The Rise of the Machines: A Contrarian View
By John LobellÂ
Many, including John Ebert, have been seeing movies like Terminator: Salvation as growing out of our unease, perhaps even fear of the intrusion of machines into our lives. And, as Ebert points out, the far out science fiction of these movies is fast becoming real. If you regularly follow Ray Kurzweilâ€™s KurzweilAI.net, you keep up on breaking news of computers millions of times faster than those we use today, alterations to our DNA, and chips being built into our brains.
But I would like to suggest that these movies are not about that. For the most part, our technologies change the structure of our consciousness (see McLuhan), but they have yet to threaten our humanness. We do that. And as for Skynet going after usâ€”well, I just donâ€™t think our toasters, no matter how many chips we put in them, are going to be a threat any time soon. Nuclear weapons can destroy whole cities, but in WWII more people were killed by the firebombing of Tokyo with conventional weapons then were killed by the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. And when the Romans were done with Carthage, they salted over the earth. Hiroshima is a thriving city today. Carthage is still abandoned.
Remember, movies are not always what they seem to be about. Many saw The Truman Show as a warning about constant surveillance. Rather, I think it was about the courage to assert an identity independent of social definitions. Every day we play act being a husband, wife, parent. We behave as teachers, students, bosses, andÂ clerks are expected to behave. Truman is good at that, but something is nagging him, the suspicion that there is the possibility of going outside that comfort zone and seeing who he is, how his independent self might fare outside of these social definitions.
In like manner these movies of humans fighting machines are not about the dangers of machines, but about our choices of what kinds of human beings we want to be.
At the opening of The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, Joseph Campbell writes of the global divide between systems that absorb the individual into a larger whole, and those that assert the independence of the individual, and the constant ebbs and flows of these values. â€œWithin Christian Europe itself, furthermore, the absolute authority of the One Church was dissolved through the irresistible return to force of the native European principles of individual judgment and the work of rational man. The Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and present Age of Science followed, culminating, as of now, in the European spiritual conquest of the worldâ€”with, however, the next Levantine tide already of the rise.â€
From this point of view, the battles with the machines are a retelling of a story as ancient as that told by Zack Snyder in his adaptation of Frank Millerâ€™s 300, in which 300 Spartans stand against the Persian Borg.
There is, of course, something that we find pertinent to our condition in these movies. We are in debate as to what exactly that is.