Week 2 summary

I’ve been thinking about a couple different themes this week. One was to do with the tendency to view technology as a phenomenon independent of its human creators–and particularly, as Bell highlights, its human maintainers. This sees technology (for good or ill) as a nearly unstoppable juggernaut, an unpurposed and potent meme. It might be survival of the fittest: technology in general is good for humanity and the bad associated memes will eventually die out, or mutate into something more useful. But it also might be a capitalist Darwinism: whatever makes money will flourish regardless of its innate benefits to society.

The other theme is Sympathy for the Robot. The examples I’ve picked out (whether of tech or aliens) seem to be popular culture doing its best to get everyone to get along. Whether its ‘robots’ or ‘aliens’ are standing in for race, religion, ethnicity, etc., these and many other sci-fi offerings are pointed at getting one set of humans used to the idea that another set of humans may seem un-human, but once you get to know them, they’re just like you and me. My tone here is a bit condescending, but this has more to do with the manifestation of these lofty goals rather than the goals themselves. It is also worth considering that, while the internet holds the promise of real groups of one sort of human interacting with real groups of another sort of human, this interaction currently has little in common with the intimate relationships portrayed in Bicentennial Man and, yes, Small Wonder.

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Star Trek: alien romance

Technology can also lead us (theoretically) to meet other biological beings that (like the robots in the previous two examples) ought to be treated as human…although in the 1960s this notion may have been a bit more gendered…

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Bicentennial Man on Yeah its that bad

Another example of the ‘robot deserves to be treated as a human’ motif. Which I suppose is the other side of the coin from ‘They’re Made of Meat’ (if the humans had got a chance, then surely they would argue that ‘humans deserve to be treated like robots…or whatever those guys were’).

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Small Wonder

Like a Gumdrop of the 1950s (dropped into the 1980s), Vicki is one of the many digital beings that we’re encouraged to accept as equally deserving of human rights and affection as her biological acquaintances.

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The genius of invention

Frankenstein's monsterSeveral of the authors that we’ve read on this programme have felt the need to remind us that humans invented all this technology. It’s a theme that struck me again in the wonderful meat scene, but which I think permeates a lot of this discourse. There is certainly the Frankensteinian fear of the created overpowering the creator (this week it’s been Blade Runner, last week 2001, and there are countless others). But there also seem to be further, less obvious worries…the preoccupation with creating something that is human, only then to react with repulsion when it’s too human (see…just about every movie, not for children, pertaining to robots), or with the ironic disregard shown to the humanoid/nonhuman’s origins in Gumdrop…the projection of invention onto others (Sian mentioned a few good ones in her response to my week 1 summary), thus absolving humankind of the blame for technology run amok…and ultimately that technology will be able to reproduce–or better-produce–itself, and truly trump the human role as creator (Bendito machine alludes to this, although to slightly more subtle ends than the Terminator films).

But this BBC show to which I refer seems to engender the chirpy optimism around invention that (at least since 1820, according to the show itself) has surrounded technological innovation. It seems that the schadenfreude in which we like to wallow with regards to digital dystopia may be more of a response to gushing rather than reactionism. As Hand makes very clear, it is difficult to find an opinion in the middle of the u-/dys-topia debate–and yet I would argue that the two sides have something in common: the treatment of technology as an existential entity with little attention paid to the people (and communities and cultures) from which the technology springs.

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Google report reveals continued rise in US government requests for data

a la Hand…although it’s interesting that Google reports this information regularly…

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Murder She Wrote: from typewriter to VR

And once in a while, VR has been assumed to be a bit more ubiquitous than it is…

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Back to Reality

Red Dwarf seems to be good at presenting futuristic technology as ubiquitous rather than something to examine, question or fight. (In this episode, the technology is accepted; it’s a natural substance that tricks their minds.) Better than Life is perhaps a more straightforward example–VR is just a game; it only falls apart because of Rimmer’s psychological issues.

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Where material and symbolic collide?

Tim Berners-Lee and the Olympic salute to pop culture (a nice Barlovian union?)

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Amy mentioned Wall-E on her blog, and I had been thinking about this scene as well. It suggests that ‘virtual reality’ might not be limited to the extremes of The Matrix or The Lawnmower Man, but simply constant distraction and preoccupation, like Orwell’s 1984 proles who are fed pop songs by the government to keep them happy.

Hand certainly alludes to this sort of consumerist virtual world, ‘ the digitalĀ panopticon produces docile minds’ (p. 30), bombarded by infinite information and (meaningless) choice: ‘blue is the new red!’ Needless to say, this isn’t a million miles from my earlier post totalling up brand names (and various other attention-competitors) on a single webpage.

This also interests me in reference to my theory that we’re happy with virtual experiences if 1) we are aware that the experience we’re having is virtual, and to what degree it is and 2) we have chosen to experience it and can choose to leave (while the opposite would be the dystopian perspective). On the one hand, it doesn’t look like the human of the future have much of a choice about their situation, but they do have a choice about whether to engage with the ‘virtual’ elements (the advertisements, communications tools, etc.); this is clear when Wall-E distracts a woman who stops her conversation and looks around her [this is also interesting as it gives the viewer the impression that she really doesn't know where she is], gets out of her chair and responds to Wall-E. Moreover the illusion of choice is heaped upon them within a set of boundaries (i.e. the buttons on the chair). Likewise, it isn’t a secret that they are being presented with more information than they could take in all the time, mostly marketing, but the problem is in their (willful or otherwise) ignorance of its effect on themselves.
The description of this clip given on YouTube is also quite interesting: ‘This is a clip from Wall-E. It illustrates the future dystopia we’re headed to.’ In proper web 2.0 fashion, a commenter comes along with some bait, which is duly taken. Another commenter is just happy they didn’t have to watch the whole movie themselves. A philosophical debate then ensues, interspersed with farms and pools…

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