Man As Machine vs. Machine As Man: A Short Examination Of The Changing Tropes Of Science Fiction

man as machine vs machine as man

From the early era of silent cinema to modern day blockbusters, science fiction has been fascinated and torn between exploring the boundaries and distinctions of what it means to be human, or, in the broadest of definitions, alive. It is an elusive question, rhetoric in the sense that it can never be definitively answered, but the approaches taken toward it offer a reflection on humankind’s changing and prevailing attitudes towards its own advancements in science and technology throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century.

The most telling tropes of the genre are the two opposing tales of cyborgs and artificial intelligence. The former, an amalgamation of both organic and biometric material, often starting out purely human before being fused with mechanised replacements for limbs and organs. The later, the transcendence from inanimate machine to sentient-like consciousness. Both of these approach the question of what it means to be human, but each tackle it from different perspectives. One asks at what point do you cease to be human, the other asks at what point do you start.

Films depicting the change from human to robotic often approach computerised augmentations as a means of demoralising or dehumanising its subject, exploring how much of a man really remains as parts are removed and robotic ones replaced. Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) shows a charismatic family man transformed into a cold and calculating cyborg, but traces of Murphy’s mannerisms, catchphrases and memories still remain in his semi-living body. The film chronicles the regaining of his humanity and identity but it is a mixed victory, as ultimately something irretrievable has already been lost; referring to his former self in the third person and divulging on the topic of his wife and child: “I can feel them, but I can’t remember them”.

Darth Vader too, a man corrupted, destroyed, but rebuilt into a suit which is the only thing keeping him alive. He has even been re-branded, taking on a new name and identity. While the all black design and expressionless mask gives visual indication of his corruption, it is Ben Kenobi’s reminiscence that “the good man who was your father was destroyed” which suggests that Vader’s metamorphosis from man to part-machine has diminished the qualities which made him human. Little of the man he once was is present even underneath the suit, salvaging only a fleeting glimpse of his former self during his redemption.

The underpinning fear throughout these examples is that technology has the capacity to literally overwhelm us from the outside in. Whereas today the public attention given to new technologies seems more focused on the commercial and the medical, throughout the twentieth century the paranoia surrounding the surge of scientific breakthroughs seems tied to their potential for military gain. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the looming nuclear threat of the Cold War throughout the later half of the century ensured the dawning of a new age. Not only did these weapons possesses new untold direct destruction, but the detachment possible from their utilisation (the simplistic ‘big red button’ being a recurring emblem for annihilation) meant also a damaging of morality to those wielding them. In reality it is possible to fall in this way into a corrupt perspective of the world governed by ones and zeros, so in film the allegory is of man psychically engulfed by machines of his own making. Living in the prospective shadow of nuclear warfare reflects in film that perhaps humanity’s greatest fear is its own work.

Even more prevalent throughout cinema, and perhaps more telling of social attitudes throughout its lifetime, is the concern that as technology advances it has the power to become independent, to mimic human thoughts, emotions and actions to the point where they are indistinguishable from, or even surpass, humans’.

The tale of artificial intelligence is often one which examines the fundamental makings of human consciousness and how they can, or cannot, be reproduced. In Blade Runner (1982), the replicants are driven by their fear of death, that primal evolutionary trait present in all organic life forms. They are not alive in the strictest sense but their reactions to their environments and situations are authentic, learning and adapting and even begging for empathy. Are these the makings of human life? Despite their striking resemblance, the replicants seem to lack something indescribable, unknowable but essential to traditional human behaviour. Perhaps like those androids existing in the dip of the uncanny valley, their features and actions are faultless and yet something remains completely absent. Arguably, the replicants in Blade Runner never wish to be any more human than what they already are, only to live longer. Don’t we all.

But Blade Runner is something of an anomaly in the history of film. Artificial intelligence is usually approached as a Pinocchio-esque retelling of transformation from robotic to ‘real’, exploring where the line which distinguishes the two lies. The most blatant example of this being Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), which tackles this with a literal insertion of the Pinocchio fairy-tale into the story. We could look back further at the Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz (1939), set on obtaining a heart of all things, the organ colloquially regarded as the source of all loving emotions. Or even further back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), where the Machine Man is transformed into an imitation of Maria which proves to be initially indistinguishable from her legitimate counterpart.

Metropolis (1927), dir Fritz Lang

Metropolis (1927), dir Fritz Lang

While the cyborg trope has fallen out of fashion somewhat in the last decade or so of film, artificial intelligence has consistently held its ground. Perhaps technology now feels less like an intrusion on, or an extension of, our lives and instead an entire entity itself. This would certainly explain why themes of the ‘singularity’ remain prevalent throughout modern filmmaking. Her (2013), Transcendence (2014), Chappie (2015), Ex Machina (2015), these films deviate somewhat from the Pinocchio formula and instead seem more akin to a Frankenstein’s monster; human made artificial life which go beyond their creators’ expectations and take on an identity wholly unforeseen. Perhaps now the fear is no longer that our creations will corrupt us but that they will surpass us altogether.

We can already see these forebodings begin to take shape in reality as consumers of modern technologies. Personal devices have become an enigma. What is going on inside that impenetrable, reflective black smartphone, behind those email and social media accounts? What data are they gathering, to what end, and who are they it sending it to? There are processes going on behind the surface level of interaction consumers have with these devices and applications. To discover that even televisions are capable of gathering data without our knowing (source), like Robocop, it often feels like there are hidden directives built into commercial technology. Revelations on the NSA and intrusive data gathering suggests that in a way these devices have already adopted the most negative of human traits – the ability to hold secrets, harbour their own judgements and whisper about us behind our backs.

Dan Noall – 2015