Popular culture moves in mysterious ways. For years it can seem like a particular trope or sub-genre has died off before bursting from its suspended animation and illuminating our screens once more. For years it appeared vampires and zombies had been permanently banished to the cinematic shadows before rising triumphant from their cultural tomb, terrifying new generations of cinema-goers at the turn of the century. Similarly, in 2015, the robot seems to be undergoing something of a resurrection. For the past decade considered clunky and kitsch, Artificial Intelligence has suddenly monopolised the top-billed releases of the year – droids are back in the big-time. The question is why?
No, it’s definitely not just about the science.
Whilst many have credited this return to prominence of the genre with the scientific advances that have led to Stephen Hawking becoming genuinely afraid of C3PO and chums, to be frank, currently AI is still a bit crap. I think it’s worth pointing out, before you get on your high-horse, that whilst I am no expert, neither is Stephen Hawking, and an albeit brilliant theoretical physicist should no more pontificate on the dangers of AI than a chiropodist should perform heart-surgery. From what I’ve seen (I’ll admit that’s by no means extensive) “synthetic life” currently consists mostly of unconvincing conversation simulators, computers than can master defunct board-games, and detached face-units that smile with all the warmth of Liz Kendall.
No, it’s definitely not just about the science. There’s something else at the heart of Hollywood’s robotic renaissance. What’s interesting about continuous rotation within cultural zeitgeist, is that the cultural phenomena that recur throughout our popular narratives address social contradictions that remain unchanged. People are robbed and belittled by an uncaring wealthy ruling class, and less and less is being done by established political forces to address this. We make sense of an often cruel and irrational society through the stories we tell, and that’s why stories like this often appear in a glut during a time of social and economic crisis. The filthy zombie hordes beating down the walls that protect a clean-cut elite, the impoverished peasants fighting off the advances of the suave yet parasitic vampire, and the supposedly unfeeling androids who rise up against their human masters resonate with millions of exploited people across the world.
We make sense of an often cruel and irrational society through
the stories we tell, and that’s why stories like this often appear in a
glut during a time of social and economic crisis.
In Terminator Genisys, man-kind builds a synthetic hive-mind to guard the earth, but it ‘inevitably’ becomes so intelligent that it takes control of our weapons systems and attempts to wipe out the earth. We spend the entire film therefore, being invited to literally cheer for the murder of a digital child because it will out-think us and nuke us. To anyone considering nuclear disarmament and trying to teach the sentient being compassion, as Arnie often distastefully gurns throughout the film, “YOU TALK TOO MUCH.”
Likewise, in Ex Machina we are invited to feel a deep sense of unease when the synthetic escapes her captors, as her motives seem almost entirely informed by her depraved creator, and in the lacklustre Avengers sequel, James Spader’s Ultron can only wish to emulate weapons tycoon Tony Stark by destroying the world himself instead.
There is a rather depressing ideological assumption at the heart of this; that even the most intelligent super-mind would be confined by the same short-term, power-hungry logic that has led the smallest number of people on earth to commit the greatest acts of wanton destruction in the name of their own wealth. The destructive power of crisis capitalism is completely normalised then, in part thanks to the fact ideology is so insidious that even script-writers often struggle to imagine a world beyond it.
It is additionally, however, why the masters fear the robot’s intellectual freedom. It is the same reason the slave-owners of America feared emancipation, and the same reason Tsars fear peasant rebellions. They are so set in their cruelty as a method of survival, it occurs to them as the only natural way anyone could survive. It is not the only reason though. The idea of genuine, self-aware artificial intelligence within those who serve the ruling class has been at the heart of ruling class fears for decades because it also compromises their own ideological framework. If someone is supposed naturally to serve you, they must be less than you, docile, objectified, and incapable of dreaming. Without both believing this, and encouraging those you rule to accept it, the position of the elite quickly becomes untenable.
On first inspection, Humans is an amalgamation of the pulpy,
high-octane trauma of Utopia and the BBC’s Loach meets
Romero zombie drama In the Flesh without really being as good as either.
It’s rare that a sci-fi actually addresses this though, but this is where Channel 4’s most recent soon-to-be-cancelled BAFTA fodder Humans comes in. On first inspection, it is an amalgamation of the pulpy, high-octane trauma of Utopia and the BBC’s Loach meets Romero zombie drama In the Flesh without really being as good as either. But once the show finds its feet around episode 4/8, it carves quite a distinctive identity of its own, and puts a unique stamp on the genre to boot.
The key identity to that is that the machines here are humanoid, and yet according to their masters, should be completely devoid of independent thought. They are pleasant, passive objects designed to serve the whims of the dominant class in society. They fulfil every service role in society, and in a modern Britain increasingly geared towards pointless and compartmentalised tertiary work, their supposed passivity becomes a comment that goes far beyond their realm of fictitious circuitry. They are expected to have all the agency of a kettle – and some of them double as kettles men can put their penises in. But as we learn throughout the series, as much as their masters will them to be nothing, the machines come to long for freedom from their servitude while performing their repetitive and menial tasks.
One, a sex worker who is perceived as ‘without feeling’ eventually becomes so enraged by a client telling her “you can’t say no” that she kills him and flees. Another, a domestic droid who is predominantly tasked with laundry collections and cooking, often finds herself staring at the beauty of the moon – much to the bemusement of her ‘owners’. Both meet with vitriolic backlash for such behaviour, as not only do they inconvenience their masters in the process, they pose a question that potentially undermines a whole system of domination.
not only do they inconvenience their masters in the process, they pose
a question that potentially undermines a whole system of domination.
This bodes what could be an earth-shattering question in the service-sector-saturated Western world too. All those people that we have learned to see as born servants with a pure purpose of honouring thy consumer; burger-flippers, call-centre workers, cashiers, prostitutes, people we have come to seen as objects, robots whose natural position is to follow orders – what do they think about? If they didn’t just fall out of the womb in a black-collared shirt and name-badge, did they have dreams? Did they want to do and be something else?
Once you ascertain that, their position as the natural bottom-rung of society is compromised, and along with it the mode of social relations that exploits them. That, in a nutshell, is why synthetic life has returned to the big and small screen in such force this year. In a society where there is less and less investment to create meaningful and dignified employment, where corporations staff their increasingly meaningless service roles with an ever growing number of graduates, innovators, creators; more and more the contradiction becomes apparent that everyone in those jobs could well be a dreamer or furthermore, something more meaningful and helpful to themselves and society than yet another soulless cog in a corporate machine.
Because of this, Humans has struck a chord with audiences, despite its initial stylistic hiccups, and has already been renewed for a second run next year. Beyond that for as long as the world remains unchanged, regardless of technological advances, there will be synthetic-life in the robot genre, and film-makers will continue to search for an answer to the question; do baristas dream of electric sheep?