Surfing the Matrix: A Medievalist Does Tech

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Here’s an interesting etymology for you:

In the present, the word “Matrix” conjures a lot of high-tech imagery. Part of my mind immediately envisions that parade of mystical green characters cascading down a screen in front of Keanu Reeves, the manifestation, in raw digital code, of the virtual creation most people in that world accept as “reality.” That reality, in the film, is also not a disinterested one, but rather one imposed by the robotic conquerors of mankind to keep human beings docile as they unwittingly serve as the biological batteries that power their own enslavers.

But why is that thing called a “Matrix” as opposed to anything else? That’s where the medievalist and Latinist in me kick in. In the Middle Ages, the word “matrix” referred to the physical tool used to impress the form of a seal on another surface, such as wax or a coin. To own the “matrix” of a seal was to possess power: seals were the way in which power was transmitted. Normally, the power of a King or nobleman was expressed by his bodily presence. This is why, for sealmatrixexample, medieval monarchs typically didn’t headquarter their administrations in fixed capitals, but rather moved around their territories: to spread their power evenly, they had to spread their persons evenly. What allowed such a person to spread his power where his body was not was his seal, which was a sort of material symbol that acted as a stand-in for his physical presence. A document bearing the seal of the monarch bore the power of that monarch. Anyone with access to that seal had access to that power. Thus the word “matrix” in the movie is really just a reiteration, in a later, digitized era, of precisely what the “matrix” was in the middle ages: a virtual construct that transmits and spreads power.

But again, why, in the Middle Ages, was that tool called a “Matrix?” You need a geeky little Latin lesson to understand this: in Latin, the ending -er on a noun most often indicates a neuter or masculine gender, as in pater, “father,” or puer, “boy.” Mater simply means “Mother” in Latin, a female role. Interestingly, there’s a different kind of noun in Latin that expresses the idea of a person specifically as an agent of something, and agency is often gendered. Hence a pastor is a male person who tends sheep. If you want to talk about a female person who tends sheep, you change the ending, to pastrix. In the same way, mater simply indicates a mother. The word matrix, on the other hand, specifically denotes the mother in respect to the role of propagation. Metaphorically, then, matrix can mean origin, progenitor, cause, or even womb. The word also comes to refer, by metaphorical transference over time, to other things that are “wombs” or “origins” of power, such as public registers, lists–and, eventually, the patterns for seals, matrices.

Tracing the term through its medieval and classical origins, then, allows us to see more clearly the meaning of The Matrix in the present. It is, as it always has been, virtual power, or the potential for that power’s deployment. It is the “womb” that holds us (nurturing us, or holdings us captive?), or that contains the potential for and propagates power. Hence it is no surprise that the the denizens of the Matrix in the film exist, literally, in artificial wombs, floating in manufactured amniotic fluid, hooked up to mechanical umbilicals.

A Medievalist in the Digital Matrix

I just received a happy little automated note from WordPress reminding me, in a congratulatory tone, that I officially created this blog two years ago. Less-than-consistent blogger than I am, I appear to have waited to post anything until about a year ago, when I began my blogging experiment in earnest.

I named the blog “surfingedges” because I’m always very interested in strange and difficult middles, and seem to exist on quite a few of them: one of the main things I study as a scholar of medieval literature is the literal and imaginative borderland between England and Scotland in the Late Middle Ages, but my interest in that particular border only obtains because it is such a rich ground for exploring the way human identity behaves at its limits.

Looking back across a year of blogging activity, I’ve talked about that particular “edge” a few times, but I seem to have concentrated even more on three others:

The primary “edge” has been the often-blurry seam between medieval and modern. I think I’ve tried to take this in two directions: on the one hand, I’ve thought about ways in which texts and ideas from the Middle Ages can be useful and relevant to us in the present; on the other, I’ve also reflected on the meaning of modern representations of the Middle Ages in the present day, such as John Eldredge’s use of the figure of William Wallace.

The situation in which I work (as a professional scholar at an institution with a strong Protestant Christian affiliation), also leads me to deal with a third edge: that of the very strange, often surreal, hinterlands one encounters as both a professional learner and a person of faith. A subset of this hinterland is the set of often even-stranger relations one negotiates from such a position, between one audience that is often suspicious of any religious affiliation whatsoever, and another that is, equally often, suspicious of or even hostile toward anything they regard as too “secular” (or even politically liberal).

Looking back over my posts, though, there’s another edge that I’ve come to explore that seems incongruous with the rest: that of a scholar of the middle ages working with and in relation to various technologies. At first, finding, among my own blog entries, postings that had to do with technology seemed incongruous: what do things like my own development of a writing process centered around digital plain text have to do with my fascinations with temporal, imaginative, and political borders?

In large part, I think, I’ve been interested in technology because it’s the medium in which, especially in blog form, my interaction as a modern person with the Middle Ages takes place. It’s the matrix, if you will, both of much of my engagement with the past. It is through the digital medium that I and most of my fellow medievalists access texts, read articles, study images of manuscripts, and communicate our findings and questions with one another. For me, the digital field is also the one I’ve used to try to communicate the relevance of medieval studies to a wider audience.

I’ve had colleagues in other disciplines express surprise, at times, that I’m one of the people at my particular institution who is overtly interested in what’s known as the “digital humanities.” What does a medievalist, who studies things that were, originally, hand-copied my monks using organic inks on cured animal skins, have to do with interest in digital technologies in the present?

In part, it’s because medievalists, like any other scholars, exist and operate in that digital realm. Like other denizens of the matrix, we interact through and within its amniotic medium. But as those who deal in what were original very “analog” materials, I think medievalists have a sort of advantage: we tend to be acutely aware of the differences and similarities between the medium in which we do our work, and in which we interact with our subject matter, and the medium in which those who created the texts in which we study operated. The differences, of course, are obvious: screens and manuscripts seem like vastly different things. On the other hand, there are similarities: is the power conferred by the matrix of a seal any less “virtual” and figurative than the ghostly arrangement of pixels that organize light into an image of such a seal on a screen? How different is the stamping of a symbol on an impermanent surface like wax from the projection of a set of binary symbols in a pattern on a TFT display? Is the only real difference the speed at which the impression occurs and changes?

Also in part, it’s because awareness of the origins of the modern world in the medieval and classical worlds can help us understand the modern more fully. The concept of the “Matrix” in the Keanu Reeves film could not exist as it does in the present day without the evolution of the idea that I traced earlier in the article through the Middle Ages back to classical Latin. Every word we use, concept we think, comes to use through such a historical process. In a culture that tends to see itself as the hotbed of everything new, of innovations that only we enlightened moderns could dream up, medievalists can remind us that nothing we think is without a history, and that we can understand ourselves better by being mindful of that history.

Finally, I think medievalists can help us negotiate technology in the digital present by communicating a healthy sense of what technology is. We moderns often tend to be blinded by novelty, as though the term “technology” only refers to the cutting-edge of present-day science and tech. Medievalists (and, really, students of any other points our our more distant past), can help remind us that “technology” refers to a history of human making and not only its present. For example, when we hear the term “information storage and retrieval technology,” we tend, as a knee-jerk, modern response, to think of computers. Ones and zeroes encoded on optical, magnetic, or solid-state media. What a medievalist knows is that while a computer might be one information storage and retrieval technology, so is a paper codex. So is a wax tablet. Or a papyrus scroll. A computer can also be an information encoding device. As can a typewriter, a fountain pen, or a quill.

Technology, in many ways, can become more useful and effective for us in the present, I think, when we conceive of it historically, taking novelty out of the question. Doing so allows us to ask not “what’s the newest technology we can use” but rather “what is the best technology for the job?” in the realization that novelty may not be the best indicator. For example, I own a stack of 5.25 inch, 520k floppy disks that I used to store information with the Commodore 64 computer I had in high school. That computer is long gone, and there’s little chance I’ll ever retrieve the information stored on them again. On the other hand, I can go to the British Library and read a vellum codex created 700 years ago as if it were written yesterday. Which, then, is the better technology for long-term information storage?

On the other hand, medievalists are also at the forefront of making use of those very new technologies for studying the past. The digitization of manuscripts is making it possible for scholars to access medieval texts in ways that, previously, required expensive travel to various libraries around the world. Digitizing things like medieval records allows us to search for patterns therein that once took years of manual collation to see. I regularly work and collaborate with colleagues across the country–and across the Atlantic–in ways that would be virtually impossible without electronic forms of communication and data transmission.

Hence a thread for this blog, an “edge” which I plan on honoring and reflecting upon, along with the others, even more in the coming year: the edge where a medievalist stands, between the analog past and digital present and future. Surfing the matrix.

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