Thursday, January 06, 2011
The Ghost in the Machine
WAY BACK WHEN. I was going to write today about the Republican legislative calendar and the need for patience. I've been slow getting off the mark in the new year, and I don't mind admitting that it's largely because of the topic of my first 2011 post. I found the experience described there and lightly responded to unutterably depressing. I didn't contend with my friend because I recognize impenetrable armor when I see it. For gifted people to be wrapped in such armor makes me come close to despair. Which is why my frail resolve to write about politics was torpedoed by an interesting late comment on that post:
J. W. Helkenberg 2011-01-05 10:40:00
Micro: It could be an altogether different reality than anyone has imagined is beginning to take hold, where concepts such as waste, inefficiency and small-mindedness are to be replaced with automation, total information awareness and, of course, total-mindedness. This would imply that no boomer, indeed no human being whatsoever, is in charge of any aspect of our daily lives at all, rather the illusion of personal responsibility is just that, an illusion, and rather than working toward small personal goals, we are being pulled toward an inevitable climax over which no person exercises any control whatsoever. This is not to say that the appearance of incontrovertible evidence regarding human involvement in health care can be denied, it is just to say that whether it is accepted or denied is of no consequence to the inescapable arrival of a system over which no human exercises any authority. I look at the continuing expansion of the federal bureaucracy as evidence that soon the system will be so overwrought with specialized rules and regulations that it will be more complex than many organisms. This trend cannot continue indefinitely simply due to the restrictions placed upon physical memory, which is to say that human minds are just memory devices that instantiate a particular rule, when it is deemed necessary by the government, which in this case is the only sentient life on Earth.
Macro: It would seem that the continuous erosion of the abductive logical faculties humans have relied upon for the formation of hypothesis is steadily making the scenario related above more and more plausible, the conclusion being that humans are to become little more than cells in an organism we can loosely define as a corporate-state. This then would lead me to conclude that any sentiments contrary to the formation of the conscious corporate-state would be bad. Possibly very very bad. Apoptosis aside, the corporate-state might deem a systematic elimination of those cells that are "rogue" to be a necessary step in the ongoing process of health care reform.
And nothing is worth dying for, especially if you are already immortal. [boldface added]
The term "conscious corporate state" is what snagged my attention. Shortly before I left corporate consulting in the early 1990s, I had become convinced that the 'corporate change processes' I was hired to facilitate were being defeated not by human resistance but by a kind of organizational consciousness nobody could contend with because they couldn't even detect its existence. Even though all of us have encountered it directly in every corporate conference room where nominal allies suddenly sell out every important principle without ever acknowledging, even to themselves, what have they done. I wasnt't thinking of it in terms of groupthink or moral cowardice and selfishness. I was thinking of it as an active consciousness made of the pieces it owned of thousands of human brains or, if you will, organizational brain cells.
I even wrote about it in somewhat guarded terms, nearly fifteen years ago. Here's what I said in July 1997:
Movies came up. Patrick and I share an interest in bad action movies of both the 'A' and 'B' varieties. While I was giving in to the temptation to see Under Siege II again, he was falling victim once more to Executive Decision Andrew hadn't seen it, so we recapped the plot for him. In the telling, it's almost the same as Under Siege II -- a secret U.S. military technology falls into the hands of terrorists, threatening the passengers on a train/plane as well as the residents of Washington, DC. What to do? Send in Steven Seagal to kill the terrorists, rescue the passengers, and, if there's time, DC too. The only thing different about Executive Decision is the twist about killing off Seagal before he can save the day, which means that bookish Kurt Russell has to do it -- ve-e-e-ery slowly -- with the help of a brave and beautiful flight attendant. There's a Marx Brothers quality about the piece, with Russell constantly popping up inside cupboards and service panels and elevators to ask one more dangerous favor of the flight attendant before the heavily armed commandos can make their appearance.
After a good laugh about the special effects in Seagal's death scene, we returned to a subject Patrick and I have discussed many times before -- "the possibility that there is a collective meaning to the clicheed plots used in bad popular entertainment. I once read a theory -- "I wish I could remember whose -- "that popular culture becomes a kind of underground railroad for archetypal themes that are being ignored or censored by highbrow culture. Such themes may appear in a badly degenerated form, but at the least their most rudimentary essence is being preserved for the day when the official culture rediscovers their value. This made enormous sense to me, and I started watching bad movies in a new way, almost in aggregate, as if they were unconsciously designed pieces of a puzzle that could indeed be fitted together into a coherent picture.
For example, the Under Siege/Executive Decision plot can be read as a cartoonish treatment of two themes that are being ignored by intellectual culture. First, there is the implicit awareness that the U.S. government is a runaway leviathan, with no one fully in charge or capable of controlling its appetite for predation. The terrorists are themselves a by-product of that predation, having been servants or victims of it or both. Whatever ambiguities may be present in terms of our expected response have generally to do with these villains. At times they could be proxies for us, tough and ruthless enough to break the eggs for a wickedly delicious omelet we dare not order from the menu. At others they seem more like the face behind the mask of power, the unabashed willingness to use the high-tech killer toys that must have sponsored their creation in the first place. In either case, they display a knife-edged decisiveness which mocks the gassy committee response of a government that makes easy choices hard because it must pretend to care equally about everyone and everything.
The good intentions of individuals within the government -- and even within the military -- are represented, but these are shown to be impotent under the weight of the obese monstrosity the government has become. Note that this is not a liberal view -- it expressly undermines the notion that serious problems can be solved politically by caring legislators. When elected politicians make an appearance, they are depicted as selfish, stupid, and hypocritical fools who are themselves destined to become victims -- the U.S. Senator on the plane in Executive Decision gets killed trying to make personal political hay out of the hijacking.
Overlaid on this theme is the archetype of the hero, which has been banished from serious literature for most of this century. He is preserved in the movies as a caricature -- racing from one impossibly dangerous situation to another with near-miraculous impunity. Almost invariably he is depicted as a loner, a rule breaker, a man natively at odds with authority. The caption seems to be that we need exactly this kind of hero, although the odds against his success are incredibly long.
There are, of course, endless variations of this particular plot combination -- the Rambo movies add the image of the hero as a specifically targeted victim of the U.S. leviathan, although he nevertheless saves the day -- a comic book Christ figure. John Carpenter's Snake Plisskin flicks, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., cloak the same basic formula in confused political innuendo but offer the same image of the persecuted hero who must be induced to rescue a mindlessly authoritarian political system. In fact, Escape from L.A. ends with Snake Plisskin pulling the plug on all of technological civilization, upping the ante to a level worthy of the Una-Bomber. The Die Hard movies downplay the complicity of the leviathan in the crisis being addressed, but go out of their way to depict the bullying impotence of federal law enforcement organizations and, to a lesser degree, their state and municipal counterparts.
Scores of cheaper, slapped-together movies that make their appearance on late-night cable also give us this same story again and again and again. One could argue that the David and Goliath theme obviously makes for a good story, but the appeal to the American public may very well include the subliminal awareness that there is something fundamentally true about the premise which does not quite come across in the analyses offered by journalists, pundits, and politicians.
Is this plot significant or meaningful? Hard to tell, I grant, but contrast it with the westerns of a generation or two ago. The hero is present -- still a loner and a rule breaker -- but even he is grateful when the cavalry arrives, and when the government makes mistakes and causes problems in an old western, it is still not presented as any kind of impersonal intractable ogre.
There's another stereotypical movie plot that I believe may be groping toward a concealed and very real problem in the American culture. This is the 'Cyborg' theme, which has been worked and reworked in probably hundreds of different ways--ranging from such critically acclaimed efforts as Blade Runner, RoboCop, and Terminator to junky ripoffs like The Demolitionist (female RoboCop), American Cyborg, Johnny Mnemonic, and, most recently, Screamers. What's interesting to me about these is that they have been interpreted by critics as addressing a deep-seated human fear. I suspect, however, that the fear being addressed goes considerably deeper than the one usually cited.
The standard explanation is that we're afraid of the advances in genetics and computer technology which may one day soon blur the line between human being and machine. Thus, we are given the plight of RoboCop, a human being turned into a microprocessor-controlled cyborg by a ruthlessly exploitative corporation. Can his humanity survive the deliberate technological attempt to destroy it? In much the same vein, we are given Johnny Mnemonic, most of whose memory has been erased to permit his brain to be used as a mass storage device for computer data. Can he regain his life and his humanity even as he saves the rest of mankind from the paralyzing AIDS-reminiscent disease caused by overexposure to information technology? In much the same vein. we are given the near-perfect 'replicants' of Blade Runner, who inspire pathos with their desire to be human even though they are artificially created pieces of organic machinery. What will be the difference in the future between humanity and technology? Interestingly, there is also a later release of Blade Runner, captioned 'the director's cut,' in which the hero, a professional killer of replicants, is shown to be--quite possibly--a replicant himself.
Reinforcing this 'fear of technology' theme is the strain of movies inspired by Terminator, in which the cyborg is decidedly more powerful and predatory than any human being. The standard plot shows the pathetic inadequacy of flesh and blood beings burdened by conscience and other baggage when the creature after them is exquisitely designed and programmed to eradicate them. Hints of this are also to be found in the movies already cited. Johnny Mnemonic features a Terminator-like religious(?) cyborg, and the hero of Blade Runner is really no match for the replicant 'superman' played by Rutger Hauer. Completing the circle, Terminator II offers us a killer cyborg acquiring humanity in the process of protecting a 12-year-old human boy.
And so, the reviewers would have it, we're afraid of the possibility of corporate abuses of technology that will become dangerous to us both physically and mentally. They'll create artificial beings to control us, and they'll replace pieces of our bodies to the point where our original identity may be imperiled. It's an interpretation that's plausible enough, as far as it goes. But what if it doesn't go far enough?
Yes, there's an obvious entertainment value in science fiction and its designer-future images. And, yes, people may find sufficient appeal in the prospect of some 2lst century cyborg threat to make hits of such fare. But these movies are just as popular as the Under Siege/Executive Decision genre, which suggests to me that there may be a much more immediate fear embedded in them that hasn't been brought to light.
Movies personify abstractions. They have to because film is a visual medium. The villainous CEO stands in for the anonymous greed of Corporate America. The conniving, amoral CIA executive stands in for the vast, intrusive intelligence bureaucracy. And so on. Why is it therefore the case that the title characters of Terminator, RoboCop, and Johnny Mnemonic must be taken literally, as specific human-machine combinations that could be implemented to our detriment? What if they are also stand-ins?
I believe they are. What's more, I believe that computer technology is also functioning in these movies as a kind of stand-in. The fear being recorded in these movies is a genuine and well-founded fear of essentially the same leviathan depicted in the Under Siege/ Executive Decision genre. The cyborgs are a way of putting a face on the vast faceless system which presses harder on us every day. In Terminator, we are given the nightmare vision of a war between technology--i.e., the system--and humanity, which we humans can win only by turning back the clock and undoing what has already been done. In other words, the war is well underway and we are losing it.
In RoboCop and Johnny Mnemonic, we're given symbolic representations of what we are becoming, nominal human beings who have been invaded, incorporated into an inhuman scheme that is turning us into robots. At some deep level, we feel that this is already happening and that we may already have lost our souls to it. Hence the odd circumstance of two Blade Runners--the first giving us a human being in conflict with an impenetrable power structure that annihilates its own creations, the second revealing that the human being was lost before he even realized there was a conflict.
There's an additional possibility in here. What if these movies, with their cinematic requirement to personify every abstraction, have accidentally captured the deepest fear of all? That this vast overarching system has acquired its own consciousness and knows full well what it is doing. That we are being deliberately transformed, by an authentically superhuman power, into automaton slaves of the system. That the Terminator is here and is stalking us.
Yes, I know. It's all idiotic. Couldn't be. We talked about it anyway, and then I went home. [boldface added]
Idiotic. So I'm posting this and then I'm going home for the night. Tomorrow is supposed to be another day.