Transhuman _Matrix_

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Sun, 09 May 1999 00:56:20 -0500

_The Matrix_ revisited: Why are we such fans?

I was speaking to a friend lately, a big movie aficionado. He didn't like the Matrix and couldn't understand why one of the most brilliant people he knew (this friend is semi-mundane, so that doesn't count as boasting - not on this list!) would be infatuated with a movie with a bad plot, no characterization, no meaning that wasn't shoved down our throat, and what he called "a sell-out of the intellectual concept in favor of shoot-em-ups".

I started out by explaining that we all liked the Matrix because it was what we had all wanted to do ourselves - walk up a wall, punch through bricks, and so on. The characters didn't *need* deep emotional lives for us to sympathize with them; we *wanted* to be in their shoes. "Ah," he said, "fantasy fulfillment". Well, I didn't see what was wrong with that (it's a perfectly legitimate form), but it still didn't quite seem to cover the fanatic devotion on the part of people who had never cared about a movie before. (I hadn't.) And eventually I came up with this.

I think that the Matrix is a transhumanist movie in the original, highest sense. Technically AIs are the enemy, but the movie isn't about "humans against machines". It's "humans against reality". The free humans aren't fighting to *preserve* the world we know, as in all the bad anti-machine movies; they're fighting to *break* it. They're fighting to break the limits. _The Matrix_ takes our world of 1999 and says, "This isn't life you're living! This is a prison!"

It's that concept that lies at the core of transhumanism. And the characters in _The Matrix_ don't just believe this, they aren't just warriors for our cause - they *embody* it. They can kick through walls. They can take blows that would punch straight through an ordinary human. They can run up walls. They can do all that, not because they believe in the Force, but because they *don't* believe in our world. They serve and represent our ideal, that knowledge breaks limits, that technology breaks reality.

Who cares about Superman? Who cares about Luke Skywalker? They're just guys with slightly less restrictive limits, and they have the power because of "magic". Most special-effects movie heroes get that way because of "magic" - and that *is* pure wish-fulfillment. In _The Matrix_, the powers are explained, and it's an explanation we can all believe in. Especially we transhumanists - we know that our limited reality is true, but we don't accept it. We don't *believe* in reality, we aren't emotionally invested. And that's why we believe in _The Matrix_.

The AIs in the movie don't represent The Evils of Mechanization. They represent Life as We Know It. The AIs represent humanity - the way *we* use "humanity", as a set of hated limits, "only human", something to overcome. For all the movie's surface Frankensteineity, at heart it truly is technophilic. The good guys are fighting back with high technology as well, and the message is world-breaking change, not nostalgia and mysticism. Maybe the movie doesn't do a good job of preparing folks for the concept of AI, but I think it will do an excellent job of preparing them for the concept of Singularity.

And that's why we call _The Matrix_ a transhumanistic film.

--          Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.