but really all of this began because of the way in which people act in ways that are almost ridiculous and so detached from the truth, it yanks the powers of speech out of your throat. It doesn’t just Boggle the mind, it molests it at Twister with the mind, destroys it at Scrabble and then makes it play Apples to Apples.

You imagine that when someone speaks they must have some sort of reference in the world around them in order to speak, but the complexity of humanity makes it that even if there is a cascading avalanche of contrary evidence before them, they can still articulate a point that defies everything rational. I won't go into what frustrated me so, and reminded me that there is a giant crack in the universe and so our feeling that it is supposed to make sense is like a massive band-aid that we place over that crack to pretend it isn't there. But needless to say last week was a very frustrating week.

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