I have written more than once (here and here, for example) about my belief that technological progression cannot always be considered a good thing. We are surrounded in the media by a form of technological optimism which I find disconcerting. “Tech” will solve everything from world hunger to cancer, and the Peter Thiels of the world would have us believe that we can even solve the problem of death. I don’t see a lot of movies these days, but there used to be a healthy skepticism of technological progress, which was seen as a potential threat to the human race. Some movies that come to mind:
- Demon Seed (1977), a movie I found profoundly disturbing when I was taken to see it as a child. I have no idea why anyone took a child to this movie, by the way. In it, a scientist invents a powerful supercomputer and uses it to automate his house. Eventually, the computer forms a prosthesis and uses it to inseminate the doctor’s wife to produce a hybrid human-computer being.
- The Terminator (1984) presented a world in which humans were at war with computers and robots.
- The Matrix (1999), a move I actually don’t like, nevertheless presents us with a world in which, again, computers rule humans, this time to the point where we have become fuel cells.
Most readers have certainly heard of the latter two, but I’m guessing almost none have heard of the first. I could go on. From West World (1973) to RoboCop (1987), there has been movie after movie presenting “tech” not as the key to human progress, but as a potential destroyer of the human race. I suspect the advent of nuclear weapons had much to do with this view, and with the receding of the Cold War and the ever-present nuclear threat, maybe we are lest concerned about the destruction our inventions are capable of.
The other day I was thinking about my own resistance to Apple AirPods. It then occurred to me that they are only one step away from the “Cerebral Communicator” in another movie you probably haven’t heard of, The President’s Analyst.
Produced in 1967, (spoilers follow!) the film features James Coburn as a psychoanalyst who is recruited to provide therapy to the President of the United States. At first excited by the prospect, Coburn himself quickly becomes overwhelmed by the stress of his assignment, and decides to flee. He is pursued by agents of the CIA and FBI (referred to as CEA and FBR in the movie), the KGB, and the mysterious organization called “TPC”. Filmed in the psychedelic style of the time, with numerous double-crossings and double-double-crossings, the movie is hard to follow. But, in the end, we learn that this mysterious agency called “TPC” is actually The Phone Company.
1967 was long before de-regulation, and there was a single phone company in the United States controlling all telephone communications. It was quasi-governmental in size and scope, and thus a suitable villain for a movie like The President’s Analyst. The ultimate goal of TPC is to implant mini-telephones into people’s brains. From Wikipedia:
TPC has developed a “modern electronic miracle”, the Cerebrum Communicator (CC), a microelectronic device that can communicate wirelessly with any other CC in the world. Once implanted in the brain, the user need only think of the phone number of the person they wish to reach, and they are instantly connected, thus eliminating the need for The Phone Company’s massive and expensive-to-maintain wired infrastructure.
I’ve only seen the movie a couple times, but I wonder if the AirPods implanted in people’s ears remind me too much of the CC. Already we have seen the remnants of the phone company pushing us to ever-more connectivity, to the point where our phones are with us constantly and we stick ear buds in our heads. Tech companies love to tell us that being constantly connected to one another is the great path forward for humanity. Meanwhile, we live in a time as divided as any in history. If connecting humanity were the solution to the world’s problems, why do we seem to be in a state of bitter conflict? I wonder if we’ve forgotten the lesson of the Babel Fish in Douglas Adams’ science fiction book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Babel fish is a convenient device for Adams to explain a dilemma in all science fiction: how do people from different planets somehow understand each other? In most science fiction, the aliens just speak English (or whatever) and we never come to know how they could have learned it. But Adams uses his fictional device to make an amusing point:
The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe…if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish…[T]he poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.