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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

io9 Has the Transcendence Sadz

Everybody knows now that Transcendence has tanked. Crappy movies flop all the time, but this is hardly a tragedy in the larger scheme of the things, except possibly for investors, any more than the fact that equally crappy movies often make hundreds of millions of dollars. That is why it is so very strange to read in io9 the weepy dashed hope declarations of Charlie Jane Anders about the failure of the film -- "What went wrong" she wails in her opening sentence, "it's really sad." She goes on to insist, "you really have to respect Transcendence's ambition." Must we, despite its triteness, clunkiness, and abject failures? With a stamp of the foot she declares of this obviously terrible turd, "it's not... a terrible film," but rather desperately, "it's just not great, and it's not goofy enough to be just fun." Mm hm, it sucked so much and in such slow-witted slow-motion it cannot even manage to be campy, yes, we get it.

Anders bemoans not only the failure of this dumb b-movie but curiously more than that. Her opening wail "What went wrong?" culminates in the enormously odd further question, "Why did the A.I. revolution fail?" Would the success of the film somehow have contributed to the success of the latter "revolution" in some way? And is it really the failure of the latter "revolution" that makes the failure of just another facile (in)action film so very "really sad"? It is truly strange the lengths to which Anders goes to blame the failure of the film on anything she can think of apart from its dumb dull dishrag of a premise. Of the premise itself she insists instead -- even as she contemplates the spectacle of total shit eventuating from it -- on its "timeliness" and its "ambition."

When Anders declares "timely" the notions of a superintelligent computer and of consciousness uploading at the heart of this stinker can she possibly mean to propose that these ideas are new? They are not. That they are soon to be accomplished in reality? They are not. That they even make sense? They do not.

As a fan of science fiction can she really not effortlessly reel off hundreds upon hundreds of speculative stories and television episodes and movies that took up these conceits? Mind you, some of these are quite classic, indispensable parts of the canon. But it has been a hell of a long time since anybody managed to do anything new along these lines, and only rarely do these conceits yield anything good anymore. Rather desperately, Anders declares: "You could imagine a really fantastic movie around just the question of whether the copy of Will's consciousness in the machine is really Will or a facsimile. In fact, there are all sorts of fantastic questions about identity and personhood raised here and there, that the movie never quite sinks its teeth into."

There is not much of a meal there to "sink [your] teeth into" as far as I can see. I mean, truly? honestly? What would be destined to be so flipping fantastic about such a movie premise? I mean, you can spin a fine film around any hoary old conceit you like if your characters and your language are sufficiently evocative, but Anders actually doesn't seem to grasp what a whiskered vaudevillian bit the whole premise of the software copy versus the real self really is. And to propose that there is deeper thinking about "personhood" raised in this tired cliche is so wrongheaded that it actually frightens me a little. I know quite well the skewed priorities and credulous vacuity of full-on fulminating members of the various techno-transcendental Robot Cults who fall for eugenic transhumanoid and digi-utopian singularitarian flim-flammery, but if otherwise sensitive and imaginative people who are fed too steady a diet of tech-CEO press releases and pop-tech informercial techno-booster "journalism" find themselves mouthing much the same platitudes and aspirations this is a truly dangerous phenomenon we are observing. I mean, are you serious: What if we're all in a simulation, man, what is real, WHAT IS REAL? What if people can't tell the difference between you and something impersonating or representing you, man, who are you, WHO ARE YOU? Dude, deep! I'm so high right now.

You will forgive me if once again I refuse to pretend there is anything particularly profound in mistaking a picture of someone for that someone. You will forgive me if once again I refuse to pretend there is anything particularly profound in attributing what has always been the materially instantiated, biologically incarnated, multi-dimensional phenomenon of "intelligence" to artifacts exhibiting little to none of this reality and richness? You will forgive me if again I refuse to pretend there is anything particularly profound in repudiating a progressive understanding of present stakeholder struggle among a diversity of finite peers for an at once reductive and triumphalist futurological theology of destiny as an acquiescence to sooper-machines flexing their ever-amplifying muscles. These are not new ideas, these are not clever ideas, these are not inspiring ideas, these are not progressive ideas, these are tired, dumb, embarrassing, reactionary ideas... and that they are the leading ideas of so many of the self-declared "thought leaders" of the neoliberals of the corporate-military think-tanks or the libertechbrotarians of the SillyCon Valley is something not to be celebrated, but exposed, critiqued, and marginalized into comparative harmlessness.

So disconsolate is Anders in the face of the obvious intellectual, artistic, commercial, and popular failure of the Transcendence bomb that she loses herself for much of her review in an alternate reality in which the once-bandied-about now-mercifully-tabled notion of a Roland Emmerich summer spectacle called The Singularity, written with an intellectual assist from the Robocultic Pope Ray Kurzweil himself, would be the "pro-AI" film "we would be getting" instead of Transcendence. Of course, Emmerich's blockbuster would almost certainly have been a box-office dog as well, these dumb deluded notions do lend themselves to the special off-putting ponderousness and assholery of the Very Small swollen into Bloated Bigness -- a recognition that possibly saved Emmerich from wasting the time and money making it in the first place. Setting that aside, however, mark well the unabashed endorsement of techno-transcendental agitprop implied in Anders' politically portentious "pro-AI" formulation -- did Transcendence fail truly because it wasn't "pro-AI" enough? Can the faith ever fail or only be failed, after all? But think as well about that "we" who could, in a better world, be "getting" this "pro-AI" blockbuster instead of the turkey Transcendence. I will be generous and presume that Anders' "we" consists of the sf-fans who enjoy a good science fiction flick even if its premises are facile or fantastic, I will not dwell too long on the possibly present "we" of presumably fellow-faithful who, in the better world of The Future, pine to be uploaded as deathless, gorgeous, blissed-out angel avatars in Holodeck Heaven under the ministrations of a history-ending post-parental sooper-intelligent Robot God of loving grace and who are consoled in the present world of ignorance, error, frailty, and frustration by the deranging distractions of pseudo-scientific con-artistry and crass consumer acquiescence and infantile wish-fulfilment fantasies they rationalize as "Big Ideas" and "Serious Science."

The title of Anders' review is Transcendence Has Some Of The Dumbest Smart People We've Ever Seen. Given the review that follows, a more self-oblivious declaration can scarcely be imagined. After making lots of noise from the margins for decades, the Robot Cultists have been insinuating themselves into the boardrooms of big corporations like Google, established academic institutions like Oxford, and serious big-bucks entertainments like Warner Brothers lately. The transhumanists and singularitarians and techno-immortalists have long been a revealing symptom in an extreme (and extremely ridiculous) form of more prevailing elite technocratic and technno-utopian assumptions and aspirations, but the libertechbrotarians of corporate "tech culture" who have soaked this nonsense up and taken it literally are now putting real money and muscle into these idiotic visions. The failures we are about to witness -- but, worse, to which we will be subjected and then made to pay for and clean up after -- will be, I fully expect, quite something. From the Bomb to the dot.bomb to this big budget b-movie bomb there are many bombs to come. Grab your popcorn, the show won't be in the theater.


jimf said...

> "Why did the A.I. revolution fail?"

Um. Because Steven Spielberg is no Stanley Kubrick?


Dale Carrico said...

Ha! Also, because the artificial imbecillence devolution is succeeding...

jimf said...

> What if we're all in a simulation, man, what is real,
> WHAT IS REAL? What if people can't tell the difference
> between you and something impersonating or representing
> you, man, who are you, WHO ARE YOU? Dude, deep!
> I'm so high right now.

Don't be such a Dick, Philip K.