When computers kill us off, what will it look like?
I’ve been wracking my brain to compile a list of the most aesthetically interesting and bizarre portrayals of humans being overcome by our deadliest creation yet: digital technology. While all these films are of course fictional, the themes hit very close to home. We’re approaching an age where digital technologies have much more power than we tend to acknowledge – at this point, they’ve already assimilated to become a mundane part of everyday life. From smart phones to drones to computerized coffee makers, hi-tech devices are already everywhere, and we rely on them for everything from navigation to communication, and – fearfully – even for killing people. As we become more and more comfortable with digital machines, it’s easy to forget their potential dark sides. Where’s the panic button?
Recently I’ve been reading Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s new book, Speculative Everything. The authors see consumable design objects as tools that may be used to critique existing culture and imagine possible alternate future cultures. It is with this lens that I have approached the programming for Cybernetic Film Night at Rock Bar – films that we might view as a critique of our technological creations, and possible futures that could unfold. While all the futures portrayed in the films definitely represent worst-case scenarios, they also contain metaphors for actual situations which will likely arise in some way, shape, or form as technologies take greater control over our everyday lives.
Today designers often focus on making technology easy to use, sexy, and consumable. In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby propose a kind of design that is used as a tool to create not only things but ideas. For them, design is a means of speculating about how things could be—to imagine possible futures.”
– MIT Press’s overview of Speculative Everything
While robots could turn against us, they are our creations, and at this point we still have the ability to redesign and control what we’ve made. In this sense, the following films could be viewed as speculative scenarios, allowing us to imagine what the future will be like based on how digital media and technology change our species’ trajectory.
On Thursday at Rock Bar starting at 9pm, I’ll have four films playing silently, all of which seem important to think about in this age of digital everything – Metropolis (1927), Zardoz (1974), Demon Seed (1977), and Videodrome (1983).
While they’re not all strictly bound to the ‘Cybernetic Revolt‘ theme in its most traditional sense, I believe they all present interesting ideas about what could happen in a world where our lust for technology allows us to rush forward without thinking about the dystopian possibilities of, a) murderous machines that can deceive and influence humans, b) malevolent media that brainwashes, c) omniscient computers that turn against their creators, and d) the potential for technology to create a far greater divide between rich and poor, until the technocrats become the ‘eternals,’ and the poor become their slaves.
Read on to learn more about the films!
Metropolis (1927) is simply an amazing and pioneering silent scifi film. Produced in Germany in 1927 and directed by Fritz Lang, it was the most expensive movie ever to be released up to that point. It is beautiful and haunting, a glorious feast for the eyes and mind. As is typical for scifi films, the plot is based on the division between the worker class and the ruling class – or, those who control technology, and those who are enslaved by it. The robot Maria – who is one of the only female robots in early science fiction, a characteristic that landed her a spot in the Robot Hall of Fame – is brought to life in order to impersonate a real woman named Maria, who is set on helping the downtrodden of the city of Metropolis. Robot Maria wreaks havoc on the city by convincing all of the workers to abandon their posts at the machines that power the city, which eventually results in the whole city being flooded – for this, robot Maria ends up being burned at the stake, while the real woman Maria saves the day. Phew, humans to the rescue!
Zardoz is the biggest stretch in terms of the ‘Cybernetic Revolt’ category, but I had to include it because it’s one of the weirdest, most creatively insane films of all time.
Zardoz tells the story of Zed (Sean Connery), a seemingly barbaric man who clashes with a group of humanoids called “Eternals” and ultimately changes their society forever. Zed begins the movie as an Exterminator working for an entity called Zardoz, a giant floating stone head which hovers down into a part of the world know as the Outlands. This floating head gives the Exterminators guns and tells them to go out and kill, while shouting, “The Penis is evil! The Penis shoots Seeds, and makes new Life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the Gun shoots Death and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth, and kill!” Super terrible, right? Basically, the entire world has gone to hell and the rich and privileged of society (the Eternals) have sealed themselves inside habitats known as Vortices. These people now live forever and even if they wanted to, they can’t die. All the men in Vortex completely lack sex drives, because reproduction has become a thing of the past.
As the movie continues, Sean Connery’s character infiltrates the Eternals’ Vortices with a plan to kill them all, but some sort of empathy thing happens and he can’t do it. The movie ends horrifically but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Essentially, you’ll be left wondering, could technology actually take us that far away from organic human existence? I’m interested in the way that living forever can create its own form of dystopia, wherein the citizens revolt against themselves – i.e. technology causes us to revolt without so much as lifting a finger.
Demon Seed is the classic example of a scifi film in which an omniscient super-computer is created with the ability to “evolve and learn,” then along the way it diverges from its intended path and stops following the orders of its human creators in order to pursue its own agenda. Just like in Colossus: The Forbin Project, once you give a computer a taste of cognitive intelligence, it’s going to want more – which is why, in Demon Seed, Proteus (the computer) takes Julie Christie – the wife of the computer’s inventor– hostage and impregnates her with synthetic spermatozoa, thus spawning an evil clone baby. “I’M ALIVE!” it utters, as the movie comes to a terrifying end.
One of the most interesting and tantalizing moments in this film is when the computer downloads all of the known information about cancer, then immediately knows how to cure it. This idea speaks to our belief that if we could just harness the power of technology and intelligent computing in the perfect way, we could potentially solve any problem. With this sort of super computer technology, the questions of existence would vanish, and we’d live forever. In this future, we’d all be similar to the clone baby spawned at the end of Demon Seed – part computer, part human, a hundred percent terrifying.
In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, an evil media mogul has a vision of a world in which television replaces every aspect of everyday life. His TV show, Videodrome, carries a malicious signal that causes the viewer to develop a malignant brain tumor. Of course, the malicious media ends up being linked back to NATO – it seems like all evil robots are by-products of government experiments gone awry, doesn’t it?
Videodrome is an insightful and intelligent meditation on the way that media consumption affects our psychology. David Cronenberg has revealed himself to be something of a prophet in this regard. Pulling tortured visuals from the visions and nightmares of his subconscious, Cronenberg has built a remarkable world of ideas in Videodrome. The film features crazy effects in which flesh and video are married, producing revolting results.
From Shit Sandwich Reviews:
One can imagine how Videodrome, if unleashed not upon a single person, but an entire mass population, would resemble the hive-mind called the internet, with its nasty pornography existing in its fringes, like the most disturbing corners of our collective unconscious.”
Indeed, the film illustrates a horrifying reality in which the fucked-up shit humans are capable of becomes embodied and transmitted through digital media. My favorite quote from the film:
The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”
Hope to see some folks at Rock Bar on Thursday!
Can’t get enough Cybernetic Revolt-themed films? I had a lot of fun researching for this film night, and watched a bunch of movies that were sort of related, but not quite right for my vision*. Read on for a few more weirdo flicks that I’d recommend checking out if these types of movies are your jam.
*Please note the sarcasm in this statement 🙂
Robot Holocaust (1986)
Robot Monster (1953)
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
The Fly (1958)