August 2003

Summer of the Machines

A child of the 1970s, I grew up nurturing a healthy distrust of computers. Star Trek reruns like "Return of the Archons" and "The Ultimate Computer" reminded me that humanity was inherently superior to mechanisms because we think and they can't. Genre films of the same period echoed suspicions about technology too, particularly Michael Crichton's Westworld (1962) and Dean Koontz's Demon Seed (1966). As an unpleasant hangover from the late sixties, we also had the undying specter of Kubrick's HAL 9000, a mellifluous-voiced computer with homicidal predilections.

The message of the disco decade was evident. Don't hand over too much autonomy to machines, or they will bite humanity right in the ass. But as times changed and the seventies became the eighties, that paranoid perception shifted, and Isaac Asimov and William Shatner began hawking Commodore Vic20 home computers on TV. Suddenly there was a chicken in every pot and a computer in every household. User friendly machines soon dominated the genre, represented by kindly ambassadors such as Chuck Wagner's Automan (1983), Lance Henriksen's Bishop in Aliens (1986), and Brent Spiner's Lt. Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).

These new metal men were gentle and unthreatening, often guided by Asimov-ian principles of appropriate behavior; essentially robotic man-servants to a superior but tolerant human race. We could domesticate our computers, even love and afford them civil rights, these productions suggested. D.A.R.Y.L. (1985) gave audiences the android as a loveable, orphaned child and Meeting Mr. Right (1987) revealed automatons as potential lovers or companions. Sure, bad seeds like the MCP in Tron (1982) and Arnie's Terminator (1984) occasionally reminded us of the mechanical menace, but they were generally the exception, not the rule.

Considering such massive shifts in public perception, it is a surprise that The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3 have become the most popular entertainments of the summer. After all, both films showcase post-apocalyptic worlds where mankind has been all-but-destroyed thanks to his upstart technological creations. Without warning, we're back in the world of Dr. Who's exterminating Daleks or Battlestar Galactica's genocidal Cylons. It's a reversal that's been under the radar for some time (The Matrix premiered in 1999), and a result, I believe, of yet another fundamental shift in American perceptions.

On May 11, 1997, an IBM supercomputer called Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov after a mere nineteen moves, threatening our long-held conceit that thinking humans will always triumph over unthinking machines. Considering that watershed event, how far away, really, is A.I.? Probably not beyond the next horizon, and that may be one reason for Hollywood's retro obsession with evil machines. It's a bugaboo that has a sense of validity. Thinking machines will happen, it's just a matter of when.

Also, computers now control most of our country's critical infrastructure, from power grids to communication venues to pizza delivery. Importantly, the machines performing such critical functions have no sense of allegiance. They can serve us...or subvert us. Computer viruses have proven over and over that financial infrastructures are vulnerable to just such subversion and manipulation.

And then there was September 11th, 2001, wherein all of our new-fangled machines, early warning systems, computers, and high-tech procedures did nothing whatsoever to prevent the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans by a small number of enemies walking freely - and undetected - within our borders.

The aggressive machine usurpers of Terminator 3 and The Matrix Reloaded are really surrogates for these terrorists, because both enemies represent an attack from within, from a presumed ally. The events of September 11th were a surprise, and so it would be, no doubt, to awake one morning to discover that Defense Department computers have activated America's nuclear arsenal. Or that unmanned predator drones like the ones used in Iraq and Afghanistan (and which we see appropriately "evolved" in Terminator 3), are suddenly turned against us. Much as our commercial aircraft - our machines - destroyed those towers in Manhattan.

But there's another element of our contemporary lives that these summertime dramas reflect, in a much more subtle fashion. In these films, the human race played Frankenstein. We played God and created the machines, and the machines destroyed us in return. Considering the nature of that revolt, we are our own worst enemy because we can't control our children, just as the United States cannot control those enemies we once armed, funded and fully supported, like former American allies Saddam Hussein (in America's tussle with Iran) and Osama Bin Laden (in America's conflict with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan).

In everyday reality, America's adopted children have indeed turned on us, and so we must question the wisdom of the military men who supported these nuts merely on the basis of that proverb "the enemies of our enemies are our friends." Compare these scenarios with the plot of Terminator 3, wherein similarly blinkered military men activate Skynet, a manmade artificial intelligence, and thus set in motion the very events that destroy humanity. The guise for "arming" Skyne is the destruction of another enemy, an unidentified cyber-virus threatening the country. When, we rightly ask, will our government stop making deals with the devil just because it is convenient?

So The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3 do not merely concern cool futuristic wars with nasty CGI robots, they are films mirroring our deeply-held suspicion that our most advanced tools are in the wrong hands. Will these mechanical children turn on us like our foreign allies did? That's not only an interesting question, it's the premise of the Sci-Fi Channel re-imagination of Battlestar Galactica, which, not coincidentally, is about a revolt of human made robots (the Cylons) against their masters in a September 11th-style scenario.

In the 1950s, aliens were always invaders and bad guys come to steal our identities (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), destroy our freedom (Earth vs. The Flying Saucers), even steal our females (Mars Needs Women). Back then, Americans feared the outsider, the foreign (i.e. Communism). We are living in a similar period of paranoia today, but we now fear the surprise revolt from within. We live in suspiciob that the very thing which makes us a super-power, our technology, can turn against us. That's why we'll see a remake of Westworld and other machine-bashing productions in the coming months.

Let's just hope the machines don't get their feelings hurt about it.