Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Terminator and the Intention of Technology

The science fiction film of late-20th-century Western culture often portrays a grim future that offers only hopelessness and despair if -- and the warning is explicit -- mankind continues to ignore the hazards of science, to transgress its bounds (or even to deny that science has any bounds), to use technology to imitate nature, i.e., to play God. Some of the sociocultural questions frequently posed regarding society and science in this Age of Technology are: What is the value of technology to society? Does technology have value for society? Is technology in service to mankind, or vice versa? Does technology have a "life" of its own, or does mankind anthropomorphize? Writer/director James Cameron exploits these questions to fashion his bleak futurescapes: The Terminator, Aliens, and Terminator II. In The Terminator (1984), a technological Frankenstein's monster from 2029 C.E. (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent "back" to our present by its inhuman creator to kill a normal, unassuming waitress named Sarah Conner; one lone warrior from this apocalyptic near-future, Kyle Reese, is sent by mankind to protect and defend Sarah from the Terminator, because, as Reese explains to Sarah, "it's very important that you live." The succeeding 80 or 90 minutes careen inexorably as an unsuccessful attempt by Reese and Sarah to evade the Terminator over the 48-hour period of May 12-14, 1984. The chase and confrontation represent the final battle in the war of the machines -- which begins "a few years from now" -- to exterminate mankind. Cameron's treatment of the subject matter is subtle and astute; he incorporates many of our conventional metaphors, and interweaves ambiguous irony, in order to highlight both the obvious and the obscure.

In the film's excessive use of night shooting -- about 90% of the action occurs at night -- it explicitly encourages the light/dark, good/evil, nature/culture, faith/facts hierarchical oppositions, connecting that which is bad in our society with our technological advances, particularly in intimidating close-ups of the unsympathetic machinery of mankind: tractors, piledrivers, tanks, munitions. This Manichean juxtaposition is intended to point to the negative effect on mankind of his so-called "technological progress." At what point, asks The Terminator, does science adversely affect society? What kind of pharmakon is technology, medicine or poison? The theme appears to be an explication of the evils in technology and the limits of science. There is a contrary sub-theme, however, that concerns not technology but the way in which mankind thinks about technology. I propose first to set out some examples of ways in which the film's explicit meaning is developed; then I will point to some of the ways in which it criticizes the calculative (i.e., goal-oriented) thinking of modern scientific Western culture and suggests an alternate approach to technology.

The Terminator presents an explicit, seemingly straightforward message: Mankind, in enslavement to the apparent benefits of technology, has overstepped his bounds and is judged guilty of hubris, for which sin he will be punished, perhaps destroyed. The Terminator, although conceived of and engineered by Skynet, a worldwide and (miraculously) self-aware computer network, is mankind's illegitimate grandchild, the second-generation progeny of Man's attempts to play God. As portrayed by Schwarzenneger, the cybernetic organism ("cyborg") -- Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 -- bears an intentionally striking resemblance to the Nazi stormtrooper of Hitler's Third Reich, mankind's most recent prior attempt at recreating himself in his own image: the stern Aryan visage with "frown / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command"; the uninflected, guttural speech; the chrome-and-leather uniform of a fascist military regime; and the ever-intimidating, all-important boots of oppression, ever willing to stomp on victims. In several scenes, the Terminator's entrance is signaled by its boots. Its stride is so swift and sure that we are liable to be trampled underfoot if we remain in its path: God help us if we are its target; we know very early in the film what will happen to us. Almost as soon as the opening credits fade from view, the Terminator rips a man's heart out: it is efficient; it is bloody; it does not touch the Terminator emotionally -- it is a machine, not a man. Its violence is a result of its logic -- computer logic -- analyzing the most appropriate action to generate an intended response. We just know that this thing is going to succeed in its mission -- it is, after all, Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself a celebrity automaton with a reputation for remorselessness, single-mindedness and perfection.

Yet for mankind to survive, the Terminator cannot succeed. Sarah Connor must live, to conceive and bear the Future's messiah so as to ensure mankind's continued existence. In their first "group" encounter, Sarah, Reese and the Terminator converge at a bar named TechNoir -- an obvious statement highlighting the negativity (supposedly) inherent in technology. Sarah's earlier attempt to call the police was abortive; the public phone was, appropriately, out of order. (In this film, technology is out of order, or at least marching to the beat of a very different drummer.) At TechNoir she finally makes a connection, but it is, significantly, in the form of a recorded message -- "You have reached the Los Angeles Police Department. All our lines are busy." The lighting is stroboscopic, disorienting, unnatural; the throbbing music repeats an insistent plaint -- "You've got me covered." When Sarah finally talks directly with the Chief of Police and he tells her, "You're in a public place so you'll be safe 'til we get there," the audience knows better. By this time, we have seen the Terminator rip a man's heart out, blow away a gun-shop owner and shoot two defenseless women at point-blank range, riddling their bodies with cold steel well after administering a graceless but effective coup de grace. It frequently fires its laser-guided weaponry into the camera and directly at the audience, while the dying is done off-camera. Its lack of empathy has been well-defined. As Reese extricates Sarah from the carnage at TechNoir, the chase begins in earnest. When Sarah finally terminates the Terminator -- herself using a piece of man-made automated machinery -- she seems to be reaffirming the theme of technology's negative intentionality.

Things, however, are not necessarily what they seem. Cameron's use of irony subtly subverts the film's explicit criticisms. It is significant that, throughout the film, statements which at first appear to be obligatory, either rote or tongue-in-cheek, ultimately are revealed as prophetic; such statements seem to indicate that a concept may be interpreted in more than one way, that a thing may not be all that it seems. After Sarah's introduction as a sweet but unfortunately inept waitress having made a disastrous error and been publicly shamed by a customer (a little boy slips a scoop of ice cream into her apron pocket), a co-worker remarks to her in passing, "Look at it this way, in a hundred years who's gonna care?" A little while later, we find out that everyone is going to care; what at first seems ludicrous is in fact possible. The same co-worker shortly returns to remark, "You're dead, honey." And even though by the end Sarah is not dead, most of the other people in the film are dead; if the premise of the film, "proven" true, is to be followed, then most of mankind will be dead "a few years from now." The written prologue informs us immediately that the machines rose "from the ashes of the nuclear fire." Mankind presumably represents those ashes.

The two times we hear Sarah's answering machine, her roommate Ginger's voice is heard to say, "Hah hah hah hah, fooled you. You're talking to a machine. But don't be shy, it's okay. Machines need love, too." Ginger's empathy and anthropomorphism -- and by implication our culture's -- are showing. Here we see mankind's love of his creation, the machine; since he loves his creation -- it being his "child" -- he necessarily has to feel that the machine reciprocates. But upon reflection we realize that machines do not love him back, because they can't. They can crack the mystery of time-travel (and therefore of time), but they can't feel. So perhaps The Terminator is hinting to us that we are approaching technology with the wrong considerations as to intentionality. Perhaps we need to rethink what we intend our technology to do.

When the police proffer, out of unknowing ignorance, the very bad advice to Sarah to "stay visible" because she's in a "public place," the audience grimaces. The Terminator respects neither society nor its laws, so public visibility is no longer safe; the logic of appearance is suspect. To combat the Terminator, and to effectively produce and promote our technology, we may need to rethink our relationship to technology. As long as we remain in service to technology, we must wonder what if anything technology is in service to. In response to Reese's explanation of her importance as the mother of his savior, Sarah exclaims, "Do I look like the mother of the future? Am I tough? I can't even balance my checkbook, for God's sake!" Perhaps the uncertain future will not require calculative (i.e., quantitative) thinking. "I am not stupid," she tells Reese in a huff; at the time we think otherwise, perhaps, but it turns out as she says -- she is not stupid, and she is the mother of the future. So what the film really means, in one sense, is that calculative thinking -- the kind of thinking that gets things done but doesn't address the sense or value or meaning in a thing -- is not appropriate when applied to the value given to technology by our culture. This is very different from asserting that technology itself is inappropriate, or even evil. Cameron suggests that mankind is unable to control his creation, mis-taking its relevance, treating it as though it were a pliable baby instead of a "hyper-alloy combat chassis, microprocessor-controlled, fully armored, very tough."

The word terminator is defined as a person or thing that terminates, i.e., brings to an end. Yet it also refers to a dividing line between an illuminated and an unilluminated part of an orbiting object. The Latin root terminus, meaning boundary, limit, end, contributes to the name of the ancient Roman god of boundaries and landmarks, Terminus. Yet the Latin phrase terminus a quo means, in addition to "the end from which," the radically opposite "starting point." It can be seen that termination is not simply finality, because where there is an ending there is, implicitly and by definition, a beginning. There is in fact no absolute ending, which is the only ending which admits no further beginning; the strength of the argument would appear to weigh rather in favor of an absolute beginning which admits both beginning and ending but no absolute ending. A term refers to a time or period through which something lasts; this implies a beginning-ending-beginning cycle, yet not an absolute ending. Terminus shares its root (term-) with the word terminal, a part of a building (e.g., airport, railroad station) which leads to other places, i.e., to other positions in space-time. So a terminator, in addition to bringing something to an end in an act of prohibitive limiting, can act as a mediator by and through which something -- mankind -- can move to other positions in space-time, based on endings which function as beginnings. If the Terminator is considered in light of such implications, then perhaps we should think of technology as the midwife of culture, a mechanism by and through which mankind can progress to its next level of development. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the importance we attribute to it.

The Terminator is the child of the scientist more than it is of society; as such, the evil scientist -- personified in the film by Dr. Silverman, the criminal psychologist -- is the one to whom we must look of ultimate responsibility in the valuation of technology. "They," says Sarah, referring to the scientists of her age, "cannot make things like that yet." The key word in her observation is "yet" -- the sense of inevitability implied by "yet" is another sort of ending/beginning relationship. The (evil) scientist, mad for the power that technology driven by calculative thinking (i.e., "number-crunching") can forcibly wrest from (mathematical) nature, can make something "run good," but he cannot make it "good," i.e., virtuous. The Terminator represents mankind's mistake -- the scientist's flaw is one of intention, not of performance. The scientist, in his enthusiasm, does not think things through -- the significance of new inventions, for instance -- and is therefore susceptible to error. When the Terminator kills Ginger, thinking her Sarah, the song lyrics, repeated ad nauseam, are, "It's a mistake, it's a mistake"; in fact, it is a mistake, and in more ways than target acquisition. Mankind has mis-taken his technology, and his technology, in unflattering imitation, may just as casually mis-take him. This intimated assertion can be taken to mean, in answer to one of the questions initially posed herein, that technology may indeed be thought to have a "life" -- or at any rate an intention -- of its own.

Dr. Silverman, the "token" scientist presented for examination and judgment, represents the state of late-20th-century science -- ignorant, and smug in his ignorance. "You're a doctor," Sarah says to him, looking for an authority figure in whom to trust. He yawns and nods an affirmative response, "Criminal psychologist." Neither his actions nor his credentials impress. He is somewhat slovenly in dress and demeanor, lacking even the respect for a victim's feelings to suppress a yawn elicited by boredom. He is a scientist -- a doctor, but what kind of a doctor is he? Not a doctor of medicine, poring over his pharmakon for the (questionable) benefit of the body of society; instead, he is a "second-level" healer, a psychologist, a pen-and-paper-pushing prober into the psyche. The psychologist's goal is to bring
order out of chaos, certainty out of uncertainty. Consequently, he lauds order and certainty while with the back of his hand denigrating chaos and uncertainty. To which all, nonetheless, are heir. Thus, the psychologist induces, whether intentionally or accidentally, doubts of an individual's own chaotic and uncertain thoughts; he does not "cure" the psyche -- he simultaneously indulges and undermines it, like a parent thoughtlessly shoving candy down a child's throat and then blaming the tyke for its resultant obesity. As such, this doctor commits a crime against mankind; he is a criminal. And what kind of a psychologist is Dr. Silverman? Sure enough, he's a criminal psychologist. Indeed.

Should the scientist simply be condemned for his hubris? Perhaps, perhaps not. If the next step in cultural advancement involves the concept of time as a fourth-dimensional construct supplementing the concepts of length, breadth and height, then perhaps the scientist's actions leading to the creation of the Terminator were necessary. While mankind cannot loose himself from the baggage of his archaic impositions, the machine is not so susceptible; it merely collects and processes data. Contrary to Ginger's unthinking assertion, machines don't need love; whether or not they are loved is immaterial to them -- they are not the ideal Other. It may be that the machines in the Terminator's time have become the ultimate Machine, enabling Man to overcome his technology (it's a mistake) and transcend the calculative limits of being in order to attain the meditative limitlessness of mystery. How else can mankind attempt an investigation into what if anything might lie beyond science? The scientist should rethink what value he imputes to his technology, how he determines that value, and what influence his technology will have on mankind.

What finally can be made of The Terminator's attitude regarding science and technology? We have seen that mankind can -- imperfectly -- imitate God, while machines can only -- imperfectly -- imitate Man. We strive for perfection, but, like all ideals, it cannot be possessed absolutely in reality; perfection can only be possessed to a degree of perfectibility. The Terminator -- Man's supplement and substitute -- terminates just about every other character in the film, but in failing to terminate Sarah Connor it is absolutely imperfect. Cyborg as imitation Man is thus so far from perfect that it is more a reflection of Man than of Machine. Its status as supplement is suspect; its validity as substitute is spurious. Therein lies the peril to society: Technology per se is not inherently dangerous; the danger is in mankind's attitude towards it. The platitude reads: There is nothing either good or bad, but only thinking makes it so. It is how we think about technology that will shape our relationship to it, rather than just the fact of its existence. Unlike the proverbial dog, technology is not Man's best friend. What it is, however, remains to be seen.

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