Intellectual history is sometimes studied through themes and symbols found in novels with the writers of those novels being manifest about their intent. This is the second of two blog posts exploring truth-telling in fictional narrative. The first one is here.

Although I watch exactly zero TV, I see a fair number of movies (usually at home on DVD), which fulfills my need to stay in touch with the Zeitgeist of mainstream culture. Periodically, I go to iTunes Movie Trailers to see what’s coming out. In my experience, most offerings are interchangeable genre films with themes, stories, and effects drawn from the same worn-out bag of tricks. Actors, directors, and screenwriters repeat themselves with predictable regularity, which I’ll admit doesn’t necessarily stop their films from being entertaining or making money. If I’m drawn to any particular genre, it’s science fiction, which typically presents some provocative ideas, though they are promptly sacrificed to cinematic convention.

Considering the way the world is going, it was only a matter of time before yet another film explored transhumanism, though no one ever says transhumanism, if indeed they are aware of their underlying themes or merely express themselves through an inchoate artistic sensibility. The latest (due out in mid-April) renames the phenomenon Transcendence and stars Johnny Depp as a terminally ill mad scientist whose mind is up- or downloaded into a computer only to go power-hungry and berserk. (I’ve only seen the trailer and a couple featurettes.) Maybe it’s a cautionary tale, but not before luring credulous viewers into technophilia over the wildly imaginative possibilities of minds housed in computers. Michio Kaku, a science explainer/popularizer and author of the book The Future of the Mind, also teases initiates with the ridiculous potential to, say, reduce consciousness to a collection of data points to be “preserved” on a CD-ROM. Thus, through storytelling of consciousness disembodied and gone haywire, the controversy is taught, yet the inevitability of this future is plainly assumed. The scientists in the featurettes, by the way, say we’re only about 30 years away from being able to accomplish the wonders portrayed in the film.

Are we really on an irreversible path toward the Singularity or will civilization collapse before we get there? That’s not really a question in need of an answer, though my strong suspicion is that we’ll be overtaken by cascade failure of civilization before mapping and modelling the human mind successfully within a computer, much less uploading a specific human mind. So what does this film (and others like it) say about us or our particular position in history, at least before devolving into a genre techno-thriller (chases, gunfire, explosions, stunts, eye-popping effects, and frenzied typing)? Several possibilities spring to mind: (1) the eternal dream of immortality (now through technology) appears to be nearly within our grasp, (2) we already know (or suspect) our days are numbered and will seek to extend our stay on Earth by any means, and (3) our deep, barely articulated misanthropy has reached such an extremity that we now desperately wish to be something else but cannot wait for evolution’s slow change. This third possibility intrigues me most.

Two earlier film franchises explore intermediate steps before full-blown transhumanism, namely, The Matrix (mentioned before) and The Ghost in the Shell. In Matrix world, most people experience life within a virtual reality (the titular Matrix) which is a proxy for the media-saturated information sphere we now occupy in actuality but minus the superhero skills. A few live in comparative misery in the real world and only visit the Matrix to rebel against machines that use humans as an energy source. Similarly, in reality beyond the film, a few see through the charade but are either expelled to the fringe or flatly ignored. In both realities, distinguishing what’s true from what’s false has become impossible, and because projected reality is so much more attractive, most willingly abandon themselves to its seductions. In Ghost world, characters are hybrid, something between fully human and complete cyborgs. Their “ghost” is the flicker of identity remaining as the body is augmented to the point of being totally replaced by mechanical parts. Their Borgification, if you will, gives rise to loss of identity and philosophical wondering about the nature of the self. In both Matrix and Ghost, rather than becoming omniscient and power hungry and/or going berserk, characters augment themselves with technology, leaving their minds vulnerable to corruption with only modest difficulty, and they become unwitting pawns in hidden powers struggles. In Transcendence, the transhuman character simply loses his humanity, which might just be the sought-after resolution.

What, then, is the interface between our self-hatred and our technophilia? Or is there one? I remember when I was a kid, the physics department at the local college would host open house events for the general public with staged demonstrations of various properties of physics. As a 10-year-old, that stuff was fascinating — almost like magic except that the explanations were clearly scientific, not supernatural. A memorable device that gathered static electricity called the Whiz-Bang Machine was pure theater. Fast forward several decades and the glossy gadgets technology has delivered have made up for the failure to bring the much ballyhooed flying car to the masses. Even something as tame and normalized now as the Internet would have been practically unimaginable in 1975. So just imagine what the future of, say, 2040 holds! It’s boggling. But if one is old enough (like me) to remember the pre-Internet era, it’s possible to recognize that the world is both better and worse off for what wonders technology has wrought, that there are inevitable tradeoffs, and that further innovation will have the same unintended consequences and diminished returns that we can recognize even now in the forms of, to name only a few examples, hypercomplexity, climate change, and global environmental destruction. Yet we never learn or mature beyond the gobsmacked 10-year-olds we used to be. We are to blame for our own misfortunes, having chased the wrong dreams.

The potential futures brought to screen in cinema might be understood as rehearsals for futures already conceptualized by tech-savvy storytellers, and in the process, such films work simultaneously as slick salesmanship for tech products now in development and harbingers of the nastiness that will could befall us should we lose control of our gadgets or indeed ourselves. Yet we can’t turn back. Our values all point toward continued refinement of tech until at last we lose ourselves in them or they devour us. Once again, the difference is negligible.

Lying somewhat outside our modern perceptual boundaries, the post-ironic mindset blinding us to what ought to be obvious, Otto Spengler discerned the cyclical nature of civilizations in The Decline of the West. Among his great insights is the exhaustion felt in advanced age, which maps onto culture no less than individuals as an abiding desire to transition to the next stage and leave behind all expended effort:

At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization, the fire in the soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures. The soul thinks once again, and in Romanticism looks back piteously to its childhood: then finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and as in Imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of proto-mysticism, in the womb of the mother, in the grave.

  1. motorola says:

    Doesn’t classicism precede romanticism? Could you maybe explain what you mean by classicism being the last gasp of a civilization? My understanding is that the cool formalism of classicism represents an early peak, with emotional frenzy and pronounced expressionism being a characteristic of a later era and symptomatic of civilizational decadence or decline. But maybe that was just ancient Greece.
    Regarding technology and the disappearance of personality, it seems that vulnerability plays a major role in the development of what we might call character, personality or soul. Technology, by providing material abundance and immediate gratification, removes the stress and friction, the vulnerability, which stimulates and enriches such psychological development. Creative vitality often lives in a realm of tension or at least in a frustration of infantile desires while technological advancement satisfies those desires, resulting in psychological slack. The most vital cultural influences often arise from the most disturbed or despised quarters; think of the manic-depression of Beethoven and Chopin, or the folk influences, for example, in America of the Scots-Irish and the Africans. As you say, there seems to be a trade off; I would add, more comfort equals less intensity.
    This brings me back to what Morris Berman said about the “gap”, that sense of emptiness and loss which appeared in the early child psychology of late-Paleolithic/early-Neolithic people. If I read him properly, religion, creativity, war, and busy-ness in general is an attempt to fill this gap. One can think of the modern obsession with technological progress as yet another part of this phenomenon.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment, which has plenty I can’t answer adequately; you raise awfully good questions.

      According to Spengler, Classicism does precede Romanticism, the latter of which has an hyperemotional, elegiac quality. So you have that correct. I’m not sure where I miscommunicated. Based on history since Spengler, however, an argument could be made that we entered a second Classical phase, breaking the cycle he observed, or at least regressing. I’ll leave that possibility unaddressed.

      There is little doubt that disturbed psyches have greater access to creative wellsprings, but in the arts at least, greater renown tends to be awarded to summarizers than innovators. In technology, the situation is reversed. I can’t say which is more desirable, really, except to observe that artistic innovation isn’t destructive whereas technological innovation has given us the power to destroy everything handily, which we’re doing by virtue of profligate consumption and despoliation.

      Berman’s gap (discussed in the opening of Coming to Our Senses) is about the loss of intimate connection with our environment (both nature and human social networks) as childhood mentality (making belief in fairies and Santa Claus effortless) matures into adulthood characterized by alienation. Berman is derivative of Michael Balint (author of The Basic Fault) in particular, though that’s not intended as a criticism. As you observe, reattaching through close identification with objects/gadgets or subscription to a variety of movements/processes are substitutes for what is already lost.

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