escaping the matrix

Culture is the spell that binds us all. It acts on many levels: within families, friendships, workplaces, schools, cities, nations. Each spell is unique and influences us in every and all kinds of ways. However, while they’re all different, they share a common thread: they affect our behaviour. Who casts the spell? Noone and everyone. There's no “The System” calling every shot. Instead, we all influence the nature of the spell; we’re all magicians.

It’s just our degree of influence that varies. Just appreciate how the Kardashians have become supremely powerful magicians; empowered by our attention, we have allowed their influence to grow to epidemic proportions. Similarly (though very differently), Facebook has become an army of wizards with enormous influence, holding control over the platforms on which the rest of us spread our spells. Though it sounds rather nefarious, the spell of culture(s) serves a highly practical function: it allows us to act without thinking. It provides a kind of default mode for human behaviour. It’s the ultimate efficiency tool; no doubt the doing of the ol’ conservation of energy law thing. Simply, it allows us to conserve our previously finite mental resources for the activities that will keep us alive, rather than wasting them on keeping up with the trivialities of civilised life. But it’s not all Darwinian rainbows. To be sure, culture is often a rather scary spell. It has us do all kinds of depraved and twisted things. Many cultures normalise the worst of human behaviours, while others openly encourage them.

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The effectiveness and devastation of cultural influence lies in its subtleness; it has us to things without interfering with our sense of free will. When we act under its influence (which is strikingly often), we swear it’s on our own accord. We’ll drink a small bathtub worth of p*ss (read: alcohol), we convince ourselves, not because it’s what people do and by doing so we’ll receive the validation we all so deeply desire - because it’s part of the culture, in other words - but because, in our rational assessment, given the benefit of doing so, balanced by any detriment it will inflict upon our lives (use your imagination), we perceive the net outcome to be worth it. Similarly, many a folk will have a Four ’n’ Twenty and Red Bull every morning on the way to work, because the taste, price and convenience outweigh whatever damage it might be doing to their minds and bodies. These are the narratives - the rationalisations - that, somewhere deep in our psyche, we’re selling ourselves every day.

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We buy the notion that we think our own thoughts and decide our own actions because it’s intuitive, feel-good, and provides us with a sense of control. The social, political and legal systems that form the fabric of modern life are also heavily dependent upon our collective acknowledgement of free will. Consider: if we were to concede that we’re not always acting independently, how would we prosecute and punish criminals? and how would we view our individual successes and reconcile our failures? It would no doubt throw a massive spanner in the works. But when we pay it a little thought, it becomes undeniable: we’re all living in The Matrix; we’re all under the spell of culture.

Why bother with any of this? Why not keep living in The Matrix? Because perhaps there's more to you than the arbitrary circumstances of your life have allowed you to discover. Perhaps you're cut from a different cloth to those around you. Perhaps you need to set yourself free in order to realise your potential. 

So, what to do about it? Upon being told that our feeling of free will is an illusion, that contrary to our intuitions we’re not independent agents, our immediate instinctive impulse is to cry that, if so, life must then be meaningless, despair that our future is already set in stone, and wallow in apathy. But as with most of our impulsive reactions to the counterintuitive, this one is also mistaken. Accepting that we are influenced by our environments, spellbound by culture, need not be cause for despair, nor melancholy. Instead, it requires a bit of introspection and a healthy dose of humility. For the first step towards escaping The Matrix is to recognise its influence, to acknowledge the extent to which we’ve been asleep at the wheel of our own lives, programmed to cruise-control. To start the process of awakening, begin by reflecting on the decisions you‘ve made throughout your life, meditate on your current behaviours, and analyse the ways in which those decisions and behaviours have been influenced by the world around you - by family, friends, colleagues, celebrities, books, news, whatever.

 You have the power to control your own reality

You have the power to control your own reality

The second step is to acknowledge that the sense that you have free will, the sense that if I was to say don’t picture a purple elephant you could refrain from doing so ;), is a powerful force, one that you should learn to exercise wherever it results in the betterment of your being. Free will might be an illusion, but it’s a remarkably useful one. So make use of it. But be aware of your motives. Pay attention to your influences. Call into question your desires; make sure they’re your own.

Once you’ve begun to understand and appreciate the assortment of spells you’ve been under, search for the cultures whose spells you want to be influenced by; the spells that will help you become the person that, on some level, you’ve always wanted to become. Exercise what autonomy you do have to consume the culture that will benefit you; avoid those that will hold you back. It’s simple, yet powerful stuff.

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After having become conscious of the spells that have been driving and defining you, and then deliberately subjecting yourself to those that you desire to be driven by, the next step is to begin casting spells of your own. Once you have developed a sense of the powers of culture; its strengths and its flaws, use your influence to improve it. Understand that your impact, though subtle, has a vast ripple effect. You have the power to influence the people around you, for better and worse. Choose to make it for the better. Let your actions illuminate The Path for others. Be a good human.

At a systems level, culture represents a tool that allows societies to function efficiently, albeit often far from smoothly. At the level of the individual, our ability to “do” culture represents the remarkable adaptivity of the human organism; our ability to blend into our environments by mimicking the behaviours of those around us. This human trait has the power to enable human flourishing, as much as it has the power to impede it, and instead, inflict immeasurable pain and suffering. The nature of the spells that bind us depends on the actions of us all. The type of spells you cast and those you let be cast upon you is your choice. Choose wisely.

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Nathan McNiece