Out of the Matrix, Into the Light

“The Matrix is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
– Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

The TV unit’s prints linger in the carpet as they take it away. The DVDs, videogames, beer glasses and souvenirs it used to host will spend at least a year in cardboard boxes. The wall previously hidden by the TV unit blinds me with white. I am one step closer to the light.

Plato’s Cave

In Plato’s The Republic, the great philosopher asks the reader to imagine men born prisonners in the depths of a dark cave. The only light they see comes from a fire outside their reach that projects shadows on the walls before them. To these men, Plato argues, the shadows would be all that is real.

How, asks Plato, would one of these men feel if he were taken out of the depths of the cave, and allowed to see the real world? How would it feel if he were then returned to his emprisonment?

The New Machines

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has been at the forefront of my mind ever since I returned from living three years in China. I have seen and experienced things during my time in Shanghai that reveal to me the illusory nature of our world. Kind, honest folks getting by with a tiny fraction of my weekly income. Crippled children, sold into slavery by desperate parents, broken by their owners to illicit more pity. Buildings of such insane proportions as to put Blade Runner to shame. Opulence and poverty, living side-by-side, an image of the world, impossible to ignore.

Our consumer society is, to paraphrase Morpheus, the wool that has been pulled over our eyes. (And isn’t it ironic that a Hollywood film would present such a self-aware metaphor?) We are trained to think that hundreds of Iranian students dying for democracy are of passing interest, but the death of a pop star affects us deeply because we once purchased his records.

The tragedy of this consumer matrix is that its machine masters move among us in plain sight. We even know their names: Coca-Cola. McDonald’s. General Motors. Monsanto. Shell. Pfizer. These corporate entities exist as full moral individuals in our laws, hold recognized rights. They have self-perpetuating mechanisms, clear goals, and are fully able to defend themselves from any threat to their survival. When we feed their hunger with our money, they gently rock us back to sleep. But when we speak up, they use their human agents to crush our spirits. They have even subverted our own means of government to their own means.

What’s more troubling is the machine’s ability to adapt. When consumers began to reject industrial food, for instance, the food giants began adopting organic by also industrializing it. When the airline industry came under criticism for its carbon emissions, it began selling ‘indulgences’ in the form of carbon offsets. All so that we continue consuming without question.

Out in the Light

When I traveled to China, I took the red pill. I didn’t know it at the time, but something within me was awakened by three years in Shanghai. It started as an itch on my soul, and grew into full discomfort. It was knowledge: that the world was more than it seemed. That the struggles and triumphs of billions were drowned by manufactured entertainment.

I don’t travel for comfort, but for authenticity. To exchange a smile or a meal with someone outside your own personal sphere of influence is to take a step outside the cave. You don’t need the news to tell you what to think of them. Hollywood fables finally reveal themselves: projections on the wall of the cave, meant to distract you from looking back at the projectionist.

Unplug Yourself

Turn off the television. Question authority. Crave human contact. Sell anything that is neither useful nor beautiful. Become a citizen first, a consumer second. Volunteer. Favor independent music. Read books that don’t make it to the bestseller list. Talk to strangers. Travel without a tour. Buy your food from farmers. Trade your used clothes. Care.

I’m not saying I’m free of the cave myself. But I’ve seen a glimpse of the Sun peeking through the entrance. I can no longer stand in the darkness, and I’m pulling at my chains. Soon, I hope, I will stand in the grass.

We are more than our bank accounts. Let’s see what happens when we act as human beings first, consumers second.

Further Reading
Here are a few books and movies that helped shape my worldview and led to my decision to step away from the corporate life and travel the world as a nomad. I hope they can help you as well. Aside from Food, Inc., they should all be available from your local library.

The Merchants of Cool is a Frontline exposé on how a few big media corporations manufacture mainstream teenager culture and recuperate any trace of dissent. Although the documentary focuses on teenage culture, it’s easy to see how it applies to almost every facet of our lives. You can watch it for free on the PBS website.

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the most important book I read last year. It discusses the chains that bring food to our tables, from industrial corn to small-scale organic. This book inspired me to radically change what I eat.

Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy picks up where Omnivore’s Dilemma left off, and discusses economic models that promote sustainability, community and happiness. This is a book I am keeping as I begin my world travels, as I plan to reread it every few years.

Tom Hodkinson’s How to be Idle is a tongue-in-cheek discussion of how the corporate world has fed us the values of hard work and obedience, and how to reclaim leisure in our lives. What Hodkinson has to say makes a terrible lot of sense, and is not as light a topic as the book’s cover and blurbs would let you believe.

Food, Inc., just out in theaters, is a fascinating and insightful documentary in the vein of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation. I would recommend those two books over this movie, but if you don’t want to commit to reading them, this is the right place to start. Even if you have read Pollan, the sight of the gigantic feedlots is a striking, somber reminder of the excesses of our industrial food chain.

Although I have not read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, it has left a powerful impression on Helene, and she recommends the book to all parents and educators. Louv argues that we are emotionally stunting our children by cutting them off from nature.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

12 comments

  1. “…We are trained to think that hundreds of Iranian students dying for democracy are of passing interest, but the death of a pop star affects us deeply because we once purchased his records.” My same exact thoughts!

    I really hope next time we meet you are standing on the grass and no longer in the cave!! I wish we someday can do the same… if not for Mark and I, at least for Sofía… I want her to see the world for what it really is, not for what corporations sell us!

    I wish you the very best in your new journey!! hopefully we’ll meet next year in Asia (we’re going to the Philippines sometime before July) and if you ever decide to go to Colombia, by all means let me know… let me show you the real Colombia, not the one portraid in the news!!!

  2. **portrayed** sorry… the heat is short circuiting my brain!

  3. Hi Laura! Thank you for your kind wishes. I will do my best to report from the grass, and tempt you all to join me. Hehe!

    I think your wishes for your daughter Sofia are very noble, and I hope you succeed. I modified my blog post to change the last book after you read it… Check it out. Helene says a LOT of great things about the book, “Last Child in the Woods”… Perhaps you will find it useful.

    Regarding the Philippines, I’ll let you and Mark know if I end up in that viscinity! It’d be awesome to see you guys there, and I could use the pointers from Mark. 🙂 As for Columbia, I would LOVE to visit your country! And I will definitely ask you when we end up going… An offer like this is too good to pass up!!

    Take care, and say hello to Mark and Sofia for me!

  4. (en français ici, mon anglais n’est pas suffisamment bon pour un avis bien construit)
    Je suis principalement en accord avec ton point de vue, mais il manque selon moi un point crucial: il faut faire selon ce que tu souhaites vraiment. La consommation est selon moi une recherche de ce que l’on est. Bien sûr la consommation n’apporte pas ces réponse, c’est une pseudo solution artificielle pour nous définir.
    Le processus qui mène à la connaissance de soi-même est pénible; il faut admettre des choses sur soi, sur ceux que l’on aime. c’est un long processus; l’être humain change perpétuellement, il faut donc faire ce travail en permanence. La consommation prétent apporter des réponse à tout ça. On se définit grâce à ses meubles, ses vêtements, à l’endroit où l’on habite.
    Tous les points que tu cite sont intrinsèquement bons:

    Turn off the television. Question authority. Crave human contact. Sell anything that is neither useful nor beautiful. Become a citizen first, a consumer second. Volunteer. Favor independent music. Read books that don’t make it to the bestseller list. Talk to strangers. Travel without a tour. Buy your food from farmers. Trade your used clothes

    Beaucoup manqueront malheureusement l’intérêt ici: il ne s’agit pas de reconnaissance sociale, il s’agit de reconnaissance de soi. On peut faire tout ce que tu énonces, le point est qu’il faut le faire si cela nous correspond et nous le faisons dans un autre objectif que parce que c’est bien.

    La caverne de Platon est parfois vu de la façon suivante: Et si les ombres sur les murs étaient projetées par les torches d’une caverne plus grande ? Voir la lumière à l’extérieur n’a d’intérêt que si l’on a conscience de pourquoi on veut la voir et que ce n’est qu’une autre caverne, dont il faudra sortir une fois que l’on aura une bonne raison de le faire.

  5. @Adrien: (I’ll answer in English as I know you’re perfectly comfortable reading it…)

    Far from me the thought of forcing anyone into some kind of spiritual awakening. That being said, a lot of the aspects of our society are built on willing ignorance of its consequences, to name a few: the treatment of animals and workers in industrial meatpacking plants, the exploitation of Africans in the cocoa industry, the exploitation of Asian populations in the manufacturing of goods, the support of brutal dictatorships in order to maintain the flow of oil, the destruction of our ecosystems.

    If anyone willingly acknowledges these and persists in maintaining their lifestyle unhinged, then there isn’t much I can do. But such an individual would appear quite appalling to me. If that individual is maintained in a state of complacency by media and corporations in an effort to preserve the status quo, then I question the morality and the social benefits of these agencies.

    And if someone, naively, benefits the conditions of his fellow man through peer pressure and out of a desire to fit in, then I say, it’s about damn time that our social pressure mechanisms are brought to do some good in this world.

    About the Allegory of the Cave: if there are men who would rather live in shadows than see the light for fear of finding deeper mysteries beyond, it’s certainly their choice. But suffice to say that these men are not those who have advanced our civilizations forward. I just hope they lived a happy, blissful life, but that life is not for me.

    Note: This might come across as combative, but I sincerely don’t think many people, if at all, ignore the situation of our planet in full cognizance of the facts. I think a lot of it is ignorance, or at least some sort of social acceptance of the unacceptable through the way our society has come to rely on them. But I like to think that a great many people yearn for justice, and would prefer things to be better in this world. We believe ourselves incapable of it for a variety of reasons, most of them lies we have been fed since our birth such as “one person can’t make a difference”.

  6. Tout à fait d’accord avec toi, mis à part le bénéfice de la pression sociale. Je pense que les gens doivent changer leurs habitudes par conviction, sinon le résultat ne sera pas profitable globalement.

    (a vérifier, ma source date de quelques années) En Inde, il y a maintenant quelques années, quand le gouvernement a pris des mesures pour réduire le nombre de naissances, les hommes avait l’occasion de se faire stériliser gratuitement en échange d’une radio. Cela a eu un succès certain… jusqu’à ce que les piles soient mortes.
    Des dizaines d’hommes sont retourner se proposer à la stérilisation pour une nouvelle radio. Ils n’avaient pas compris la portée totale de l’opération qu’ils avaient subi.

    C’est un exemple extrême, mais cela illustre que l’action sans connaissance que ce soit pour l’image sociale ou pour des valeurs que l’on ne comprends pas ne mène pas à grand chose, selon moi.

    Le racisme, l’homophobie sont des exemples de problèmes que l’on a essayé de régler de cette façon, et finalement cela va au même rhytme que le cheminement personnel des gens à ce sujet.

  7. Sebastien Trudel

    Hi Dan,

    It’s been a while, hasn’t it?!

    I’m “stealing” (Ha! more on this later) some corporate time to tell you how much what you’re writing here is striking a chord with me, and for many reasons. I often feel just like you must have a few years back. I’m currently suffering from the fear of the “Cost of the first step”. No weeping intented, but I’m also the proud father of two boys (one you’ve seen, once, but God, has he GROWN!) and that sure “complicates” the intent of swallowing the red pill.

    I’m not a big blog reader, but yours is DEFINITELY now part of my list. You better continue writting as well as you have until now, and, if at all possible, as often (or as regularly, at least). The Internet having been transformed into another insatiable monster, I hope you still find some time and interest to post in it. See it as Morpheus recruiting people in the Matrix. I know it’s not your goal, but it may be your vocation.

    As for stealing time, I’ve read that if you feel you’re stealing time to your employer, you’re stealing time from your own life. Gee, If it’s true, I think I’ll sue myself for MAJOR robbery… I hope I win over this dumb guy. Anyways, I’m proud of INVESTING this time into this message to you. I’m not much able to work, anyway, stuck in my corporate “cubicule”, eyes shaded with tears. (Hey! Maybe that’s what a tie is for: when you realize how stupid your life is, you can wipe your tears with it and move on… )

    Not being such a big blog reader, my next comment might not be true, but you’re one of the few blogger not having dozens of comments and only “official” posts from the blog’s “soul”. You actually walk the talk: you CARE, even on such a frigid medium as the Net. You’re like an artist who would come down the stage and talk with the people around him after the show. Your blog refreshingly feels more like a discussion than a plain speech.

    Learning to know you through your (very personal) thoughts, I kind of regret the circumstances in which we met. I often state I feel one of today’s root cause of many more problem is the scale of things: from cities to companies to teams… I am becoming a “human scale” evangelist: in a team of 5-15 people, you can’t hide like GM’s (and the like) CEOs that rake up millions of dollar a month while their employees actually DO the work. On a smaller team, you can’t hide, so you tend to act better, you get to know people better, so it’s easier to care more about others and you then share better. I feel we’ve met on a team too big. You probably didn’t care (much) more about me than I did about you (and if so, I’m profoundly sorry). Knowing what I know today, I’d work with you anytime!

    But this place is not about working, but about traveling, so, Godspeed, Dan!

  8. Salut Sébastien!

    First of all: thank you so much for “stealing” this time to write to me. I can tell you in all honesty: your message really made my week, and it’s giving me a lot of inspiration to go on. It amazes me to see how little we truly know of the people with whom we work… We spend so much time together, yet it seems like we don’t share the things that really matter. I’m glad we get to exchange this way, years after the fact. It feels more human.

    When I started this blog, a mere few weeks ago, I think I intended for it to be a lighter fare. I wanted to talk about people and food, and travel. But it’s starting to feel much bigger, at least for me… I’m starting to realize how much the decision to go, in itself, is transforming me. When people were introduced to me, they’d ask me what I do, and I’d say I was a videogame producer… Which led into pretty straightforward discussions. Now I talk about my travels, and I’m led to talk about my worldview, what I feel is motivating me to do this… And I’m having much deeper conversations with strangers.

    It’s a wonderful feeling. I’m doing it for myself first, but perhaps there is wisdom to be shared with those who are willing to listen. If that’s the case, then I will be only happy to oblige.

    On the subject of small teams… I’m totally with you. That’s what I’ve tried to do these last few years, whether at Ubisoft (with limited success) or at BioWare. A book that, strangely, addresses exactly that is “Deep Economy”, which I list in this blog post… Check it out. It talks about how local (i.e. small-scale) business models make more sense on a human scale.

    And if that’s the efforts you’re taking, then that might be good, too… The corporate world is scaling things to industry instead of keeping it on a human scale. If some can work within the Machine to keep things human(e), then perhaps that’s another way to reclaim our souls. I’ll be on the outside reporting!

    Au plaisir de te jaser de nouveau! Et merci encore pour ton commentaire!

  9. Just wanted to wish you luck with your adventure and thank you for recommending ‘How to be Idle’. I turned to it after reading this blog entry and really enjoyed it. In fact, I idly read it whilst having the most relaxing of holidays that I have ever had, and it’s all thanks to you and that book!

  10. Hey Jim! I’m really glad that book found you through my blog. It’s a fantastic read, isn’t it? Looks like it’s mostly silly, but when you start reading, you realize how much meaningful stuff it has to say… Reading it on a relaxing holiday sounds like a perfect fit. 🙂

    Thanks for the kind wishes!

  11. Keep up the bloggin’ too Daniel. I’m really enjoying it 🙂

    Here’s a link to my book review site – http://jimsbookreview.blogspot.com/

    I try to be very stringent with my ratings, so giving a 6 to ‘How to be Idle’ is in no way knocking it. It’s definitely better than average but in being a ‘lifestyle’ book it’s hard to rank it as high as books such as ‘The Kite Runner’ and ‘Me Talk Pretty Some Day’.

    All the best,
    Jim

    PS I move to Edinburgh next week to start work for Rockstar North 🙂

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