The cultural critique of “robotization,” “automation,” “computerization,” “the cybernetic society,” “technofascism”—the takeover of human affairs by artificial intelligence—was born of artist/poet William Blake in the 18th century. On page after page of beautifully crabbed script, Blake raged against Reason:
None could break the Web, no wings of fire.
So twisted the cords, & so knotted
The meshes: twisted like to the human brain
And all calld it, The Net of Religion.
Reason’s unceasing urge to quantify Life (“Abstract Philosophy warring in enmity against Imagination”) “withers up the Human Form Divine.” “Beneath the bottom of the Graves, which is Earths central joint,” Blake believed, “There is a place where Contraries are equally true.” Embracing this irrational truth is spiritually liberating:
Spectre of Albion! warlike Fiend!
In cloud of blood & ruin roll’d:
I here reclaim thee as my own
My Selfhood! Satan! armd in gold.
Two hundred years and more after Blake, the accelerating transcription of all data into electronic form, the seemingly irresistible transformation from real to simulated, material to ethereal, tangible to virtual, continues to inspire dread and rage. People grasp, even if politicians don’t, the simple fact that megacentralization of information generates too many decision vectors for any man or group to cope with. Increasing speed and complexity ruthlessly abolish the human factor. You don’t have to be a Luddite to sense that IT will never possess the humanity to make decisions fit for human beings.
Popular culture is alive with imaginative fears about this creeping-by-leaps-and-bounds digitization (or digitalization) of our lives and what it could mean for liberty, security, prosperity, and our humanity: If everything is digital, then everything can be digitally altered—or erased.
The 1997 film Wag the Dog touched on some of our darker fears. This film was most uncannily made before the Monica Lewinsky affair broke and before Clinton’s opportunist alliance with the Kosovo Albanians. Its plot involves the president’s aides hiring a stable of state-of-the-art dream merchants to manufacture a war with Albania to divert the public’s attention from a sex scandal involving a young girl wearing a beret.
The most chilling moment in Wag the Dog is when a freshly recorded “old-timey” 78, complete with distressed sleeve, is inserted into the Library of Congress audio collection for a gullible reporter to “discover.” One thing popular culture understands about modern fakery is that it is so high-tech as to be well nigh undetectable: The forged National Guard memos that fooled the old fogies at CBS were so poorly done that they must have been intended to be found out sooner rather (no pun intended) than later—fake forgeries.
In 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, it is understood that you are not free until you are “off the grid,” no longer triggering electronic “hits” that disclose status, whereabouts, or intention. Identity is, in fact, the core anxiety in most of these cautionary tales—identity either lost and needing to be regained or compromised and needing to be laundered. Even when enhanced by the Global Positioning System, surveillance (or “the grid”) only works if its targets can be ID’d. Surveillance technology is simultaneously oppressive (by definition, a tool of tyranny) and vulnerable, internally easy to hack or tweak and externally easy to disrupt or destroy. Surveillance reduces everyone and everything to the Enemy; it is at once completely intimate and utterly impersonal.
In a world where those in charge are increasingly antagonistic toward those they seek to control, human identity itself has become problematic. Who are we as social and moral beings, as members of a community, if we must have our identities challenged and reverified on an almost-daily basis? Our surveillors seem unable to tell the difference between those “legitimately” present in this society and the terrorist tourists from Yemen or Egypt or Morocco who were supposed to be on the famous no-fly list. “Just checking” . . . If our identities can only be determined biometrically, by retinal scan or DNA swatch matched to a digital database, what do they mean? If our identities can be literally “swiped” in the form of a tiny encoded card and used to set up counteridentities, what good are they? Are we who we say we are, or are we who the database says we are?
In Terry Gilliam’s black comedy Brazil (1985), the wrong man is evil-clownishly seized by an assault team in the middle of his family dinner. The misidentification is eventually noticed, all right, but correcting it is far more hassle for the bureaucrats of Brazil’s dystopian future than allowing the preprogrammed mechanism of condemnation to unfold in all its hideously tragic and studiously ignored horror. Brazil envisions a future that’s retrograde and retrofitted, unlike the starkly, efficiently controlled environments of 1984 or THX 1138. But Gilliam and his screenwriters, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown, have detected inhuman coercion in even the clumsiest and most inbred of bureaucratic mutations. The four i’s of anarcho-tyranny (Sam Francis’s term)—inertia, implacability, indifference and incompetence—appear wherever overgrown power collides with disarmed individuals.
In 1985’s Blade Runner, the identity of rogue “replicants” can only be ascertained with great difficulty, such brilliant simulacra of Man are they. In The Net (1995), Sandra Bullock’s identity is electronically deleted, paralyzing her functioning in the world. In Gattaca (1997 again; the hump of the Clinton years seemed to spawn a rash of scare scenarios) and Minority Report (2002), a desirable or safe identity must be forged or bought.
From the identity crisis flows the problem of truth versus fantasy. Is a good dream preferable to a bad reality? If we can complete the circuit for virtual paradise, why not live there happily ever after? In Vanilla Sky (2001), the hero suspended in eternal idyllic dream-sleep makes the choice to rejoin the real world, come what may. In The Matrix (1999), it is taken for granted that reality, no matter how desperate, is better than any computer simulation, no matter how pleasant. Such has always been the message of great fantasy literature: Fantasy without a powerful reality check is the stuff of nightmare.
What are some of the more practical drawbacks of going digital? What are we getting, at what price, and is that price one that is wise to pay?
If the new technologies did not offer something, they would not be so irresistibly attractive. For business, government, and individuals alike, the lure of faster/simpler/cheaper is so strong as to override doubt about any downside and to lull many into a state of denial. The situation is reminiscent of when calculators were introduced into the classroom. Mathematicians, scientists, and educators warned that students’ computational ability would atrophy, rendering young minds less rigorous, logical, and spatially imaginative. Defenders scoffed at computation as “drill and kill” and argued that calculators would free students to do “higher” mathematics without the mental anguish. The result? Never have more kids taken more math courses and acquired less proficiency or comprehension; the “mental anguish,” it turns out, was itself the math. Now, kids sit in class and play games programmed into their TI-83 graphing calculators. They are not supposed to, but the technology not only makes it impossible to prevent but virtually compels it.
Some of the first elaborate video games were designed for the military. The huge expense involved in training stimulated the development of simulation programs, as did the increasing sophistication of computerized weapons and transport systems. No less a motive was the finding, especially during and after World War II, that most troops remained loath to gun down their fellow man even in the hell of combat. How could they be rewired to fire upon the enemy? Enter the virtual-combat game.
In “The War Room,” (Wired, September 2004), Steve Silberman writes that “an unprecedented level of cooperation among the Pentagon, film and gaming companies, and Silicon Valley— . . . the military-entertainment complex” has created the Joint Fires and Effects Trainer System (JFETS), which is just as high-tech as it sounds, since Disney, Pixar, Industrial Light & Magic, Intel, and MIT engineers are literally calling the shots. Vivid 3-D simulations place the trainee in medias res: an Iraqi bazaar; a Korean farmstead; even a Martian landscape, each crawling with hostile “avatars” engaged in “conflict scenarios derived from interviews with senior officers who served in Bosnia or Afghanistan.” The trainee gets the thrill ride of his life, to emerge bathed in the sweat of terror; but he has survived, and the glamor and glory of war in men’s hearts depend on exactly that fusion of fear and providential luck.
The trainee emerges as well with his documented “kills,” sans the traumatic stress. He has been playfully and skillfully desensitized. Concludes Silberman,
On their days off, [trainees] pile into the multiplex to see blockbusters crafted by the same technicians of verisimilitude who will now train them how to save their buddies’ lives while blowing the enemy out of the zip code. . . . These young warriors will live, play, fight, and die in the Matrix.
In 2002, the National Security Agency hired Eric Haseltine away from Disney’s R&D division to become its own associate director of research. More recently, an entire town—aptly named Playas, New Mexico—was bought by the feds as a live-action counterinsurgency set.
Cockpit technology has now advanced to the point where, as a recent History Channel report put it, 90 percent of the “lag time” formerly spent by the pilot trying in his own mind to make sense of the situation—bogeys, friendlies, targets, flak, speed, altitude, and so forth—can be eliminated by digital systems. There will be virtually no response time left to worry about. The next step is already here, too: fully automated, “uninhabited” drones. One source interviewed for the History Channel report suggested nervously that it might not be smart to leave strategic bombing decisions to the rude mercy of systems that “lack the common sense of human decision-makers”; but those decisions are being left right there, right now.
When our youth were first being desensitized by virtual mayhem games, as were the Columbine killers and other school shooters, there was a public outcry. No more, it seems: The demands of the War on Terror make such squeamishness obsolete. Now, a game that trains you to assassinate JFK is on the market; let a thousand Oswalds bloom. The company that is marketing JFK Reloaded still feels the need to talk of “turning kids on to history” and “proving that Oswald could have acted alone,” but its product is a sniper-training game for the purpose of . . . training snipers. What’s next? Texas Tower, where you, as Charles Whitman, pick off as many targets as you can before the cops storm your position?
An even more problematic aspect of digitizing warfare is that our Armed Forces possess a lot of materiel that can explode impressively, but only after it has been targeted and delivered. War planners have begun to realize that electromagnetic pulses (EMP’s) set off in the atmosphere to disrupt our computerized weapons and communication systems could prove even more deadly than missile strikes on the ground. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost: The biggest bombs in the world are useless if the insubstantial blips controlling them go off-line.
Strangely, in view of the rush to digital war, national-security concerns prohibit phone companies from completely abandoning their land-line systems. These have functioned reliably for a hundred years—while, as one survivor of a recent “medium” hurricane reports, “Cable was out at the first big gust. Power was out for a week . . . Land line phone service never failed during or after the storm, unless you actually lost your home drop or the local street line.”
In the poetic finale of an otherwise cheesy movie, Escape From L.A., as the world and its codependent power grid are plunged into chaotic darkness around him, Kurt Russell strikes a physical match against a physical matchbook. Up flares the little fire, and he growls, “Welcome to the human race.”
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