Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Ziggurat and the Future of Big Ideas

In chatting with a friend about the implications of the waning of science in America (if you haven't, listen to my interview with Research Scientist Dr. Alan Glasser for more context), I happened upon a talk by native Washingtonian and prominent science fiction author Neal Stephenson. The title for his brief lecture is "getting big stuff done," a focus that fits squarely within the bounds of the discussion in podcast #2. Get comfortable and watch the author of 'Cryptonomicon' discuss the future:

Stephenson makes the case reiterated so often among today's cultural and scientific elites: we aren't focused on making manifest the promises of the future (at least the kind of utopian, high-concept future of the olden days). Stephenson lays part of the blame on IT as a siphon for America's capacity to innovate (a vortex to which Yours Truly fell prey) as well as those in the culture responsible for dreaming up the next great thing.

But, America's great popularizer of science Neil deGrasse Tyson, summarizes it so much more eloquently here:

I'm unsure if Stephenson's dream of the 20 kilometer tall building, truly a Ziggurat, is interesting, and it's one grounded in pragmatism. I'll resist the obligatory literary comparison between Stephenson's building and the Tower of Babel; I am skeptical of the moral conclusions divined from mythologies written by anonymous, bronze-age barbarians. But I digress, we have the technology.... But, both Stephenson and Tyson aren't just kicking the can down the road to the next generation of kids with agile, unbroken spirits; they are trying to lay down the cobblestones to help them find the future. This author does believe they are correct when asserting that building a dream, albeit a fictional one, is the likely first step.

As a film school graduate (and ardent SciFi fan), I am saddened that my young nephews' exposure to science fiction has been reduced to Michael Bay's infinitely-stupifying forays in the banal spectacle and George Lucas' uninspired retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth (with light sabers). Hollywood cares little for stories with new ideas, and even less for subversive or un-focus-grouped tangents. If we rest the responsibility for dream-making entirely in the hands of Hollywood, those dreams will likely be as hollow and forgettable as any creative work made exclusively for profit and by a committee well-fed plutocrats.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Presidential Hopeful Mitt Romney-R(eplicant)

The prospect of Mitt Romney as President of the United States of America makes me uncomfortable. It isn't just my aversion to Republicans (with their dogmatic, bigoted and nihilistic political philosophy), or even Romney being the current frontrunner in the primary (and hence a real possibility of being our next POTUS). Also, it is not just because of how he chooses to earn his money (by buying small companies, drowning them in debt, driving them into the ground while "flipping" them for profit), or as the lowest form of political hypocrite (passing a health care mandate in Massachusetts but campaigning in opposition to Obamacare), or even his conspicuous Mormonism (a complicated, but troubling American religion replete with secrecy, factionalization and a growing political appetite). He has another nagging problem, pundits are calling it the "enthusiasm gap." Now this phrase was originally coined to describe our apathetic electorate and the epidemic of low voter turnout. In Romney's case it has been appropriated to reflect the more anecdotal, qualitative issues that the mainstream press is broadcasting about his apparent lack of likability.

It is his cold, unemotional, even robotic character that allegedly troubles Romney's campaign. New York Magazine's profile of Romney last year brilliantly lays it out:

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he has adopted a public persona that contains no detectable motives at all, one that is buried in objectivity, in data, in process.

Of course, it has been a growing trend for presidential candidates to appear to hold no opinion too strongly or answer a question too directly. The highly calculating, finely honed nature of American electoral theater all but requires a candidate to appear devoid enough of substance to allow the voters superimpose their own desires on the candidate. If you want to be likeable, be vague. Take the case of Barack Obama.

Romney evidently plays this game very well and for the Republicans, who largely see the President's role as CEO-in-Chief rather than a legislative coxswain, his handlers and financial backers are probably very happy about his performance so far. But Romney hasn't won yet, a fact that candidate #2, Newt Gingrich, is banking on. But there is still the vulnerability of Romney's stiff persona.

The Atlantic's Brian Fung wrote recently in an article that suggests another way in which to view this dilemma: Romney as Creepy Robot. He states that Romney exhibits an "uncanny valley" quality that confuses and unnerves us. This is the relatively new idea that as we make more realistic automatons (human-like robots), the more creepy they get.

Watch the Japanese dental assistant training robot for a shining example:

Fung puts it succinctly:

Romney's problem is that he occupies a kind of uncanny valley for politicians. Just as people who interact with lifelike robots often develop a strange feeling due to something they can't quite name, something about Romney leaves voters unsettled.

You could write off this "enthusiasm gap" or Romney's weirdness as being a combination of his stilted demeanor mixed with the alien-like nature of his purported religion, or more simply that as an extremely wealthy citizen (certainly a member of the "one-percent") Romney lives in a separate social sphere then the rest of us. The true cause for the weirdness may never be solved by this kind of speculation. But this metaphorical play about humanness and automatons compels me to revisit one the great films of the 20th Century(in my opinion, anyway): Blade Runner.

In Ridley Scott's dystopian science fiction opus, the human-like robot antagonists are called "replicants," designed to mimic us in every way, except for their truncated three-year life spans and their lack of emotion. Here we run headlong into uncanny valley and the tragic cliche of the soulless, unfeeling robot. But, in this world the newest replicant models come out, the "Nexus Six," and they begin to grow their own emotions. The films action centers around a "blade runner" named Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), who is essentially a detective that hunts down and retires (read: kills) escaped replicants. Besides a powerful gun, the blade runner relies on a Voight-Kampff machine to interrogate a suspected replicant and from the lack of true emotional response, catch them.

At its core, this is an action film, so we get our expected dosage of running, brawling and shooting. But the film's lasting contribution to discourse is, I argue, its meditation on a key question: what would life mean if we could not tell the difference between real and artificial life?

The replicants are used as slave labor in the "off-world colonies," in outer space somewhere, and their function is that of a disposable work force built to do the dangerous or difficult tasks humans no longer want to do. Deckard learns that a group of escaped replicants violently overthrow their masters and return to Earth seeking... well that's what the audience wants to know. For those who have not yet seen the film, the below video is a bit of spoiler (you may wish to skip it):

We witness the violence and apathy toward human life, as the replicants kill their way to their goal. Deckard's necessity is predicated on the notion that in this world the replicants are dangerous and must be stopped at all costs. But, we slowly grow to understand that while there may be a horrifying and sadistic decadence in the way the replicants exercise their violence, that they are designed to be killers. Also, the life into which they are born, slavery, affords them only two real avenues in their short lives: to obey or to kill. We also find that they fall in love, keep photographs of one another and possess a desire to experience beauty and pleasure, and even to search for meaning.

As Deckard faces the prospect of his own death at the climax of the film, his nemesis Roy Batty, saves him with an act of pure compassion. And hence, the film creates a role reversal: which one is the real killer?

Mitt Romney, and his well-paid cadre of campaign strategists, may well be crafting a narrative for him as the good replicant who will catch us as we fall. We are certainly sung the songs of a messianic savior with all of the republican candidates, but Romney seems to have the most to prove in regards to his humanity. In November, without fail, these primary days will be lost, like tears in the rain.