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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Salon Calls Transcendence's Bluff

Andrew O'Hehir's review of Transcendence in Salon is smart and snarky and generally splendid:
“Transcendence” is a moronic stew of competing impulses -- bad science meets bad sociology meets bad theology — in which it’s hard to say who looks worse: The naïve techno-boosters like Depp’s Dr. Will Caster (an Ayn Rand character name if ever there was one), wearing round spectacles and spouting clichés about the coming man-machine “singularity” apparently mined from Wired magazine in 1999 [or just as likely, I'm sorry to say, overheard at Google ten minutes ago --d], or the small-minded Luddite reactionaries of the so-called underground resistance, conducting KGB-style assassination campaigns against their enemies... I’m sorry, but “Let’s use machines to cure cancer, as long as there’s no downside” is barely even a thought or a wish, and it’s certainly not a philosophy. Do Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen actually believe that there’s some constituency of DIY cord-cutter radical-skeptic types with funny hair who are dead set against medical technology? I’m pretty sure the answer is no, which brings us back to the parsimonious explanation for “Transcendence”: Pfister, who has finally gotten a turn in the director’s chair after many years as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, is one of those movie-industry people who is really good at the technical side of the job but maybe not, you know, all that much of a candidate for the chair in Heidegger studies or whatever. Pfister’s former boss, on the other hand, is a dark genius when it comes to infusing his sensory-overload cinema with complicated subtext, with at least a somewhat convincing simulation of depth and ambiguity. (Nolan would never have touched this screenplay with a 50-foot robotic arm.) Actually, no, wait. That sounds like I’m accusing Pfister of being a dumbass, which is totally not the point. You don’t have to be a book-learnin’ intellectual with an expensive education to be an important filmmaker, far from it... Wally Pfister is smart enough to understand, perhaps not quite consciously, that times have changed and the ideological task is now different. (Spoiler alert, this paragraph!) “Transcendence” is constructed to signal an engagement with supposedly important issues, but under the surface it delivers a familiar narrative of gender norms -- the abusive, controlling husband and the hysterical doormat wife -- mixed with a message of militant conformism: If only those crazy radicals hadn’t shot Will Caster with a radioactive bullet, his magic sentient computer would have scrubbed all the bad chemicals from the air and water, cloned the passenger pigeon and restored sight to the blind. Since it’s evidently a very short step from turning off your smartphone to protesting against animal experimentation to psychotic acts of violence, you’re better off sticking with your defined role of spectatorship and consumption and paying no attention to the men behind the curtain.
There is a lot that speaks to me personally in later paragraphs that take a delightful turn to Adorno and Horkheimer, and I do encourage everybody to follow the link for the whole thing, but I also think the excerpt above has both the funniest and most poignant bits. That Transcendence's totally tired and too-prevailing "tech culture" conceits are actually profoundly anti-intellectual and politically reactionary is something that still isn't said enough or understood enough and it matters enormously.

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