Enter the Metaverse: The Religious & Legal Study of The Matrix in Modern Society
Mark Edward Blankenship, Jr.
As you can see, we’ve had our eye on you for some time now Mr. Anderson. It seems that you have been living two lives. In one life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias “Neo”, and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.
-Agent Smith (during a police interrogation that subsequently violated Mr. Anderson’s constitutional rights)
In late October of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg made a big announcement regarding the operations of Facebook. The social media company changed its name to Meta, perhaps due to various scandals the Facebook brand has weathered, such as the Facebook Papers, the allegations of “fake-news” and tech censorship, and the Cambridge-Analytica incident.
Moreover, Zuckerberg outlined his vision for the “Metaverse” as the next chapter of the Internet. The Metaverse is Zuckerberg’s newest endeavor: creating an innovative approach for connecting with others through virtual and augmented reality simulation. It is a space where digital representations of people — avatars — will be able to interact at work and in their free time, meeting in their office, going to concerts and even trying on clothes. One article from CoinDesk stated that “the virtual world of the Metaverse could become its own trillion-dollar industry. A go-to for entertainment, commerce and for some, even a place of work. The Metaverse is not being described as an extension of the Internet but a successor. And it’s being built using blockchains and decentralized applications.”
This proposal provokes concern regarding the future of the Internet, especially during a time where social media users are allegedly being shadow banned or put in “Facebook Jail” for “violating community standards.” Some scholars like Dr. Gene Kim noted that the Metaverse signifies aspects of the End Times written in Revelation, while others have noted that the Metaverse signifies a dystopian architecture where the physical and the digital worlds converge. It would not take long for the Twitter account of The Matrix film series, whose fourth installment The Matrix Resurrections will be released this December, to mock Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of Meta.
Yet perhaps the Metaverse can be considered a Trojan horse, designed to covertly enact several things: (1) disconnect its users from reality; (2) create in them a constant “addiction” for information, even if it is at the expense of their privacy and cybersecurity; (3) hinder them in searching for truth outside of modern secular culture; and (4) redefine/rewrite the laws and social norms shared between the Internet and the physical world. As The Matrix’s social media team noticed, the Metaverse bears an uncanny resemblance to the films. A brief discussion of The Matrix franchise can thus help elucidate some of the religious and legal problems posed by the Metaverse.
The Matrix and Religious Allegory
For years, The Matrix has sparked much debate as to the meanings and interpretations of its religious allegory. Many commentators have already focused on the Gnostic, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu themes and metaphors of The Matrix film series. Because of the film series’ myriad of religious influences, it should bear noting that The Matrix series is a work of fiction, and does not appear to advocate for one religion over another. At the same time, The Matrix contains some references to Judeo-Christianity that I think are worth highlighting in lieu of the emergence of the Metaverse, especially considering the proposed venture’s potential effects on religious freedoms and believers’ response to such phenomena.
The Matrix itself signifies a computer-generated dream world, separate from what the character Morpheus calls “the desert of the real.” The film describes how this construct began sometime during the 21st century “when all of mankind was united in celebration” to marvel at their own magnificence as they gave birth to A.I. In the Old Testament, mankind fell due to the Serpent’s false promises of knowledge given to Adam and Eve. Believers are called on to conduct themselves in a way that is not ungodly. They are not to be slaves to their sinful natures and the false promises it may bring, but are to act in accordance with righteousness. Like the character Cypher, who was enticed by the fleeting pleasures of the Matrix, men like Judas had too abandoned their spiritual convictions for the cultural things that the world offers. Today, social media has been linked to higher levels of loneliness, envy, anxiety, depression, narcissism and decreased social skills in its users, ultimately causing believers to lose their identities in God and lose sight of the message of the Gospel.
Additionally, the Matrix recalls contemporary social media in the way it promotes conformity to the patterns of the world. As illustrated by Rod Dreher, author of the book Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, “compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control more lives far more than we would like to admit.” Not only does Facebook’s strategic business model, which both relies on and sustains toxic patterns of behavior, compromise ministry and evangelism, it also keeps people lost in search of fulfillment and purpose in a dreamworld that commodifies them.
The Matrix and Understanding Cyberlaw
The Matrix also provides a framework for thinking about Internet law and regulation, particularly when considering such modalities as law, social norms, architecture, and markets. In 2003, Professor Orin S. Kerr described how The Matrix depicts an important problem that arises when we try to understand the nature of computer networks in general and the Internet in particular. Like Neo confronting the Matrix, we can think about the Internet in two ways: virtual and real. The virtual perspective is like the perspective inside the Matrix: it accepts the virtual world of cyberspace as akin to a reality. Of course unlike Neo, we know all along that the virtual world generated by the computer is only virtual. But as we try to make sense of what the Internet is, to understand what we experience online, we might decide to treat that virtual world as if it were real.
Moreover, the film emphasizes that the Matrix was constructed to keep mankind under control in order to change a human being into a power source. In his book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu argues that at a moment when access to information is virtually unlimited, human attention has become the ultimate commodity. “In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of efforts to harvest our attention. This condition is not simply the byproduct of recent technological innovations but the result of more than a century’s growth and expansion in the industries that feed on human attention.”
Facebook’s strategy is no exception. In fact, Facebook’s use of algorithmic amplification already makes the platform arguably more powerful than a nation-state. Facebook’s ad targeting and data mining essentially prioritizes clicks and salacious content, which, according to researcher Renée DiResta, are “being co-opted and twisted by politicians and pundits howling about censorship and miscasting content moderation as the demise of free speech online.”
What makes the Metaverse alarming is that it makes the “separateness” from the rest of the world more apparent in terms of regulation. As it stands, cyberspace is arguably its own sort of jurisdiction. It knows no geographical borders and it allows platforms and other cyber entities to bypass typical laws that allow society to flourish, such as First Amendment rights and privacy laws. It is governed by big-tech conglomerates through content moderation and oversight boards. Meta will doubtless suffer from the same issues. Furthermore, the ways that the Metaverse will go about acquiring data, moderating content, and setting community guidelines remain uncertain.
So what might the Metaverse actually look like? Externally, the Metaverse offers us a novel method of human connection and communication that allows Internet users to be immersed in a world enhanced by performance, cultural expectations, and massive amounts of data. It promises a world where users are able to do almost anything they could imagine, creating the illusion that people can be their own gods. Internally, however, the Metaverse is to be a realm of hedonism that encourages the relinquishment of truth, values, and even jurisdictional laws, and an algorithmic jungle that is powered by the lost souls and diminishing mental and emotional lives of humankind. Anything that threatens its existence or its belief system will be labeled misinformation or hate speech.
In conclusion, one cannot serve two masters. At the end of the day, the ultimate red-pill/blue-pill proposal we are presented with seems to leave us with this question, as found in Luke 9:25: “What good is it for a man [or woman] to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his [or her] very self?”
Mark Edward Blankenship Jr. is an Associate Attorney for the Ott Law Firm in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition, he is an LL.M. Candidate (Intellectual Property Law emphasis) at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. He received his J.D. from the J. David Rosenberg College of Law at the University of Kentucky and his B.A. from Georgia Southern University. Additionally, he is the author and founder of The Holy Cross Xaminers, a blog on modern and contemporary issues pertaining to Judeo-Christianity, policy-making, and the law.
Blankenship Jr., Mark Edward “Enter the Metaverse: The Religious & Legal Study of The Matrix in Modern Society” Canopy Forum, December 3, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/12/02/enter-the-metaverse-the-religious-and-legal-study-of-the-matrix-in-modern-society.