Worse than 'The Matrix': Tech companies are building a layer on reality
By Mark Hurst • February 11, 2021
There's a famous scene in "The Matrix" when Keanu Reeves's character wakes up in the real world, naked and covered in goo, and sees the vast grid of biological VR pods that people are plugged into. It's meant to evoke horror and disgust, as viewers encounter the catastrophic outcomes of an inhuman tech dystopia.
But maybe that's the wrong way to look at it. Consider a different explanation, one that's both less sinister and more familiar: What if those people hooked up in the pods willingly went there in the first place?
A Matrix prequel, were it ever produced, might show VR enthusiasts excitedly lining up to be early adopters: clicking "yes" on a terms and conditions page, plugging in the neural jack, and happily lying down in the fluid of their new pod. Eventually everyone else joins in, sighing that "after all, you can't stand in the way of progress." By the end of the movie, we see that the Matrix was merely "what the customer wanted."
Could something like that happen in real life? Maybe you'd scoff at the very idea: "I would never climb into a pod." And I get it. Turning off our access to this world, this life, in order to submerge ourselves permanently in a digital simulation fully controlled by rapacious corporations? Why would anyone willingly do that?
It's a question worth exploring. This is not a flippant movie discussion but a very real consideration, as Silicon Valley is working on a slew of products to sell to you, backed by the full money and might of their global promotional engines, intended to advance society a step further toward that corporate-controlled digital reality. Don't think of this as The Matrix, with fluid sloshing around in pods and so on - that's just a set piece for a movie. Instead, I want to focus on what's really happening, because it's just as insidious.
Silicon Valley is building its own version of the Matrix: a corporate-owned reality, powered by intrusive surveillance and manipulated by rapacious algorithms, with ordinary people serving as sources of data and energy to be harvested, and monetized, until their death. The key difference, and the reason why this Matrix is worse, is that it's not just a movie. This corporate layer on reality is actually being built.
I've covered this in past columns: last fall I wrote Smart glasses aren't (on augmented-reality glasses) and Skin care in a dystopia (on skin-implanted devices). And back in 2019 I wrote in detail about neural implants, literal mind-reading devices, in development by both Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.
It's all happening. Elon Musk announced a couple of weeks ago that his team has placed a neural implant in a monkey, wondering out loud if two monkeys, wired as such, could be forced to play "mind pong," a fully neural version of the old video game Pong (sources: 1, 2). The Hill reports that human trials are expected to take place later this year.
Then just yesterday, Axios reported that the tech giants are on schedule with their augmented-reality projects: "Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google are all pursuing this vision, and many pieces are starting to fall into place." Facebook is likely to launch its surveillance glasses later this year - just like Musk's neural implants.
When these products launch later this year - Zuck's glasses and Musk's brain chip - we'll no doubt see early adopters for both, clamoring for the opportunity. "The customers wanted it," the companies will remind us later. Once it becomes necessary to wear a device (or have it implanted) in order to board a plane, or buy a meal, or get a job, we'll have to wrestle with how, exactly, we allowed this to happen.
One thing I'm sure of is that the Matrix is fatal to democracy. The corporate layer can't abide any real power being held by ordinary people. Democracy is already buckling under the extreme concentration of power held by four companies on the American west coast. The events of January 6 are a perfect example, as I wrote in The bright side of insurrection. More recently, as this op-ed in Business Insider (Feb 8) puts it, "The dominance of the GAFA companies [Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon] has become so great that individual governments have no choice but to submit themselves to them."
Shoshana Zuboff put it best, in her crucially important NYT op-ed on Jan 29:
We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.
The question remains, then, what we should do - what we can do - as these companies spin up their propaganda machines to sell us the surveillance glasses, the surveillance brain-chips, and the other features of their catastrophic platform. The most powerful companies in history are beginning to build the Matrix, which we already know - from Zuboff and others - will result in the death of democracy, the takeover of our communities, and the snuffing out of our individual agency. In the end, it's not very different from the pods in the movie, except there's less of the watery goo sloshing around our plugged-in bodies.
I don't want that future. Perhaps what we need is not a movement of resistance, but one of abolition.
Happy Mardi Gras - or this year, 'Yardi Gras' (via The Atlantic)
• Speaking of those "GAFA companies," here's an excellent question about Facebook from Qasim Rashid. Perhaps someone could provide an answer.
• Bitcoin reportedly is now responsible for a global carbon footprint equal to that of Argentina - and approaching that of Norway. See also a helpful thread about Bitcoin, a combination of "tech bros, multi-level marketing, Gamergate, and the Church of Scientology."
• What's Bitcoin, you ask? The classic explanation, from @Theophite: "Imagine if keeping your car idling 24/7 produced solved Sudokus you could trade for heroin." That's pretty much it. (And ugh, yes, another mention of heroin. Here it was last week.)
• Speaking of my losing faith in UX, there's a report from Vice (Feb 9) that New Jersey Transit is developing new facial recognition tech, described as "customer experience improvements." Yet another example of the corruption of the original idea of CX. See also this thread from Johana Bhuiyan on "real-time Uighir warnings," the logical conclusion of facial rec in public transit.
• Fun stuff: The Flatiron Building, brought to pixely life by a dot matrix printer and an old Mac (128k).
Until next time,
- Mark Hurst
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