May 9th, 2002, Episode One:  Who is in control of your life?

We examined the age-old question of how much we control our own and each other's behaviour. What is the relationship between the individual and society?  Does society make us do anything? Or Are we in control of our own destinies?  We took this question to the streets and asked people in Victoria who they thought controlled their lives.  Most answered "me" but with a variety of hesitations and qualifications.  Others mentioned family, friends, pets and jobs as sources of control One person suggested society and another suggested nobody was in control.

We looked at Horatio Alger stories, including a spoof of the Alger stories written by Mark Twain. Such stories recreate a narrative of individualism and control.  Richard Dawkins's concept of memes was discussed.  Is the idea that we are in control of our life something based on our experience or is a meme passed on from generation to generation?  We create our own meme -- the Howard Jones Effect.

Finally, we examined The Matrix as the ultimate sociology movie. Read the transcript below:


Several times during my graduate school career as a teaching assistant I had a student show up during my office hours to tell me, “You’ve ruined my life with this sociology stuff.”  This was not because I was a horrible teacher keeping them up with extensive homework.  Sociology, it seems, made the world a bit uncomfortable because those things that were taken for granted could not be taken for granted anymore. 

For me personally, the first thing that got ruined was James Bond movies.  I could no longer “escape” without considering the ways in which these movies were constructing women, men, imperialism, ethnicity, violence and war.  Thinking about these things ruins the whole Bond experience.

So when I saw The Matrix a few years ago, I understood the feeling that something was not quite right with the world.  The Matrix is the perfect allegory for sociology. 

I’m aware that deconstructing this movie in this way will probably “ruin” it as well, so if you loved The Matrix because of the cool special effects and didn’t want to give any thought to it beyond the coolest armed battles in cinema history, then I suggest you tune me out for the next few minutes.  Also, if you have yet to see The Matrix, I may ruin a punch line or two here, so from here on out, you listen at your own risk.

 However like Morpheus, I invite you to consider an alternative understanding of the movie.  I invite you to see the movie behind the movie. Insert sound clip control[1].

What Neo sees before him is a “real world” in which robots cultivate human beings like crops and use their bodies as batteries to generate electricity in order to keep the robots working.  Human beings are, in fact, the source of the machine.  In order to keep humans from knowing their predicament, the machine constructs a pretend world, not too perfect, but satisfying enough to keep everyone but the most sensitive amongst us purring along from birth to death, feeding off each other’s energy to keep the machine going even to each individual’s detriment. Insert sound clip stared[1]

In the mid-1950s, William H. Whyte wrote a sociology classic called The Organization Man, describing the white middle-aged, junior executive who left his suburban home, wife and 2.1 kids every day to be part of the larger corporate enterprise.  He blends well with his corporate role and becomes the organization.  He does nothing to rock the boat.  Instead, the organization man’s actions remain consistent with the purpose of the organization and fuel the organization’s existence, helping it to maintain its status.  The coppertop human batteries that Morpheus reveals to Neo are the ultimate organizational human beings – they are plugged into the machine most literally.

The metaphor of society sucking the energy from human individuals is a dark view of culture indeed and one that is not unique in cinema history.  Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, a 1936 silent classic, depicts Chaplin’s tramp as getting caught in a machine, running through the gears smoothly without control over his fate and ending up exactly where the machine leads.  Chaplin’s metaphor was directly influenced by a Marxist understanding of capitalism, an understanding that workers are divorced from their work product and alienated from themselves, becoming, instead of full human beings, a cog in a machine.  Something we might call a cyborg in this century, both human and machine. Insert sound file aslave[1].

The Matrix is a more postmodern version of this tale.  The cyborgs are virtual characters able to enter the matrix as machines and able to return to the “real” though dismal world in order to escape the evil machines and battle them to free the human race.  But it is a battle for humans who do not want to be freed.  Insert sound file goodfaith[1].

It is Neo’s coming of age in the story that, in fact, separates The Matrix from its darker predecessors.  The ultimate metaphor in The Matrix is Neo’s ability to see the matrix’s true nature.  Neo is “the one” because in the end he can see the matrix while he is in the matrix.  He no longer believes in its apparent structure nor takes for granted its apparent reality.  Instead, his ability to recognize that he is in the machine while he is in the machine enables him to take over the programming from the machines and manipulate its power to his own means. Insert sound file choice[1].

Unlike Marxian utopia, based in a class struggle that leads to dissolving of all classes, Neo’s subversion of the machine comes from his intimate knowledge of the machine and his ability to see through the illusions of the machine.  He is unplugged and as an unplugged agent in the system, he seeks to unplug others, to provide them with the same knowledge that set him free.

Two basic questions that never quite get answered in sociology are: How much does society influence human behavior? and How much does human behavior influence society?  One of the difficulties of these questions is that this thing we call “society,” while all around us, really doesn’t exist in empirical space.  When we say “society” did this or “society” made that, we generally think we know what we mean, but unlike the Matrix and its machine creators, society is something of our own doing, it is our own creation.  So, in a real sense, the question “how much does society influence human behavior?” is a nonsensical question. 

But it is clear that human beings act collectively, that we influence each other’s behavior and that we often do this with little thought as to the source of our information or as to our motives for our actions. Like the Matrix, this construct we call society can limit our actions.  The reason, however that I don’t see the Matrix as a dark view of human society is that unlike The Organization Man, the message of the matrix is that knowledge of the Matrix leads to freedom from the Matrix.  Neo still has to operate within the structures of the Matrix in order to accomplish his goal, but he is an active agent.  He asserts influence over the system. 

But such knowledge will ruin the illusion and that leads me back to my sociology students, uncomfortable in their newfound understanding of the system that is all around them.  Such knowledge can lead to a dismal world where Bond movies no longer provide two hours of escape but rather remind you of all the problems from which you seek escape.  But that knowledge can also lead you to a powerful position of influence on the very system that binds you.  As Morpheus tells Neo – no one can make that choice for a person.  Once the choice is made, there’s no going back.  If you understand the social nature of human activity, the apparent reality of individualism is shattered.  Yet the irony is that it is such knowledge that gives the individual more power.  Insert sound clip redpill[1].



That’s all for this first episode of First Person Plural.  We invite you to take the red pill and join us each Thursday at noon here on CFUV, 101.9 fm in Victoria, British Columbia.  We can’t predict the future, but we believe you’ll enjoy learning a little more about the matrix of society each week.  Of course, learning about society might not be comfortable, but it can be powerful.  We’ll see you next week. Insert sound clip bluepill[1].  

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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