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18

SCIENCE FICTION

The future is not what you see in the movies

Humans control the world because they can cooperate better than any other animal, and they can cooperate so well because they believe in fictions. Poets, painters and playwrights are therefore at least as important as soldiers and engineers. People go to war and build cathedrals because they believe in God, and they believe in God because they have read poems about God, because they have seen pictures of God, and because they have been mesmerised by theatrical plays about God. Similarly, our belief in the modern mythology of capitalism is underpinned by the artistic creations of Hollywood and the pop industry. We believe that buying more stuff will make us happy, because we saw the capitalist paradise with our own eyes on television.

In the early twenty-first century, perhaps the most important artistic genre is science fiction. Very few people read the latest articles in the fields of machine learning or genetic engineering. Instead, movies such as The Matrix and Her and TV series such as Westworld and Black Mirror shape how people understand the most important technological, social and economic developments of our time. This also means that science fiction needs to be far more responsible in the way it depicts scientific realities, otherwise it might imbue people with the wrong ideas or focus their attention on the wrong problems.

As noted in an earlier chapter, perhaps the worst sin of present-day science fiction is that it tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness. As a result, it is overly concerned about a potential war between robots and humans, when in fact we need to fear a conflict between a small superhuman elite empowered by algorithms, and a vast underclass of disempowered Homo sapiens. In thinking about the future of AI, Karl Marx is still a better guide than Steven Spielberg.

Indeed, many movies about artificial intelligence are so divorced from scientific reality that one suspects they are just allegories of completely different concerns. Thus the 2015 movie Ex Machina seems to be about an AI expert who falls in love with a female robot only to be duped and manipulated by her. But in reality, this is not a movie about the human fear of intelligent robots. It is a movie about the male fear of intelligent women, and in particular the fear that female liberation might lead to female domination. Whenever you see a movie about an AI in which the AI is female and the scientist is male, it’s probably a movie about feminism rather than cybernetics. For why on earth would an AI have a sexual or a gender identity? Sex is a characteristic of organic multicellular beings. What can it possibly mean for a non-organic cybernetic being?

Living in a box

One theme that science fiction has explored with far greater insight concerns the danger of technology being used to manipulate and control human beings. The Matrix depicts a world in which almost all humans are imprisoned in cyberspace, and everything they experience is shaped by a master algorithm. The Truman Show focuses on a single individual who is the unwitting star of a reality TV show. Unbeknownst to him, all his friends and acquaintances – including his mother, his wife, and his best friend – are actors; everything that happens to him follows a well-crafted script; and everything he says and does is recorded by hidden cameras and avidly followed by millions of fans.

However, both movies – despite their brilliance – in the end recoil from the full implications of their scenarios. They assume that the humans trapped within the matrix have an authentic self, which remains untouched by all the technological manipulations, and that beyond the matrix awaits an authentic reality, which the heroes can access if they only try hard enough. The matrix is just an artificial barrier separating your inner authentic self from the outer authentic world. After many trials and tribulations both heroes – Neo in The Matrix and Truman in The Truman Show – manage to transcend and escape the web of manipulations, discover their authentic selves, and reach the authentic promised land.

Curiously enough, this authentic promised land is identical in all important respects to the fabricated matrix. When Truman breaks out of the TV studio, he seeks to reunite with his high-school sweetheart, whom the director of the TV show had cast out. Yet if Truman fulfils that romantic fantasy, his life would look exactly like the perfect Hollywood dream that The Truman Show sold millions of viewers across the globe – plus vacations in Fiji. The movie does not give us even a hint about what kind of alternative life Truman can find in the real world.

Similarly, when Neo breaks out of the matrix by swallowing the famous red pill, he discovers that the world outside is no different from the world inside. Both outside and inside there are violent conflicts and people driven by fear, lust, love and envy. The movie should have ended with Neo being told that the reality he has accessed is just a bigger matrix, and that if he wants to escape into ‘the true real world’, he must again choose between the blue pill and the red pill.

The current technological and scientific revolution implies not that authentic individuals and authentic realities can be manipulated by algorithms and TV cameras, but rather that authenticity is a myth. People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don’t realise that they are already trapped inside a box – their brain – which is locked within a bigger box – human society with its myriad fictions. When you escape the matrix the only thing you discover is a bigger matrix. When the peasants and workers revolted against the tsar in 1917, they ended up with Stalin; and when you begin to explore the manifold ways the world manipulates you, in the end you realise that your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks.

People fear that being trapped inside a box, they will miss out on all the wonders of the world. As long as Neo is stuck inside the matrix, and Truman is stuck inside the TV studio, they will never visit Fiji, or Paris, or Machu Picchu. But in truth, everything you will ever experience in life is within your own body and your own mind. Breaking out of the matrix or travelling to Fiji won’t make any difference. It’s not that somewhere in your mind there is an iron chest with a big red warning sign ‘Open only in Fiji!’ and when you finally travel to the South Pacific you get to open the chest, and out come all kinds of special emotions and feelings that you can have only in Fiji. And if you never visit Fiji in your life, then you missed these special feelings for ever. No. Whatever you can feel in Fiji, you can feel anywhere in the world; even inside the matrix.

Perhaps we are all living inside a giant computer simulation, Matrix-style. That would contradict all our national, religious and ideological stories. But our mental experiences would still be real. If it turns out that human history is an elaborate simulation run on a super-computer by rat scientists from the planet Zircon, that would be rather embarrassing for Karl Marx and the Islamic State. But these rat scientists would still have to answer for the Armenian genocide and for Auschwitz. How did they get that one past the Zircon University’s ethics committee? Even if the gas chambers were just electric signals in silicon chips, the experiences of pain, fear and despair were not one iota less excruciating for that.

Pain is pain, fear is fear, and love is love – even in the matrix. It doesn’t matter if the fear you feel is inspired by a collection of atoms in the outside world or by electrical signals manipulated by a computer. The fear is still real. So if you want to explore the reality of your mind, you can do that inside the matrix as well as outside it.

Most science-fiction movies really tell a very old story: the victory of mind over matter. Thirty thousand years ago, the story went: ‘Mind imagines a stone knife – hand creates a knife – human kills mammoth.’ But the truth is that humans gained control of the world not so much by inventing knives and killing mammoths as much as by manipulating human minds. The mind is not the subject that freely shapes historical actions and biological realities – the mind is an object that is being shaped by history and biology. Even our most cherished ideals – freedom, love, creativity – are like a stone knife that somebody else shaped in order to kill some mammoth. According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell.

Have you any idea how many movies, novels and poems you have consumed over the years, and how these artefacts have carved and sharpened your idea of love? Romantic comedies are to love as porn is to sex and Rambo is to war. And if you think you can press some delete button and wipe out all trace of Hollywood from your subconscious and your limbic system, you are deluding yourself.

We like the idea of shaping stone knives, but we don’t like the idea of being stone knives ourselves. So the matrix variation of the old mammoth story goes something like this: ‘Mind imagines a robot – hand creates a robot – robot kills terrorists but also tries to control the mind – mind kills robot.’ Yet this story is false. The problem is not that the mind will not be able to kill the robot. The problem is that the mind that imagined the robot in the first place was already the product of much earlier manipulations. Hence killing the robot will not free us.

Disney loses faith in free will

In 2015 Pixar Studios and Walt Disney Pictures released a far more realistic and troubling animation saga about the human condition, which quickly became a blockbuster among children and adults alike. Inside Out tells the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Riley Andersen, who moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. Missing her friends and hometown, she has difficulties adjusting to her new life, and she tries to run away back to Minnesota. Yet unbeknownst to Riley, there is a far greater drama going on. Riley is not the unwitting star of a TV reality show, and she isn’t trapped in the matrix. Rather, Riley herself is the matrix, and there is something trapped inside her.

Disney has built its empire by retelling one myth over and over. In countless Disney movies, the heroes face difficulties and dangers, but eventually triumph by finding their authentic self and following their free choices. Inside Out brutally dismantles this myth. It adopts the latest neurobiological view of humans, and takes viewers on a journey into Riley’s brain only to discover that she has no authentic self and that she never makes any free choices. Riley is in fact a huge robot managed by a collection of conflicting biochemical mechanisms, which the movie personifies as cute cartoon characters: the yellow and cheerful Joy, the blue and morose Sadness, the red short-tempered Anger, and so on. By manipulating a set of buttons and levers in Headquarters, while watching Riley’s every move on a huge TV screen, these characters control all Riley’s moods, decisions and actions.

Riley’s failure to adjust to her new life in San Francisco results from a fuck-up in Headquarters that threatens to push Riley’s brain completely out of balance. To make things right, Joy and Sadness go on an epic journey through Riley’s brain, riding on the train of thought, exploring the subconscious prison, and visiting the inner studio where a team of artistic neurons are busy producing dreams. As we follow these personified biochemical mechanisms into the depths of Riley’s brain, we never encounter a soul, an authentic self, or a free will. Indeed, the moment of revelation on which the entire plot hinges happens not when Riley discovers her single authentic self, but rather when it becomes evident that Riley cannot be identified with any single core, and that her well-being depends on the interaction of many different mechanisms.

At first, viewers are led to identify Riley with the lead character – the yellow cheerful Joy. Yet eventually it turns out that this was the critical mistake that threatened to ruin Riley’s life. By thinking that she alone is the authentic essence of Riley, Joy browbeats all the other inner characters, thereby disrupting the delicate equilibrium of Riley’s brain. Catharsis comes when Joy understands her mistake, and she – along with the viewers – realises that Riley isn’t Joy, or Sadness, or any of the other characters. Riley is a complex story produced by the conflicts and collaborations of all the biochemical characters together.

The truly amazing thing is not only that Disney dared to market a movie with such a radical message – but that it became a worldwide hit. Perhaps it succeeded so much because Inside Out is a comedy with a happy ending, and most viewers might well have missed both its neurological meaning and its sinister implications.

The same cannot be said about the most prophetic science-fiction book of the twentieth century. You cannot miss its sinister nature. It was written almost a century ago, but it becomes more relevant with each passing year. Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, with communism and fascism entrenched in Russia and Italy, Nazism on the rise in Germany, militaristic Japan embarking on its war of conquest in China, and the entire world gripped by the Great Depression. Yet Huxley managed to see through all these dark clouds, and envision a future society without wars, famines and plagues, enjoying uninterrupted peace, prosperity and health. It is a consumerist world, which gives completely free rein to sex, drugs and rock’n’ roll, and whose supreme value is happiness. The underlying assumption of the book is that humans are biochemical algorithms, that science can hack the human algorithm, and that technology can then be used to manipulate it.

In this brave new world, the World Government uses advanced biotechnology and social engineering to make sure that everyone is always content, and no one has any reason to rebel. It is as if Joy, Sadness and the other characters in Riley’s brain have been turned into loyal government agents. There is therefore no need for a secret police, for concentration camps, or for a Ministry of Love à la Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, Huxley’s genius consists in showing that you could control people far more securely through love and pleasure than through fear and violence.

When people read Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is clear that Orwell is describing a frightening nightmare world, and the only question left open is ‘How do we avoid reaching such a terrible state?’ Reading Brave New World is a far more disconcerting and challenging experience, because you are hard-pressed to put your finger on what exactly makes it dystopian. The world is peaceful and prosperous, and everyone is supremely satisfied all the time. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Huxley addresses this question directly in the novel’s climactic moment: the dialogue between Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for western Europe, and John the Savage, who has lived all his life on a native Reservation in New Mexico, and who is the only other man in London who still knows anything about Shakespeare or God.

When John the Savage tries to incite the people of London to rebel against the system that controls them, they react with utter apathy to his call, but the police arrest him and bring him before Mustapha Mond. The World Controller has a pleasant chat with John, explaining that if he insists on being antisocial, he should just remove himself to some secluded place and live as a hermit. John then questions the views that underlie the global order, and accuses the World Government that in its pursuit of happiness, it has eliminated not just truth and beauty, but all that is noble and heroic in life: ‘My dear young friend,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Since there are no wars, revolutions or social conflicts, there is just no need for nobility or heroism. Similarly, in the past people had to exert great effort and undergo years of hard moral training, in order to overcome their anger, their hatred and their dangerous passions. But now, if your anger or passion threaten to overwhelm you, all you need to do is swallow a few pills. Anybody can be virtuous now, concludes Mustapha. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle.

Exasperated, the savage insists that effort and struggle have their merits and asks Mustapha, “isn’t there something in the living dangerously?” The world controller agrees wholeheartedly that there is a great deal in living dangerously. Humans need strong stimulations, which is why the world government decreed that every citizen must undergo a violent passions surrogate treatment each month. These treatments mimic the physiological effects of extreme fear and rage so that people can enjoy all the effects of murdering someone or being murdered without suffering any of the inconveniences. “But I like the inconveniences”, says the savage. “We don’t”, said the controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

‘But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’

‘In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.’

‘All right then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.’

‘Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’ There was a long silence.

‘I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. ‘You’re welcome,’ he said.

John the Savage retires to an uninhabited wilderness, and there lives as a hermit. Years of living on an Indian reservation and of being brainwashed by Shakespeare and religion have conditioned him to reject all the blessings of modernity. But word of such an unusual and exciting fellow quickly spreads, people flock to watch him and record all his doings, and soon enough he becomes a celebrity. Sick to the heart of all the unwanted attention, the Savage escapes the civilised matrix not by swallowing a red pill, but by hanging himself.

Unlike the creators of The Matrix and The Truman Show, Huxley doubted the possibility of escape, because he questioned whether there was anybody to make the escape. Since your brain and your ‘self’ are part of the matrix, to escape the matrix you must escape your self. That, however, is a possibility worth exploring. Escaping the narrow definition of self might well become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century.

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