2010 | The Cartesian theater of The Matrix and Avatar

©Rune Peitersen 2010

Both The Matrix and, more recently, Avatar feature the ability of the protagonist(s) to transfer their mind/consciousness to another (virtual) body. The premise seems to be Cartesian. The human consciousness is trapped somewhere inside our head or brain, but if we were able to ‘free’ it from its corporeal existence, there is nothing hindering it from taking possession of another body.

The modern day logic is the computer logic – we all have the same corporeal hardware and our software (mind) is therefore instantly compatible with any other body. All we need in order to transfer our software is an interface of some sort. In The Matrix this is done by connecting directly to an even bigger piece of hardware, whereas in Avatar it’s all wireless (of course, there are 10+ years between the two movies, but one can’t help notice the distinct tinker-toy PC-feel of The Matrix as opposed to the superficially smooth Apple experience of Avatar). In both cases the mind is ‘uploaded’ to another piece of hardware, and thereafter free to enter another reality where the rules and limitations of the ‘normal’ world don’t apply. IT-worker Mr. Anderson becomes an übercool, streetwise goth super hero, and the disabled soldier becomes a 3 meter tall, blue ‘warrior’ who rides an enormous dinosaur turkey and nails (or rather, ‘tails’) the daughter of the chief (I shudder at the thought, that the soldiers at bases in the US, who are remote controlling Predator drones in Afghanistan and elsewhere, might envision themselves undergoing similar ‘transformations’ when ‘going’ on missions).

Although mind and body seem to have little if any influence on each other, in both movies you still need a ‘real’ body. If your ‘real’ body dies, you’re dead. In The Matrix you die even if your virtual body dies – at least sometimes. In Avatar this is less of a problem; the big blue avatar vehicle can survive without the mind in a vegetative, brain-dead, state – very handy. Also, if you’re lucky, you can have your mind permanently transferred to the big blue body, but that takes a lot of processing power and all the blue people have to jack in to make that work. What happens to the original body after that, is somewhat unclear, but I like to imagine, that in true totemistic style, the heart and liver are ripped out of the still warm body and ritually devoured by the tribe (normally, I’d say the brain as well, but in this particular case, it’s safe to assume that it’s empty(?)).

Now, normally, the brain takes care of regulating a lot of the body’s vital functions. These include regulating temperature, breathing, heartbeat, hormone balance etc. etc. Since the bodies, which are left behind, in the movies don’t die completely, we must assume that the part of the mind which is transferred isn’t involved in any of these tasks. Likewise, sensory input is ‘taken care of’ by the new body, which seems to imply that either all brains are built exactly alike when it comes to e.g. the visual cortex regardless of what kind of eyes you have (goodbye environmental influence – and common sense), or the mind just settles in the driver’s seat of the new brain and lets all the sensory information come to it ‘from the outside’ (hello homunculus problem). In any case, the ongoing individual neural wiring of the brain (which starts as soon as the brain begins to evolve and is more personal and complex than a fingerprint the size of the moon) seems to play little or no part at all, which is good because that would present a problem – how would you get new memories or newly learned skills with you from one body to the other if memories and newly learned skills were brain structures? In fact, it’s probably safe to say, that the only aspects of the mind, which are transferred are: personality (whatever that is when detached from the bodily experience and the individually wired neural network), memory (whatever that is when detached from the bodily experience and the individually wired neural network) and emotions (whatever that is when detached from the bodily experience and and the individually wired neural network).

Anyway, the important thing is that it works. Apparently, we are told, it’s just a matter of the right technology before we can all become the heroes in our own lives – be what we were really meant to be – simply by uploading our ‘mind’ to another body. This is fortunate, because then we don’t have to worry about being ‘what we were really meant to be’ in our everyday lives, all we have to do is wait for the right technology to appear, and then we can be transformed into freedom fighters on far away planets or on a world dominated by machines. We can finally be as brave and bold as we know we really are. We will fight oppression, liberate some people and get the girl in the end. In other words, we can finally do all the stuff we were destined to do, but you can’t do in the real world…because you’re not allowed, or there are no oppressed people anywhere, no injustice and no girls either.

But, what if the technology isn’t developed within our lifetime?!? Luckily, the movies seem to deal with that eventuality as well. It’s a bit tricky, but nonetheless. By stating that the mind (or at least, the mythological 10% we care about) is kind of a separate thing from the body, it seems plausible that it could survive after we die as well – since the body isn’t really needed after all. And then perhaps after we die, we can go to a place where we can finally be ‘what we were really meant to be’, but were unable to be in our former life (for reasons mentioned above). This may sound vaguely familiar, and I can only assume that that is the noble intention of the film makers. To let us know it’s okay if we aren’t the heroes or even protagonists of our own lives, because in the Matrix/Pandora/Afterlife we will be. So, even though the movies may appear to be showing us something new, they are in fact telling us something old. They are giving us a 17th century view of the world dressed up in 21st century effects.