in Sci-Fi: The Future We Love To Hate
Chicago Third Wave Study Group
fiction is the most common vehicle in literature and film to explore
our love and fear of technology. Cloning may seem new, but the first
bioengineer was Dr. Frankenstein. The good doctor was a villain
for committing the sin of playing God, creating life and breaking
the laws of nature. In fact, it's for those very same reasons that
many people today mistrust and condemn bioengineering. It’s
not Dolly the Sheep we fear, but those mad scientists in the backroom
lab splitting genes and God knows what else.
always feared being slaves to technology--that some day machines
will control our lives, takeover our humanity, and define our reality.
Marx situated technology within the context of social relations.
For him the key question was who controlled the machine. Capitalists
would naturally use technology for their own benefit and as a means
to control workers. But if workers had control, technology could
help liberate humans from want and misery. Just think of Charlie
Chaplin in his classic film Modern Times, attached to the
assembly line as if a human robot and swallowed into the very gears
of the machine. On the other hand communist artist Diego Rivera
painted Henry Ford's River Rouge with religious fervor, turning
the halls of the Detroit Museum into a virtual chapel to technological
worship and working class power. Images of master or slave seem
to permeate our views of technology.
And The Sin Of Creation
his bride, and their unfortunate fates, Blade Runner is
our next great bioengineering film. This one gets more real as time
goes by. Update the mad scientist to the Tyrell Corporation and
it's slimy CEO, the villain now has turned into an unethical businessman
with a Phd in science. The clones are manufactured to do particular
jobs in outer space and designed with a five-year expiration date.
They escape back to earth in search of their maker and with a question
we all hold, "How long do I have?" As in Frankenstein,
our new monsters, the rampaging misunderstood clones looking for
their humanity actually gain our sympathy. For that matter, they
win over Harrison Ford even as he hunts them down. Decker, (Ford's
character) falls in love with one of the clones and flees into an
unknown future with her at the end of the film. How better to express
our attraction to technology then to sleep with it! On the other
hand Decker goes around killing the other clones, the ones we fear,
the ones out of control and questioning the very division between
technology and humanity.
What is it to
be human was one of Philip K. Dick's favorite themes, he wrote Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book Blade Runner
was based on. His questions are becoming ever more relevant as technology
puts electrodes into hearts to make them pump, silicon chips into
eyes to make them see, and pig's livers into our bodies so we can
continue to live. The inter-facing of science in our bodies and
our genes is only just beginning. Designing humans (at the very
minimum for health reasons) is on our doorstep.
new film, Sixth Day, presents us with a world just around
the corner, perhaps no more than five or six years. But rather than
Blade Runner's dark distopia where police hunt down clones
through neon lit rainy streets, Sixth Day presents a familiar
world of bright clean suburbs where clones hunt humans and each
other. This is the world we live in today, just slightly altered
by a wonderfully layered use of technologies currently on the cusp
of development. Smart refrigerators that remind us we're out of
milk, self-driven cars with push button map locators and virtual
sex for lonely guys at home. Chase scenes speed past suburban streets
where all the houses look the same, reflecting a cloned culture
where people already look, think and act alike.
The movie has
a lot to say about the moral, legal and economic problems that cloning
could create. Cloning in the Sixth Day, as in Blade
Runner, creates memories and personal histories. In Blade
Runner false memories made the clones more human, while in
Sixth Day the real memories of the original person are
reproduced creating a second or third you. In both movies out-of-control
clones are the danger, technology gone wrong. Both movies also give
us a dose of religious caution, Sixth Day even beginning
with a quote from Genesis. And both movies wrap science and technology
in its distorted relationship with market and commodity production.
In fact, our Sixth Day bad guy is an info-tech capitalist
dressed in New York black with a Regan era attitude.
The idea of
human clones used as technological commodities was more starkly
presented in Blade Runner, because in Sixth Day
they have achieved a level of success and power. Nevertheless the
deep contradictions and daily compromises between science and capitalism
are important elements that make Sixth Day work. Robert
Duvall plays the scientist (we know because he always walks around
in a white smock), and he is clearly manipulated by the corporation's
CEO. Although motivated by his research and desire to extend his
sick wife's life, his work is used in a political plot to change
the laws prohibiting the cloning of humans. Particularly the law
that makes it illegal for clones to inherit the wealth of their
former self. Something only the really rich would find necessary
to kill over. To carry out the scheme people are murdered and cloned,
but engineered with diseases that are fatal within a few years.
This arrangement helps to enforce contracts as well as company loyalty.
Duvall's wife has already been cloned several times and pleads with
her husband to let her die. It's a Kovorkian scene arguing for a
dignified death over the technological extension of life.
The film also
presents some other nicely framed observations about technology
and market relations. A star quarterback is badly injured, murdered
in the ambulance, and then cloned so he can rejoin the team and
fulfill his multimillion-dollar contract. Clones are also employed
as an in-house gang working for the corporation. No longer hunted
down as violent runaways as in Blade Runner, these clones
are the hunters and recreated every time they're killed. When they
fail to do their job their boss barks out, "You cost $1.2 million
each, show me you're worth it!"
is also good at showing us the arguments and marketing that entices
society to accept dangerous technology. The scientist just wants
to keep his wife alive and the CEO talks eloquently about reproducing
people like Albert Einstein and Dr. Martin Luther King, all high
moral arguments that cloak the power and greed behind the reasoning.
There is also an active legal business of cloning dead pets and
here we are already facing reality. Recently the founder of Phoenix
University paid Texas A&M $2.3 million dollars to try and clone
his pet dog Missy. Notice the price tag. That point is brought out
during the climax of Sixth Day, when the hero "Adam"
poises the question "who decides." That, after all, is
the key: in a market driven society, who decides is the one with
the most money. We may see a world divided between the gene rich
and gene poor. Or as Marx would put it, class determines use.
Sixth Day betrays itself in the end, much like the studio
cut of Blade Runner. In that film Decker literally flies
off into the sunset with his clone lover as the voiceover tells
us that she is special and has no expiration date. Director Ridley
Scott's version has them on the run, an elevator slamming shut like
a jail door and nothing about Rachel being "special."
Sixth Day spends two hours telling us about the dangers
of cloning, even giving it religious overtones by calling the clones
"evil" and "abominations." But in the end Adam's
cloned self has a fond farewell with his family, gets into a flyer
and takes off over the Golden Gate Bridge into a future of adventure
and self-discovery. Here the hero doesn't fall for a clone lover,
he falls in love with himself. There is even a mention that his
DNA has been checked out and cleared, he has no engineered disease.
The film leaves us thinking the only danger with cloning is if we
clone bad people. On the other hand, if we clone good people, (like
ourselves) it's okay.
For a world
that technology almost destroyed, we need to visit Terminator
I and II. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the robotic killing machine
and his square body fits the part perfectly. When Terminator
I came out, robotics were replacing thousands of workers in
auto and other industrial jobs. How better to express our fear than
a robot that destroys our future. The machine is relentless as your
boss on an efficiency drive; he just keeps coming after you no matter
how hard you work to avoid your fate.;
II takes us to the next phase of technology, the digital threat.
This Terminator is no longer a one-note robot, but a flexible,
adaptable, ever-changing threat. The film's effects, produced by
digital technology, presents the new killer as information based
and computerized. He can mimic any voice, assume any identify, and
reprogram himself to deal with changing situations. Robert Patrick
(now on X files) as the new Terminator even looks like
a well-groomed, thirty-something professional. But under that nice
exterior a killer lurks. This Terminator represents the
new third wave economy, not only attacking humans, but also replacing
the old Terminator model. Finding himself in the technological
garbage dump alongside humans, Terminator I now switches
sides to help defend humanity.
In both films
the climatic ending takes place in an old second wave industrial
factory. Terminator I ends when he is crushed in a machine
shop, our human heroine making use of the old familiar technology
that we know, control, and feel comfortable with. This is repeated
in Terminator II where the final battle takes place in
a steel mill, the molten metal consuming both Terminator I and
II. Our jobs are safe, the future technology has been destroyed,
and we're left with our industrial base intact.
another Schwarznegger film, is a virtual Marxist tale on the use
of technology. There is a lot of excitement and fun around concepts
of dual identity. The hero is torn between joining the revolution
or working for a nasty corporation which is running Mars. This conflict
of political consciousness is wrapped inside an advanced virtual
reality technology game where Schwarznegger plays out his moral
dilemma. Eventually his virtual persona becomes his real self, just
as we all wish to be better and braver in our virtual mental playgrounds.
To defeat a rebellion of poor outcasts the corporate CEO on Mars
(played by Ronny Cox) orders all air cut-off to the underground
sections of the city where the rebels have taken over. Air is the
prime commodity on Mars, and the corporation that produces and controls
it runs the city. Marx couldn't have put it better. Capitalism turns
everything into a commodity, even the air we breathe.
This Martian scenario was virtually carried out by Lawrence Summers
when he was chief economist at the World Bank. In a memo that could
have been part of Total Recall's script Summers wrote:
"I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa
are vastly under-polluted: their air quality is probably vastly
inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the
lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable
industries...prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution
and waste." Now there is logic that they would have appreciated
on Mars. Yes you read it correctly, clean air is inefficient and
should provide a market in which poor countries sell their under-polluted
oxygen as a sink for industrial waste. Meet your new boss, same
as the old boss, and ready for his assignment on Mars.
This is uncomfortably
close to the reality of globalization. Today everything seems to
be for sale to transnational corporate ownership. There are no longer
any socially owned resources, if its public it needs to be privatized.
The latest buyouts have focused on national water resources. Recently
in Bolivia, Bechtel "bought" major public water resources
and increased prices by 300%. As on Mars, there was a massive rebellion
of poor people and Bechtel was kicked out of Bolivia.
Recall Schwarznegger remembers a hidden Martian technology
that creates oxygen for the entire world. The plot revolves around
his struggle to put this technology to use for the free consumption
of air. Of course our hero is successful, undermining the corporation's
monopoly and killing everyone on the executive board for good measure.
Technology is both the oppressor and liberator, depending on its
use and control. In this case the revolution wins out.
Real And Otherwise
In many of these
films computers reach artificial intelligence and act in their own
class interests, or at least against human interests. It was a self
aware defense computer which sets off nuclear war in Terminator
I, and who can forget Hal in Stanely Kubrick's 2001: A
Space Odyssey. The computer that is built to serve us, suddenly
turns in rebellion and with cold logical efficiency sets out on
our destruction. No matter what we say, no matter what we input,
it just won't obey our commands. How many times have we all complained
about exactly that same problem as we sit in front of our PCs. In
1968 when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was in a
San Francisco theater filled with stoned hippies plastered to their
seats as spaceships twirled to Strauss. Twenty years later as I
sat stone sober at my desk facing my first PC; it seemed Hal was
lurking somewhere deep in my subconscious warning me that if I hit
the enter key this machine would destroy my life. Now whenever the
computer seems to have a mind of its own and refuses all my commands
I know Hal's ghost is somewhere in there just short of achieving
The movie that
brings all this together is The Matrix. False consciousness,
artificial intelligence and revolutionary consciousness fight for
our hero's soul in a virtual world more real and appealing than
reality. Once again computers gain self-consciousness and take control
in a bitter battle that leaves the world in ruins and humans enslaved.
To provide energy to run the machines humans are kept in cocoons
and hooked-up as batteries while their minds are immersed in a virtual
reality that looks like New York on its best day. It’s hard
not to give this a Marxist reading. Human batteries (wage slaves)
mercilessly exploited to keep the machine (capitalism) running,
all the while believing they are living in the best of all possible
worlds. Virtual reality is nothing more than false consciousness.
While you think everything is great in actuality the world is hungry,
cold, and a prison of poverty.
The film carefully
constructs sharply contrasting images of the real world and its
computer stimulation. In virtual reality you eat and dress well,
have a steady job, and the light shines like Los Angeles in the
1940s. But our small crew of revolutionary cadre who have escaped
false consciousness live in small confined metal spaces. The food
is prison slop, the clothes dirty and old, and the only job is to
organize the overthrow of the machine. Those with revolutionary
consciousness must also be careful of people still trapped in virtual
reality. Although the task is to liberate humanity, as long as people
are fooled by false consciousness they can be inhabited by a computer
program that turns them into agents of the system.
security programs look exactly like FBI agents. And these agents
are nasty business. They use torture, implant bugs in your body
to keep track of your whereabouts, express racial hatred of humanity,
and carry themselves with a cold fascist attitude of superiority.
In a nice turn the director uses a technologically influenced color
palate to bathe the agents in a QualComm green light during night
scenes to contrast with the superrealism of the day.
also makes use of myth to develop its characters. Laurence Fishburne
is wonderful as teacher and prophet, there is an Oracle who lives
in the projects as single Black women in an apartment filled with
kids, and a Judas who craves to be part of the system again and
so betrays his friends. Keanu Reeves as the hero, Neo spends most
of the film in the act of becoming the hero and reaching awareness.
A bit like his previous role as Siddhartha, but this hero doesn't
transform into a peaceful Buddha, but a black clad revolutionary
armed to the teeth. Neo breaks out of false consciousness when Fishburne
offers him a red pill. You can almost hear Timothy Leary whispering,
"turn on, tune in, and drop out." In the end two things
save Neo: love wakes our hero to his full potential and saves him
from death, and his liberated consciousness gives him the ability
to think outside the rules of the system and so deconstructs the
programmed security agents.
I suppose in
the sequel Neo will go about reprogramming the machine to serve
humanity once again. Or perhaps create a utopia without technological
terror. Of one thing we can be certain: as long as new technology
is created within the social confines of exploitation, science fiction
will have plenty of stories to offer us. Our love and fear of technology
is based on its potential for liberation or enslavement. Marx was
right, it all depends on whose finger is on the button, whose hand
holds the hammer, and the agenda in their mind.