Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Will HBO's Westworld Be A "Film of Ideas"?

Salon's Scott Timberg is excited by the upcoming series 'Westworld' coming to HBO in 2016. Nothing wrong with that. I saw the trailer and made a mental mark in the chamber of my memory palace where I keep coming geek attractions myself. I enjoyed the campy nonsense of the original (although I would certainly have chosen being a aristocrat in the Roman world for my own vacation, all Bacchanals and farces and drunken symposia, and leave the gun-fight fantasies to ammosexual hicks from the neo-Confederate Styx), but I notice that despite his excitement for the upcoming series Timberg has no warmth of feeling for the original without which it would never have occurred to HBO's innovative cerebrative creatives that the world needed another gritty ponderous re-boot. Of this original, Timberg rolls his eyes,
On the surface, [the new Westworld] hardly has a perfect pedigree: The show is based on a 1973 movie, directed by Michael Crichton, about “the ultimate resort... where you can live out your every fantasy” including “lawless violence on the American frontier of the 1880s.” Starring James Brolin and a scarily robotic Yul Brenner, it’s a world -- as a robotic voiceover tells us -- “where nothing can possibly go wrong.” (Until it suddenly, spectacularly does.) Our guess is that HBO’s show will feel less like the 1973 film and a bit more like “Ex Machina” and “The Matrix.” (Something about the upcoming show’s catchprase -- “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” -- also makes me think of Philip K. Dick and Keanu Reeves in a trench coat.) We don’t know a whole lot of details yet, but here are a few things I like about this “dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin.” It’s executive produced by J.J. Abrams and co-created by Jonathan Nolan (who has co-written several screenplays with brother Christopher and wrote the story on which the film “Memento” was based.) It stars heavy hitters including Anthony Hopkins (who appears to be playing the sinister Yul Brenner role in this one), Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Jeffrey Wright.
I quite like Hopkins, Newton, and Wright, and tend to agree that better actors are better than worse actors if one is hoping to be entertained by acting, but the hopeful genuflection to dudebro guru Christopher Nolan and his parade of prosthetic peen makes my own heart sink a bit. Bring on the gravelly voice and the gritty stage set, lets get some whining white guys in here, there are existential crises that need wrestling with!

And you will forgive a little eye-rolling of my own at Timberg's tidy conceit which would contrast the superficial charms ["On the surface..."] of the robotic Fantasy Island premise of the classic with the presumed "depths" of yet another sfnal invitation to "question the nature of your reality" via AI and virtuality. When Timberg insinuates that "something" in all this is making him think of Philip K. Dick and "The Matrix" I would propose it might be the sledgehammer pounding away with visual and verbal and atmospheric Dickian Matrixian cues just short of having characters literally facing the camera and screaming "Philip K. Dick!" and "The Matrix!" throughout the trailer. All of which is fine: All genres have their recurring motifs and signature moves, after all. But I really must protest the implication that the question every pale male undergraduate in Philosophy 101 who has ever smoked a joint inevitably asks himself -- namely: "dood! like what IS reality?" -- is hardly the tell-tale indication that we have stumbled into a film of ideas. To wit, what IS hamburger? Let's ask this A1 philosopher:

Frankly, there is very little substance to distinguish that gaudy 70s boilerplate about "liv[ing] out your every fantasy" and "lawless violence" and the 21st century conjuration of "the future of sin." It is only, I believe, in the framing of this promise of scenic sinning (the promise of film promotion since the birth of film) by reference to "the dawn of artificial consciousness" that we find the excuse for the pretense that with "Westworld" we find ourselves in the province of deep philosophical speculation and urgently timely political debate. Did I mention timely?

"And did I mention how timely [Westworld] is?" asks Timberg, breathlessly, at this point. "[T]he impact of advanced technology on the post-industrial world is one of the most crucial topics of our time," he intones piously, just the way the futurists have taught us to do by now. Of course, what makes technology "advanced" would presumably be the way it solves hitherto intractable shared problems rather than facilitating our exploitation, making us unhappy or unhealthy, poisoning our planet beyond healing, or, you know, threatening to kill us. Shorn of explicit norms and stakeholders references to "technological advance" really amount to facile retreats into complacent technological determinism and self-congratulatory manifest destiny, reactionary narratives of technoscientific change and historical struggle that have long been the specialty of futurological discourse. Their pernicious politics aside, though, here I just want to remind us all how reductive, how insensitive, how inattentive, how uncritical, how lacking in memory, how -- in a word -- stupid such narratives frankly turn out to be, however useful and consoling they may be to incumbent elites. Remember, this is a piece extolling the high-voltage Ideas we may expect from the new "Westworld."

Timberg declares himself to be "still smarting from [a] recent Barbara Ehrenreich [piece] which argued that "the job-eating maw of technology now threatens even the nimblest and most expensively educated... Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams." To this he appends the exclamation: "There’s never been a better time to look at this stuff." By which he means, let us be clear, there's never been a better time to watch the new Westworld! "Smarting" is not the same thing as being in any way made smarter, to put the point bluntly. What Barbara Ehrenreich knows that Scott Timberg has failed to grasp or feel is worthy of our attention is that "technology" is not a "job-eating maw" by any means. Behind the cloudbank of that overgeneralization are all the pesky details that make sense of the problem Ehrenreich is exposing here and without which we cannot gain the collective purchase actually to solve that problem. The productivity gains that have accompanied automation over the last two generations have not lead to higher compensation and shorter work-weeks only because that process of automation coincided historically with the right-wing demolition of organized labor and the retreat of the Democratic party from its New Deal and Great Society ideals ad constitutencies. Majorities supported by secure entitlements and bargaining power would not be threatened by "technology" (the monolithic construal of which in any case makes intelligent discussion of the stakeholder struggles and dynamisms of technoscientific change almost impossible in any case), and in a world that responded to shared needs and problems rather than the demands of minute plutocratic minorities for ever more wealth and profit we would not be bedeviled by the "assign[ment] to algorithms... [of] tasks... requir[ing] a distinctively human capacity for nuance" because the plain fact is that these algorithms fail to perform well at anything other than making the rich richer. That is to say, the glib framing of these Big Ideas as matters of "the dawn of artificial intelligence" and "the impact of advanced technology" is a distraction not an engagement with the actual matter at hand, the evocation of a comic-book terrain of villains and superheroes behind which real stakeholders with very recognizable and utterly familiar stakes and positions vanish from our contemplation, the displacement of the fraught but promising terrain of political struggles onto a spectacle of mythological destinies playing out for our mute witness and acquiescence. Feeling smarter yet?

Not to pick on the fellow, but Scott Timberg's on a roll here. If you think de-contextualized a-political loose talk of the threat of "automation" makes the new Westworld must-see tee vee for techbros, well, let's raise the pitch to even higher heights, and I'm talking TED-talk heights, I'm talking Thought-Leader heights! "Even closer to the show’s premise: Just a few weeks ago, more than 1,000 scientists signed an open letter arguing for the banning of AI-driven weaponry. 'Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is -- practically if not legally -- feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high,' reads the letter signed by Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Steve Wozniak..." Not to put too fine a point on it, this statement is either a vacuity or a lie. Expert systems and user-friendly software interfaces that get called "AI" are indeed both practically and legally feasible and have been for as long as most of Scott Timberg's readers have been living. These systems always have and will continue to cause problems -- security problems, problems of inscrutability, errors, brittleness, cruft, and so on. Not one of these real problems is or ever has been remotely illuminated by the conventional recourse to metaphors of computer intelligence, personhood, paradise, apocalypse, villainy, rapture or godhood made by alienated True Believing GOFAI coders or filthy-rich drama-diva venture capitalists who like to fancy themselves indispensable protagonists of historically revolutionary and transcendent dramas. Steven Hawking has spent the last decade trying to recapture former glory by casting himself in the mode of one time inventor now impresario and guru-wannabe Ray Kurzweil, Steve Wozniak in failing to get his head on Mount Rushmore with consummate used car salesman Steve Jobs is happy for the attention of an open letter or a stint on Kathy Griffin's reality show, anything, while Elon Musk knows there is as much money to be made from government contracts to deal with public hazards whomped up from techno-alarmism as there is to be made from the consumer rubes with false promises of techno-paradise incarnated in whatever landfill destined gizmo or low-earth-orbit amusement park ride he is peddling at the moment.

It seems strange to me, to say the least, to identify this sort of talk with "philosophy" or even, really, ideas at all, but I blame the ascendancy of futurological discourse with this general dumbing down of what passes for public deliberation into promotional and self-promotional activities among venture capitalists and those who serve them. I mean, if you're going to pretend robot cultist Nick Bostrom's handwaving about the existential threat of killer robots and satanic AIs (as opposed to the, he says, overblown non-threat of ongoing and upcoming anthropogenic climate catastrophe) is "philosophy," -- as Salon has also been quite happy to countenance already, as I have criticized, among other places, here -- then hell, why NOT say "Westworld" or is a Film of Ideas?

How's this for a conventional futurological confusion of science fiction for science fact? What we have here must another Film of Ideas, right guys?

Given that the confident promise of artificially intelligent computers and slavebots has been part of the furniture of the filmic future pretty much since legibly sfnal films have found their way to our screens and given that the conceit of artificial intelligence gone wrong and slavebots run amok has been a go-to hairball sfnal scriptwriters have coughed up to propel their narratives pretty much just as long, one really has to wonder just how it can be that otherwise perfectly sane and sensitive adults can continue to pretend that there is anything the least bit original or provocative about this premise. I would be hard-pressed to find a single year in my post-adolescent life in which there has not been at least one major motion picture or television series playing out this incessant scenario. As I have written endlessly often here and elsewhere, completely cocksure champions of good old fashioned AI (GOFAI) keep on predicting that their AI is just around the corner, generation after generation, year after year, day after day, without fail, er, that is to say, with nothing but fail, failure after failure, a faith in the force of the AI promise driving vast corporate-military R&D and advertizing budgets and matching the faith in the demonic AI premise driving vast attentional resources of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

I realize that the GOFAI dead-enders will pout and stamp that the fact that AI keeps on not panning out doesn't mean that it never will (a pretty frail hook to hang one's hat on I must say), but it really does surprise me a bit that the GOFAI crowd rarely seems to qualify the ferocious confidence of their expectation given all this serial failure, or take a pause in which to consider how the reductively calculating disembodied sociopathic models of intelligence that inevitably freight their conceptions may have something to do with all this failure. I imagine that the fantasies of AI for those who devote so much of their intelligent lives and affect to their contemplation are providing psychic compensations and satisfactions (stereotypes of body-loathing, narcissistic, sociopathic theory-heads trembling in denial of the contingency, rejection, error, mortality in human life are there for a reason), just as I imagine the hoary conceits of robocalypse remain provocative in their dreary staleness because they speak to the perennial alienation and anomie of everyday people coping with the head-breaking complexities and heart-breaking complicities of late-industrial consumer societies.

"What are the chances of a TV series capturing all of this?" Timberg ponders withh curious wistfulness. "Not terribly good, even on HBO," he concludes. Why so desolate, Scott? Box-office flop Transcendence managed to say all that crap and much more in a couple of hours, after all! TV series "capturing all of this" futurological wonder and genius are, believe me, a dime a dozen. That "Westworld" can regurgitate all the usual Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, Matrix conceits seems to me quite good, even terribly good, if I may say so. Hell, sleepwalkers could write that stuff at this point -- "even on HBO"!

A spectacle of "Future" scenery isn't a film of ideas, just as a futurological scenario isn't really a form of analysis or critique. (For a more elaborated account of this position read my Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains.) As I have said, I'm as much a fanboy as the next queergeek. I'll be watching "Watchworld." Explosions and blinking consoles and Holodeck adventures and talking robots and catsuits and floating monorail tracks between Deco ziggurats (well, you know what I mean), what's not to like? But it isn't actually true in my view that a cliche-soaked action movie becomes a "Film of Ideas" just because it is also notionally science fictional and has cellos playing drawn-out low notes in the theme music. It's not that science fiction can't be genuinely philosophical (Tarkovsky, anyone?) or politically relevant or thought provoking or emotionally engaging. It's just that you cannot expect me to take philosophically seriously anyone who confuses marketing for thinking, who confuses the stale for the original, who confuses denial with inquiry. When science fiction is rich and provocative and affecting it is so for the same reasons that other literary works are: the ideas are wedded to plots in unexpected ways, the conjured worlds are authentically complicated and multivalent, the characters solicit our empathy and understanding in their differences. It remains to be seen if the new HBO "Westworld" will be entertaining, let alone, more than that. I'm hoping for something fun, and will be quite pleasantly surprised if something more than fun is on offer, but you can be sure I know enough to actually know what I'm seeing whatever that may be. If you are losing the capacity to make the relevant distinctions to know as much, I fear neoliberal futurology deserves much of the blame for it.

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