Man and the Machine

This month’s post “Man and the Machine,” is a continuation of the series on Nature and the Machine begun last month. It seems like a good point of departure after the last post, which introduced Ron Fricke’s “Samsara” and films of a genre in which man and machine combine to produce a product of universal value to humanity. It is unfortunate that the same combination of tools and human ingenuity, employed by the same industry, has also produced gargantuan volumes of psychic pollution in the name of entertainment.

I am not here to declare particular films or their makers as polluters. That is a matter of personal taste. Movies are essentially stories, or at least they appeal to our appetite for them, and everyone is entitled to their own preference. I will not impose my values on films that I don’t care for. They don’t belong to me. If I don’t like a movie, it may be because I haven’t taken the trouble to understand it. Or, it may be I understand it but have no present need or desire for its content.

Like many items for consumption nowadays, if it soaks up precious resources without delivering sustainable returns, I can’t be bothered. Such wasteful products are good examples of the machines taking over. But they can only do so with my agreement. So, while I will never agitate for a ban on bad movies, I will always encourage filmmakers to be benevolent with their art. The images we fashion and release into the culture can have unintended influence especially to people that might not be able to hear or understand the language the characters are speaking. Stanley Kubrick understood this when he made “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The history of motion pictures is filled with parables and metaphors that warn us of the dangers of the machine taking over. This month we will concentrate on Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science fiction masterpiece, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel.” Personally, I had not watched the film in more than 20 years.

Released almost 50 years ago, the film gave us advanced intel on our present day circumstances, predicting now commonplace innovations such as I-pad and Skype and such staggeringly complex achievements as space stations and Jupiter missions. I was particularly impressed, while watching the film this time, that government scientist Floyd Haywood’s four year-old daughter, with whom he Skypes on his way to a meeting, asks for a telephone for her birthday. I would not be surprised if 2001 was the precise coordinate point in history when little kids started asking their parents for their very own cell phones.

As someone who studied the Bible a great deal when I was growing up, I’ve often wondered why there are no prophets in the modern world? Has the Bible ever stopped being written? What is the difference between Ezekiel, who reports to have seen a great wheel way up in the sky, Kubrick who puts it up there on a movie screen for all to look at nearly half a century before it becomes a reality?

“2001: A Space Odyssey” predicts more disturbing trends that have come to pass as well, particularly mass surveillance and the virtual police state. I refer you, for instance, to a conversation HAL has with Dave just before HAL predicts (erroneously) that a key component of their spacecraft is going to fail within 72 hours. HAL probes Dave for any hints of doubt about the mission he is on. Dave gives away none of his private thoughts during this discussion and remarks that HAL must be working up his crew psychology report, to which HAL readily admits.

We now live with that all-seeing eye that socializes with us, like a real human being, and probes us with sympathetic dialogs that it can analyze to use for or against us in the future if it should become necessary. At first glance, the eye of surveillance is not so threatening to someone with a healthy conscience, who’s superego has always watched and kept him or her on a benevolent path throughout life’s long, winding passages.

I assume we all have abhorrent thoughts once in awhile. To quote another modern day prophet, in his song,” It’s Alright Ma’, I’m Only Bleeding” the poet confesses, “and if my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” As his illustrious career has proven, such thoughts are not dangerous. I hope our modern day eavesdroppers respect this. The real danger is when the machine flips out. This the catastrophy at the heart of Kubrick’s movie.

We see the sci-fi genre so often heading off in the direction of machines overthrowing the human race, such as “Blade Runner” “Brazil” or “The Matrix.” I will probably delve in to those titles in the coming months but I don’t want to present my subject as “man versus the machine.” As Kubrick so eloquently states, the machine is just man’s tool, like the bone our simian ancestor hurls unto the sky in the inciting incident of his movie.

The machine is never going to turn on us. Only we can do that. So one obvious question is, have we already turned on ourselves with our machines? The answer is yes. Anyone care to argue the point? The more important question is can we use machines to save ourselves? Again, yes. I have not, until now, emphasized the essential fact that corporations are also machines as are governments, but these are the most critical tools humans have invented to achieve the highest potential for all humankind.

Like many of us, the characters In “2001” lives seem utterly dependent on the trinity of technology, government and corporation. Of those three, the HAL 9000 computer that operates their craft is supposedly inviolable, like the Almighty of the Bible. As misinformation starts to pour in, the astronauts delve deeper into their dilemma, HAL reminds them he has never committed even the slightest miscalculation. To his credit, HAL admits a mistake was made and correctly asserts the blame rests with “human error.”

So what happens when God makes a mistake? It’s not God’s fault. It never is. It is, however, up to man to fix the problem. If the astronauts are going to survive, they must disengage from the artificial life support system that has sustained them up to that point. In “2001” the solution is to decommission HAL.

HAL resists the prospect of being taken offline by cutting Frank loose during a space walk and letting him die and drift off into deep space. If you put yourself in Frank’s place, this is the most horrifying image in the movie. It cuts to the bone most effectively because this is what the machine threatens to do to us if we mess with it. If we attempt to defend ourselves from its fallacies the machine will banish us outside its protective sphere. If we go along with its faulty program, we will most certainly be led off a precipice. So it takes tremendous courage to seize control of one’s own destiny.

It is no coincidence that the color of the lens of HAL’s all seeing eye is red and it happens to be the red that you see with your eyelids closed and pointed at the sun. That must be the first color we ever register, the same red of the inside of an egg sack, the illuminated bloodstream we see on the inside of our mother’s belly. When Dave gets inside HAL’s brain and starts disconnecting drives, the inner sanctum is the same shade.

Did Kubrick make that choice because he understood this world of machines, those made of materials as well as those made of men, were like a womb that we would have to abandon some day, when we’ve fully gestated and can no longer sustain life there? Are the mistakes of the machine actually the throws of birth, heaving us out of here and into some appointed place where the full color spectrum of lights, patterns, curves and angles accompanying Dave’s astounding right of passage through the cosmic birth canal portend great harmony within diversity.

Of course, Dave’s journey is assisted by invisible extraterrestrials, with whom he shares some destiny. We can’t rely on such interventions, at least not yet. That’s where the movies come in. I don’t mean all movies. I mean movies like “2001” and “Samsara,” movies that enrich humankind by showing us the truth. The truth eludes us in ordinary consciousness while we obsess about past and future. These are movies that urge us to leave the womb. Cinema is a technology that carries across that abyss of ignorance and apathy. Such movies awaken us to the errors that are built in to the faulty survival schemes of our present day and age.

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