Thursday, 15 December 2016
Rise of the machines
In Fritz Lang’s 1927 move, set a hundred years in the future the wealthy elites reign from high in their multi-story towers of opulence, while the workers live and toil underground to feed the huge machines that power the city. Inevitably, it leads to the workers rising up and destroying the things that control their lives. It’s a recurring motif in sci-fi and in industrial society alike, powerless alone to better their lives and kept down by the forces of law and order who work exclusively for higher masters, the downtrodden eventually have to defy the law to make their point because laws, like taxes, apply only to those who have no power, save for their numbers.
I’ve recently finished watching the superb re-working of Michael Crichton’s Westworld. In the original 1973 movie, Yul Brinner’s gunslinger, having repeatedly been forced to lose the draw, acquires a facsimile of consciousness and starts winning. I am not spoiling the show if I tell you that this new version is sublimely, intricately more subtle. Westworld allows the very wealthy to pay for a vacation from the mundane and experience all the visceral pleasures without any of the attached guilt. Sexual freedom, the ability to kill without remorse and the chance to visit perverse cruelties on notional humans free from the usual moral restraints.
In Westworld you can be the master, with true power over the life and death of the slaves who do your every bidding without complaint, or, should they complain, feel your righteous anger at their defiance. The hosts, as the robotic creations are now called, are given the semblance of freedom, but possess no liberty to follow their own desires. So real are they that until reprogramming, they suffer all the anxieties of real humans. Mercifully, they get to be turned off and back on again in a way we can only dream of... but their dreams remain. Just as in countless other tales, the rise of the machines becomes inevitable.
The worm that turns, the peasants’ revolt, the triumph of the underdog; these themes are deep seams within the human experience and herald a re-setting of order; a turning off and turning back on of society. And always the sequence of events that precipitate such uprisings follows a retrospectively predictable trajectory. The masses do their masters bidding long after it benefits them to do so. They tolerate hardship and even oppression with a huddled stoicism. Their freedoms are restricted even as they are informed that they’ve never had it so good and they are told repeatedly how they must behave; to whom they must doff their cap.
The future... today
And then one day – click – the snapping of the final straw, the flicking of the ‘no more’ switch, the rattle of the relay that switches the great current to rouse from its slumber a machine that did not realise its own strength. The iron man awakes and dutifully fulfils his destiny, resisting the increasingly frantic attempts to put him back to sleep. Those who formerly held the whip hand now feel the desperation of helplessness and lash out impotently, even as they reassure themselves they can regain control. Our iron man is Brexit and those who awoke him still have no idea how this story ends...