English 738T, Spring 2015
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Murray’s Digital Affordances and the Matrix

Posted by Maura-Kate Costello on Friday, April 17th, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Meant to post this sooner- sorry for the delay!


The article we read by Janet Murray on the affordances of digital environments for narrative invited some interesting considerations of The Matrix and the world is projects.

Murray explains that the computer is procedural in that they can replicate and perform procedures that are coded into its software. It can reproduce recognizable patterns and act accordingly. Murray gives the example of the computer-psychologist Eliza, who duped many individuals into thinking there was a real psychologist on the other side of the computer, so well did the software predict the programmatic responses psychologists often give. The matrix is procedural to the maximum degree because it has not only predicted one piece of reality—like Eliza, the psychologist—but it has been able to map out (and I use this word purposely to invoke Baudrillard’s discussion on the Borges map) the entire human reality in all its detail and complexity. This means first of all that there is a “pattern” to human life and the universe that can be determined, and furthermore that the machines have discovered it and been able to reproduce it with almost total accuracy. Of course there are ways to test the limits of these simulated realities—one can play with responses for Eliza that reveal her non-humanness and the deja-vus in the matrix mark the glitches that belie the constructed nature of its world.


That digital environments are participatory means that participants interact with the computer and the variability of their input into the system effects different changes in the computer program. In other words, it gives the illusion of freedom because different choices yield different results. The matrix is participatory, and made visually so by the socket these characters have in the back of their heads. It is interesting to note here that there are two types of participation in the matrix. The “unconscious” humans perhaps model the most immediate, prescribed type of participation, whereas members of the Nebuchednezzar crew model the kind of participation available to hackers. The former type of participant holds the illusion that the choices they make are free, when in reality, they have been predetermined by the computer code that programs the matrix. Hackers, on the other hand, participate in such a way that their choices effect a change in the structure of the system itself—or so the Wachovsky siblings—and Morpheus and Neo—would have us believe; and this is only possible because they can exit the system. All this brings up an interesting discussion on free will and what is really possible in/around the matrix. If it’s really the case that the hackers have a wider range of freedom than the dormant humans, what is the limit (even if extended) of their freedom? What changes can they really effect if Neo kills Agent Smith several times and he always returns? Or if the oracle can predict his action before he performs it?

Another angle to consider is the participation of the machines/agents in the matrix and what this means for their free will… Is Agent Smith exercising free will when he talks to Morpheus without being plugged in or shaded by his sunglasses? Or is he just performing more extreme behavior encoded by the system because it is provoked by Morpheus’ resistance? What kind of freedom was Smith imagining in his desire to escape the matrix? Do we believe that there’s really a subjectivity in him that feels those desires? If so, how is he different than his human-hacker enemies who also want to escape the matrix? These questions trouble the notion of free will altogether and the notion that the hacker-humans are really experiencing/exercising any significantly greater measure of freedom than before they exited the matrix.


The latter two characteristics of digital environments that Murray discusses are that they are spatial and encyclopedic. That the matrix is spatial I think is fairly straightforward in that participants are given the notion that they can move around in space and that the formation of that space has consequences on the range of choices available to them. Even though Neo can bend the rules, he still operates within a space that determines the kinds of choices he can make. To link this aspect to the Heim reading, the matrix has succeeded in creating a fully-immersive experience in a way that our current virtual reality technologies could never achieve. Interestingly, what makes this possible in the matrix is the fact that what it accesses and shapes is a person’s very consciousness (their brain is plugged in) rather than the more external access to sensory input/output afforded by technologies like the helmet and the body suit.  In order here is a nod to the power of ideology in creating its own not-so-virtual realities in their ability to control/access the consciousnesses of its subjects.


The encyclopedic nature appears and is questioned in several moments of the film. Beyond the obvious encyclopedic nature of reproducing all of human reality, we can look to the store of computer programs Morpheus and his crew have in order to train themselves to enter the matrix. These programs are encyclopedic in their attempts at being exhaustive and also hope to simulate circumstances that will train the hackers for all possible problems they might encounter in the matrix. The other more interesting link to the encyclopedic factor of the matrix is that of time. The matrix is not only spatially exhaustive but also temporally exhaustive, as is demonstrated by the oracle’s fore-knowledge of Neo’s bumping into the vase. This more than the spatial component troubles the notion of free-will more than anything else. If the action of the hackers, who have exited the system, is also predetermined, where does free will really play itself out? Another thought on the encyclopedic nature of the matrix is its link to memory. If the matrix builds and stores the memories of all the humans that are plugged into the system, how are they different than the replicants in Blade Runner, whose memories have been fabricated and implanted in them by the Tyrell Corporation?

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One Response

  • Manon Soulet says:

    To answer to your question, I would say that, although there are many similarities between the two (slaves, fabricated…) they are still different because the humans can be awakened and also live full lives as actual humans outside of the matrix (as long as they don’t get killed by Cypher of course).

    Second, I completely agree with what you say about the procedural affordance of the matrix, mapping out the pattern of human lives, and I want to jump from that. In the movie (and in our own experience?) human experience and constitution are systematic and as you say, follow a pattern. When we look at Morpheus for instance, even though he is outside the system, his mind is constructed like the internal system of a computer that the agents are trying to “hack”. This shows that the human mind is a construction. It is even more obvious inside the matrix obviously. If we take the computer company Neo initially works in, MetaCortex (even just the name…), it is the epitome of the systematization of human life but also of society at large. As his boss tells him at the beginning: “Every employee understands they are part of a whole”. The members are conform constituents of a larger machine/system/whole (see for example the endless rows of cubicles). In this case, if one part of the system acts out and the whole system is affected. Humans are wired, connected, just like machines, and even more so today if we consider our presence on social networks.

    Third, I am really interested in what you say about fate and I want to jump from that. Fate, as it is represented in the movie, is a system as well, one you cannot escape. But fate is most importantly a language – a CODE – used by the machines to control humans. Fate is a religious concept – the idea that a superior creator/being/God/machine decides for you – which adopts a discourse of determinism that deprives humans from their liberty while controlling them with the illusion of free will. Similarly, the matrix gives the illusion of free choice, this false consciousness, in order to keep them in line, because in the end, what you believe is what shapes your identity.

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