The third and forth weeks of this very interesting Coursera venture have been dedicated to the meaning of human existence before, at the dawn of and during the digital age. Personally I find it very difficult to try and formulate concrete conclusions seeing as the human animal is after all a work in progress. We are all shaped by our situation and our choices, by our interaction with others as well as the integration of technology in our lives… thus terms such as trans-human, meta-human or post-human, though sounding quite catchy for articles and the like, leave me rather dubious.
This week’s visual food for thought was more engaging. Advertisements promising future convenience can be entertaining but I find the short subject films without obvious product placement agendas more satisfying.
The first selection, Neil Harvey’s sci-fi short “Robbie“, beyond its melancholy, caught my attention for two reasons. I would be most curious to ask Mr. Harvey what led him to have his android protagonist select Catholicism as his religious proclivity – I have some ideas of my own and in the end perhaps that was the film maker’s objective, to make us wonder why. The most significant element to my mind however was the concept of fantasy as “personal mythology“. I feel that is the impetus behind the gaming boom as well and ties in directly with the 4th film, Gavin Kelly’s “Avatar Days“.
We all reproduce our inner reality through our choices, even when (if not particularly when) we seek to deceive. The online personas that gamers adopt may appear to be idealized, reflecting “super powers” etc that they would like to have but don’t. Even still the fantasy version of our self we choose speaks volumes.
The other two selections, Kerry Conran’s short “Gumdrop” and Stephan Zlotescu’s “True Skin” were another set of extremes. Having grown up in southern California and studied dramatic arts in L.A. it was rather amusing to see the Gumdrop scenario, that some things never change even when the aspiring “actress” is an artificially intelligent household appliance. This take was considerably more playful than Andrew Niccol’s feature “s1m0ne” where Al Pacino played “Franken-director” to his would-be perfect digital leading lady.
True Skin brought to mind a number of blasts from the past where the less than perfect are marginalized while enhancement and/or regeneration are reserved for the powerful and privileged. John Boorman’s “Zardoz”, without a doubt Sean Connery’s wardrobe nadir-but nonetheless a very interesting concept, or Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” also illustrate these ideas graphically. The robot in the human angle was very reminiscent of another Verhoeven classic “RoboCop” as well as James Cameron’s “The Terminator”, but I really think the trend began back in the early 70’s with Richard Irving’s “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV series “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him, we have the technology…” the underlying question is should we?
There are plenty of social aspects, such as the ways in which gender differentiation is imposed upon “humanoid” robots’ design lines and programmed behavioral mannerisms controlled by their creators. The fact that the domestic robot Gumdrop was “feminine” while the “masculine” robot Robbie was a space pioneer is very indicative that our social programming as humans doesn’t seem altered much despite all of the technology being developed around us.
In contrasting True Skin and Avatar Days the protagonists are actual humans either seeking enhancement or regeneration of their bodies and/or to conceal their true identities and personalities. This illustrates a different social behavior set. The more invasive approach as viewed in True Skin showing the lengths to which people are willing to go to “improve” their chassis (a sci-fi Extreme Makeover/Nip Tuck) and that when life can be regenerated at the push of a button that it becomes stripped of value and purpose. Concealment through vicarious projection as seen in Avatar Days can also act as a valuable release mechanism, allowing us to express hidden desires without risk of their permanence.
Is Google Making Us Stupid? I would also like to take a look at Nicholas Carr’s article from The Atlantic. I would be a feckless fibber not to admit that my first thought was “How much did Google pay to “subsidize” this piece. That aside I picked up the writer’s attention span gauntlet and forced myself to deep read the entire article rather than simply skim it for the controversial bits. To provide myself a context for the task I compared my personal patterns of interaction with electronic source materials with those of the colleagues Carr cites.
Some key concepts are touched on such as reference to Lewis Mumford‘s view that the imposition of mechanical time measurement on human action led to the development of programming/scheduling and habit. Thus broader mind function is related to “freer” time constraints. There is also a lot of truth to that the way in which information is presented influences to a great degree how much of that information can be easily retained. Whatever Google or any other online conglomerate’s mission statement may be I believe it all boils down to how developed each individual’s power of concentration is to begin with.
I find it interesting that Mr. Carr made recurring references to 2001: A Space Odyssey citing repeatedly the respected director Stanley Kubrick who brought the work to the big screen. Not once however did he mention the author whose brain children HAL and Dave were – as such I am righting that oversight via the link above. Sir Arthur Clarke’s words on that video are most appropriate in light of the topic at hand.
So, after a full evening’s entertainment I settled in to think on what all of these works are trying to express in regard to where technology may be leading humanity and vice-versa. After considerable pondering I have arrived at the following:
Human animals are in the unique position of being our own Guinea Pigs/lab rats or, more politically correct, “test subjects”. From the first moment that human communities were organized into social/political organs, and experience/knowledge in tasks and skills were assigned values (marketable values) the great experiment began!
There is no question that we the public, initially via radio then TV and now via the internet, are being used as a collective test subject constantly and on multiple levels. Modern social cultures are the test markets for every product, service and policy – initially as ideas or concepts (testing reactions) then again as visual/virtual presentations (fiction or simulation), and finally going “live” even if only in a limited or “BETA” environments at first.
Even undeveloped, marginalized and developing populations are part of the big picture. The isolation, whether physical or technological, of these populations allows them to be observed as “control groups” so that behavioral manifestations can be observed and tracked, as well as resistance to changes in lifestyle.
Given the fact that we are simultaneously “Dr. Frankenstein” AND his creation (Mary Shelly was truly a visionary) it is innately our responsibility as to how far we are willing to go and what principles and axioms guide our research. This of course is a philosophical question: how conscious do we wish to be of our participation in the “Great Experiment”?
We are ALL participating in one way or the other. Think of red blood cells, when they are created and released into the circulatory system it is doubtful they are individually conscious that their job is to oxygenate and nourish organ systems. That is however precisely what they are PROPELLED to do. As humans we too are governed by the principle that from our emergence we are propelled to exist, develop and function in accord with the parameters set by our form and native intelligence. What we call “Progress” is the result of participation in that process becoming purposeful if not conscious.
Victoria Andre King is a freelance writer and audiovisual professional her novel The Führer Must Die is available for pre-orders and will be released on November 8th 2016 with Yucca Publications, an imprint of Sky Horse Publishing NYC.