Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who is Agent Smith?

I am going to explore the film The Matrix as an allegory of social and personal liberation.

The main premise of The Matrix is that the reality presented to us is phony. This is an idea that resonates deep in the hearts of young people today. The normal life presented to us, we suspect, is phony. We sense that if only we could wipe away the veneer, we would experience a totally different reality.

Moreover, we also have the feeling that this phony reality in which we all believe has not been created for our benefit. We sense that perhaps life-as-we-know-it is the product of something sinister, something behind the scenes, all-controlling, that manipulates us for its own purposes. Think about it: in the movie, the true reason for human life was to feed energy to the machine. This taps into the suspicion that our lives are not our own, that we are not living for ourselves, but for something powerful, unseen, and callous to human dignity and self-fulfillment. And like a machine it runs on and on, senselessly, destructively, toward an end that no same human being would ever choose.

Sometimes we may even feel that our lives are programmed for us, played out according to preset parameters. Superficially, maybe we buy into life-as-it-is-presented and try to convince ourselves that yes, we have freedom and self-determination, but underneath that gnaws an undeniable sense of impotence and confinement, our spirits held in stasis much like the bodies -- the true selves -- of The Matrix's VR-dwelling humans.

In the movie, Neo takes a pill that awakens him to the real, non-virtual world. His first reaction is amazement, terror, and horror at the truth of the human predicament. Later, one of his shipmates on the rebel submarine indeed voices regret at choosing to awaken. And in our own rebel mission there is also that betrayer, submerged below conscious awareness, who urges us to buy in, to believe, to sleep. The danger is very great that the mutiny will prevail and we will deny as youthful idealism or immaturity that vaguely urgent feeling that life is supposed to be more than Just This.

As in The Matrix, the forces that present us with a virtual life are forces of our own making. In the movie it is a vast computer linked to loathsome bio-mechanical organisms; in the real world it is technology in general that has incrementally separated us from authentic human life. In the movie it is said that people became more and more lazy and dependent, until the machines just took over. Can we say this is fiction? Technology has separated us from nature, from each other, and from ourselves. The Matrix has already come true, in the sense that we live in an inauthentic world of our own collective making.

In The Matrix, rebels who threaten the status quo are hunted down by Agents, which are sentient computer programs appearing in human form in the VR world. The machine can take over the body of anyone and transform him or her into an Agent. This runs in nearly exact parallel to the way that impersonal forces, acting through the agency of nearly any human being, persecute anyone who threatens the collective illusion and corral us all into behaviors that perpetuate it.

The same loan officer who is a loving mother and generous friend outside her role, can be an agent of economic oppression within it. A corporate executive who loves nature feels compelled to make business decisions that harm the environment; or more likely, does not even associate those decisions with their environmental effects. Many activists of all stripes, social, political, or environmental, observe that they are complicit by their very membership in society in precisely those collective behaviors they denounce.

A former student of mine offered a great example of being taken over by an Agent. She was working as a cashier in a large store. Part of her job was to say to each customer, "Have a nice day!" with real feeling. This was part of the store's effort to create an image of "genuinely caring about the customer." My student hated saying this when, as was sometimes the case, she actually couldn't care less whether the 30th in an endless stream of anonymous customers had a nice day. She especially resented her shift supervisor, who would prowl around making sure she said it with feeling.

Then one day she herself was promoted to shift supervisor. Before long, she found herself not only enforcing the same rule she had resented before, but actually getting angry at employees who said "Have a nice day" halfheartedly. Her job, her role, essentially took control of her. "'Bitch' was built into my job description," she said. No longer her self, she had become an Agent of the machine.

When an Agent seizes control, we abandon our natural human programming and obey the programming of the Machine instead. Say you are working for a credit collection agency, trying to squeeze a payment out of the people on your call list. Your human programming wants you to say, "Ma'am, really, don't make a payment. Buy groceries instead. Don't give your money to this gigantic corporation." But your machine programming overrides that, through a variety of mechanisms, and makes you put on the pressure instead.

Perfectly nice, ordinary people may do horrible things at their jobs. "I'm just doing my job," they say apologetically. Any time we make compromises for that reason, or because we "cannot afford" to do otherwise, we are running an Agent program. The two main mechanisms by which Agent programs enter us are survival anxiety (money, security, etc.) and social conditioning (unconscious habits of blocking compassion and connection and love). We steel ourselves to do what we "have to" do.

Every time we channel the Agent, whether in a profession or in other relationships, the Agent circuits are carved a little deeper. Eventually we are running Agent programs nearly all the time; we can no longer resist them even if we try. The human being lives in stasis, just like the enwombed bodies in The Matrix.

Just as we all occasionally act as Agent Smiths to preserve the functioning of the virtual world, so also do we harbor an internal Agent Smith who seeks to thwart our awakening. The internal Agent Smith tells us that we are mistaken, to play by the rules of the VR game and everything will be all right. Dressed impeccably in the uniform of legitimacy, he wields fear as his main weapon. He says you are insane if you don't listen to him. He implies that you are the only one who questions the reality handed to us. Don't be a minority of one, he counsels. "One of these lives has a future. The other does not," says Agent Smith.

In the movie, Neo eventually discovers that he gains amazing powers in the Matrix when he disbelieves in its ultimate reality. He can jump incredible distances, move at great speed, even fly. Similarly, when we begin to disbelieve in the version of reality that has been handed us, it begins to lose its power. When you stop believing that you have to go to school in order to learn, that you have to choose a practical major, that you have to get good grades, that you have to get a job to survive, that you have to go to doctors, that you have to do as your boss says, that you have to make people like you, that you have to submit to anything humiliating; when you stop believing that you should maximize security and minimize risk; when you stop believing in every "should" that's ever been fed to you, then you will become powerful. Freedom is in the mind.

It is, in fact, impossible to free ourselves from the Machine in any other way. Fight against it by its own rules and you are sure to lose. You find that the rules are rigged against you; they are designed for the perpetuation of the the Machine. The movie conveys this truth by making the Agents invincible. You can run away from them, but you cannot defeat them. This is what people eventually discover when they try to play by all the rules and "make a difference" or "do good" anyway. They end up strengthening the very thing they despise; eventually they cease even despising it. Such is the "beltway syndrome" of Washington environmental lobbyists.

Compare them to Diane Wilson, author of An Unreasonable Woman, who stopped a multibillion dollar petrochemical plant almost single-handedly. She did it by breaking rules, written and unwritten, and upholding an unwavering integrity and purpose. If you ever doubt your power to alter the course of the world-devouring machine, read this book. She maintained her integrity even when the situation appeared hopeless. Everything fell apart, and her integrity was all she had left, a raw trust in her own feelings. When things fall apart, and everything reasonable fails, we finally find license to live as real human beings. When the worst has happened we are no longer afraid. Stop being afraid now, I tell myself, and the worst won't need to happen. But sometimes there is no other way.

I do not advocate heroic measures to resist the incursion of Agent Smith. Merely to watch him in operation and to know that your true nature is human, not Agent, is a powerful step, a progressive innoculation against the Agent program. In the film, the only people immune to Agent takeover were people who had already been freed from the Matrix, but who plugged back into it with a conscious purpose in mind. Having been freed already, they knew who they were. The more we know who we are, the less susceptible we are to Agent takeover. You will know this is happening when the rules of the matrix no longer bind you, when the practicalities and rules and reasons start to lose their authority, and new horizons of the possible come into view.

Next time, or maybe next week, I'll expand on the film's metaphor of the Red Pill and the Blue Pill to describe how this freeing process happens. You can't make it happen, and if you think that any of your own perceived liberation has come by dint of your own admirable efforts, then you are actually enmeshed in just a deeper level of it.


At July 15, 2008 at 9:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the movie.

Is Ray Kurzweil Agent Smith?

Ursus Maritimus

At July 15, 2008 at 10:51 PM , Blogger thailandchani said...

There have been times when I've truly wished my eyes were not open to all the things going on. Something tells me it makes life much easier.

I came to this planet as a free spirit and ended up being a very outspoken cultural dissident. As time has gone along and I've gotten older, I found it best to simply choose a culture I can live with (an eastern culture), adopt the principles and values - and finally find some peace.

In a totalitarian society, freedom of spirit will always be repressed because we *are* viewed as cogs in an economic machine.


At July 16, 2008 at 12:41 AM , Blogger Joe Verica said...

Nice post Chuck. Believe it or not, I have not see the Matrix. After reading your post, I do plan on seeing it at some point. That being said, what you draw out by the anology seems clear enough.

I think being born and growing up in a materialistic techno-culture like the US sort of numbs a person to what it is like to be human. We just can't imagine how people can get along without cell phones, air conditioning, agri-business, fossil fuels, fashionable clothes, etc. Our media reinforces this idea by reminding us of our "needs". We seem to forget that our ancestors got along quite well without all this "stuff".

Over the years, a number of authors have tried to draw our attention away from technology and back to both the land and humanity. While I have read many of them (Berry, McKibben, Schumacher, yourself) and found them enlightening, nothing can really substitute for experience.

I am currently spending the summer in Taiwan. I have been here a number of times over the past 15-20 years. I have seen (am seing) the transformation of the entire culture from small, tight-knit villages that were grounded on Confucian priciples and that drew their vitality from the land, to urbanized landscapes composed of individual techno-consumers who barter thier souls for the empty promises of technology. It all seemed to happen overnight.

When I first visited here around 1990, people seemed more genuine. There was a lot of caring between residents in villages. People spoke to each other on the street. Old men set around under trees chewing bing lang and playing mah jhong. Women used to buy all their fruits and veggies from local farmers whose stands lined the road ways. While these things still exist, their numbers are declining. They are dying out with the older generation.

The younger generation here is self-indulgent and anti-social. Drug abuse is even becoming commonplace here. People don't talk or care for each other. And they don't interact.

Every morning, I see dozens of neighborhood kids walking to school. In the evenings or weekends, the neighborhoods are eerily quite. What happened to all the kids? And what about their families? Where is everybody? Apparently, the people spend all their free time inside. Technology is at the center of their lives. Its all air conditioning, cell phones, TV, computer games, iPods, motorcycles, and such. People don't invest in relationships or themselves. They invest in instant gratification and distraction. The media and corporations are the agents here.

People still buy some of their food from local vendors, but for the most part its fast food and sugary drinks. KFC, McDs, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and the like are very popular here. While veggies, fruit, fish, etc can still be purchased from local farmers, many people opt to shop at retail stores like Costco, Carrefour, etc. And even there, the food is largely pre-packaged, highly processed, snack foods and instant (i.e. microwave or just add water) dinners. Diet-related health problems are on the rise. It reminds me a lot of the US.

At July 16, 2008 at 9:04 AM , Blogger Rob said...

same thing?


At July 16, 2008 at 1:40 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I started reading about the Matrix (plugged in to Google as I am) and found philosophers speculating on Brain in a Vat scenarios.

Still trying to locate a map for this discussion that takes us from Hollywood special effects to Diane Wilson's triumph over the Machine, I also read the following, which seemed more relevant than brains as laboratory movie projectors:


Question for Joe Verica. How grounded in Confucian principles were the people, if their culture succumbed so rapidly to the incursion and growth of the Machine? Or are Confucianism and other ancient approaches to reality insufficient in the face of techno-based enslavement via corporatism and "consumptionism"?

Ursus Maritimus

At July 16, 2008 at 2:03 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Ursus Maritimus

At July 16, 2008 at 4:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stanley Milgram's Agent Smith


Ursus Maritimus

At July 16, 2008 at 10:43 PM , Blogger Joe Verica said...

To Ursus

As this is Chuck's blog, I will make my answer brief. If you want to discuss it more, please feel free to email me at joeverica@yahoo.com

In reference to your question about Confucianism, it seems to me that it is the older generation that really subscribes to it. As far as Confucianism being ancient or insufficient to hold back the "corporatism", there may be some thuth to that. Perhaps that is why the younger generation seemingly abandon it so easily. That be said, Singapore has managed to strike a balance between Confucianism and corporatism. It required some "govt oversight" to make it happen. Maybe that model could work in Taiwan as well.

Joe Verica

At July 17, 2008 at 12:25 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Joe. I was struck by the rapidity of the decline you've witnessed. It reminds me of David Korten's When Corporations Rule the World.

Best wishes,

At July 17, 2008 at 5:28 AM , Anonymous NihonBryan said...


Your insight into the metaphor of The Matrix makes me want to re-watch the movies with your ideas in mind. Thanks for that.

I wonder something: I was talking with the English teacher I work with here in Japan today about how when she was a junior high student in the 1960s, she didn't have clubs after school and she didn't go to cram schools at night like kids do today. She said they had a lot more free time.

It reminded me of "The Ascent of Humanity" and the line "children are having less time to play." In relation to this post, I wonder how important it is for the Agent to keep us busy so that we don't have time to discover our true selves?

To Joe: Your story really made me sad, but I thank you for sharing it.


At July 17, 2008 at 12:18 PM , Blogger Charles Eisenstein said...

A couple responses... the allegory of the cave is how most people interpret it, but that is too cerebral for me, doesn't explain why the movie is so compelling. I see it more as a social/spiritual allegory, as you know.

The dismantling of Confucian traditions and social networks follows the same pattern as the dismantling of traditional cultures around the world. It is the conversion of social capital (relationships, skills, etc) into money. See Chapter 4 of AOH, especially the paragraph on how to make people hungry for the right sneaker.



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