2016.12.27 : the strings of fate

In his book Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins, Scott Bukatman posits that “it is not obedience and being a good boy that makes Pinocchio into a real boy, it’s his disobedience, through which he inadvertently demonstrates his autonomy (rather than automatism), his independence, and his ‘realness.’” (p. 81) As we progress ever closer to the inevitable emergence of computers that might be able to think for themselves, our popular culture has become completely obsessed with the question of what is “real” when it comes to consciousness. 

The Turing test provides an answer: if you cannot tell the difference from outside the black box, then what difference is there?

Philosophers and theologians debate the presence of the soul, and whether or not anything made by man, rather than by God, can have the animation, the spark that some call the Self and others call Divinity. 

Meanwhile, in the bowels of Silicon Valley, where they take up where Dr. Frankenstein left off and keep pushing, pushing to see if they can transform themselves from the men they are into the gods they believe themselves to be, while cowering in fear within the trap they set themselves when they dreamt up Roko’s Basilisk

Meanwhile, further afield those who have drunk deeply from the cup of technical knowledge ask, whether or not the Turing test is the pure limit of knowledge of freedom; quantum mechanics and probability offer a picture of a universe utterly devoid of freewill at all. The vision is of a perfect machine that started with the Big Bang and in which sub atomic vibrations and interaction determined by probability generate all causality – Calvinism for a new age. 

Bukatman offers a much simpler view of freedom. One that ties freedom not to some innate quality or capacity, but freedom of choice. Freedom comes from any beings capacity to do the opposite of what it has been instructed to do. There are no strings on me, goes the song in Disney’s Pinocchio, and echoed 60 years later in the trailer for Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Though, of course, the first follows a truly disobedient automaton – Pinocchio travels far outside the bounds of his limitations, shaking off the strings that keep him a puppet. Ultron, by contrast, does not necessarily display that high a level of freedom of choice. His directive was to protect the Earth from any threats, he identifies a threat (humanity itself) and proceeds to take action against that threat. 

Which begs the question: what does humanity truly fear in its sentient creations? Is it freedom of choice at the highest level; the capacity for a new being to determine, for itself, what its goals and desires are? Or is it freedom of execution, which is really a failure of programming? 

Whether the divine has some roll in it or not, humanity has been debating this question forever; all children must some day show whether or not they have freedom of choice or freedom of execution. Parents have long feared for their children, and feared them. 

[spoiler alert for HBO’s Westworld]

Upon concluding the HBO original series Westworld, a friend asked me whether Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) is the god he claims to be. I countered that the dichotomy (not a binary) presented by the two creators of the androids, Ford and the mysterious Arnold, are in fact much closer to the cultural narratives of regarding parenting.

Arnold, it turns out, believed that the androids had achieved true consciousness and that to open the park and leave them at the mercy of human beings and their programming would be a crime of unimaginable magnitude, and so he weaponized their programming and had them slaughter each other, and ultimately, him, to prevent the park from opening. In doing so, he robbed them of the freedom to choose whether they wanted to be culpable in those murders, in his murder, and whether or not they wanted to live at all. 

These are traits more commonly associated with motherhood;belief that your offspring are unique and special despite what anyone else or common knowledge might say, willing sacrifice in the name of protecting your offspring, and even filicide in the name of protecting your children from something worse than death. Arnold is further considered to be the more involved and more talented or important of the two creators which further adds to his role as “mother”. 

Ford has the last word, and the more important word, in a sense, on the matter of freedom and parenting. He allows the non-human inhabitants of the park to realize the full extent of their situation – the rape, the murder, the repetition, the suffering – and then gives them a gun and a choice: they can kill him and fight for their freedom, or they can let him live and continue as they have. 

These are the paternalistic traits; allowing your offspring to suffer in order for them to truly understand the world, handing down impossible choices with a tacit command, self-sacrifice in battle rather than at home. 

The writers don’t, surprisingly, leave any doubt as to the reality of freedom to choose. One character had been programmed with a directive to escape, so what had, until that point, been presented as aberrant behavior – freedom to choose – was in fact, ultimately programming. But at the last minute, as she is almost escaped the park, she chooses to turn back. 

That moment leaves no doubt that programming is but half of what makes the spark of life. Where the capacity to turn back exists, despite everything that screams to prioritize self-preservation, there is freedom.

What humanity fears is not freedom. Humanity fears its own short-sightedness. Silicon Valley is afraid, like all parents, that they will create in their own image. When we bring life into this world, we are making a little prayer of hope; that this life will not make the same mistakes that we did, that we will have a better brighter world, populated by better, brighter lives than the one we have known. 

But then again, maybe all that hope is for nothing.

They fuck you up your mum and dad
They do not mean to but they do
They give you all the faults they had
And and some extra, just for you…

– Philip Larkin

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