Culture = Matrix

Morpheus: … Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Neo: The Matrix?

Morpheus: Do you want to know what IT is? The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

I am a huge fan of Matrix, partly because of its special effects and actions, partly because of its sci-fi content, but most of my lasting enthusiasm is due to its social-political metaphor of institutionalized control. In the movie, humans are wired into a neural-interactive simulation program called Matrix, which controls human minds in order for machines to extract bio-energy from human bodies. Human are batteries to run the machine city, and they are not born, but grown in fields in the city. The machine city is a strong metaphor of any society that controls the mind of its people in order to convert them into work forces. Every society does such conversion through propaganda, formal schooling, religious activities, and mass media. Though each society has a different degree of control, there is always control, often legitimized by arguing it’s for the society’s survival. The metaphor can refer to a nation, a religious group, or even a cultural group.

In Cultures and Organizations – Software of the Mind, Geert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede describe briefly in its introductory chapter how a culture transmits its core values from generation to generation. These values are the deepest level of our mental software, wrapped by rituals, heroes and symbols. The layered manifestation of cultures is illustrated by the “Onion” image , shown below. (Adapted from the book)

Those values, which we receive when very young, are usually unconscious to us. An awareness of these latent values can increase our self-knowledge and our emotional intelligence. It will also help us establish a strong sense of identity in a society where we constantly move around the globe and meet people with drastically different background. And in today’s world of fast globalization, with extensive connection among every corner of the planet, survival demands such self-knowledge: it is no longer a virtue; it is a necessity.

Arguably, cultural values and values derived from individual personality completes a person’s basic value system (see below, adapted from the book), but the system is not static. Individual’s values can change due to personal experience. Some of them can be unlearned; new ones may be incorporated, which means endless opportunity for personal growth and development.

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Wendong Wang

A chemist who blogs

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