Replaced: TV Robots & Corporations
Science fiction is often considered a fringe genre, yet it permeates mainstream media in the form of books, movies, or television shows. It often manifests through some deep concern that the viewers have in the given time period, and yet it is through this concern that such stories enjoy their popularity. The Twilight Zone, The X-File, Star Trek are all shows that have been subsumed into the popular imagination while also retaining their quality as shows belonging to a particular audience interested in exploring different realities that reflect our world and what it could become.
In the past decade, however, science fiction hasn’t been the primary genre of choice for mainstream viewers/ consumers. Fantasy and horror have dominated with genre-based shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed taking center stage. Only in the past couple of years has science fiction received widespread attention . Movies like Ex Machina, Avatar, and Interstellar have enjoyed immense popularity among diverse audiences. Books also reflected this shift near 2010- take for example the young adult genre which is now characterized by books like the Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, and many more. Perhaps the most recent shift, however, can be seen in recent network television . If you look up the shows that have received an uptick in popularity- Westworld, Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, Black Mirror, Humans, The OA – they are all deeply rooted in the science fiction genre.
It is interesting to note that after Donald Trump became president, books like 1984 by George Orwell and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood have experienced a resurgence in popularity. It is not hard to figure out why. People are anxious about the reality that we now occupy- a reality in which our president can present “alternate facts,” or “doublethink” if you will. When people go out to buy and read these dystopian, science fiction tales they are striving to work through the fears that they have about this current moment in time.
In a similar vein, it is important to understand why science fiction television shows are also experiencing a resurgence in the mainstream. What deep anxieties do these television shows reveal about our current culture? The advent of the “automated world” is not a new technological bent: even in the past few decades, machines have been a key part of the military-industrial complex as well as of the commercial sphere. Things like Siri and Alexa are making their way into our homes while better robots are being built to make life easier.
What is fascinating is the fact that the recent shows do not focus on fear of the technology itself. Although past shows such as the Terminator series depict battles between humans and robots, modern shows center upon the theme of exploiting often humanoid robots for the betterment of mankind. Producers encourage their audiences to sympathize with the robots. Take Westworld for example, a show that centers on humanoid robots who exist in a Disneyworld-esque theme park to entertain guests. This show pays particular attention to human bodies: how they can become dismembered, how they can be abused, how they can be fixed, and how the body is the sum of its parts. The body becomes a commercial entity to be sold, broken, and fixed. The anxiety here concerns the commercialization of human beings. There is a profound fear that the human body can enter into the realm of economics and be boiled down to its output value. Should robots actually be created in the human image and become capable of the same output value as a human, there is the risk of humans becoming useless to the economic market.
This fear of robots rendering humans economically useless battles with the deep-rooted anxiety of creating consciousness in a human creation. This apprehension is evidenced in Humans, a British television show, which also concerns the ethical dilemmas involved in creating robots that emulate humans. Humans have always been fascinated by the act of creation, whether it be the creation of fire or of more complicated technologies. For some strange reason, we like to project humanness onto inanimate objects and therefore we’ve tried to create robots that are more and more like us. We want robots to do everything that we can do while still being subservient. There is a particular moment in Humans where a character reveals this very desire, saying that “People don’t just want to be served. They want to be loved.” Of course, this does not reflect every human’s desire, but it seems like a logical progression that artificial intelligence may take.
There seems to be an inevitability when it comes to the rise of robots. This inevitability has ceased to be the consequence of conspiratorial speculation. Numerous figures in the sphere have predicted that the “singularity” will be reached in our own lifetime. Singularity, as defined by the renowned computer scientist and mathematician, John von Neumann, is the point at which “technological progress will become incomprehensibly rapid and complicated.” Essentially, it is the point at which robots will be able to self-improve with no human input required.
Let’s take this a step further and say that the public’s true fear is the commercialization of human consciousness. Westworld, like most science fiction stories, shows tension between the scientists who created the AI and the businessman who wants to make money off of the robots. Should robots achieve superhuman intelligence, humans would become unable to fight against or compete with them. But this presumably has not happened yet. Westworld shows a potential method that this could happen should the scientist work to perfect artificial intelligence and the businessman work to enable his efforts. The entirety of such dangerous technology will always operate within the commercial sphere, whether it be in our real world or in a show like Westworld.
Mr. Robot is a show that also explores the anxiety that people express toward corporations that control the world through technology. The show’s premise rests on a vigilante dismantling a single “evil” corporation that manages to control people through digital debt. It’s difficult to fit this show neatly under the umbrella of science fiction, especially considering that it is designated as a psychological thriller by its parent network . Yet, this show demonstrates many of the same elements as science fiction including its preoccupation with human commercialization and the subversive reaction to automated technologies. The show resonates with the audience because it features characters who fight against a massive corporation that has taken over the world. In some ways this has already happened in our world where corporations like Ericsson and Simon own huge amounts of property and technology. Private interests rule such companies and many aptly fear what could happen if corporations were given the charge of technology like superhuman artificial intelligence.
Black Mirror, another popular show, also broaches the same tensions between people and corporations or large organized systems that could gain a hold of more power through technologies like surveillance or robots. Black Mirror’s simulations of dangerous scenarios in a more technologically advanced world are extremely frightening and demonstrate the potential of worst-case scenarios. In one episode, bee drones originally created for artificial pollination are repurposed by the government to conduct mass surveillance and assassinations. Other episodes show how social media, the digital news networks, the entertainment industry, and many other aspects of the technological world could severely damage our lives. The devotion of Black Mirror’s audience suggest that many people enjoy watching how absurd situations can come into being just because of the way that new technologies can influence people. There is an entertainment value in watching a character in political power having to penetrate a pig to maintain his political standing, but this fascination also betrays an anxiety about how much the internet media can impact politics in the span of minutes.
The fear of technology is nothing new in the realm of mainstream science fiction, but the fear of the corporations that control it is something that has grown alongside the advent of mass produced technology. With Apple Watches that can monitor a person’s every move, androids that can do menial tasks, Fitbits that can track a person’s heart rate, social media that can spread a piece of information in the span of a couple of minutes, and many other technologies that have permeated our daily lives, there is arguably reason for anxiety. There is perhaps now greater example of this than the revelation that the American government has been conducting mass surveillance on us. There has always been some sort of anxiety about being surveilled by technology present in the popular imagination but Edward Snowden’s intel validated that fear.
There is also a fear of how technology will be used as it improves and becomes increasingly complicated. As the automated world becomes seamlessly integrated into our realities, the fears and anxieties of human beings could soon manifest themselves. Recent science fiction television shows have begun to explore what it means to be human in world that is becoming increasingly less human. Maybe these shows are trying to illustrate a future that is inevitable; a future defined by artificial intelligence under the jurisdiction of the corporate world. They are perhaps trying to explore the dangers on a virtual platform so that we might be capable of avoiding their impact in the real world. As all good stories do, they teach us something. In this case it’s how to navigate an increasingly automated world. They teach us not to get too sucked into the technology that surrounds us. They teach us to suspect not the technology but rather the people in power.
When it comes down to it, the majority of people have little say in what technology is built and who controls it. The recent interest in television shows that focus on it is a way for the powerless to alleviate their fears by seeing the worst and somewhat preparing themselves for it. ﹥