Fear of the Future
21 March 2009
The Role of Apocalypse in Dystopia
In Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia I wrote, “…there must be some kind of deep and inscrutable relationship between the failed predictions of techno-futurists, the fulfilled predictions of aesthetic futurists, and the dystopian vision of science fiction films.” I made a few suggestions in that posting in regard to this complex intersection of ideas, but there is a great deal more that could be said on this head.
For one thing, in my previous post I failed to mention the role of apocalypticism, which is no small part of the intersection of futurism and dystopia. There is an entire sub-genre of science fiction books and films (not to mention games) that deal with the topic of some sort of apocalypse, whether as it is happening or long after it has happened. It is a common theme to explore dystopian societies that emerge in the aftermath of catastrophic change. The Omega Man, for example, considers a dystopian future in the immediate aftermath of catastrophic change, whereas, for example, Logan’s Run considers a dystopian society in the distant future following catastrophic change. The Time Machine shows us an even farther distant future, in which evolution has done its work and has separated human beings into two distinct species.
Before science fiction, there were the visions of mystics to excite our wonder and incredulity. What could be more dystopic than the reign of the Antichrist? Due to its present usage, it is little known that “apocalypse” is simply the Greek word that has been translated into Latinate languages as “revelation,” thus The Apocalypse of St. John is the same thing as saying The Revelation of St. John. Thus, in an etymological sense, to be apocalyptic is to be revelatory, an unveiling of truths: it is to be shown something. And certainly the science fiction films of apocalyptic futures seek to show us something. One could even argue, on the basis of Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing, for the necessity of a cinematic revelation of contemporary visions of apocalypse and dystopia.
An apocalypse (in the contemporary meaning of the term) or a catastrophe, is a selection event. A selection event may select for a species or population (which is sometimes called proselection) or it can select against a species or population (called deselection). There is as yet no consensus within evolutionary theory as to whether natural selection works exclusively through one mechanism or the other, or by a combination of both. As commonly portrayed in contemporary science fiction, apocalyptic events are usually deselections of human beings, threatening our extinction.
Two franchises not previously discussed are of particular interest in regard to the intersection of dystopia and apocalypse: The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica.
The Matrix films depict a many-layered dystopia following from a many-layered catastrophe. Here we have we have apocalypse and dystopia raised to a higher order of magnitude. There was a war between man and machines — several of them in fact — and subsequent machine extirpation of the remnants of independent human civilization. Here human beings are not threatened with extinction, but with absolute industrial regimentation and subordination. Human bodies are actually used to produce the electricity required by machines; to that end, human minds are utterly and completely controlled by the machines. It would be difficult to imagine a more oppressive and dehumanizing industrial regime than this.
The Matrix films also are bound up with the fear of automatonism previously discussed in Technical Ecstasy. The Enemy is the machine. Unlike the Borg of Star Trek, the machines of The Matrix are purely machines and make no pretense to either being human or having human values or wanting to become human beings.
In The Matrix there is a scene in which Agent Smith is interrogating Morpheus (the god of sleep, for are we not all dreaming while we are in the matrix?). The monologue delivered by Agent Smith is explicitly evolutionary in character, describing human beings in thoroughly naturalistic terms, but with the twist that human behavior requires their classification as a virus rather than a mammal. Machines are presented as the cure to the human disease.
The interrogation scene with Agent Smith and Morpheus also also features an exposition of the eschatological hopes of machines to replace human beings — a quasi-Oedipal theme that, like machine contempt for the feebleness of the human condition, will be reiterated in Battlestar Galactica. (The same theme also appears in Star Trek Borg episodes in which the Borg Queen speaks contemptuously of those who choose to remain “small.”)
In Battlestar Galactica we have an explicit extinction scenario. The number of human beings is reduced to about fifty thousand, and these numbers decline as the series develops. Under relentless attack, human beings turn on each other and seem unable to cooperate even when it is necessary to our survival.
The enemy in Battlestar Galactica, as in The Matrix, and as with The Borg, is the machine. The machine adversary of Battlestar Galactica represents something of a halfway point between the pure machines of The Matrix, who make a pretense to humanity or organicism, and the mechanized half-organic, half-machine Borg. The Battlestar Galactica machines (i.e., the Cylons, a name that comes from ancient Greek history, by the way) constitute a stratified society of insect-like specialization (as noted above in the case of the morlocks in The Time Machine), with some models being obviously mechanical, others faithful facsimiles of human beings, and still others, hybrids, somewhere in between.
Moreover, the Cylons hold out the hope of hybridizing with human beings. This is one of the central themes of Battlestar Galactica, and it is especially interesting from an evolutionary point of view. If Cylons and human beings can produce viable offspring, this would demonstrate that they are not in fact separate species according to most scientific definitions of what a species is.
In a recent episode of Battlestar Galactica (“No Exit,” named after the famous play by Sartre) there is a confrontation between Cavil and a resurrected Ellen Tigh. The whole episode is rather talky and violates the screenwriter’s basic imperative to “show it, don’t say it,” but there is a lot of ground to cover and it would take several episodes at, say, the pace of the first season, to give an adequate exposition of the backstory and dilemma. The dialogue between Cavil and Ellen develops throughout the episode and constitutes one long conversation and confrontation.
The most interesting part of this confrontation is not the Cylon backstory but the exposition of the machine point of view and in some ways covers much of the same ground as the interrogation of Morpheus by Agent Smith discussed above. Indeed, there are more parallelisms between these two scenes than can be dealt with in any brief compass. One assumes that the writers of Battlestar Galactica must have had the Morpheus interrogation scene in mind, whether implicitly or explicitly, when they wrote this face off between Ellen, representing something of the human point of view, and Cavil, representing the machine point of view.
Contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a well-known and influential paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” and we might see this scene with Cavil and Ellen, as well as the Morpheus interrogation scene, as an exercise in the attempt to answer the question, “What is it like to be a machine?” Nagel wrote, “the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat…” The parallel formulation for the present instance would be that the essence of the belief that conscious machines would have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a machine. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that, because Cavil is a machine who wants to be the best machine that he can be, and he is deeply resentful of being embodied in a facsimile of a human body, with all its attendant limitations.
It emerges in this exposition of backstory that Cavil has arranged the embodiment of his creators into ordinary human lives (albeit lives engineered to give them front row seats to a holocaust) so that his creators might experience how awful human life is and thus repent of creating him in their human image. It is apparently the hope of Cavil that the inadequacies and limitations of human life foisted upon him might be made good if only he can bring his errant and misguided creators to realize the folly of their ways.
Industrialization and Disaffection
The fears of the future so dramatically illustrated by these tales of machine dominance have an obvious source, and that is the claim since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that the industrialization and mechanization of life was leading to dehumanization. This protest has taken many forms over the past hundred and fifty years: economic, social, political, cultural, and so forth.
Nothing could stop the relentless transformation of society wrought by the Industrial Revolution, but the fact that individuals were powerless before forces greater than themselves virtually guaranteed that personal protests against the industrial order would be the primary form of outlet for the frustrations of contemporary life. Communist revolutions (which, from the perspective of the Industrial Revolution, are counter-revolutionary reactionary movements) sought to overturn the newly emergent industrial order, but only succeeded in replacing one group of elites with another. Nothing about industrial society was transformed by communist management of the process. If anything, industrialization under communist regimes was more brutal than elsewhere (cf. The Credibility Paradox).
In the complexity, busyness, and bureaucracy of the modern world it is difficult for individuals to maintain a sense of personal importance. Everything in industrialized society makes individuals anonymous. One is treated like a number, an interchangeable cog in an enormous and indifferent machine. With the failure of social movements seeking to redress the grievances of industrialization, there remains only personal protest and the personal quest for self-aggrandizement. For example, the character of Tony Manero in the film “Saturday Night Fever” expresses dissatisfaction with the anonymity of his life, and finds his satisfaction in dancing, for which he receives the approbation of his friends and thus a temporary sense of importance.
Disaffection with and alienation from industrialized society is a function of the failure to achieve a social consensus for living in industrialized society. Without a social consensus, society drifts and is utterly at the mercy of the dehumanizing forces of industrialization. Fears of dehumanization manifested themselves early in the history of cinema, most notably in the classic 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The film is perhaps best remembered in science fiction annals for its elegant female robot (and we note, in reference to above examples, that the robot is evil), but just as central are the relentless images of mechanized and industrialized dehumanization. There are not only dark and looming cities, a Stygian labyrinth in which the unwary are consumed by the beast that is industrialization, but we are also shown industrial workers who are literally crucified on time clocks, sacrificed to mind-numbing labor.
Thus the connection between apocalypse and dystopia finally becomes clear: apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided. The science fiction films we have discussed are replete with such dramatic images: an abandoned and ivy-covered Washington DC in Logan’s Run (which latter also includes another evil robot), the dark, forbidding ruined cities of The Matrix, the nuclear annihilation of the Colonies in Battlestar Galactica, and the empty metropolis of The Omega Man. While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.
The Technological Frontier
In contradistinction to this marked strain of anxiety over the mechanization of human life in industrial society, there is also a tradition of futurism that celebrates all that industrialization promises. For industrial society emerged simultaneously with modern science and technology, each historical development driving the other. Futurism focuses not on the dehumanizing forces of industrial society, but on the triumphs and promises of the science and technology that emerge in co-evolution with industrialization.
Beside the aesthetic expression of fascination with the future and machines celebrated by the Futurists, what I have previously called techno-futurism explicitly celebrates the technological aspects of a futurity in which human life is augmented by its union with the machine — precisely the horror envisioned in the Borg and in human-Cylon hybridism, but here not perceived as any kind of horror at all. This is the so-called technological singularity, of which we have previously dealt with.
There has long been more generalized optimism in North America than elsewhere in the world. This in itself is a complex and difficult question that we will not investigate critically here. Rather, I will make several (admittedly problematic) assumptions. One of the sources of this optimism, of this welcoming attitude to the future, is the frontier. North America presented western civilization with a unique frontier experience. South America was less of a frontier experience since it was settled inward from the coast, like a noose tightening around the continent. North America presented the spectacle of relentless westward expansion in order to fulfill the promise of European civilization in the New World (also known as “manifest destiny”). The frontier experience was further punctuated with events like the gold rush of 1849, further fueling the dreams of those willing to take the risks to head out west.
Technology, in the minds of its enthusiasts (the most enthusiastic among them being singulatarians), is a frontier. It is the new frontier, and it promises wonderful rewards to its adepts, such as frontiers have always promised. In the Frontier, any man can be an explorer and an adventurer. Indeed, Everyman can be an explorer and adventurer. One need only place oneself within the frontier in order to become a part of a select society of pathfinders in a new world. This is a possibility that is foreclosed in a fully formed, fully known, and fully mature world.
I am well aware of the criticism of the concept of the frontier by the “New Western History” and especially in the work of Patricia Limerick. While I cannot disagree that the frontier is a place of “Conquest, Convergence, Continuity, and Complexity,” I think that the critics of the concept of the frontier have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I think it is high time to re-examine the “frontier thesis” for what remains valuable in it. And one value that it may have for us is an explication of the technological frontier.
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