Category Archives: technology

James Cameron’s Avatar: Cinematic Sci-fi Classic or SJW Cringefest Supreme?

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If James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic weren’t so masterfully made and deeply entertaining, it would be very easy to hate for its obnoxious political editorial. Admittedly, there are people who already do, but I’m a sucker for a well crafted story and epic world building and Avatar has both in spades. Sadly, few films rival the heavy handed political messaging of Avatar. In fact, the sheer quantity of SJW subtext is equaled only by its towering achievements as pure cinema. It pains me to admit it because I actually still really like this film. Even if I completely disengage from what the movie is saying, there’s nothing I’d criticize. It’s about as well made a sci-fi blockbuster as you could hope for. It has an inventive sci-fi premise, relatable characters, a high stakes dramatic conflict, a love story, breathtaking action sequences, and of course, outrageously cool visuals. In contrast to the never-ending conveyor belt of cookie cutter superheroes and franchise properties, Avatar is also the rarest of breeds in cinematic sci-fi: an original story. As historians look back on this period of ideological division and examine the degree to which Hollywood shaped the culture war, I’m willing to wager that Avatar will be regarded as a landmark film not just for its cinematic bravura, but for its near fanatical commitment to every article of faith in contemporary PC orthodoxy.

Environmentalism

There are many reasons that Hollywood is using sci-fi, fantasy and superhero stories as the primary delivery systems for reinforcing PC orthodoxy. Not the least of which is that these genres lend themselves to the construction of mythic archetypes and imparting of moral lessons divorced from any religious framework. Sci-fi in particular has the added benefit of extrapolating from some kind of scientific premise which has the subsequent effect of reinforcing the belief in unbounded human progress driven by science itself. Or in Avatar’s case, the twin belief that the pursuit of science in and of itself is intrinsically good and the power of science must be trained toward some utopian dream of an earthly eco-paradise.

Pandora is an idyllic and verdant jungle paradise which also happens to be the richest supply of the universe’s most coveted resource, Unobtainium. The Na’vi live harmoniously with their environment and all of the biodiversity on Pandora. Meanwhile, the dirty, evil, soulless capitalists of the RDA just want to bulldoze the planet and strip mine its resources. The only thing standing between them and their ruinous objective are the scientists on their own payroll overseeing the Avatar project.

Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and her #WOKE, multicultural team are not only experts at Na’vi and human genetic engineering, neuroscience, biology, and botany, but cultural anthropology as well. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making scientists the film’s superheroes since that’s a longstanding feature of the sci-fi genre, but it’s an awful lot of scientific expertise in one team. Just sayin’.

As the film reaches its conclusion, Augustine tries to persuade the morally ambiguous corporate director, Parker Selfridge, that destroying the Tree of Souls will be devastating to the entire Na’vi race. Through her research, she discovered that the entire species communicates with their ancestors and the planet’s biodiversity through a vast quasi-neural network that’s barely understood by our brutish and greedy human minds.

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This is one of Avatar’s cleverest sleights of hand. The Na’vi have a spiritual tradition centered around an entity called Eywa; an amalgamation of genetic ancestral memory and a supposedly quasi-mystical spirit of life. Rather than writing a completely atheist scientist who is hostile towards the very idea of spirituality, Cameron has Augustine arguing against the destruction of the sacred Tree on PURELY SCIENTIFIC grounds. He didn’t just make Eywa some flying spaghetti monster, he grounded their spirituality in a specific feature of Pandoran biology and botany. This way, Cameron has his environmentalist cake and eats it, too. The harmonious communion with nature that is the centrepiece of Na’vi morality and spirituality is just PURE SCIENCE, MAN! And if it wasn’t for Grace Augustine’s tireless scientific research, the monsters of the RDA would not have had an opportunity for a moral awakening.

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Trans-identitarianism

I realize it might seem a stretch to argue that Avatar is tacitly pro-trans identity, but in the near decade that has elapsed since the film’s release, what seems like a really cool sci-fi premise is starting to seem a lot like a metaphor for the anything goes trans-identitarianism that’s now a staple on the Left. As a genre, science fiction earned its name because the authors were taking a scientific idea or premise and building a human drama by spinning out its ramifications in a possible far future or alien civilization. Avatar is a classic example since the core conceit builds off a premise that’s already a partially realized real world phenomenon through the VR imaging technology. In the film, Grace Augustine’s team had developed a way to merge a human consciousness with a Na’vi body. It’s a leap of imagination for sure, but not so far a leap that you had to completely check your skepticism at the door.

Sam Worthington plays the paraplegic veteran, Jake Sully, who is given an opportunity to replace his twin brother in the Avatar project due to his brother’s untimely demise. His job is to infiltrate the Na’vi and relay intelligence back to RDA while Grace and team simply hope to restore the broken trust between the two societies. As Jake is pulled deeper into the world of the Na’vi, he begins to have a moral and identity crisis. He begins to think his life inside his Na’vi avatar is real life while his life as a soulless grunt for a bunch of predatory humans is the fake. You could say it’s Pandoran body dysphoria. Because progressive orthodoxy accords inherent moral superiority to immutable characteristics belonging to people on the bottom of the oppression hierarchy, Jake’s Na’vi manifestation is on the side of #SocialJustice. So what does Jake do? He comes out as trans-Na’vi, that’s what.

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You don’t have to look very far to find that this is increasingly commonplace here on earth. Whether it’s Rachel Dolezal, Shaun King, Martina Big, or Elizabeth Warren, identifying as transracial has been accorded the progressive seal of #WOKENESS.

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Of course, trans-identitarianism doesn’t stop there. Maybe you feel that you’re a different age that doesn’t correspond to the number of years you’ve actually been alive on this  planet. No problem. Just follow the example of Stefonknee Wolscht. Or perhaps you feel that you too were born the wrong species. You can be trans-species, too. Everything is a social construct, you #BIGOT.

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Feminism

James Cameron has a well established track record of writing strong female leads which, in contrast to the numerous cartoonish feminist power fantasies to which we’re routinely subjected, are actually pretty believable by comparison. Besides being one of the best sequels in modern cinematic history, his contribution to the saga of Ellen Ripley should have been lauded as a feminist classic. The same could be said of Sarah Connor in the first two Terminator films. The three lead female characters in Avatar follow the precedent of his earlier films in that they embody his unique spin on the Tough, Smart Yet Tender Hearted Badass archetype. Most importantly, just as the Holy Church of Feminism mandates, each character is a paragon of virtue. Taken together, they form the moral conscience of the film.

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As Dr. Grace Augustine, Sigourney Weaver’s character is modeled very closely on Frances Sternhagen’s lovably grumpy performance of Dr. Lazarus from the 1981 classic, Outland. Augustine is an appealing mixture of passionate dedication, steely resolve, no nonsense bluntness and bleeding heart compassion. Whether acting as a mentor to Jake Sully or upbraiding the villainous Colonel Quaritch, Augustine risks everything to prevent the extinction of the Na’vi.

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Even though Jennette Goldstein’s Private Vasquez in Aliens was more entertaining, Michelle Rodriguez’ Trudy Chacón is the Latina Badass of Avatar. When the RDA goons launch an aerial bombardment of the Na’vi Hometree, Chacón has a crisis of conscience and goes AWOL just as the missiles start launching. After that mission, Chacón goes completely rogue and devotes herself exclusively to helping Augustine, Sully and the Na’vi.

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And of course, rounding out this trifecta of feminine moral purity is Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri. Neytiri combines the virtues of both Augustine and Chacón in that she is proficient in combat, physically strong, fully attuned to her natural environment, and willing to defy the tribal elders. Between the three of them, we are presented with a fully rendered portrait of Divine Feminist Perfection. Smart, tough, capable, defiant, sexy and maternal. Cameron gets away with it because the characters are appealing and he doesn’t completely jettison heterosexual romance or female biological reality. Needless to say, actual feminists spend more time wearing pussy hats and blogging on Tumblr than learning the kinds of skills these characters possess, but the Church of Feminism commands its subjects to write female characters which portray women as morally pure, infinitely capable saviors, redeemers and didacts. Though I’m sure there are plenty of women in the police, military and athletics who can handle firearms, engage in hand to hand combat and pilot advanced military vehicles, these abilities are still primarily male skill sets. Giving them to the women is just a way to  appease the male audience.

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The Church of Feminism also mandates that male characters follow Feminist Law and be cursed with the Original Sin of Toxic Masculinity. Naturally, no one embodies it more than the film’s unequivocally wicked Colonel Miles Quaritch. In another era, Quaritch would be a hero. He’s tough as nails and lives by a soldier’s code of honor. He’s so badass, he can forego a respirator in Pandoran atmosphere and unload two weapons’ worth of rounds and won’t even feel a thing. Since this is the Age of #SocialJustice, Cameron has taken a classically heroic male archetype and made him a cold blooded mercenary who lives only to kill for the highest bidder. Even The Magnificent Seven had a moral code, but Cameron won’t even grant him that much.

Jake is simply the wounded and crippled version of Quaritch. He wanted to serve a heroic ideal by being in the service, but only ended up losing his ability to walk by fighting a pointless imperialist war. Jake’s longing for a courageous ideal and sense of purpose also serves as a metaphor for the yearning experienced by vast number of young men growing up in the West who’ve largely been stripped of their historical roles as protectors and guardians.

Jake Sully: I became a Marine for the hardship. Told myself that I can pass any test a man can pass. All I ever wanted was a single thing worth fighting for.

Despite finding the ideal and sense of purpose he originally sought by becoming his Na’vi avatar, he still required salvation from his female guardian. Male ideals and archetypes are just toxic delusions which lead to dangerous consequences. Take that, manhood!

Scientism

Like Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian and Europa Report, Avatar is part of a newer tradition of sci-fi films that are attempting to bring some semblance of scientific realism to the story. While I reject pedantic cunts like Neil DeGrasse Tyson who think that fact checking art somehow instills a deeper appreciation of science or improves art, films like Avatar which inject just enough scientific realism to make you think about real world possibilities are doing it right. Besides the few grains of scientific plausibility in Avatar, Cameron is presenting something a bit less appealing: Scientism.

The RDA just want to harvest Unobtainium, but the scientists just want to learn and understand the Na’vi, brah. Avatar canonizes a secular article of faith that goes back to Thomas Paine and finds modem expression in figures ranging from Roddenberry to Sagan to Hawking to Dawkins. The pursuit of science all by itself is inherently Good. #SCYENCE will guide humanity back to a primeval state of brotherly harmony and Oneness with Gaia.

Anti-capitalism

There are few things in the world quite as galling as multimillionaire entrepreneurial elites in the creative class selling a Marxist, anti-capitalist narrative, and this is among Cameron’s greatest sins in the messaging of Avatar. It’s understandably self-serving, but it’s more about anesthetizing people with a cynical and simplistic narrative of how the world works rather than provoking new thought. There is literally nothing controversial about presenting a fictitious intergalactic corporate conglomerate as amoral, predatory, and greedy.

This isn’t to say that corporations and entrepreneurs are above reproach or have no moral failures. This isn’t to say that a strictly scientific and materialistic view of the world hasn’t produced some adverse social problems, but Avatar is presenting capitalism in the same Manichean binary that’s the defining feature of Marxism. The lesson of Avatar is that capitalism by definition is exploitative and compels people to dominate and pillage. It’s also very loudly proclaiming that private military armies won’t have any moral compass. There’s no attempt to distinguish between crony capitalist wards of the State versus the entrepreneur who has no protection or special dispensation from the government. We don’t really know anything about the RDA’s connections to the State, but if we’re to treat them as a far future Halliburton, then it follows that they’re being awarded very handsome government contracts. If one wanted to be pedantic, one would question the economic feasibility of colonizing a distant planet, transporting military grade aircraft and armaments over interstellar distances, deploying and maintaining state of the art technology while employing scientists, technical staff, and private security.  The market demand and market price for Unobtainium must be pretty high. Just sayin’.

Once again, Cameron wants to have his anti-capitalist cake and eat it too. He’s denigrating the very system which allowed him to become a world renowned filmmaker. He profits from the very resource intensive technology which allows him to make his art.

Anti-colonialism/Marxist historicism

Sci-fi, fantasy and superhero franchises have the critically important feature of being completely unmoored from actual history while very subtly affecting the way you perceive history.  Avatar is a work of science fiction, but it serves as a proxy for the colonization of America and the West in general.

By today’s standards of #WOKE progressivism, all the dirty, evil white man has ever done is rape, pillage and conquer. This is essentially an article of faith for anyone on the progressive Left. Beginning with the works of Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal, the progressive Left increasingly views the advancement of the West as nothing more than a series of horrific oppressions while consistently downplaying or ignoring the ideas that differentiate it from other cultures.

Noble savage/Anti-white racism

Avatar rehashes the so called “noble savage” myth that was arguably made into an article of faith by Rousseau. In his famous “Discourse on Inequality“, Rousseau romanticizes premodern man before the instantiation of property rights. In this state of primeval and harmonious bliss, we were untainted by greed, violence and envy.

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

This is, in effect, the entire subtext of Avatar and the ideal of premodern moral purity that the Na’vi represent. He isn’t even trying to hide the message either. You too can learn how to live like the selfless, spiritually #WOKE Na’vi simply by using the home computing device that you bought in the marketplace and accessing the Avatar homepage using software developed by a tech company over networks built and maintained by a telecommunications corporation. Because you know you should and capitalism is totes evil, brah. Bernie said so.

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But it’s even worse than that. Cameron portrays Jake’s defection as a betrayal of his race. By extension, we’re to view Quaritch’s final dig at Jake as a wickedness that’s intrinsic to his white racial consciousness. Whereas Jake’s willingness to relinquish his broken and morally compromised Caucasian body in order to live as Na’vi is evidence of his Christlike resurrection.

Col. Quaritch: Hey Sully… how does it feel to betray your own race? You think you’re one of them? Time to wake up!

In this Age of #SocialJustice, it is increasingly taken as an article of faith that the White M*n and everything produced by him is inherently evil and corrupt. In the materialist mindset of the progressive Left, morality is attributed to material phenomena by default. If it’s not physical privation resulting from inequality, it’s the sin of white racial consciousness. And what better way to reinforce that lesson by making the heroes of your sci-fi epic a fictional race of aliens who live in an ethnically homogeneous premodern, hereditary tribal order with no technology, democratic institutions, or even written language. Just face it, proles. Your civilization sucks. And it’s because you’re WHITE.

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Conclusion

Despite the very dubious and heavy handed preaching in Avatar, I still believe it retains its place as a supremely entertaining 21st century sci-fi classic. I also believe it helped canonize several articles of faith in the contemporary #SocialJustice bible. And that’s too bad. Because when art limits itself to the confines of political ideology, it stops being good art and it turns into propaganda.

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Artificial Intelligence: Building the Perfect Precog

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Philip K. Dick’s dystopian short story from 1956, “The Minority Report”, presented a future police state where a collection of mutants with parapsychic abilities anticipate violent crime before it happens. Subsequently, most violent crime was eliminated, but thousands of citizens who technically hadn’t committed a single crime filled detention camps. The central speculative conceit of the story was the idea that mutants with precognitive abilities could foresee the future. Given the near absence of violent crime, their forecasts were presumed correct and the Precrime unit was accorded legitimacy by the public. Needless to say, we have yet to identify people, with or without mutations, who possess such abilities. Regardless, Dick’s vision was prescient all the same. The central idea he was exploring was the human capacity to exercise free will. If Precogs could predict violent behavior, then that suggested that human behavior was deterministic and Precogs possessed the ability to anticipate these actions.

The fact that humans possess free will has frustrated bureaucrats and central planners for ages. Despite all their best efforts to make it so, humans never behave in completely predictable ways. However, it appears as though the Silicon Valley technorati are determined to design a world which simultaneously removes human agency and lends itself towards the micromanagement of human behavior. If humans can effectively be “programmed” to behave in predictable ways, then the task of designing AI algorithms which anticipate human behavior becomes much easier. In short, artificial intelligence is starting to look like an attempt to build the perfect algorithmic Precog. More specifically, it’s starting to feel like the technorati are trying to become God by manufacturing an omniscient digital substitute.

The most explicit manifestation of the police state foretold by PKD is the facial recognition software which supposedly can detect your sexual orientation, IQ, political views and your disposition towards “criminal behavior”.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

Using photos, AI will be able to identify people’s political views, whether they have high IQs, whether they are predisposed to criminal behavior, whether they have specific personality traits and many other private, personal details that could carry huge social consequences, he said.

Not only is the AI project taking on the aura of a PKD-style cyberpunk police state, it’s also starting to resemble a Logan’s Run-style dystopia. In other words, lull the unwashed masses into submission with automated comfort and convenience and you remove the opportunity for individuals to exercise agency. Automobiles, for example. People are too stupid to be trusted with driving, so let the AI take over. It’ll be fine.

And we will have no choice but to get in and hope for the best – because vehicle automation will not be a matter of choice. Stevie Wonder can see what’s coming. Automated car technology will be mandated; the SELF DRIVE Act being the preparatory groundwork. It standardizes things at the federal level; gives the federal regulatory apparat the power to nudge.

All of this begs some deep questions of where the AI project is heading and whether it’s benign or malevolent.

How much control of our lives do we want to give over to machines – and to the corporations that build and operate them?

How much control do we want to give over to machines and the corporations that build them now that the ideological biases and political allegiances of the Overlords of Silicon Valley are well known?

I am everything the religious right despises: a scientist, an atheist, a leftist (by American standards, at least), a university professor and a Frenchman. – Yann LeCun

Furthermore, to what degree are we destroying the physical work ethic by automating so much low skill labor? To what degree are we sacrificing variety and the vitality of individual innovation in favor of mass produced plenitude? Surely, there are many successes to applaud, but given the influx of an immigrant population which tilts heavily towards the low skill end of the employment spectrum, how many will have the proclivity or intelligence for high tech training? The same question applies to unemployed and underemployed working-class Americans.

Last month’s White House economic report predicted that if a job pays less than $20 an hour, there’s an 83 percent chance it will eventually be eliminated by automation.

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Elon Musk along with several other technocrats and thinkers have gone public with their reservations over the AI project. But True Believers like Ray Kurzweil would have you believe we’re headed to techno-utopia.

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When you’ve got powerful and influential industrialists and intellectuals offering such vocal opposition to the AI project, how might you help accelerate the willing acceptance of technocratic rule? By creating a religion with an AI godhead, that’s how.

Enter AI mogul and True Believer, Anthony Levandowski. Way of the Future is what he has branded this cybernetic theocracy, and at present, little is known about it. It’s already receiving a fanfare in the progressive media, so that should be an indication of the ultimate trajectory of the AI project. To quote Jung, wherever the spirit of God is extruded from our human calculations, an unconscious substitute takes its place. There is arguably nothing that ideologues crave more than unquestioned allegiance, and if one aspires towards such an end, you are going to do it by exploiting the human psyche’s capacity for faith. I think the technorati are keenly aware of this and want to pave the path while it’s still relatively early in the game.

The entire artificial intelligence debate is as old as Frankenstein. I suspect that few of us really thought that cyberpunk future would be a reality quite this quickly, but it’s here and the debate over its ramifications will intensify. Films like the Ghost in the Shell remake are starting to feel less like distant future speculations and more like statements of intent. Technology has given us a wealth of marvels, but the pursuit of the One Algorithm to Rule Them All seems more like the height of hubris and megalomania.

And researchers still have a long way to go in achieving anything that resembles human intelligence or consciousness.

There’s a certain cold blooded cynicism at the core of the AI project that strikes me as Benthamite calculus taken to its absurd and inhuman conclusion. It glorifies the notion that humanity itself can be reduced to an algorithm. It consigns our individuality to bytes of data to be managed by a cadre of unaccountable elites. While I enjoy the convenience and connectivity the information age has ushered in, I’m more than a little skeptical over what the AI project portends for the future of humanity.

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Dataist Reformation Revisited: Technocratic Tyranny or Digital Deliverance?

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece in response to David Runciman’s review of Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus. In it, I argued that Runciman was manufacturing paranoia about the so-called “dataists” of Silicon Valley in order to advance the standard progressive narrative that is The Guardian’s raison d’être. Though I stand behind the piece, I also think Runciman and Harari were making a larger point that I glossed over in order to draw more attention to what I believed to be the underlying ideological agenda. Not only has Runciman presented a standard albeit wonky piece of progressive propaganda, he’s also very explicit about the contempt he and his Silicon Valley cohorts hold towards the broader population. Given all that has come to light from the Silicon Valley technorati in the year since the piece was written, the cynical and dehumanized terms in which Runciman describes all of us lowly proles couldn’t be a more transparent view into the malevolent machinations and mindset of these contemptible elites.

The steady media drumbeat of hysteria about the alleged advent of fascism which began before the election has only escalated since Trump took the oath of office. As much as progressives are fond of attributing fascism to conservative ideology, nationalism and the perceived proximity of these phenomena to any kind of white identitarian movement, what they omit is that fascist regimes were socialist at the core. Their success hinged on the regime’s ability to manufacture a uniform consensus which fused the individual with the State. The Left presently dominate every institution which contributes to the formation of ideology. This includes the entire spectrum of educational institutions, the media, the Hollywood entertainment complex, and most importantly, Silicon Valley. Since we now live in a world increasingly driven by social media enabled internet connectivity, the Silicon Valley chokehold on the flow of information and the ways they are intentionally trying to engineer an ideological consensus cannot be ignored. Take, for example, this gem from Runciman’s piece.

Google – the search engine, not the company – doesn’t have beliefs and desires of its own. It doesn’t care what we search for and it won’t feel hurt by our behaviour.

Anyone who isn’t confining themselves to the Google-enabled information Matrix will find this laughably false. Google’s search engine is a product made by a company with a very clear and rigidly enforced beliefs and desires. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Eric Schmidt himself.

We should be able to give you the right answer just once.

We don’t need to look very hard to discover the myriad ways that Google have gone to great lengths to ensure that you arrive at the “right answer”. Accompanied by her coterie of deep state denizens and media sycophants, Hillary Clinton and the entire Democratic establishment have been engaged in a nonstop collective autistic howl over Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election. However, they remain conveniently silent on the invisible thumb Google placed on the information scale on her behalf when it came to gaming search and autocomplete algorithms.

And then there’s the scourge of so-called “fake news”. Tainted news sources from Macedonian mercenaries and other malignant Russian malefactors allegedly infiltrated social media sites and brainwashed the easily duped sheeple with misinformation. All of this meddling turned public sentiment against poor Hillary and sent the progressive aristocracy into paroxysms of apoplectic rage. Thankfully, our blessed Dataist Overlords are helping the poor, defenseless proles to #RESIST these malicious “waves of information”. After all, we’re apparently little more than an accumulation of information points in an organic skin bag according to Runciman.

Who will “we” be any more? Nothing more than an accumulation of information points. Twentieth-century political dystopias sought to stamp on individuals with the power of the state. That won’t be necessary in the coming century. As Harari says: “The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within.”

Both Runciman and Harari couldn’t be more forthright about the cynicism and contempt that they hold towards humanity. Both contend that we are “accidents” and that there’s nothing “special” about who we are. But this posture of progressive insouciance is disingenuous and masks the fact that Google and the Silicon Valley technorati are deeply concerned about controlling the range of thought and opinion that can be expressed and heard. If it’s all just a clinical and antiseptic flow of data within a vast network of human and digital nodes, why are they going so far out of their way to limit one set of opinions and privilege the other?

Clearly, Google doesn’t want certain kinds of information to be disseminated. James Damore learned that the hard way when he published the now infamous “Google Memo”.

Add this to the growing list of YouTube content creators who dare to deviate from the technocratic GoodThink, and a pretty clear set of ideological imperatives emerges.

But how could the individual “disintegrate from within” unless the engineers of the social media revolution actually know something about decoupling intelligence and consciousness? Studies are starting to be done on the effects of social media and smartphone usage on the youth, and much of it seems to confirm that the generation being raised inside the internet bubble are experiencing negative side effects. Reports of depression and anxiety increase while attention spans decrease. If the ability to think and evaluate different points of view is being hamstrung, then the business of engineering a consensus becomes an easier task.

But it doesn’t stop there. The tentacles of Silicon Valley extend from the classroom to the deepest recesses of the military and surveillance state. The Silicon Valley empire’s origins and connections to the entire apparatus of the deep state are well known at this point. The Benthamite dream of a digital panopticon has finally been achieved through the glorious allure of internet connectivity and on demand consumption.

And if all this isn’t enough to stir up Alex Jones-esque fever dreams of globalist dystopia, the advent of microchip implants ought to chill your blood. Nothing says Big Brother is Watching quite like a microchip embedded beneath your skin.

Runciman is downplaying the uniqueness of human life and consigning consciousness and volition to the digital hive mind because he wants the proles to get comfortable with their overlords. Clearly, humanity isn’t just a neutral flow of data points because the technorati wouldn’t be spending every conceivable resource on monitoring every facet of human life in order to ensure that no one gets a single unapproved thought into their heads. This is precisely why I argued that there’s nothing inherently malevolent about “waves of information”.  Information is incredibly powerful because is the medium through which ideas are transmitted. Ideas and individuals can affect civilization either positively or negatively.

Fortunately, there is a rising tide of technologists who recognize the stultifying omnipresence of Silicon Valley’s influence and are trying to formulate alternatives. Dubbed “alt tech”, this new generation of tech savvy savants are trying to deliver the promise of the information age by building social media platforms that are ideologically neutral and actually honor the principle of free speech. Even if it means building the internet from the ground up by creating new ISPs and domain registrars.

Modern society is standing at a critical juncture. We’ve reached a point in history where the values that have ushered in unprecedented levels of human freedom and prosperity have also given the puppet masters a whole new opportunity to design a set of technological marvels with which to enslave. The problem is that the chains come in very appealing packages. Information is power and ensuring that free access to the marketplace of ideas remains an urgent priority. Even if the Silicon Valley technorati have totalitarian ambitions, they have succeeded in democratizing the marketplace of ideas. The curtain has been pulled back, and they are now clamoring to maintain control of the narrative. Contrary to what David Runciman and his ilk would lead you to believe, you are not just an accumulation of data points waiting for instructions from technocratic overlords. As much as they don’t want it to be true, the individual does matter. Because if it truly didn’t, the technorati wouldn’t have to work so hard trying to control everything you see or hear on the internet.

Mr. Universe: Can’t stop the signal, Mal. Everything goes somewhere, and I go everywhere.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Since we’re living in the Age of the Reboot and the number of films made from existing properties outpaces the number made from original scripts, some important questions need to be answered.  To what degree does the artist’s or author’s original intention matter when doing a remake? Given that every writer tells a story using a specific set of characters, themes and ideas to make a general point, can a remake which repurposes those ideas to conform to contemporary sensibilities legitimately call itself by the work’s original name? At what point do those themes and ideas become so different, that the reboot has become a different story altogether? Where is the line between respectful homage and outright sacrilege? Most importantly, at what point do the thematic reinventions have a deleterious effect? I don’t have definitive answers to all of these questions, but GITS 2017 certainly has me inclined to believe that the law of diminishing dramatic returns holds true more often than not when it comes to these reboots. This is not to say that GITS 2017 is a complete disaster because the deviations from GITS 1995 are indeed handled very cleverly.  However, this does mean that the various changeups don’t add up to a better final product even when accounting for the ramped up production values.

The broad strokes of GITS 2017 are basically the same as GITS 1995, but the changes to those original themes alter the overall message of the film in significant ways. Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, and in contrast to GITS 1995, the film is setting up an entirely different dramatic conflict by emphasizing how she was created and by whom.

In the future, the line between human and machine is disappearing. Advancements in the technology allow humans to enhance themselves with cybernetic parts. Hanka robotics, funded by the government, is developing a military operative that will blur the line even further. By transplanting a human brain into a fully synthetic body, they will combine the strongest attributes of human and robot.

This isn’t a departure from the basic premise of the original, but it marks a distinct shift in emphasis. Where the original was positing the idea of a fully sentient digital being, GITS 2017 is giving us a variation on Robocop.  Instead of OCP, we have Hanka robotics which has contracted with the government to build a cyborg super soldier.  The opening of the film shows us a fatally injured Mira Killian being carted into an operating room in which her brain is ultimately salvaged and inserted into her cybernetic shell.  There are flashes of some violent fiery trauma which may or may not be flashbacks to the incident which left her fatally injured.

 

 

Upon being fully regenerated into her new cybernetic shell, the CEO of Hanka and her designer Dr. Ouelet have a debate over her future assignment. CEO Cutter wants her assigned to the elite anti-terrorism unit, Section 9, while Dr. Ouelet insists that Mira isn’t ready for that kind of duty. This is one of the points of departure from the original and where the film goes off the rails a bit. As Dr. Ouelet, Juliette Binoche is presumably an elite robotics engineer working for the most prestigious robotics company and instead of treating her like a professional doing the job she was hired to do, the film has her projecting maternal attachment to her new creation.  So not only is the film trying to get feminist booster points by having a female character in a STEM role, they portray her exercising her female biological instincts on her cybernetic newborn. Way to smash gender stereotypes, folks.

While I’m generally cool with suspension of disbelief in sci-fi, I can’t help but to nitpick the scientific premise they’re putting forward since Rupert Sanders and company have chosen to make the Major’s creation story the center of gravity. Hanka is presumably a sophisticated and well resourced for-profit robotics company. Albeit one that’s in bed with the government.  They want to build a super soldier by taking the human mind of a young woman with no combat experience whatsoever and place her in a cybernetic shell.  So Hanka believes that Mira’s human reflexes, spatial recognition, muscle memory, emotional disposition, neurological and biological proclivities will be a sufficient foundation for a super soldier once outfitted with a cybernetic shell. It made sense in Robocop because Murphy was a cop in the first place. I know this is sci-fi and everything, but good sci-fi generally starts with at least a generally plausible scientific premise and extrapolates.  This is saying that the all of the attributes which are either biologically hardwired or psychologically imprinted into the young female mind are simultaneously the most valuable attributes for a cyborg super soldier and can be sublimated once paired with cybernetic musculature. Alrighty then.

In the scene following Mira’s cybernetic birth, the film tips its hand by more explicitly revealing the film’s progressive editorial in what is otherwise a visually stunning reinvention of the original opening. Now operating as the fully functional cyborg super cop she was designed to be, the Major scans a meeting taking place between a Hanka executive and the African ambassador. Instead of a generic foreign diplomat negotiating a Megatech programmer defection, they give us a Hanka executive making a pitch to an African politician. Cuz multiculturalism and shit or something. Against the orders of Section 9 leader, Aramaki, the Major dons her invisibility cloak and storms the room just as a geisha-bots begin attacking the Hanka executive. Right before the Major shoots the hacked geisha-bot, it utters a warning: “Commit to the will of Hanka and be destroyed.” Where GITS 1995 left us to puzzle out the Puppet Master’s ultimate motivations, this one is telling us that this new mind hacker has it in for Hanka.  The big, bad corporation. Imagine my surprise. 

The Major and her multicultural team of Section 9 cyborgs spend the remainder of the film trying to identify the new mind hacker, Kuze.  At the same time, the Major becomes increasingly curious about her past since her flashbacks become more vivid and frequent. 

The film is making an important point about the nature of memory and the structure of human cognition, but it’s approaching the topic from a Marxist angle. By giving the Major a false memory which sharpened her killing instincts, the film is saying she had, in effect, committed to the will of the bourgeoisie. Which, in this case, was the Hanka corporation. Naturally, the false memory portrayed her as an immigrant whose parents were killed by terrorists because, after all, you need to gin up that antipathy towards terrorists artificially.  To the film’s credit, the writers portrayed the Major’s natural genetic memory as the force which compelled her to discover her birth mother and know her own story more fully. As it turns out, her ghost belonged to Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese radical who campaigned against cybernetic enhancements.  So Hanka figures it can fulfill the ghost requirements of its super soldier program by culling the ranks of anti-cyber-enhancement dissidents. Alrighty then.

Like many other Hollywood films, it’s trying to have it both ways by making Cutter and Hanka the bad guys. Cutter is yet another two-dimensional cardboard cutout who is all calculating menace and cartoonish malevolence.  He also happens to be….you’ll never believe it….a white male. It’s as though there’s an overriding narrative.  

Kuze threatens to destroy those who “commit to the will of Hanka”, but Hanka contracts with the government. Whose will is truly being carried out here? Section 9 is clearly some kind of special forces/homeland security unit which needed an elite cyborg and Hanka delivered. Again, one detects the distinct whiff of an agenda. 

Of course, there are some pretty obvious sops to PC sensibilities.  The film takes place in future Japan, and naturally, multicultural harmony and gender equality reign supreme. Besides the addition of another female cyborg to the Section 9 roster, the team speaks to Aramaki in English while he speaks to them in Japanese. This doesn’t make any goddamn sense, people. Also, if the Major’s ghost was Japanese, why is she speaking English? As long as there are nation states, there will be a dominant culture and language that will be upheld. The Japanese have proven themselves pretty protective of their culture and language. There’s no way Section 9 is multilingual. Sorry. 

The film emphasizes the Major’s sentience by having her verbally consent to the administration of a serum or being jacked into a digital network. It’s an interesting twist and it reminds us that the Major is still human, but once again, the aroma of a certain highly politicized issue wafts about this piece of the story.  One could certainly extend the question of consent to a wide variety of federal policies, but I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers had in mind.

The look of the film is spectacular, and it takes the arthouse cyberpunk noir of the original to another level. This is another take on the hybrid of squalid urban sprawl and holographic commercial overstimulation that we’ve been getting since Blade Runner. ScarJo has been raked over the coals for a number of aspects of this role, but she and the rest of the cast are enjoyable enough. The complaints of “whitewashing” from the #SocialJustice crowd are painfully stupid and tiresome given that these jackasses tend to be the most vocal cheerleaders for immigration and multiculturalism. 

Since both GITS films have addressed very specifically the role of memory in determining selfhood, I can’t help but to think that what Sanders and company have done here is exactly analogous to what Hanka did to the Major. By rewriting the story, they want to hack the minds of the public and implant a new memory of GITS that will supersede the memory of the original. At some level, all of this remixing of the past is saying that there is no sanctity to a any artist’s original vision. Everything must be tailored to the prevailing political winds. 

While I found it enjoyable enough, I still came away thinking that this remake failed to add anything new to the original and ultimately detracted from themes and ideas that were more provocative and original. By insisting that all films conform to progressive orthodoxy, films are increasingly taking on an aura of bland globalist cosmopolitanism. Where the original asked you to contemplate the nature of selfhood, the transmission of genetic memory, speciation and the possibility of a post-human being, this film ends up rehashing ideas that were already explored in films like Total Recall, Robocop, and Minority Report. The Major is haunted by her past, but only achieves peace after discovering the truth of who she was and from where she came. Ultimately, the film is affirming the importance of familial and cultural bonds while simultaneously affirming that one can only fulfill the process of individuation through self-discovery. Contrary to the claims of contemporary social scientists and gender “scholars”, the human being does not come into the world as a blank slate. Every person possesses an a priori cognitive structure through which the experiences of the world occur. The process of defining selfhood requires that one distinguish between whether you are the author of your own existence or a player in a drama that’s been written for you. While I can acknowledge that this is the common thread that binds the films together, I don’t know that this film is Ghost in the Shell. Or if it’s a different ghost in the shell of its predecessor. 

The Major: You are not defined by your past, but for your actions…

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Since the Hollywood reboot of the 1995 classic is likely to disappoint, I revisited the original to see how it holds up. Unsurprisingly, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii more than earns its spot in the pantheon of SF classics with its highly plausible technological speculations, dazzling visuals as well as its political and philosophical commentary.

GITS was an early cinematic entry into the what was, at the time, a new subgenre of SF dubbed cyberpunk.  With the advent of the home computer connected to a vast global information superhighway, SF writers turned their attention to previously unimagined futurescapes of mass surveillance, cybercriminal underworlds, technocratic corporatism, information trafficking, and cybernetic engineering. By weaving all these elements together, GITS established itself as an influential example of the genre. Add in some government deep state machinations, immigration terrorism and globalism, and the themes only accumulate strength and relevance. 

Despite the absence of alien civilizations and interstellar travel, one of the main ideas in cyberpunk which connects it to the broader legacy of SF is the exploration of the idea of artificial intelligence. This is the central idea in GITS, and Major Motoko Kusanagi’s quest to uncover the identity of Puppet Master is simultaneously a quest to attain that which defines humanity in the end. 

Like William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, GITS is a high tech crime/espionage thriller which delves into some meaty questions pertaining to race, biological diversity, genetic memories and the nature of consciousness itself. The film opens by delineating the broad conflict between the globalist elites building a vast, decentralized network of technocratic control versus the proles who still claim selfhood through nationalism and racial identity. 

In the near future – corporate networks reach out to the stars. Electrons and light flow throughout the universe. The advance of computerisation, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.

The film centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi; a cyborg who works in Section 9 and is pursuing a cyber-hacker called the Puppet Master. She possesses a human consciousness, a “ghost”, but her body (i.e. “shell”) is fully cybernetic. The Puppet Master has the ability to hack human brains and overwrite their memories and identity. She and her supercyborg partner, Batoh, are charged with finding the Puppet Master.

The opening scene sets up the intrigue. Major Kusanagi is monitoring a set of diplomats in a hotel room discussing Project 2501 with a programmer.  The Section 6 police force moves into place to storm the room. One of the diplomats claims immunity as the cops enter the room and the bullets start flying. The head of Section 6 announces that it’s illegal to take programmers out of the country just as an invisible attacker from outside the hotel room takes out the foreign diplomat in a rather gruesome manner. The programmer is denied asylum and the diplomat is taken out by the Major without a trail. Two different police agencies working from different ends of the legal spectrum to quash corporate espionage and thwart emigration.  

It’s handled very subtly, but Japan’s tight control of immigration and sense of national identity is very clearly spelled out. After the Major dispatched the diplomat, the Japanese Prime Minister expresses his gratitude to Section 9 leader, Aramaki, that the programmer’s attempt at defection was handled without going through standard bureaucratic channels. He goes on to explain that the he’d love to deport the recently deposed leader of the Gavel Republic if he had a good political excuse. In addition to the references to Section 9’s ongoing crackdowns on immigration terrorists, these pieces of the story strongly suggest that this future Japan is still maintaining a relatively homogeneous population and national identity. Based on what I’ve read about the reboot, this theme has been inverted to serve the globalist mantras around multiculturalism. 

The real philosophical meat of the movie revolves around the true identity of the Puppet Master and Major Kusanagi’s existential ruminations over her own fate. What defines the essence of selfhood? Identitarians tend to claim immutable characteristics like skin pigmentation, racial heritage, genitalia and sexual preferences. Not far behind are religious tradition and national or regional identity. Peel away those labels and then you’re left with ideals and abstractions like belief, pride, and morality.

Section 6 Department Chief Nakamura: Nonsense! There’s no proof at all that you are a living, thinking life form! 

Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?

More specifically, it addresses the extent to which intergenerational memory defines selfhood and ensures the propagation of genetics.

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

GITS is posing questions pertaining to the nature of man found throughout the SF canon since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are humans just a bag of chemicals and organic tissue guided by laws of determinism? Or is the human capacity for thought a unique phenomenon? Are we caretakers and guardians of generations of genetic memory which are passed through procreation and family tradition? Can man become God by replicating life itself through technology?  

Speciation is defined as the evolutionary process by which new genetic lines are created. Since the Puppet Master can only replicate its own code, the only way it can truly live on is by reproducing with another being. After a climactic battle scene, the Major and the Puppet Master conjoin their consciousness to produce a new post-human species merging human and digital being.  

The features which distinguish SF as a genre are the usage of far reaching technological and imaginative speculation to ask the deepest philosophical questions pertaining to the individual and the State. It is a genre that has appealed to our highest ideals and given us some of the most dire warnings.  The fact that GITS has been given the Hollywood reboot treatment is an indication of the strength of the original vision.  

Major Motoko Kusanagi: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.

The Dataist Reformation is Nigh

Any good review you read, whether it’s books or films, gives you a sense of what the artist intended as well as the reviewer thinks of the content. I don’t normally write posts that comment on reviews of others, but this was brought to my attention and I think it’s worth a brief post because it’s timely and it’s another example of the way The Guardian uses a book review to advance its ideological agenda. 

In his review for the new book by Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, David Runciman engages in some doom laden speculations over the humanity destroying influence of the Silicon Valley Technorati he has branded with the utterly idiotic term, “Dataists”. As usual, it’s a piece that ascribes dubious intent to those develop technology and a religious zealotry to those who allegedly seek better living through Big Data.

First off, I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece in The Guardian which praised the achievements of the market.  Predictably, Mr. Runciman doesn’t acknowledge the market as the engine of that achievement.

The evidence of our power is everywhere: we have not simply conquered nature but have also begun to defeat humanity’s own worst enemies. War is increasingly obsolete; famine is rare; disease is on the retreat around the world.

He acknowledges that humanity’s genius is most powerfully demonstrated when exercised in groups, but makes no meaningful distinction between religions, corporations or nation states. Both Harari and Runciman are presenting the individual as powerless independent of a collective and “waves of information” as some kind of sentient power to be resisted. 

Individual human beings are relatively powerless creatures, no match for lions or bears. It’s what they can do as groups that has enabled them to take over the planet. These groupings – corporations, religions, states – are now part of a vast network of interconnected information flows. Finding points of resistance, where smaller units can stand up to the waves of information washing around the globe, is becoming harder all the time.

Runciman goes on to explain that “we” are in danger of uncoupling intelligence and consciousness, and then in the very next paragraph, likens the State to an inhuman, unresponsive robot. 

Not all of this is new. The modern state, which has been around for about 400 years, is really just another data-processing machine. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writing in 1651, called it an “automaton” (or what we would call a robot). Its robotic quality is the source of its power and also its heartlessness: states don’t have a conscience, which is what allows them sometimes to do the most fearful things. What’s changed is that there are now processing machines that are far more efficient than states: as Harari points out, governments find it almost impossible to keep up with the pace of technological advance. It has also become much harder to sustain the belief – shared by Hobbes – that behind every state there are real flesh-and-blood human beings. The modern insistence on the autonomy of the individual goes along with a view that it should be possible to find the heart of this heartless world. Keep scratching at a faceless bureaucracy and you’ll eventually uncover a civil servant with real feelings.

He correctly asserts that the State cannot keep up with technological (market) change.  This has been the contention of free market thinkers for decades. The State is not subject to market forces. The nation state is little more than the machinery of warfare backed by a collection of bureaucrats who dictate how this fearsome power must be applied in the name of “The People.” This is precisely why it can do fearful things. It has no incentive to respond to supply, demand or to economize.  Mises argued that to destroy this capacity was to nullify humanity’s uniquely teleological contribution to the universe.

Technology companies are certainly innovating at warp speed, but the State is hastening the automation of the world through policy, too.  Every time the government mandates price controls (e.g. minimum wage) or imposes additional costs through regulation, business will seek a labor saving technological solution.

Runciman portrays this book as a sort of new Hegelianism for the Information Age. He presents this data driven technological dystopia as a historical inevitability, but tries to hedge his dire predictions by saying “the future is unknowable.” Like Hegel, ideas and individuals are absent from his analysis. The article only refers to a giant, amorphous “we”. Naturally, the belief in the individual’s power to shape his own fate is nothing more than a “leap of faith”. He posits that “Dataism” is the new religion because for progressives, the word “religion” is a dogwhistle that signals to the reader that there is mindless obedience and authoritarian rule to be resisted. After all, those who sign up for the Dataist project “will be the only ones with any real power left and it will be relatively unchallenged.” Conveniently, his analysis of what qualifies as “religion” excludes the inefficient, unresponsive, inhumane State. Because if you “keep scratching at a faceless bureaucracy and you’ll eventually uncover a civil servant with real feelings.”

True to progressive form, Harari is “insouciant” about humanity, but REALLY concerned about the fate of animals under humanity’s stewardship. Way to keep your priorities straight, guys. 

The development of AI, robotics and supercomputers is a topic that certainly warrants continued inquiry and discussion.  Perhaps this book is a meaningful step in that direction, but it comes across like another cynical, fatalistic bit of academic pomp that consigns humanity to an anonymous, technologically driven hive mind that strips away individual agency. It’s amazing that such highly educated individuals warn of the imminent uncoupling of intelligence from consciousness, but are so cavalier about the true source of humanity itself: the individual. But The Guardian wouldn’t have published this review if it wasn’t the exact ideological agenda the review was meant to serve. 

Tomorrowland (2015)

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Despite being little more than a collection of clichés and preachy feelgood platitudes in a visually stunning cinematic wrapper, Tomorrowland gets a couple points for attempting to counter SF’s, and humanity’s, apparent fetish for visions of self-destruction and apocalyptic doom with a message of optimism and hope.

Tomorrowland tells the story of Frank and Casey, two dreamers bound by shared destiny to save humanity from itself and fulfill the promise of the utopian dream that was revealed to them in the titular city beyond the realm of time and space.  The filmmakers had lofty intentions, but the film’s message is so diffuse and its emotions and characters are so superficial, it ends up being another example of high spectacle that’s low on meaningful content. 

We meet young Frank Walker as he travels to the 1964 World’s Fair with his homemade jet pack in hand to present to judge David Nix.  Though he escapes scrutiny from a yet unformed Homeland Security surveillance apparatus despite carrying a suspicious bomb-like device, Nix is unmoved by his invention since it doesn’t work. Frank insists that it’s valuable because it will teach kids that “anything is possible”.  After this setback, we’re subjected to a highly implausible flashback of a hardass father who’s highly critical of his budding engineer son. You know.  You probably hear it all the time. “My goddamn kid and his fascination with SCIENCE!”

Right off the bat, the film is not only asking us to believe that his father (i.e. toxic masculinity, patriarchy, penis = bad) would disapprove and actively discourage his interest in science and engineering, but empathize with a hero who makes a device whose sole purpose is to inspire hope. And he showcases his creation at the very same World’s Fair which, besides the space program, also happened to showcase another notably hope filled vision of the future, The Great Society. Not because he’s passionate about science and building things. Not because it’s something that will be sold in the marketplace and used by the masses. Not because he wants to drive down the marginal cost, employ people and build a company.

No. The sole purpose of the device is to inspire hope.

Wow, Frank. That sounds remarkably like the thinking of a politician and not a capitalist. 

He is eventually joined by Casey; the daughter of a NASA engineer who dreams of traveling the stars herself. At the outset of the film, she’s arrested for sabotaging the demolition of a NASA launch site which employs her father. Though we’re meant to see this as evidence of Casey’s rebellious nature, her concern for her father’s welfare as well as her scientific and mechanical expertise, it’s also pretty sad that the film asks you to view the sabotage of equipment used to dismantle state property as evidence of a forward thinking, contrarian youth.

We are presented with scenes from Casey’s classes where she’s bombarded with pessimistic doomsayers. Naturally, her English teacher is teaching downer literature like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. On the one hand, it’s nice that Brad Bird is acknowledging that the public school establishment is inculcating cynicism and apathy, but he’s also feeding us another dumb and increasingly ubiquitous cliché; the plucky young female protagonist who wants to “fix it” and is totally into science.  It’s not like this character lines up with a political agenda or anything.  That’s right, folks. Public schools are crushing the optimism of our female youth and totally discouraging civic engagement.

Their lives intersect because Athena, a robot from Tomorrowland, recognized their scientific acumen and optimism and deemed them suitable candidates for admission to the city of the future.  A city where the most creative people could work without interference from politicians, bureaucracy, “greed” or other unnamed impediments.  Apparently, the revolutionary future that awaits us requires abandonment of the profit motive just as Comrade Marx taught us.

Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland and lives a life of seclusion surrounded by an astonishing quantity of technology. He has pulled a Hari Seldon and apparently calculated the destruction of civilization with mechanical precision. Frank sees that Casey’s optimism alters the inevitability of civilization’s demise and they set out to change the future.

This “anything is possible” line is basically the central theme of the film, and it is simultaneously the film’s weakness and strength. It’s great that Brad Bird wanted to offer a hopeful vision for humanity, but the film never really tries to define the action and behavior that contribute to such widespread cynicism and apathy nor does it clearly define virtuous action.  It asks you simply to accept that hope and optimism are sufficient all by themselves.

In a climactic scene between Nix, Frank and Casey, they are shown a fantastical machine which broadcasts tachyons from humanity’s presumably inevitable future doom. Once again, we’re presented with another shopworn cliché in cinematic SF; a doomsday device which can only be dismantled by our protagonists.  The bit about the tachyons is a neat speculation that apparently has some actual foundation in particle physics, but the overall idea is pretty tiresome. 

Upon making this realization, Nix delivers the following monologue which reveals the meat of what the film is attempting to address.

Nix: Let’s imagine… if you glimpsed the future, you were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to the politicians, captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck! The only facts they won’t challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if… what if there was a way of skipping the middle man and putting the critical news directly into everyone’s head? The probability of wide-spread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it, to scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn’t be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they’ve ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. How do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair! They didn’t fear their demise, they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinting towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile your earth was crumbling all around you. You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. They dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it for one reason, because that future doesn’t ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up! It’s not the monitor’s fault, that’s yours.

While this monologue is great because it criticizes the fetish for nihilism and asks individuals to take responsibility for their own apathy, it’s also remarkably half-assed, timid and tilted towards the alleged evils of consumer culture and almost completely devoid of any meaningful criticism of the actions of the state. The film never really makes a firm commitment on what constitutes virtuous action or what constitutes morality. The main impression with which I was left was that government scientists are the optimists and dreamers and the study of science all by itself will edify humanity.  Never mind that the government is spying on you, turning faraway countries into smoking craters, contributing to a culture of corruption, incarcerating people by the millions, killing unarmed citizens and seizing property.

Apparently, none of these things are worth mentioning.  But that English teacher who assigned 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 is creating too much damn pessimism. God forbid anyone question the actions of the government. 

In the final scene, we get a montage of new recruits for Tomorrowland.  Naturally, it’s a rainbow of multiculturalism and gender equality. Part of me thinks it’s great that Hollywood is so committed to creating new role models and presenting such an “inclusive” vision of the future, but lately, the crusade for social equality in every media form has become tedious, predictable, hamfisted and positively irritating.

I have come to expect big Hollywood films to glorify the state and its subsidiary social agendas of climate change, multiculturalism and feminism and this was certainly no exception.  Despite the flaws, there’s an attempt at a noble message beneath the shallow platitudes and candy coated veneer.  Unfortunately, I think this film will end up “feeding the wrong wolf” as Casey would say.

Economics of Star Trek

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I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek.  Like many others, I’ve enjoyed its hopeful vision of the future, its far reaching technological speculations, its exploration of moral and social concerns and perhaps most significantly, its wild speculations of a post-scarcity economy.
   
The author of the piece makes a game effort at rationalizing the Star Trek economy, but given the timeline, I don’t see how it comes together.
 
How can you mass produce warp and transporter technology, weapons systems and marshall the considerable labor and materials needed for a Federation class starship without a private sector and without resorting to totalitarianism?
  
Between these types of questions and the general veneration of government bureaucracy and the slavish deference to hierarchical command structures, Star Trek’s general affinity for rational thought and secular ethics goes very flaccid.  

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Sorry, dude.  You simply can’t build a fleet of starships without mobilizing considerable labor and resources. Proto post-scarcity my ass. 

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

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Yes, I saw it and yes, I enjoyed it.

Yes, it was dumb, but I suspect my reasons for calling it dumb differ from yours. And just because it’s dumb doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining on its own terms. More importantly, it doesn’t mean that the film is devoid of ideas worth discussing. Yeah, you read that correctly.  I said IDEAS.

Many seem content to simply dismiss it on the grounds of it being another Big, Dumb and Loud Hollywood Movie, but are either ignoring or missing out on the ramifications of what is being said and the more subversive moments presented. Don’t get me wrong. This film ultimately defaults to standard tropes of American collectivism, (i.e. nationalism, loyalty over individual agency, deference toward paternalistic leaders and the state, freedom as a non-natural right, fighting for a “greater good”, vengeance as a rationale for violence, etc), but despite its cop outs, there are some pretty potent portrayals of rogue government agents seeking power for its own sake, the perils of contemporary intellectual property law, and the poisonous nature of the relationship between state power and corporate power and the latter’s ultimate subservience to the former.

For those of you who don’t like apocalyptic sci-fi destructothons involving giant robots in the first place, I’m doubtful this film will make you a convert. However, for those of you who can dig that concept, this film represents another high water mark for sheer visual excess and a pretty cool story to boot. The last hour of the film is such a relentless orgy of demolition, combat, and CGI driven epicness, it is nothing short of awe inspiring.

I saw the first film and its blatant glorification of American militarism left me uninspired. I skipped the two sequels which followed, so I entered this one with very low expectations. Those who believe these films offer no narrative simply aren’t giving them enough credit.

Apparently, in the third installment the Autobots teamed up with the US military to kick ass on the Decepticons. Chicago was levelled, but we won!  This time around a CIA black ops guy (Kelsey Grammer) decides that all Autobots are enemies of the state. As it turns out, he’s working with a Cybertronic bounty hunter who is out to return Optimus Prime to his creators. Meanwhile, the government has harvested the remains of the Decepticons and a corporate entity called KSI is using the technology to create a man-made army of Transformers, thus rendering actual Transformers obsolete. A Texan inventor and his daughter and boyfriend team up with Optimus and the Autobots to recover “The Seed” which produces Transformium, the metal from which Autobots are made and the substance sought by the government for military purposes. Much mayhem ensues and the fate of civilization hangs in the balance once again.

On the plus side:

Portrayal of unchecked government power.

Ultimately, the US government is the real villain in the film.

When we are introduced to Cade (Mark Wahlberg), he is a struggling mechanic/inventor trying to make ends meet with his teenage daughter, Tessa. The Feds have targeted him for giving refuge to an Autobot enemy of the state. The federal goons arrive in black SUV’s armed to the teeth and proceed immediately to put a gun to Tessa’s head. Cade asks for a warrant, but the head goon spits back “My face is my warrant”. Because this is a Transformers film, the impact of this scene is probably completely lost on many. Besides being a perfect visual metaphor for the nature of state power all by itself, this was also a pitch perfect portrayal of the obscene overreach currently carried out by the federal, state and local government on a daily basis.

When we are introduced to Attinger (Grammer), he basically tells the White House to fuck off.  He says that he is answerable to no one, he’s protecting God and country and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  Furthermore, his alliance with the Cybertronic bounty hunter, Lockdown is a perfect metaphor for the various proxy wars being waged throughout world by the US government.

In one particularly funny scene, he is able to forestall a full scale military assault on an alien spacecraft, because alas, he has an “asset” on board. Attinger displays the narcissistic, entitled, venal and power hungry mentality that is intrinsic to agents of the State. At one point he says, “Innocent people will die.  This has been happening for thousands of years”. Remarkable honesty for a giant robot film if you ask me.

The problem of intellectual property

There are numerous references to intellectual property in the film and this is arguably one of its central themes.

In a heated moment, Cade tells his partner that “he owns him”. Upon acquiring an alien weapon, Cade declares that he’s “totally going to patent this thing”. Stanley Tucci’s corporate mogul, Joshua Joyce, tells Optimus that “What we do here is science. Because if we don’t do it, somebody else will. Because you cannot stop technology.”

To which Optimus replies, “We are NOT your technology!”

This scene reveals one of the film’s subtly clever conceits. By humanizing robots, the film humanizes technology itself and asks us to reconsider the motivations and the very right of an individual to create whatever they please, let alone call it “their technology”.

Undoubtedly, the filmmakers were simply plying the simplistic dichotomy of technology wielded by “good people versus bad people” and the dehumanizing quandaries presented by contemporary IP law. Whether or not the filmmakers intended it, what it actually reveals is the poisonous attitudes of statism itself which intellectual property confers to individuals and to society in general.

The very idea of a monopoly power so great that it would allow you to own others or to call upon the power of state to exert control over others is only possible because the State makes it possible. Unfortunately, the film tries to have it both ways. It trades in on the popular cliché of corporate power and intellectual property as its own form of totalitarianism instead of making a sharper distinction between the pursuit of economic freedom and the power of the State. Through Cade’s character they make an attempt at the former though the collectivist themes ultimately prevail.

The mass proliferation of so many films based off games, toys, and comic books which reinforce similar themes of nationalism, militarism and other forms of state sanctioned violence is by itself a byproduct of the confluence of corporate military state power.

Speaking of corporate military state power…

The unholy alliance of corporate power and state power and the former’s subservience to the latter

This is, for me at least, one of the film’s biggest wins.

When the shit really hits the fan, Attinger completely overrides Joyce’s authority by pulling the State card.

In yet another scene, Attinger goes one further and makes his intention even more explicit by pulling a gun on Joyce and telling him point blank that he regards him as a meal ticket and a golden parachute.

I couldn’t really ask for a more honest portrayal of state power.

Admittedly, the film trades in on numerous dumb clichés. Worst of all, it flogs the insipid and poisonous notion of freedom that is bestowed by leaders as opposed to a natural right. In order to win the allegiance of the Dinobots, Optimus reminds them that “We’re giving you freedom!”

Oh, that’s great.  You can be free by swearing allegiance to some clown who is commanding you to enter into a military conflict. It is at least offset somewhat by a flash of honesty uttered by one of the subordinate Autobots as they mobilize for war.

Ugh, you just want to die for the guy. That’s leadership. Or brainwashing, or something. 

The characters are paper thin and are doing the best with what they’re given.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the sexualized portrayal of the Tessa character.  I’ll leave those discussions to the Puritans. What I found infinitely more troubling was the suffocating and domineering paternalism of Cade.  If you can’t trust your 17 year old daughter to make good choices and handle herself then you’ve blown it as a parent, pal.

Again, for spectacle value alone, this film is hard to beat.  They spent $210 million and it looks like they spent twice that amount. If you can’t enjoy slick, Hollywood excess like this, then by all means, watch something else.

Sure, it’s ultimately little more than glorified militarism and nationalism. But scratch the surface a little, and there are rewards to be found.

Transformers. More than meets the eye, indeed.

The Imitation Game (2014)

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Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

The story of Alan Turing simultaneously touches on the history of modern computing and cryptography, the contribution military intelligence made to the Allied victory in WW2 as well as the repression of gays and women by the State.

The story also perfectly captures the tortured contradiction at the core of democratic capitalism; to pursue true individualism is to pit yourself against the will of the State.  

The film deals primarily with Turing’s groundbreaking work at Bletchley Park as he leads a team of cryptographers in the development of a machine which eventually cracked the Nazi codes and hastened the victory of the Allied forces.
 
The performances are fantastic across the board, but Benedict Cumberbatch deserves praise for his excellent portrayal of Turing. His performance gives us a portrait of a man grounded in the conviction of his ideas who advocated for logic and reason over sentimentality while also revealing how these virtues came across as callousness to his associates and acquaintances.  

Though it’s a hardly a serious flaw, I have a minor quibble with Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Joan Clarke. Her performance smacks of a new kind of cinematic cliché; the Virtuous, Intelligent, Tolerant, Independent Woman who is without flaw and beyond reproach.  Naturally, she’s brilliant, compassionate, and suffers the sexist indignities she experiences with class and aplomb.  It feels less like an actual person and more like a caricature and a sop to feminists and sanctimonious culture cops. It seems like a performance geared towards those who go to films looking for female characters who meet some idealized fantasy of leftist feminist virtue and are monitoring films for their fidelity to the Bechdel Test.  It’s hilarious and unsurprising that both Turing’s biographer and niece castigated the filmmakers for romanticizing their relationship and for choosing to cast a glamorous actress to play her.
   
The ending is heartbreaking and the emotions it wrenches are solidly earned. Turing’s death is a scathing indictment of state power. Though I hope that many will leave the film with this impression, the cynic in me dreads the desire this film will undoubtedly stoke to seek state power for “good”.

Turing was a giant and this film is a moving tribute to his immense legacy.

Highly recommended.