Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Getting Real in Virtual Reality


“Can there be effective critique in such a conservative genre?” E.L. McCallum asks of cyberpunk in his article “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction” (356-7). His inquiry is posed in response to the earlier question of “why the real world that [cyberpunk relies upon] maps so closely to ours, despite imagined technological and geopolitical changes” (356). Dissatisfied with cyberfictions which “rehearse old geographic interpretations of space” (350), McCallum derides cyberpunk’s written literature as lacking innovation, a sense of adventure, and failing to chart new territory, “real or unreal, graphical or narrative” (McCallum 374). While his contempt echoes cyberpunk pioneer Bruce Sterling’s lament that “cyberpunk is dead because it has become restrained, commercialized, and mimetic” (Barnett 360), it is doubtful the same could be argued for cyberpunk’s cinematic legacy, specifically as manifest in the blockbuster film The Matrix and its sequels, which have become “a vital point in the history of popular culture, film studies and cultural theory” (Gillis 1). The fact that this paper cites four academic works devoted solely to the subject of the Matrix trilogy, each of which cites other academic works on the same subject speaks volumes regarding the films’ cultural impact.

McCallum notes that “narrative theory has not engaged as fully with the roles of spatiality in comparison to those of temporality” (McCallum 351), so our inquiry will focus on how spatiality produces meaning in cybernarratives. While our focus will be cyberspace as a cultural phenomenon, the individual cyberpunk novels Neuromancer and Snow Crash will serve as references, given that “for many cultural critics, SF has become the pre-eminent literary genre of the postmodern era, since it alone seems capable of understanding the rapid technological and cultural changes occurring in late capitalist, postindustrial society” (Sponsler in Barnett 360). Further, the debt The Matrix owes to these earlier narratives will be examined to show the progression of cyberspace from an escapist ontology to a “prison for your mind” (Wachowski 28). With our minds free, we will then finally turn to how cyberspace’s polysemous nature provides a useful perspective on reality.

Virtual Reality as cyberspace, space and non-space

Science fiction is capable of doing more than to simply act as a decoder for technological and cultural changes. At times it seems to anticipate or predicate them; the very term “cyberspace” was made popular by William Gibson in his cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer. A plethora of synonyms exist; Stephenson called it the Metaverse, Baudrillard called it telematic culture, we popularly refer to it as ‘the Web’ or ‘the Net’ (Bukataman 105) but all refer to a virtual reality which has been “defined as an ‘interactive, immersive experience generated by a computer’” (Ryan 2).

In its earliest conceptions and realizations, access to cyberspace involved cumbersome bodysuits and goggles intended to replicate sensory input. However, “[the] popular acceptance of cyberspace as a space has not needed to wait for the arrival of bodysuit-and-goggle “virtual reality”; for literally millions of users, cyberspace already “exists” as a place, as real as the work and play conducted “in” it.” (Nunes 61). While none of us have data-ports built into the base of our spines, millions of people around the world connect daily to the virtual realities of email, the world wide web, multi-user video games, and chat rooms, to name only a few. The reality of cybersex alone provides a compelling argument that “a new and decentered spatiality has arisen that exists parallel to, but outside of, the geographic topography of experiential reality” (Bukataman 105).

People commonly use the phrase; “I saw it on the Internet” or “I’m going on the Web” as though either were actual places of storage or locations to arrive at. Regarding an advertisement offering the chance to “Own A Piece of Cyberspace for Free”, P. Chad Barnett asks the question, “does this suggest that there is some tangible thing that is to be purchased?” (359). When a person goes to purchase a 300GB hard drive, they are thinking in terms of how much space they will have to store data. However, the actual size of a 40GB hard drive compared to a 300GB one is negligible. RAM sticks all fit into the same socket regardless of size. Flash drives the size of cigarette lighters can store anywhere from 64MB to 2GB and cost no more than $100, which makes trying to fence “three megabytes of hot RAM” (Gibson 20) nothing short of laughable. And while Stephenson’s hyper-real Metaverse may have seemed ludicrous at the time of Snow Crash’s publication, describing the need to “get zoning approval, obtain permits, bribe inspectors, the whole bit” (25) to build virtual architecture, current websites such as Second Life (with it’s virtual population of 1,982,809 “residents”) offer the ability to buy and improve virtual real estate ( As Nunes has observed, “with increasing frequency, cultural representations of the Internet call upon us to conceive of computer-mediated communication in terms of space: more precisely, “cyberspace” (Nunes 61).

Marie-Laure Ryan states that: “A sense of place is not the same thing as a mental model of space: through the former, readers inhale an atmosphere; through the latter, they orient themselves on the map of the visional world, and they picture in imagination the changing landscape along the routes followed by the characters” (Ryan 123). In Narratology, Mieke Bal differentiates between space as a representation of the “topological position” (133) and place, which is “linked to certain points of perception”. The frame of perception, Bal states “can be heavily invested with meaning” (134), although as McCallum notes, Bal “tends to restrict herself to describing spaces narratives can have, without elucidating the interpretive ramifications of attending to space” (McCallum 351-footnote). This should come as no surprise, since in Narratology’s characteristically vague manner, Bal echoes Ryan’s ‘changing landscape’ with the statement that “these meanings are not fixed” (134). This ambivalence serves an exploration of cyberspace well, since “[m]apping cyberspace, or the landscape of a virtual world, is difficult because like the multinational capitalist system that it is an extension of, Virtual Reality cannot be completely known” (Barnett 367).

Cyberspace is a sort of floating signifier, standing for everything and nothing. It is “a nonspace realm” (Bukataman 123), “space that isn’t space” (Barnett 368), and a labyrinth (Veel 154). In William Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic”, the hero is “outside and inside and outside and inside cyberspace, like some bizarre arrangement of Chinese nested tables” (Berry 254). One might say it is a liminal space, a place of transformation, a shamanic otherworld for the twenty-first century. The shamanic concept seems most appropriate, given that if there was ever a need for Bal’s concept of focalization as “a certain ‘vision’” (142), it would be in cybernarratives. While the actual experience of cyberspace is still linked to actual sensory input (touch of the keyboard and mouse, viewing the pixels on a screen, hearing the digital audio), fictional cyberspace relates directly to the sublime mystery of how the brain interprets electronic impulses, as is the case in The Matrix where “The Matrix is neither in the head nor is it located in the wasteland of 2199. The Matrix is a psycho-technical site, neither internal nor external. It is the interface between human and machine” (During 138). As such, since it does not occupy any actual space, it serves as a perfect example of Bal’s narrative space; since it relies upon characters’ focalizations of cyberspace, it lacks a fixed meaning. However, as has been noted, the idea that there are no absolutes is an absolute itself. Therefore, we can paradoxically take the absence of fixed meaning as the fixed meaning for cyberspace in cybernarratives.

This virtual world looks too good to be true!

So the question becomes, what fixed meaning might be derived from the polysemous nature of cyberspace? To arrive at that point, we must first wend our way first by time traveling through cyberpunk’s history in brief, since it is cyberpunk narratives which “offer us the most likely source for answers to questions regarding the machine-human dynamic in multinational society” (Barnett 360). We will then turn to examining the difference in the meaning of cyberspace which is constructed at the outset and most recent manifestations of that history. Cyberpunk began in the 80’s as “a voice of Bohemia” coming from “the underground, from the outside, from the young and energetic and disenfranchised…from people who didn’t know their limits, and refused the limits offered them by mere custom and habit” (Sterling in Barnett 360), and “proved to be a revitalizing force in science fiction, fusing the literary values and technological expertise which had previously been disported into separate subgenres” (Bukatman 137). It was a mixture of the real emerging technologies combined with a rock and roll aesthetic of “counterculture associated with the drug culture, punk rock, video games, Heavy Metal comic books, and the gore-and splatter SF/horror films of George Romero, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott” (McCaffery 12).

However, these narratives which seemed on the surface to pioneer new directions were sometimes perceived as being merely escapist fiction in hip new clothes. Even cyberpunk pioneer Bruce Sterling shared the opinion that cyberpunk had become a stale genre by the 1990’s, perhaps exaggerating too much when he announced its death (Gillis 3). Furthermore, Frederic Jameson criticized the genre for functioning “more like realism than science fiction” and for it failure to provide a “a satisfactory cognitive map of multinational capitalism” Barnett (361). Nevertheless, the heyday of cyberpunk and cyberspace in narrative was most certainly the late 1980’s—and its recent renaissance has been cinematic, not textual. The Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy launched this renaissance, restoring “a Bohemian edge and smart postmodern aesthetic…to cyberpunk” (Barnett 362). The huge success and attraction of The Matrix’s cyberpunk aesthetic can be attested to by the proliferation of associated marketing; DVD’s, video games, action figures, posters, Halloween costumes, and a veritable deluge of films which attempted to replicate the brilliant pastiche the Wachowskis had achieved.

Interestingly, the use of cyberspace in The Matrix violates the basis for McCallum’s criticism of cybernarratives further than its literary predecessors: “If some recognizable representation of real space persists in a genre whose emphasis on postmodern aesthetics and cyberspace networks makes it most likely to be able to dispense with the dimension of real space altogether, this persistence should give us pause to consider why this other world’s landscape and its subjects look so much like ours” (351). It was this adherence to a realistic topography in cyberspace which enabled McCallum’s argument against cyberpunk classics Snow Crash and Neuromancer. McCallum classifies cyberpunk as an ancestor of pulp fiction, and by extension to the adventure narratives of the nineteenth century, which are “closely linked to imperialist expansion” and as such “tend to articulate conservative ways of seeing the world” (356). He attests that most of the genre continues to hold to the “conservative ideologies” of adventure narratives which served an “imperialist aim, sustaining empire, justifying colonization, and consolidating gubernatorial power” (353). It is my contention that this argument is a strained one at best, given the destabilizing counter-cultural nature of most cyberpunk. He cites the fact that most cyberpunk locates the United States “as the geographical center,” which is more likely due to the proliferation of the cyberpunk genre in North America coupled with a desire to indict the rampant capitalism of the States than any sense of colonialism on the part of the writers. Further, he states that in adventure narratives, the unknown territory waiting to be explored “often takes the shape of an island” (355), and then draws connections to the Raft (a man made ‘island’ of small refugee craft surrounding a privately owned aircraft carrier) in Snow Crash, and the space islands of Neuromancer. The argument seems to be, put colloquially, trying too hard to make its point. Nevertheless, it is the one McCallum makes, trying to underscore the criticism of an overabundance of realistic imagery in cyberspace focalizations. Yet The Matrix, the most successful narrative representing cyberspace, “is rendered through the aesthetic of spectacular realism. Instead of being asked to believe that a digital aesthetic or a screen should signify cyberspace, the audience is asked to collude in the imagining of cyberspace as somewhere that looks no different and is ‘virtually’ impossible to distinguish from actual and physical space” (O’Riordan 144).

The simplest answer to the question of why cyberpunk represents virtual reality in a realistic way is that it is a genre of popular fiction, and its readership is not interested in an narrative “without a hero or country or conquest” which seeks to “represent the unrepresentable” (McCallum 375). From a filmic perspective, while the box office for Lawnmower Man was respectable for its time, the film only spent a portion of screen time portraying the virtual world, which was utterly mercurial with a chrome-like texture. Hardly the sort of thing anyone wants to look at for lengthy periods of time. This may seem like a mundane explanation, but will be demonstrated shortly how it pertains to our inquiry.

Bal attests that in some realistic novels, “descriptions of space are executed with great precision. It is important that the realistic aspects in such descriptions be clearly visible: the space must resemble the actual world, so that the events situated within it also become plausible” (Bal 141). I would argue that the same holds for novels which describe fantastic worlds, in this case, cyberspace realities. Veel references the notion of “schemata” in the work of certain cognitive semanticists to show how people conceive “everything that goes on around us as spatial stories, which are comprehended in correlation with the experience of our own body” (Veel 153). New metaphorical constructions are made when a source (or physical space) is correlated to a target space (which merely handles information). The mundane example Veel gives is the expression that “something has gone down the drain”, which utilizes the source space of plumbing and the target space of being wasteful. She applies such a schema to cyberspace, showing how cyberspace can “be conceived in bodily terms of navigation while being performed in an abstract mathematical space consisting of the 0s and 1s of a computer” (Veel 153). It might be more ‘realistic’ to say that cyberspace shouldn’t resemble reality at all, but in order for the reader or viewer to make any sense of what is happening, references to reality are necessary in organizing the virtual space.

Marie-Laure Ryan addresses the issue of reader/viewer immersion in Narrative as Virtual Reality when she categorizes the place names of fictional worlds. The first two, places the reader has likely visited and then secondly, places the reader hopes to visit are somewhat immaterial to our discussion. However, the third category is salient:

“The ultimate function …of concrete details whose sole purpose is to fix an atmosphere and to jog the reader’s memory… is to tell the reader, “This is the real world.” But the device is not merely a convention of realistic fiction…The reader’s sense of being there is independent of the verisimilitude of the textual world” (Ryan 130).

Simply put, if virtual reality was described as place instead of focalized as space, it would likely be so unintelligible that readers would become disoriented and give up on the text. Looking at cultural manifestations of cyberspace such as chat rooms, the abundance of anthropomorphic avatars over symbols shows how even in a space where the main representation of self is text-based, people still want to be essentially human in cyberspace. In the same way, when reading, there is a desire to connect with the imagined world; while the reader may never be able to actually go to the place they imagine, it helps if they can conceive of the possibility (however improbable it may be) of going to such a place. Ryan notes that it is a blending of the “reader’s private landscapes” along with “the textual geography” which produce the “most complete forms of spatial immersion” (122). Put another way, “The reader’s natural tendency is to try to understand a fictional world in terms of the actual world” (Maitre 17). However, giving readers/viewers ready access to narrative cyberspaces is only the first step towards the meaning of cyberspace as narrative space.

Just Like Heaven

A realistic cyberspace also serves to destabilize the idea of cyberspace as paradise or spiritual otherworld, “a good place for big ideas… to get religion, search for the divine, find your dream house” (Berry 261). Margaret Wertheim has noted the spiritual inclination of the actual cyberspace dwellers as a spirituality which ignores the body:

“Cybernauts, like angels, are beings of the ether, unassailed by physical limitations. Like angels, they are also free of deformity, illness and ugliness. On entering netspace, the frailities of the flesh are left behind. Fat, acne, bad eyes, weedy physiques and creaky joints are jettisoned. In cyberspace, its latest promoters say, one can simply be, a pure, immaterial soul, transcending the boundaries of both body and nation. For cybernauts, as for angles, the tyrannies of race, sex and distance can begin to dissolve, and one becomes part of the universal fellowship of the ether…A society of “souls” umimpeded by material bodies, free to commune across space and time: What would that be if not the medieval vision of paradise? The difference of course, is that silicon lets you dream of getting there before you die” (Wertheim 25)

Veel argues that the expression of cyberspace in eutopian terms needs to stop. She states that a fallacy occurs “when cyberspace is infused with redemptive and liberating qualities and conceived of as an “other” space that is cut off from geographical space, thus “forgetting” that the experience of physical space is what makes us able to relate to cyberspace in the first place” (Veel 170). This assumes a gnostic sort of eutopia, which wishes to be free of the constraints of the body. As Jack Voller observes, the sublime nature of infinity is relocated, “removing it from its exalted place in the heaves or on the terrestrial horizon and squeezing it into the interface between human mind and computer technology” (20) in Gibson’s Neuromancer. Likewise in Snow Crash the Metaverse is an example of the sublime simply based on its massive size of “65,536 kilometers around”, but gains a spiritual aspect when compared to the spiritual world (208).

Like many cyberpunk writers before him, Stephenson uses religious imagery to construct the narrative world of Snow Crash but maintains the cyberpunk’s characteristic ambivalence toward organized religion, and more importantly here, metaphysics. Stephenson has created a narrative wherein cyberspace serves the function that the otherworld would have in mythic tales. Anyone with a computer can visit the Metaverse, but since hacker extraordinaire Hiro is part of the elite few, the “technomedia priesthood of Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong” (192) who have designed parts of it, he is able to do more than simply travel there – he can transform it, like some sort of cyber-shaman.

Stephenson goes a step further by introducing a physical way in which the code that has constructed the Metaverse can be used as a form of magic, namely the nam-shub of Enki. Stephenson describes Enki as a sort of messianic figure, stating that Enki was “…a fully conscious human being, just like us…he created the nam-shub of Enki, a countervirus that spread along the same routes as the me and the metavirus. It went into the deep structures of the brain and reprogrammed them” (397-8). This messianic aspect is reinforced by the further exposition that “the ministry of Jesus Christ was an effort to break Judaism out of this condition—sort of an echo of what Enki did. Christ’s gospel is a new nam-shub, an attempt to take religion out of the temple, out of the hands of the priesthood, and bring the Kingdom of God to everyone” (401). Here Stephenson is referencing Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar, when he says that “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” but rather “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23, NIV). If the words of the Christian messiah are merely an echo of Enki’s nam-shub, then the reader must conclude that Enki possessed a potent spiritual power.

Yet, despite the groundwork Stephenson has laid with this idea of the nam-shub being something that works both in and outside cyberspace, Hiro never attains the ability to use it. He is set up as a sort of Enki, but is never granted an actual nam-shub; his ability to transform reality remains limited to the Metaverse. Even the character of Juanita, who becomes a “ba’al shem” who can “hack the brainstem” (430) is treated dismissively by Hiro, despite the reality the narrative has developed, which should make her “an extremely righteous rabbi, someone possessing such deep penetration that he knows the unutterable name of God and can use it to control nature” (Porush, 568). Yet her awesome ability only serves to rescue Hiro so that he can reenter the Metaverse, the cyberpunk otherworld and foil L. Bob Rife’s plans using a computer hack.

Porush sees Stephenson’s “rejection of the metaphysical turn not as a lack of insight, but as the residual hold that one of the most potent viral ideas in our culture has on Stephenson and on his hero: a commitment to orthodox rationalism” (569). In her book, The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson explores this issue by saying “it is because of our culture’s post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment prohibition on the supernatural and the exclusion of a transcendent, nonmaterialist level of reality from the allowable universe has created the ontological equivalent of a perversion caused by repression” (19). Nelson’s book is an exploration of the sublimation of the supernatural in popular fiction into cybernetic entities such as cyborgs, androids and robots. The post-Enlightenment mindset cannot admit angels and demons, or gods and goddesses. Strangely, it seems to be able to admit aliens, robots and artificial intelligences. However, if cyberpunk is truly a postmodern form of literature, then when the narrative demands, (as is seemingly the case in Snow Crash) then metaphysical possibilities should be embraced rather than avoided:

“The inability of Snow Crash to confront its own metaphysics, the spiritual transcendence it conjures only to banish, comes from the fashionable unwillingness to grant any credence to narratives of metaphysics, even while so much of postmodern culture apparently yearns for it” (Porush, 569).

Despite its philosophical pastiche of “Christian exegesis, a Redeemer myth…Jean Baudrillard…martial-arts mysticism, oracular prophecy, spoon-bending telekinesis, Joseph Campbell and Godelian mathematical metaphysics” (Sterling 24), as regards our discussion, the first film of the Matrix trilogy could be said to follow along the same ambivalence toward metaphysics Stephenson has. It is only within the cyberspace reality of the Matrix that characters are able to defy gravity, “know Kung-Fu” in the space of a minute, and “dodge bullets”. However, in the final moments of the second film, The Matrix: Reloaded and throughout the third film, The Matrix: Revolutions, Neo, the messianic “One” is able to transfer his transformative shamanic abilities into the “desert of the real”. In watching all three films back to back, the viewer notices a marked increase of action in the real world, while action in the virtual realm of the Matrix decreases. Further, the color shifting done to the film for scenes within the Matrix is towards a pale green tone, evoking the lines of green code on black screens which is the code of the Matrix, while the colors of the real world are more vibrant, and flesh tones are healthier looking. And in the end, Agent Smith’s defeat at the hands of Neo (and by extension, the machines) is due to real actions, not virtual ones. It is Neo’s actual physical journey to the machine world and the reality that he is physically connected to the machine mainframe when Smith tries to take him over that enables the victory. While the first Matrix film may reflect the “utopian wish for cyberspace to create a parallel world in which the traditional notion of space in geographical terms is abolished on behalf of a hope vested in the liberating effects of not being limited by space” (Veel 169), the third one has clearly sent the message that ““The newly revived aesthetic of cyberpunk suggests that virtual reality offers only an illusion of enhanced interactivity and not a real possibility of empowerment” (Barnett 372).

Getting Real

In the first film, on his first foray back into the Matrix, Neo sees familiar places and says, “I have these memories of my entire life, but…none of them really happened…what does that mean?” To which Trinity replies, “That the Matrix cannot tell you who you are” (Wachowski 65). Barnett states that the realistic way in which virtual reality is presented in The Matrix trilogy represents the postmodern sublime in a way that allows those who experience it to begin to grasp their position as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as social confusion” (Barnett 372). Unlike early cyberpunk, where virtual reality was a place to escape from the real world, in The Matrix trilogy, it becomes the place to escape from into the real world. The fixed meaning of a space without fixed meaning is that since at some level, all reality is constructed by the individual, then that individual also has both the power and responsibility to help construct the consensual illusion of reality. “Cyberspace is clearly a produced space that defines the subject’s relation to culture and politics. Like all such spaces, however, it does not simply exist to be inhabited; space implies position and negotiation” (Bukataman155). Likewise, we might say that empirical space is also focalized by individuals, and as such is somewhat virtual, and therefore subject to position and negotiation. If, indeed, “Cola is not the ‘real thing’ in a Baudriallardian world, but Coke – the logo – is,” (Currie 318) and neither is ‘human’ the real thing, but rather a construction of gender, sexuality, religious preference, ethic, morality, physical ability and on and on, then what virtual logo are we constructing of ourselves?

The malleability of the virtual hero is a challenge to continually be remaking and reinventing ourselves against the grain of the ideological matrixes of the ‘real’ world. If “reality is seen as contingent and constructed” (Wolfreys 318) then there is an aspect to which individual choice affects that construction. The hyper-real cyberspace of the Matrix causes us “to understand the fantasy world in terms of the actual world, at the same time [coming] to understand the actual world in terms of the fantasy world” (Maitre 67-8). Cyberspace offers a fantastically clear picture of the malleability of reality, challenging “our basic ideals and aspirations by presenting them with embarrassing and undisguised, if over-simplified, clarity” (Maitre 74). And while it would be ludicrous to suggest that one could alter the physical laws, the “coded rules” (Berry 257) of the empirical universe, the idea that a person can make a social-psychological difference in the world is a valuable one. One might say we can’t change the hardware, but we can rewrite the software.

Mark Nunes gives an appropriate metaphor for this idea of a simultaneously fixed and yet highly malleable world, one that is “metastable and dynamic” (65), through the concepts of striated and smooth space as descriptors for cyberspace, specifically in regards to the Internet:

“On Internet, however, these metaphors do not just organize space, they create a space, or more accurately, the substantiate cyberspace as a virtual topography. A striated “highway” topography determines cyberspace as a system of regulated connections between determined points on dedicated lines; conversely, a smooth “plane” topography “writes” a cyberspace of fluid transit and continual passage” (62).

He writes that “[a]ny account of computer-mediated communication that seriously engages the concept of “cyberspace,” then, would have to come to terms with the mixing of these two topographies” (73). What emerges is a topography which is both “restrictive and regulatory” as well as “open and originative” (66). The hardware of life might be said to be the physical world; the need to eat, sleep, breathe, etc. The software would be, to use Marxist terminology, the ideology of our society. If people see empirical reality as somewhat virtual, then what prevents individuals from destabilizing “the familiarity of architectural and social norms, the reassurance of control by stable authority, and of predictability, certainty, and the routinization of behavior” (69)? Nunes states that what is gained by such action is “a clear articulation of….potential” (69), namely the potential of cyberspace to open us up to the potential of real space. As such, cyberspace exists as a sort of metaphor for a postmodern Marxism, where “piratic, nomadic smooth space constantly erupts from within the striated space of legitimated government and business activities” (73).

The consistent pull between these two poles keeps both cyberspace, as well as empirical space “always “virtual,” always in the act of becoming: real, yet never completely determined” (74). If cyberspace is seen as an escape, a type of heaven or paradise, then there is no need for struggle or tension. A hyper-real cyberspace, one which is not an “exotic construction which displays its fictional character through an excess of ingenious devices” (During 140) nor an “obvious Oz of cyberspace” (Berry 255), but rather “the double of the real world, virtually indistinguishable from it” (During 140), which forces the viewer to focus on the “moviegoer’s present, warts and all” (Berry 255). And what is this condition? Leonard Sweet refers to our present technological age as the Bionomic Age, and describes it as a “Promethean hell” and “technological slavery, beeper bondage, and bionomic experimentation” where “anytime-anywhere work quickly becomes everytime-everywhere work” (33). The aesthetically realistic representation of cyberspace in The Matrix mirrors this again with over-simplified clarity through the veritable omnipresence of technology in the trilogy: “The subjects of The Matrix cannot move beyond technology but only reflect it back, as it is no longer distinct but ontological” (O’Riordan 142), an ontology defined by technology as “the enclosure of everything digetically known” (147). However, while the ontologies of both the film world of The Matrix and the modern Western world may be defined by technology, it is ultimately still humans who emerge as the final creators of the reality in which that technology is used.

In The Matrix Revolutions, when Neo offers to help the machines by sacrificing himself to defeat the viral Agent Smith, the machines respond with a thunderous, “WE DO NOT NEED YOU! WE NEED NOTHING”. Neo replies, “If that’s true then I’ve made a mistake and you should kill me now,” which leads to his insertion into the Matrix and the final showdown between Neo and Smith. While it may seem to people leading 24-7 lives that they are slaves to their cell phone or laptop or fax machine, the truth is that none of these things have any meaning or significance without the humans who use them. Cyberspace in all its forms ultimately serves as a “defining metaphor, an attempt to recognize and overcome the technological estrangements of the electronic age, and a preliminary attempt to resituate the human as its fundamental force” (Bukataman 156). However, the cyberspace of The Matrix reminds us that despite the fact that, “in an era of ATMs and global banking, cyberspace is where your money is”, cyberspace is ultimately a responsive and modifiable financial, capital and social space; “it is a place of testing and the arena for new technological rites of passage…cyberspace produces a unified experience of spatiality, and thus social being, in a culture that has become impossibly fragmented” (Bukataman 156).


Chris Seay has appropriated the films for modern Christianity in The Gospel Reloaded, which notes the irony of a film about virtual reality relying heavily upon computer technology for its inception. However, Seay concludes, “in the hands of the Wachowski brothers, the technology is used not to sedate, but to support; not to exploit, but to enlighten” (146).

It is no longer in vogue to assume that texts have meanings which can provide such outdated and idealistic concepts as hope, but that is certainly what The Matrix trilogy as the apex of cyberpunk leaves us with. What began in dystopia fleeing to cyberspace ends in cyberspace emerging to transform reality, and perhaps the future. And it is, as Kristin Veel states, the obligation of literary scholars “to use their abilities of aesthetic analysis on new phenomena such as the interface, and to learn to take advantage of the possibilities that the new media offer their profession. Only by doing so is it possible to take part in the ongoing definition of what purposes these technologies serve” (Veel 151).

Perhaps making a point about hope unmasks a desire for something essential within text, but I would argue that it is, instead, a further questioning of the virtual reality of narrative, since by its very nature, hope like postmodernist thought “suspends answers and defers completion, though it does not ignore the possibility” of answer or completion. After all, as Trinity said to Neo, “It’s the question that drives us.”

Works Cited

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Barnett, P. Chad. “Reviving Cyberpunk: (Re)Constructing the Subject and Mapping Cyberspace in the Wachowski Brothers’ Film The MatrixExtrapolation 41. (2000): 359-74.

Berry, Rick. “Dreaming Real” Haber, 250-264.

Bukataman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. London: Duke University Press, 1993.

During, Ellie. “Is There an Exit from “Virtual Reality?” Grid and Network—From Tron to The MatrixThe Matrix in Theory (Critical Studies 29) (Critical Studies). Ed. Myriam Diocaretz and Stefan Herbrechter. Critical Studies. 29. Amsterdam: Rodopt, 2006.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Gillis, Stacy, ed. The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded. London: Wallflower Press, 2005.

Haber, Karen, ed. Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present (Byron Preiss Book). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.

Maitre, Doreen. Literature and Possible Worlds. London: Middlesex Polytechnic Press, 1983.

McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk & Postmodern Science Fiction. London: Duke University Press, 1991.

McCallum, E.L. “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction” Poetics Today 21 (2000): 349-76.

Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

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