Coppertop —is life a Matrix?

Consumers view a PC as a durable good, but it is instead the bundle of software functions they own.

One of the scenes in the Matrix movie (1999) shows rows and columns of recumbent humans who are plugged into some sort of infrastructure that harvests the imagination, thinking power, or electrical energy of their warm bodies. One character dismisses such figures as “coppertop,” referring to an alkaline battery brand familiar to audiences that is sold around the USA. The assertion is that such lives are illusion: the interior life may be rich and fulfilling, but viewed externally as does the lens projecting this scene for viewers to see, the bodies are not in motion, nor are they in social relationship for communicating and learning. The bodies are barely living at all.

A similar distinction between appearances and reality comes to mind with personal computers (PC). For a purchaser, the features and reviewer comments help to narrow the field of possible machines to consider buying. The consumer sees the PC as a combination of hardware (what it is able to do) and software (instructions that make possible those things carried out by PC, subject to updates and other improvements to User Interface and working experience). But a truer understanding of the PC is to regard the physical device as a scaffolding or frame into which the software instructions can run. In other words, the hardware is not so much a “thing” as a platforms of services; a consumable and temporary interface between user and the content to engage with: written, photo or videographic, sound-based, or some other form of information and knowledge structure. So the shopper is choosing between competing catalogs of Apps, user-communities, and corporate philosophies: the Google-dominant one of Android operating system and Chrome operating system, or that of Apple, Inc, or Amazon, or the Windows operating system that is produced by Microsoft.

Jumping from The Matrix then to hardware/software of computers then to human lives in flesh and blood of personally acquainted relationships and narrative arcs, perhaps these same distinctions between what things look like at first, then what they look like after closely watching for a long time does follow a parallel path. To many people a life is made from physical facts, social relationships, aspirations and obstacles to overcome, and achievements of status and material accumulations. But now suppose that such things are analogous to the PC hardware, something tangible and observable, yes, but not representing the total significance.

As the earlier discussion points out, one’s own computer is not just a physical artifact. It is moreover a bundle of software with one layer serving as the basic operating system and on top of that comes the layer of user applications (stand-alone programs), user acquired apps (single-purpose tools and conveniences; “appliances” dedicated to a function), and widgets (regularly fetching live data externally to display the latest conditions). The owner commonly conflates the physical device with the various software abilities contained on the PC (or mobile device). Just so also when viewing a life of somebody notable, or when looking in the mirror at the shape and direction of one’s own life: it is normal to conflate the physical definition of the body in society with all the intangibles carried in one’s memory and connected to the future possible decisions found within one’s imagination and scope of vision. Certainly the tangible part (flesh and blood, wardrobe and chattels) is related to the intangible part. But just like the PC, the totality of the thing owes a lot to the intangible part since “updates” learned from time to time and whole new apps appear now and again. A person is not so much buying a thing as he or she is buying a future period of software support during which time the manufacturer will deliver Operating System updates, patches, fixes and so on; usually for 5 or 6 years from the date that the model of PC is first released for sale.

The concept of “planned obsolescence” was identified as a production cycle strategy of personal automobiles. Cars and trucks were not built to last indefinitely, but for a period of 5 or 10 years, by which time innovations would make the older equipment relatively dysfunctional (consuming too much fuel, failing to offer the latest safety features, etc). The older models continued to run, even as newer models would appear at each year’s auto shows. Based on the production cycle assumption, car makers began to skimp on materials and production so that vehicles would begin to fall apart around the time that new, improved versions were promoted for sale. The difference between cars and computers is one of software instructions. According to Moore’s Law the cost of computers steadily drops while the power, speed, and capacity rises. So it is not so much the physical device that falls apart after the manufacturer’s product life span as it is the software processing ability (in itself dependent on some hardware components). Bigger and more complicated software can easily outgrow machines older than 5 or 6 years old, even when the PC operates perfectly well in all other ways.

Returning to the image of humans as unique bundle, buffer, or battery of memories, strategies, relationships, and dreams that moves across the lifespan and over the cultural landscape, what might it mean if people are viewed as a set of intangibles instead of being seen in the conventional way of taking up mass and volume, relatively stable and inert unless prompted, provoked or in someway motivated to respond to circumstances? Taking a science-fiction approach, we can imagine that some kind of lens or goggles or filter could work like a sort-of X-ray to see past the surface appearances of the person in the mirror or the person seated opposite to oneself.

Thanks to this vision device it would be possible to see the person not only at the moment, but also to trace some of the main threads historically and project some of the main threads into the future so that one’s impression is not limited to a momentary snapshot, but instead has a (longitudinal) time-dimension, too. Furthermore, being able to see past the surface means that the larger stock of knowledge and discernment (but also trauma or distress) carried by the person could be viewed, too. Lastly, by conceiving of a person’s sum total with an emphasis on the intangible “software updates” involved in a person, then it would be possible to appreciate the person’s capacity (and likelihood) to grow and continue learning versus stagnating and not being fully (mentally, emotionally, socially) present.

Come to think of it, this powerful vision already exists. Echoing the quote attributed to William Gibson, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed,” already today the very best hiring managers (work arena) and friends (world of unpaid activity) already DO look beyond the surface and appreciate the intangible set of habits and attitudes that the person brings to each obstacle and opportunity faced. If only there were more people who practiced this art of seeing past the external particulars.

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