InReview – Issue 22

The Matrix directed by the Wachowski Brothers, produced by Joel Silver

What is the Matrix? It’s a rock’em, sock’em sci-fi action thriller that raised the bar in virtual reality FX. It’s also a smart film that surpasses its own dazzling veneer, delving into the relationship between humanity and technology, and confronting the epistemological temptation to reduce human consciousness to the electrochemistry of the nervous system.

By day, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a programmer in a generic urban world circa 1999, the peak of human civilization. By night, he’s a hacker obsessed with an existential quest: the answer to a gnawing, formless question: “What is the Matrix?” With Morpheus’s (Laurence Fishburne) help, Neo comes to embrace the pain that the present is really the future, and humans are organic batteries farmed by intelligent machines in need of electricity. To keep power flowing, humans are plugged into a massive virtual reality software grid, which is the Matrix. Based on a prophecy, Morpheus and his disciples regard Neo as “The One” with the gift to transcend the algorithms that keep humanity in its invisible prison.

The humanness and depth of the film triumphs at both philosophical and spiritual levels. On a philosophical level, it turns materialistic reductionism on its head. While tutoring Neo on how the Matrix deceives its subjects, Morpheus explains: “What is real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then real is simply the electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Yet it’s precisely because reality is more than this that Morpheus defies the Matrix and fights for humanity’s right to perceive a Real World. Reality and perception aren’t equal — a seemingly self-evident concept that baffles many contemporary philosophers of science.

On a spiritual level, the film flows with Biblical parallelisms and references to calling, trust, betrayal, death, love, resurrection and liberation. Faith is ultimately what launches Neo and others to fulfill their destiny: “I believe in something. I believe I can save Morpheus.” It’s this unseen substance of faith that eludes the keepers of the Matrix, and provides the human spirit victory over the bondage of technology.

This film is packed with food for thought and is worth watching more than once. When you rent it, just be sure your high tech DVD player isn’t watching you.

Reviewed by Gerard Beenen

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Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser; New York, HarperColllins, 2001; 383 pp.

Eric Schlosser is a correspondent with The Atlantic Monthly with many fine articles to his credit in various magazines. Fast Food Nation, his first book, has been on the best seller lists for many months. There is a certain irony to the simultaneous popularity of fast food and a book debunking fast food.

From time to time, Schlosser can’t resist firing a punch at a beckoning target but for the most part his style is simply to describe the people, the statistics, the landscape, the factories, the reality of the fast food industry. This is not just about food and personal taste; it is a major business, technology, and ethics story.

The first part of Schlosser’s book tells the stories of the rise of fast food operations such as Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut. These people, ideas, and experiences make for an unexpected page-turner. Fast food is both a result of changes in technology and culture (e.g., the automobile, the pace of life), and a cause of further changes (e.g., in labor, eating, and land use patterns).

In part two, Schlosser explores major changes in food processing and preparation and in agribusiness driven by the giants of fast food. The role of chemicals in creating precise flavor experiences is an intriguing story. The dangers to workers in the cattle slaughterhouses and the risk of disease to consumers of their products occupy a couple chilling chapters. The aggressive expansion of fast food corporations around the globe and the statistical evidence of an epidemic of obesity following fast food is another thread in Schlosser’s account.

Schlosser argues that the triumph of unhealthy fast food is not inevitable. He shows how “In-N-Out Burger” restaurants successfully go against the flow on food quality and worker wages while remaining competitive and profitable. Schlosser suggests reforms that could safeguard animals from cruel treatment, workers from exploitation, and consumers from unhealthy food. In the paperback edition he responds to some negative reviews of the clothbound edition.

McDonald’s was hailed as an exemplary corporation back in Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence and in many respects it, along with other fast food corporations, is a true business success story. Schlosser describes well the creativity and single-mindedness that has gone into this success. However, especially after thirty years of experiencing fast food power and influence, there are serious issues to confront. Schlosser has done us all a great favor by putting the cards on the table.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence
by Dinesh D’Souza; New York, Free Press, 2000; xx, 284 pp.

Dinesh D’Souza is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of several books. Some may be turned off by the title — the virtue of prosperity may seem like a celebration of excess out of the 80s. But this is a serious, well-written, witty book by an author who is articulate and has done his homework.

The focus of this book is on what happens to an American society where technology has enabled an unprecedented level of affluence not just at the top but throughout the levels. He argues that even a family at the poverty level in America is better off than 80% of the world population. Yet a growing wage difference from top to bottom has made for an increase in “relative” poverty. Most of the new top wealth today has been created rather than inherited, which underscores the feeling of being left behind by some. Not only this, it causes those at the top to think they deserve the wealth and so they may have less of a concern for those at the bottom.

D’Souza introduces two sides to the argument about whether all of this is good. The party of “Nah,” typically coming from the political left, is raising concerns about the downside of technology and the need to redistribute the wealth. The party of “Yeah” sees every new invention as progress and argues that those who get ahead have earned it all (with perhaps a bit of luck along the way). D’Souza seeks out articulate speakers from both sides of the argument, from present day thinkers to those throughout history. While there is little question where he is personally coming from (the party of Yeah), he is clear in identifying arguments against his position. D’Souza also probes the future based on advances in information technology and biology.

There are a couple of downsides to this book. First, D’Souza tends to spend much more time defining the arguments at the extremes. Some of his “spokespersons” may not be very credible because of their extreme views. A few more moderate presentations where there is recognition of the “gray areas” would have been helpful.

Second, much of the focus is an economic argument. Progress is almost always identified with the accumulation of wealth. There are no university professors who enjoy the life they have even though their compensation is far beneath the multi-billion dollar entrepreneur. There are no service professionals who are passionate about their work and are not so concerned about their level of compensation. Time to be with family, to read, to pursue faith, to listen to good music are very lightly acknowledged. The focus is on the conflict between those who have made it (economically) and those who have not. I think this is an unrealistic picture.

A small complaint: it would be nice to have a collected bibliography rather than just a collection of footnotes at the end. D’Souza covers a great deal of ground in this book and seeing all the source material together would be useful.

In spite of these concerns, I would highly recommend this book. Working through the argument with D’Souza is a delight, even when you disagree. I learned a lot from his thoughtful, well-researched treatment of the topic.

Reviewed by Al Erisman