Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Too much with us, late and soon


I've been watching too much TV and at least one too many movies (no further references to "Batman v. Superman" will be made here; I hope), but I finally finished off the last available episode of "Black Mirror," and it got me to thinking about the thread that runs through all the episodes.

If you've never seen it, it's best described as a modern British version of "The Twilight Zone."  It's an anthology series, with no characters appearing from story to story; but the world the stories inhabit is essentially the same and, with a few "futuristic" difference, essentially our own.

I don't want to overwork this by giving you a plot summary of all 7 episodes, so I'll speak generally about that common thread.  It is the technology that, while it isn't available now, is almost visible.  Science fiction has often mined this vein for stories, depending on the technology of the day; and the Digital Age, especially the Internet world, is making new possibilities possible to write about.  That's where "Black Mirror" enters.

The "black mirror," by the way, is a TV screen, or a computer screen; doesn't really matter, both serve the same purpose now, and can be used the same way (I have a computer in the house connected to a TV, for example.  It's the computer's monitor.).  Internet technology makes social media possible, but it is the use of technology which is interesting.  In the world of "Black Mirror" there is an internet we can all be glued to (to watch a blackmailed politician, for example) or eyes which can replace our biological ones and be accessed via the internet the way Skype can access the camera on your computer, and even chips which can store or eliminate memories.  Stuff we don't have, in other words, but can imagine how we would use if we did, based on the technology we do have.  There's more than a little line crossing between human and machine in these stories, and that line doesn't always (or ever, actually) create a Kurzweilian utopia.

Usually, in fact, the consequences are, in the best TZ tradition, unforeseen until they happen, and then they seem inevitable.

Consider the last episode, "White Christmas."  (spoiler alert, for those interested).  Jon Hamm (nee Don Draper) plays a gregarious almost-salesman who tries to engage a man in a small room in conversation because it's Christmas Day and they don't have to go out to work that day.  Where they are and what they are doing there is a mystery, but they seem to have been at it for 5 years.  Prison work camp?  Manual labor in some obscure corner of back of beyond?  All we know it that there's snow outside and food in the kitchen sufficient to make a light meal; not a Christmas feast, but perhaps the two men can make do.

Hamm begins, finally, to tell the other man what he (Hamm) used to do for a living.  He describes a technology which can be implanted in the temple, just below the skin, and create a digital version of the person receiving the implant.  After a few weeks this implant is removed and placed in a processor about the size of a chicken egg.  The implant is a disc which now has a complete copy of the original person; a digital copy, not a clone or anything biological.  But to the information on the disc, it is the person.  It isn't a copy (so far as it knows) and it is in hell.

Hell because it's purpose is to run the house to the satisfaction of the original.  Who, after all, knows you better than you?  You (the digital copy) can start the coffee, cook the toast to perfection, turn off lights, turn on the TV (to the right program), etc., etc., with no effort from the original except to enjoy the luxury.

Why is this hell?  Because the copy thinks it is the original, and it doesn't want to do the work.  That's where Hamm came in; he'd communicate with the copy and convince it it had no choice, by altering the time the copy experienced.  6 months could pass in a matter of minutes; minutes to Hamm, months to the copy.  With nothing to do but let time pass, the copy usually decides work is better than eternity doing nothing, and becomes a willing....well, slave is about the right concept.

Hamm also got in trouble for running a dating service where he accessed the eyes of the client (artificial eyes, but everyone has them, as you will see) and could give him advice (through an ear bud, one assumes).  This is illegal, and it all goes wrong when the client picks up a woman at a party who engages the client in a suicide-murder pact (she kills him, then herself).  Hamm can't call the cops without revealing his own illegal activity,  and when his wife finds out, she blanks him.  He can't see or hear her anymore (remember the eyes!), only an outline filled with static, something like a figure on the old Star Trek frozen in a transporter beam.

The other man now tells his story, and to make it short, his wife also blanks him, which drives him so mad he eventually, in a fit of rage and blind passion, kills his father-in-law (ex, actually, as she divorced him, but anyway).  Hamm suddenly looks to the ceiling and says "Is that good enough?  Is that a confession?", and vanishes from the room.

The man was not the murderer; he was a digital copy.  The man has remained silent, but the copy has blurted out a confession.  The real murderer doesn't even know this has happened, and the clone is left alone in the virtual kitchen where (he now realizes) the murder occurred.  A technician dials up the time stream so that 1 second of "real time" will be like 1000 years to the copy, and the office is closed for the Christmas holidays.

As for Hamm, he is put on the "registry" for his crimes.  He's free to go, but no one in the world can see/hear him, and he can't see/hear anyone else.  His outline is red, the others (to him) all silver.  He is, as in one of my favorite stories from the attempted re-boot of the Twilight Zone, the invisible man whom no one can see, no one can speak to.  And he will be that way forever.  He had fancied himself a student of the human mind; now he will know only his own mind, for as long as he lives.

This story is somewhat similar (in the persistence of the digital copy and its independent existence) to a story of a woman who is able to "resurrect" her dead husband from the trail he left on the internet.  The copy is virtually identical to the original (and has a physical body), but it isn't him because it isn't human; it is only the personality which can be reconstructed from what is left behind.  Eventually "he" becomes the crazy relative locked in the attic; she can't get rid of him (kill him?  Again?), but she can't live with him, either.

Or the criminal, forced to relive his crime without remembering he is doing so from day to day, as people (whom he perceives only as strangers staring at him as if they were possessed) watch his every move (it's a national park, they are tourists) and paid government employees make him re-enact the crime he committed, and the horror attendant on it.  It is deemed a fit punishment, as it can be refreshed (again, thanks to technology) every day for the rest of his life.

There is another story where a man begins blanking out unpleasant memories from his implanted hard drive (which replaces organic memory), and soon he forgets too much, becomes too dependent on forgetting and avoiding remembered pain.

Technology in the world of "Black Mirror" is powerful; it is also neutral.  Technology doesn't do anything to dehumanize people in these stories; people (if that happens), do that.  Sometimes (as in the first story, and still the most disturbing, IMHO) the technology even gives us back our humanity; but only after a fearsome price has been paid.  Never is technology our salvation, the solution to our problems, the tool through which we transcend our baser selves and rise on the steps of our lesser selves toward being better people.

Technology is not our savior, it will not rescue us from ourselves.

It's a fascinating examination of that issue, across seven otherwise disparate episodes, because I can remember when the internet and then comment sections like "Table Talk" at Salon, and then blogs, and then Facebook and "social media," were finally going to save us from parochialism and nationalism and narrow-mindedness and suspicion of the "other."

Yeah, how'd that work out?  In the year of Trump we are more cut off from each other and from the angels of our better nature than ever; but we have more platforms and opportunities and outlets for venting our opinions and finding others who will "like" what we have to say.  And those who don't must beware our wrath; our on-line, anonymous, typed out wrath.

There's an episode which echoes that, too.  Technology plays a minor role, because workers for a corporation are drones who peddle exercise bikes to provide electricity, and advance away from the bikes by playing games on TV, which they watch as they peddle for hours on end.  It's brute competition, zero-sum, you win the other person loses; and yet two characters connect and see each other as humans.  Perhaps they can work together to defeat the game and prompt a revolution, destroying the evil system that so dehumanizes people.

Nope.  One guy wins the greatest prize:  an apartment of his own, luxury living where his only job is to give interviews and be a public figure a few hours a day.  He lives atop the world, cut off from human beings except through communications technology (telephones, internet, the usual; nothing too sci-fi about it).  It is all he's ever known anyway; it beats the tiny cubicle he lived in where he was forced to watch TV a certain number of hours a day.  Now he can just sit in silence and stare out of a real window.   And he wins all this by throwing his erstwhile companion to the wolves, which he dos without hesitation.  Revolutions don't give us an opportunity to save the world; largely, they give us an opportunity to save ourselves, and if that is all we can get, we can easily learn to be happy with it.  The audience imagines the protagonist would want what we have; but why?  He's never known it; how could he long for it?

And so if we imagine a revolution will make everyone realize they want what we want.....well, it probably won't work out that way.  Other people aren't all waiting for the chance to be you, you know?

Which was always my complaint, ultimately, with the earnest young folks of my acquaintance in my East Texas hometown:  when they asked if I was "saved," what they really meant was:  "Are you just like me?"  They didn't care about my spiritual destination; they cared that I was them, that we were of the same tribe, group, mind; what have you.  They wanted to be sure I'd taken the opportunity to be them; because they weren't sure they wanted to deal with me.  Me as other, I mean; not me as me.

Nobody really wants to deal with me as me.  Even I don't want to do that.

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