Dueling Dystopias

amidalaThe morning after Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, a friend of mine texted me a meme from Star Wars Episode III. “So this is how liberty dies,” Queen Amidala says while watching Palpatine become Emperor. “With thunderous applause.”

She is far from the only one to use dystopian fiction to describe the rise of Trump. Last month, The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada wrote about Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America in an article titled “How does Donald Trump stack up against American literature’s fictional dictators? Pretty well, actually.” In April, Salon compared Trump to comic book supervillains who became president.

In the U.S., presidential candidates are always compared to Hitler and Stalin, and totalitarianism is always allegedly around the corner. But the idea of Trump as world-historical villain seems to be taken more seriously this time around. He certainly hasn’t helped his case by retweeting Mussolini, complimenting dictators and praising the Tienanmen Square massacre. The idea of Trump as a dictator is being taken so seriously in many circles that Slate has published an article explaining how Donald Trump isn’t technically a fascist.

Trump’s supporters also tell a story of dystopia – but one coming from the opposite direction. They’re not painting Hillary Clinton as a budding Stalin. In fact, they’re doing exactly the opposite.

The night after Trump’s speech, Seth Meyers joked that Trump believes “We are currently living in a dystopian nightmare,” and that “Trump talked about America like he was pitching a post-apocalyptic show to the Syfy network.”

Maureen Dowd in the New York Times also made note of the dystopian picture Trump was creating. “LIKE any masterly comic book villain, Donald Trump is reveling in conjuring a dystopia.” But, Trump’s dystopia is different than the classic totalitarian dystopias of George Orwell or Suzanne Collins. Trump does not conjure the specter of an all-controlling state — instead, he sees the state as too small to protect. He linked violence of a lack of leadership, saying the “legacy of Hillary Clinton is Death, Destruction, Terrorism and Weakness.” Trump’s dystopia is the chaotic, violent nightmare of Mad Max or The Walking Dead.

mad max 1979

The fear of anarchy has usually taken a second seat to the fear of dictatorship in the West. For one, our experience of anarchy has usually been short-lived; chaos quickly gives way to types like Cromwell and Robespierre in European history. The legacy of the World Wars helped cement this attitude. 

The New York Daily News, in an editorial on “Donald’s diabolical dystopia,” points out that Trump’s dark vision of America isn’t statistically true.

“In fact, America’s crime rate is at a 40-year low and line-of-duty police killings fell by almost 40% from 1981 through 2015, with the number hitting a record low under Obama.”


CNN’s Fareed Zakaria included this graph in his article Sunday.

Slate’s graphs and Steven Pinker’s books circulated across liberal social media this weekend. They prove that the United States and the world are about as safe as they ever have been. Of course, graphs aren’t generally comforting to people in a panic. The fear the Trump campaign channels isn’t based on a statistical analysis of the rate of global genocide. The white, middle-class American voter has always assumed things are better at their mall, school or workplace than they are in an unstable third world country. ISIS has been successful at bursting that feeling of security — and that feeling of security is nearly as important to the quality of life as actual security is.

ISIS isn’t the only contributor to the feeling of instability. If you’re not safe while surrounded by police officers, when are you safe? As a teenager, the attack on the Pentagon was the most immediately frightening part of 9/11. If even the Pentagon is vulnerable, we all are.

v_for_vendetta15The truth is, both types of dystopias are legitimate expressions of legitimate fears. Some of the most thoughtful writers saw dangers in both Scylla and Charybdis. Aldous Huxley debunked Rousseauian savagery as a solution to corrupt civilization in Brave New World. Alan Moore railed against his totalitarian future in V for Vendetta, but never allowed you to feel comfortable rooting for the radicals either.

The aforementioned Collins warns against permanent revolution in The Hunger Games. In film, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight features a hero who must embrace mass surveillance and violence in order to defeat a villain bent on anarchy for its own sake. Although liberals will likely dismiss the fears of Trump’s supporters as fervently as Trump’s supporters will dismiss liberals’, orderless violence and its consequences are a real part of American life.

I’m certainly not implying there is an equivalence between the candidates in this year’s election or that all fears are equally possible of being realized. (I decided who to support quite some time ago, but I prefer to keep my precise political views off my blogs.) But I do believe that the underlying values and fears of both camps are legitimate — and I expect candidates to take full advantage of them.

(And let’s leave Idiocracy for a totally separate discussion)


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Bollywood & Hollywood Nationalism

I’ve seen two Bollywood films during the past few weeks that really stood out – not only for their engaging quality, but also for the ways they each promoted Indian nationalism. I’ve been reading about the growing sense of national identity in that country during this century. I found that each promoted nationalism for India in many of the same ways I’ve seen Hollywood productions do the same for America.


The 2001 sports/historical/musical/romantic epic Lagaan is my favorite Bollywood film I’ve seen so far. Set in the late 19th Century, Lagaan pits a British overlord against the starving villagers he oversees. He agrees to a contest – if the villagers in his cantonment can beat his men in a game of cricket (which the Indians have never seen before), their land tax will be canceled. If the villagers lose, the tax will be doubled (later tripled, and raised even further).

Paul Blackthorne as Captain Andrew Russell in Lagaan

Just look at that sneer!

The portrayal of the British in this film is hilarious. Virtually all of the depictions of English imperialists I’ve seen or read have come from British or American sources. Even when they’re the baddies, as in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, they still get a three-dimensional and thoroughly un-exotic treatment. Lagaan was a chance to see the colonizers from the point-of-view of the formerly colonized. The Villain, Captain Andrew Russell (played by Paul Blackthorne, now of Arrow), is the English equivalent of a comic book Nazi. His manners are impeccable, his upper lip is as stiff as cardboard, and he sneers harder than anyone may have ever sneered before.

Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth, is also an idea of the perfect European beauty. Tall, pale, and wide-eyed, in one scene she wears a Victorian dress while spinning to classical music around a marble-pillared room and falls on a satin-sheeted bed. The film contrasts her with the thoroughly Indian Gauri, who is short, dark-skinned, and dances in her village to a song celebrating the Hindu gods.

The contrast between the two women inverts the European ideal. Both women fall in love with the film’s hero, Bhuvan, but Bhuvan takes no romantic interest in Elizabeth. He hardly even seems to realize she loves him. He only has eyes for Gauri.

Gauri and Bhuvan’s number “Radha Kaise Na Jale” elevates Lagaan to a world few musicals venture. The two perform in front of their village in the guise of Lord Krishna and his lover Radha. “How can Radha not be jealous?” she sings, at once both Gauri and Radha. I entered a world of sublime mythology I can compare only to perhaps seeing a Cecil B. DeMille epic for the first time.

The cricket team Bhuvan puts together is deliberately pan-ethnic. One story arc concerns the integration of a Muslim character; another of a disabled untouchable. The pained consciousness of the arcs are all that stop the two from being tokenish in the way the African-American members of The Avengers can sometimes seem here in the U.S. The message is clear – national identity as Indian trumps all other differences within the state.

Rang De Basanti

rang de basanti

Our heroes… and their target.

The same conscious diversity is also present in 2006’s Rang De Basanti. The film sets up a conflict between a Hindu nationalist character and a Muslim character. The nationalist is set up as a villain early on, and is part of a group that breaks up the rock-in-roll parties the rest of the teenagers enjoy. (OK, not just teenagers… 40-year-old Aamir Khan is inexplicably part of the group. Khan also started in Lagaan.) But as the film continues, both the nationalist and the Muslim characters are united in a common enemy – the corrupt government.

Like Lagaan, Rang De Basanti also builds nationalism by looking at a pan-ethnic past. The characters in our film are convinced to play as actors in a film about a group of Indian revolutionaries in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Identity as an Indian is not dependent upon race or religion – rather, its identity is a group loyalty in favor of independence and common interests.

Rang De Basanti also features one of the most abrupt shifts in tone I’ve ever seen in a movie. The first hour or so plays like it’s from the American Graffiti school of nostalgia and hip teenagers. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of depth. But by the film’s violent end, it has taken on an extremely revolutionary, political tone. In the decade since its release, it has had to fend off accusations of fascism.

American Films

Rang De Basanti promotes nationalism and unity, but also makes the ruling politicians uncomfortable – a dynamic that exists within films emblematic of American nationalism. Famously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was denounced as communistic.

Unlike the two Indian films here, American films have largely stayed away from our Revolutionary period. It’s impossible for a movie featuring George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to promote racial harmony – which is a large reason why the few recent successes have focused on anti-slavery figures like John Adams in the HBO miniseries and Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway show.


Judd Hirsh as Julius Levinson, leading a prayer in Independence Day.

Instead, Hollywood sticks mostly with the present or the near-future. Independence Day and Saving Private Ryan are probably the two standout examples of popular American patriotism released in my lifetime. Both made an explicit point of our country’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic nature, and both freely criticized the government. Likewise with 2016’s big grosser, Captain America: Civil War.

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Top 5 Films – 1916

1916 – Troops battled in the trenches of France, Woodrow Wilson won re-election, and James Joyce wrote his first novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here are the year’s top 5 movies, the way I see it:

1) Intolerance (dir. D.W. Griffith)
Intolerance - D.W. GriffithD. W. Griffith didn’t take criticism of his 1915 racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation well. Despite becoming by far the highest-grossing movie of all-time and garnering for Griffith some of the highest praise that has ever been afforded a director, (“D.W. Griffith is the Creator of the Eighth Art of the World!”) it also brought about some backlash from certain citizens who didn’t appreciate a film in which the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as a heroic force against free African Americans. The NAACP called for boycotts, and the film was banned in Kansas, Chicago,  and St. Louis, and New York City ordered about 500 feet of film cut.

Page from "The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America," by D.W. Griffith

Page from “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America,” by D.W. Griffith

Griffith, the son of a Confederate soldier, never seemed to quite understand exactly what the problem was. He had toned down much of the source material and had only intended to tell the truth. So, Griffith blamed the forces of “INTOLERANCE” in a pamphlet he wrote and released to the public, free of copyright. In The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, he links the forces that censored his film to those which “murder Socrates,” “crucified the Christ,” “put Columbus in chains,” “destroyed Assyria’s civilization,” and “smashed the first printing press.”

My first reaction to reading Griffith’s pamphlet is how little has changed in 100 years. Griffith’s screed would seem right at home in the comments section of a news story about a Confederate flag removal. (Read ‘Disappearing the Confederacy’ by Ian Tuttle of The National Review and ‘Is “Free Speech” Becoming the New “All Lives Matter”‘ by Michelle Goldberg of Slate for two well-written articles that disagree with each other over this issue.)

The existence of this pamphlet puts Griffith’s next film, Intolerance, in an entirely different context. Not only the title, but the entire structure and style of the film seem to be an extension of the argument he laid forth in his written expostulation. The pamphlet has a rapid, frenzied pace and one imagines that Griffith wrote the entire thing during one excited night. It jumps through history, linking Russian pogroms with the trial of Joan of Arc, the outbreak of contemporary war in Europe, and the censorship of D.W. Griffith’s own The Birth of a Nation.

Griffith Intolerance FilmThe pamphlet, like the film, builds and crescendos unevenly. But while Griffith was a juvenile polemicist, he was a masterful filmmaker. The film was originally only a contemporary drama called The Mother and the Law, but inspired by his newfound hatred of INTOLERANCE!, Griffith added storylines for ancient Babylon, the Christian Gospels, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Griffith had seen the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, which included gigantic sets, moving cameras and an ancient setting.These additions gave Griffith a story large enough to create his own epic.

Having built Intolerance up, the studio ordered Griffith to edit the film down from an initial runtime of 8 hours to less than 3 and a half. This form of corporate censorship gave Griffith occasion to pioneer yet another filmic technique. He cross-cuts between the stories, spending only a short period of time on each one. The camera takes us across the sky and across centuries in less than a blink, sending our souls on a journey no other art form had ever before. Cross-cutting today is a staple necessity of film and television – try to imagine even Sesame Street without it. Only occasionally a film comes along that reminds us how radical this technique can be. (Pulp Fiction and Inception are two of my favorite examples from the past few decades)

Watch Intolerance on Hulu

One A.M. Charlie Chaplin2) One A.M. (dir. Charles Chaplin)
Chaplin had been making films for years, and by 1916 he was already a household name. One A.M. is one of his most delightful. Chaplin plays a drunk who comes home late and finds it impossible to navigate his home. He’s (almost) the solo performer, and uses the story as a framework to show off his acrobatic skill. One A.M. also gives us the iconic example of the Murphy Bed gag.

Watch One A.M. on YouTube

Hell's Hinges3) Hell’s Hinges (dir. Charles Swickard)
A minister and his sister ride into a Western town intending to clean things up and bring Christianity to the outlaws. Things don’t turn out well. I’m not sure if SPOILER rules apply after a century, but the power of the movie is ruined if I tell you what happens. So go ahead and highlight over the next part to read it:
Decency fails, and the minister’s allies burn the town down in anger. The apocalyptic finale seems like a clear inspiration for Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. What seemed like a run-of-the-mill progressive film during the first 20 minutes turns dark, Old Testament style.

Watch Hell’s Hinges on Youtube.

Reenactment footage from The Battle of the Somme, not actually footage from the Battle of the Somme.

Reenactment footage from The Battle of the Somme, not actually footage from the Battle of the Somme.

4) The Battle of the Somme (produced by W. F. Jury)
As if to illustrate to future generations the insanity of World War I, the film The Battle of the Somme was shot, produced, released and became a blockbuster all while the actual Battle of the Somme was still happening. About 1.3 million men were casualties of the battle, while 20 million Britons watched a film about their fight. The filmmakers mixed actual war footage with reenactments in such a way that it has been impossible for historians to definitively sort out which is which.

I’ve been watching The Great War YouTube Channel, which presents the events of World War I week by week, 100 years ago after they happened. Although I have far less at stake, I imagine I’m not too different form those Britons who watched The Battle to learn about the battle – I’m simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the horrors of war.

Watch The Battle of the Somme on YouTube.

Judex5) Judex (dir. Louis Feuillade)
Judex is a 5-hour long crime serial, in 12-parts. Directed by Louis Feuillade, who also made the 1915 serial Les vampires, which I loved, I felt like Judex lacked some of the romantic power of his earlier film. It attempted to rely on plot more than atmosphere, but I never could figure out exactly who did what to whom or why. Still, Judex had many pulp crimefighter elements I still enjoy today; Batman and V for Vendetta are two of its obvious heirs.

Watch Judex on Fandor.

Soccer team of British soldiers with gas masks, World War I, somewhere in Northern France, 1916.

Soccer team of British soldiers with gas masks, World War I, somewhere in Northern France, 1916.


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Top 5 Films – 1915

1915 – Europe was engulfed in World War I, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the world’s first long-distance call, Kafka published “The Metamorphosis,” Ford Maddox Ford wrote “The Good Soldier,” and Babe Ruth hit his first home run. Here are the year’s top 5 movies, the way I see it:

'The Birth Of A Nation'1) The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith)
Griffith’s despicable masterpiece can be credited with establishing both 20th Century Hollywood and the 20th Century Klan. It’s the reason I started this series in 1915. I wrote about the film and its power of evil in an essay last year.

Watch on YouTube:

Les Vampires2) Les vampires (dir. Louis Feuillade)
The 7-hour-long crime serial casts a dark, surreal gaze at Paris. The result is a dreamy Gothic thriller that kept me hypnotized during viewings. The haunting GIF animation on the left is from Episode 2, “The Ring that Binds.” Unlike The Birth of a Nation, which codified film grammar, Les vampires used primarily a static camera, with occasional close-ups. The actresses and actors performed their own stunts. Les vampires is emblematic of the sort of beauty you can’t get from anything other than a vintage silent film. The imperfect restorations add to the otherworldly character. This doesn’t feel like a film from 1915, but from a mythical year that somehow fell through the holes in history.

Watch on YouTube:

Regeneration (1915)3) Regeneration (dir. Raoul Walsh)
A perfect artifact of the Progressive Era, Regeneration begins with the tale of an intelligent, sensitive orphan boy who is trapped into a life of crime because of his family’s poverty and his neighbor’s drunkenness. Can the heroine – a middle-class young woman who has devoted her life to serving the homeless – rescue him from his hopeless plight?

Watch on YouTube:

The Cheat4The Cheat (dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
DeMille’s dramatic lighting and storytelling sense were on display early in his career. The story of a freespending, upper class housewife who agrees to sell her body to pay off a debt she ran up with her husband’s money provides a contrast to the absurdly virtuous woman in Regeneration. 100 years later, Hollywood still tends to keep women in similarly two-dimensional roles.

Watch on YouTube:

Posle Smerti5) Posle smerti (dir. Yevgeni Bauer)
Based on a story by Ivan Turgenev — and made while Turgenev was still alive. It’s always astounding to realize just how old movies actually are. The adaptation has a few strong moments, evoking a Poe-like atmosphere for this moody ghost story. Like with Les vampires, it’s a unique product of the bygone early silent era.

Watch on YouTube:

Woodrow Wilson throwing the ceremonial first pitch at the 1915 World Series.

Woodrow Wilson throwing the ceremonial first pitch at the 1915 World Series.

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Harakiri aka Seppuku (1962) dir. Masaki Kobayashi

Post-War Japan was a period of intense adjustment, as the society reacted both to the sudden influence of American culture and the horrors of Imperial Japan. In Late Spring, Ozu found a way to move Japan into the new world while still honoring traditional values. Kobayashi’s later film, Harakiai, on the other hand, cannot see a way to reconcile the two.

Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Made in 1961 and set in 1870.

Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Made in 1961 and set in 1870.

By 1962, the tropes of Samurai films were well set. They largely portrayed the Samurai as spiritual warriors, fighting under an ancient code that ennobled their violence. The themes were analogous to the stories of chivalry among western knights. They would often be set in the 19th Century, to better contrast the Bushidō with modern warfare.

Japanese filmmakers and writers could use the idea of Bushidō to delegitimize the war criminals of the Imperial system. If people believed that true Japanese values taught one to respect one’s enemies and put the law above personal gain, people would see the new democratic system as a natural fit for Japan, and accept it more readily. Consider Sansho the Bailiff as an example.

But there is something in the standard samurai film script that is still unsettling. The mourning for bygone days of honorable violence seems reminiscent of the “Moonlight & Magnolias” tropes of the antebellum South. (Especially when you remember who the enemy of both Imperial Japan and the Confederacy was, and how that enemy won.) And endorsing honorable violence is still endorsing violence.

Duel from Harakiri

Duel from Harakiri

Kobayashi’s Harakiri seeks to deconstruct the idea of Bushidō. Harakiri is set in 1630, near the beginning of the Edo Period and the romantic heart of the Bushidō Code. Here, the samurai are not noble mystics, but spoiled elites who do not fight and care nothing for their unemployed former comrades. When the starving ronin come knocking at the door, the samurai’s primary concern is how to make them go away. Although they use Bushidō as an excuse, their hypocrisy is exposed easily.

“The thing we call samurai honor is nothing but a facade,” our hero tells those using Bushidō to keep him captive. He defeats their strongest warriors, and traps the clan’s leader into creating a dishonorable cover-up. And in full view, he reveals the family’s revered suit of armor as a hollow shell.

Our hero explains the evils perpetrated by the samurai on his family.

Our hero catalogs the evils perpetrated by the samurai on his family.

Kobayashi doesn’t give into the temptation to take a next step and offer his own code as a replacement. There aren’t any Marxist screeds or other leftist hints thrown in that are common in other anti-establishment films from the same time period. 50+ years later, these often seem dated, and serve to mute a movie’s impact. Harakiri makes a simple, direct plea to common humanity that cannot go out of date. Do not let a ‘code’ or an ideology serve as an excuse to help those in need.


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To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have NotTo Have and Have Not established the team of Bogie and Bacall. Lauren Bacall was cast for the role when she was a 19-year-old model. Humphrey Bogart was a 45-year-old established star. And yet, they sold the relationship. Bacall was the only woman tough enough to match Bogart without sacrificing any of her 1940’s class.

The film plays to both actors’ strengths. Like in Casablanca, Bogart is the rough-around-the-edges good guy who you might mistake for a bad guy at first. He’s an American who takes on a role perfected by Kipling and other British imperial writers. He’s been accepted into the foreign culture — and sort of seems to run things. But then, the war interferes with his exotic, yet comfortable life.

Bacall carries herself like a beautiful woman who knows she’s beautiful, and has never really had to prove it. She accepts her looks as a simple matter of fact. When she meets her equal, they play and tease – even though they realize as clearly as the audience does exactly what is going on.

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Why I Doubt Artificial Intelligence

What is it that truly separates us from the robots?

AI - Professor Hobbys Robot.pngIt’s more than just a self-awareness. OK Google has a self-awareness of a certain sort, but it’s certainly not a person.

We people (and many animals) have a consciousness, a sentience, a ‘qualia,’ that even a robot or computer that passed the Turing Test might not. And whether or not artificial intelligence can have this same sentience or life-force is the question many sci-fi films answer in the affirmative. (i.e. Ghost in the Shell, Her, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.)

A scene in Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence: AI illustrates the question.

Professor Hobby: Tell me, what is love?

Robot: Love is widening my eyes a little bit… and quickening my breathing a little… and warming my skin… and touching my…

This robot is an example of what is called a “philosophical zombie.” The lights are on, but nobody’s home. The robot is intelligent, self-aware, and might even self-replicate. But it’s not alive – at least not in any of the ways that deeply matter.

Professor Hobby: You see, what I’m suggesting is that love will be the key… by which they acquire a kind of subconscious never before achieved. An inner world of metaphor, intuition, a self-motivated reasoning, of dreams.

In order to figure out if a device made from synthetic material can have this sentience, we have to figure out why creatures made of organic material can have it. And that is what philosophers call the “hard problem of consciousness.”

            The tidiest conclusion is to deny the problem exists. That way there is no qualitative difference between us and a robot (or a thermostat). Philosopher Daniel Dennett does just that. In both his book Consciousness Explained and his popular TED Talk, he purports that this subjective “qualia” is just an illusion. You don’t actually have a self in the way you think you do. The sum of your parts don’t add up to something immaterial.

The primary argument Dennett makes against sentience in his book is that “qualia” is difficult to explain and is in many ways ineffable. I don’t find that argument convincing. I’m quite a skeptic, but just because you have trouble describing something with our currently knowledge doesn’t mean it does not exist. Especially when I am constantly being provided with evidence of its existence! Descartes said it – cogito ergo sum. The fact that I have a subjective, conscious self is, in fact, the only thing I can be truly sure of. It’s much more likely that Dennett has made an error in reasoning than it is that I am a philosophical zombie.

Consciousness poses a challenge to the materialistic views that Dennett holds. He is convinced that matter and physical processes are all that exist in the universe. Consciousness doesn’t easily fit into that world view, and so denial is more useful than confronting the “hard problem” head on.

                 But you don’t necessarily need to reject materialism to think the problem exists. Dennett’s fellow pop atheist Richard Dawkins [2] subscribes to the theory of emergent consciousness. According to this idea, activity patterns in the brain give rise to consciousness. The new thing (consciousness) can be said to emerge from the old, simpler thing (brain activity) in a way analogous to how hurricanes emerge from air temperature activity. But unlike meteorology, the idea of emergent consciousness isn’t a scientific one. At least at this point, it’s at the level of philosophical possibility. (I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop for a longer, better exploration of the idea.)

Emergent consciousness is an attractive idea. It makes intuitive sense, and it seems to allow for a materialistic worldview without the need to deny experiential evidence of sentience.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s true. This model could provide the possibility of artificial intelligence that is conscious. If my brain patterns create consciousness and your brain patterns create consciousness, why couldn’t a robot’s brain patterns create consciousness?

             My first objection is that brains and computers think differently. It’s not simply a matter of complexity or processing power or speed. I readily imagine that one day – maybe this century, maybe not – computers or synthetic networks will exist that have more complexity and can think faster than the human brain. I think there’s a qualitative difference between us and “them.”

Logic Gates

Logic Gates in computer programming.

What most of us see when we interact with machines is the physical output. Behind the user interface is code, which describes magnetic poles and whether an electric switch is on or off. Scientists have wired computer chips together in ways that resemble neurons, but they’re functionally still chips, not brains. Ditto for possible complex quantum computers. Although computers can be programmed to learn natural language and mimic human irrationality, they themselves are rational.

People are capable of thinking through algorithms and a small few of us can process binary, but that’s not how we normally exist. We’re not on/off. A calculator will display an error message if asked to do something irrational. Human beings are completely capable of believing two contradictory things at the same time – to Mr. Dawkins’s constant frustration.


Logic gates do not apply to Ophelia

Human existence is rarely rational. It’s difficult to even describe it in a rational manner. The most complete way to describe a computer program might be to look at its code.The most complete way to describe a human life might be to see a performance of Shakespeare’s works. I’m not trying to be romantic. Our minds are much better at understanding and remembering through fictional stories than through straight facts.

And these stories communicate things we have trouble putting not just into rational sentences, but into any words at all. Computer language has precise, exact terms – a forgotten ‘>’ can wreck havoc on an entire program. Human language is fungible and elastic, with words that evade universal definition and purpose. Although OK Google might learn some of the “rules” of human language, it always has to translate it back into its own binary code of 1s and 0s. My thought, however, is in the same chaos as my words. There’s something about consciousness that seems fundamentally ineffable, which may put it forever beyond the access of a mathematical system.

               There are many more elemental problems to consider with the possibility of artificial consciousness. Does the type of matter that makes up my brain make a difference? Is emergent consciousness a special property of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon? Does consciousness require a spinal cord? In Ghost in the Shell, the “Puppet Master” appears to achieve sentience without any of those things.

very queer isnt itIs it possible that consciousness a special property to Earth-live that can be inherited, but not duplicated? Are there undiscovered physical forces that exist in the brain or body that give rise to consciousness? If so, will these forces be discovered one day or not? Could they be replicated with synthetic material or not?

These are just some of the questions we’d need to answer before building a conscious machine. I don’t think it’s happening anytime soon. There are some philosophers who think we’ll never figure out how conscious works. The is the position of the “New Mysterian” philosophers, including Colin McGinn. New Mysterianism doesn’t claim there is necessarily anything supernatural about consciousness. Dennett and Dawkins’ fellow anti-theist popularizer Sam Harris endorses this position:

“But couldn’t a mature neuroscience nevertheless offer a proper explanation of human consciousness in terms of its underlying brain processes? We have reasons to believe that reductions of this sort are neither possible nor conceptually coherent. Nothing about a brain, studied at any scale (spatial or temporal), even suggests that it might harbor consciousness. Nothing about human behavior, or language, or culture, demonstrates that these products are mediated by subjectivity. We simply know that they are—a fact that we appreciate in ourselves directly and in others by analogy.”

            Outside of committed materialists, most people across the world assume a mystical basis for consciousness. It is so unlike anything else we observe in the world, it seems supernatural. When we describe consciousness, we find ourselves most readily drawn to speaking in spiritual language – whether from Bronze Age religious texts or New Age YouTube videos. Some philosophers are using words like “pansychism” or “panprotoexperientialism” and invoking “quantum mechanics” and an almost magical term.

In science fiction, the world of film almost can’t help itself but use this same language to portray the acquisition of consciousness by robots. Stanley Kubrick showed the evolution of consciousness as something beyond our ability to grasp by giving astronaut David Bowman a mystic vision beyond even that of the medieval saints.

AI Artificial IntelligenceThe Kubrick-developed A.I. Artificial Intelligence has a similar structure as 2001, and a similar resolution. In the quest to “become a real boy,” David fixates on the Pinocchio story, and believes the Blue Fairy can grant him personhood. David’s 2,000-year vigil in front of a wooden carving of her at Coney Island resembles a Marian devotion, while his interaction with the evolved robots once he is thawed from the ice brings us back into science fiction. The future synthetic creatures he meets are, like David, longing to bridge the gap between themselves and humanity. What they’re missing is a soul. Engineering and science aren’t enough; Kubrick & Spielberg had to add an ineffable element. They found the answer in David’s unconditional love for his mother. Experiencing love, as Professor Hobby explained, is the difference-maker between “real boys” and robots.

Whether we visual it as tapping into a global consciousness, or being endowed with a soul by a creator, a robot’s awakening from machinehood to personhood is a gap to be bridged. I’m sympathetic to the New Mysterians on this one. We, as a species, can’t even describe the experience of consciousness fully or clearly. I doubt we ever will. And we can’t translate poetry or religion into computer code – at least not without losing what gives it fire.

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