A while back, I wrote a short blog post about Plato’s cave and how I think it is connected to the way we use Facebook. I have been thinking about existence ever since, trying to educate myself on the subject, and how it relates to the modern world. As of late and more than anything else, I think about our connection to the material world when so much of our lives is spent in a virtual one.
I concluded the previous article with my opinion on the “do we live in a matrix” question by saying that I don’t believe that we do, using Descartes’ argument and my own perception of the world to come to this conclusion. However, the matrix is somehow always present in my mind, as if this conclusion was constantly challenged by this society’s increasing reliance on technology.
But let’s start this article as far removed from technology as possible and talk about a tree.
When a Tree Falls
There is a common thought experiment asking that “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It is based on the writings of philosopher George Berkeley  arguing that “The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived,” therefore concluding that if a tree falls but no one is there to witness it, we can’t quite come to the conclusion that it actually makes a sound.
Except that now, we can.
With a smartphone and a live feed in a forest placed nearby a tree, maybe pushing our luck by cutting part of its trunk, we can watch the feed out of ear-shot and hear the sound as recorded by the smartphone. Then, it will be perfectly clear that the tree’s fall emits a bundle of sounds. The question that derives from George Berkeley’s writings couldn’t be answered in the mi-1700s when the philosopher was alive, but it can answered now, thanks to technology. When the tree falls, we are not witnessing it directly with our senses but rather through a mechanical device. The distant tree is connected to our senses via the communication systems put in place between the smartphone and the internet, and between the internet the other device used to watch the live feed, may it be another smartphone or a computer.
In other words, the sound of the tree reaches us through the matrix.
A Matrix That Connects
So while I don’t believe that we live in the matrix, I do see that we are part of a matrix. The social internet, meaning the internet that connects people for social or business purposes, is now directly linked to us via our smartphones. We use them to help organize our lives, to consume content, and to find practical and educational information. It has clearly become an extension of our brain. Now that we have a single device in our hand that can connect us to people, knowledge, and interact with our material lives, aren’t we connected to the matrix to a point where we may actually consider being part of it?
To try and answer that question, I want to look at an infamous phenomenon called “echo chambers.”
A Matrix That Compartmentalizes
Researchers Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala, and Cass R. Sunstein published a paper titled “Echo Chambers on Facebook” in which they lay out their findings about echo chambers on social media. They followed two distinct groups and monitored their reactions to certain news and conspiration theories. Their conclusion was that those two groups didn’t interact, focusing their attention on the content that they favored, thus being considered isolated from one another.
If the matrix is connected to everyone, how is it that people with different ideologies rarely interact? While there is a complex answer to this question, I want to focus on one aspect that I believe to be especially detrimental to inter-ideologies interactions: targeted content.
According to the website Investopedia.com:
“The bulk of Google’s $110.8 billion revenue in 2017 came from its proprietary advertising service, Google AdWords.”
Data collection may be used for all sorts of purposes nowadays, not the least being the training of highly performing A.I systems. However, its initial purpose was to gather the information necessary to place ads with high chances of transforming into sales by showing it to the people most likely to buy into them. If advertising is the biggest source of revenue for one of the biggest companies on Earth, then targeted content should be its biggest, most bad-ass weapon, and its effects the most destructive. When people read content they like, websites provide additional similar content to keep the user engaged and expose said user to more and more advertising. It is essential, after all, since advertisers payments are what keep said websites running. By only seeing content that they like, users are isolated in virtual capsules that prevents them from seeing a diversity of ideas, and therefore a diversity of view points.
Isn’t reading something that a user enjoys a good thing? It may be if it wasn’t fueled by the need to sell ad space.
A Matrix That Dehumanizes
For content makers, the “need” that justifies the efforts required to produce a piece of content is directly connected to the proverbial ripples produced by the final result.
“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations. It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that I would die happy.”
In this interview, Director Hiyao Miyazaki speaks about the making of the film “Owl’s Moving Castle.” His need is anchored in something very personal. The director is featured in the documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” telling his staff that Studio Ghibli is a conduit to make the films that they want, not to make money over fist. The ripples of each and every Miyazaki film are intense, emotional, and seem to reach the members of the audience straight into their very core.
In opposition to that, the need to sell advertising seems like a hollow pursuit, forcing the content maker to use cheap tricks of language that will trigger a spike of emotional response just big large to get a click from the user. That click will lead to the advertising billboard that will surround a little bit of quickly jolted down content.
And that trick of language? It’s the ingredient that changes human beings into components of the matrix.
Life on The Edge
I know that copywriting is an essential tool to sell content on the internet. I use it for my own projects and most authors need it to survive. However, in the 21st century of interconnected negativity, copywriting is used in ways that I believe to be responsible for the transformation of human beings into dots on a screen.
Targeted content is not sufficient to ensure a sale. It is only a tool to attract a potential customer’s eyes. However, when so much content is published every minute, content makers need to attract the necessary clicks that will lead to their site and the best way to do that is to create an emotional response from the user, and where love soothes, anger infuriates and compounds.
We’ve established that there are competing ideologies that don’t interact online. This Wired article speaks about how those echo chambers completely removed the inter-ideologies discussions during the 2016 US elections and Facebook has been in a hot bed of controversy regarding its relationship with political ads, lots of which have been fueled by incendiary language paid by supporters of candidates and their ideologies.
What is the impact this general negativity, those invitations to read incendiary content, and our natural favorable response towards targeted content? It keeps us, the users, on edge, that perfect emotional place that leads to raw, uncontrolled impulsive actions.
Once here, on the edge, boiling with emotions, ready to be impulsive and facing a slew of targeted adverts, what chances do we have to not be sucked into the World Wide Bank?
wwb.The World Wide Bank
Now is a good time to zoom way out.
If we were to visually define users activities on the internet, or the matrix- to stay on topic-, I believe that groups of dots gathered on separate spaces in a square is not a bad analogy. Those dots are segregated by ideologies and interests and they move, more or less as herds, based on the trends of the moment within their specific quadrants of targeted content. Those dots don’t need to interact, they just need to be passionate about something, and with that passion, move around the matrix with enough force that it creates revenue.
The power of herds is now easy to witness. Take a Star Wars convention for instance. Those large scale events were considered to be nerdy and not worthy of big corporations’ attention for the longest time. Since the purchase of Lucasfilm Ltd. by Disney, however, these events have become a full blown part of the company’s marketing strategy. It involves private invitations, privileged relationships between the company and freelancers, and footage of enthralled crowds surrounding a stage. Isn’t that, too, a gathering of dots with similar interests? The expected end result is the sales of movie tickets and merchandising after all, and this is where the World Wide Bank enters the stage. Let’s add something to our dots Picture.
If each dot, now stripped from its humanity after making its way through the matrix grinder, is given a dollar value, then it becomes easy for any large company to look at them as cogs of a worldwide banking system. Then, in order to withdraw money, all there is to do is follow a few simple steps:
Gather data that will provide the information necessary to implement the proper marketing strategy,
Invest in content production that will triggered the targeted groups,
Look at the dots move in the expected direction,
See the account balance shoot upwards.
Human beings > Dots > Bank Accounts
While I don’t believe that our reality is the construct of a matrix that is so well designed that it got us fooled into thinking that it is reality, I do believe that we are being fooled into living connected to a matrix. We can assess it and understand it as being separate to our selves but we lack the necessary control to not be affected by it on a daily basis. I am hopeful in the idea that the points of entry into that matrix are still fitted with off switches, but here again, I don’t know that it will always be the case. Also, the methods used to bring us to the edge, as explained above, trigger emotions, something we can’t turn off so easily, keeping us anchored to those points of entry.
Here is the one thing that I truly don’t understand yet. I took the example of Disney because it is part of the industry I work in. A company such as this has a tremendous amount of money, and yet, it uses every trick in the book to make more. It makes me wonder, what comes next? What happens once all the money is theirs?
This is the kind of understanding that may take me an entire lifetime to reach.
I don’t know that what I have written here makes any sense to anyone but me. I have tried to add references and make my points clear but only you can tell me what you think of it. An argument on its own has no value, it needs to be discussed to grow. Let me know what you think.
 “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” by George Berkeley, 1710