Not the Oscars

I could blame this week’s Time magazine for declaring that one thing we don’t need to worry about is an end to the zombie craze, but in truth I really have no one to blame but myself. Having watched White Zombie a few weeks back, I decided to see Revolt of the Zombies, its sequel, this weekend. With holes in the plot large enough for a small planet to pass through, it leaves a great deal of creativity – and imagined continuity – up to the viewer. It’s a movie bad enough to make you want to slap the television in frustration, but it did bring a number of my standard (read “tired”) themes on this blog together.

In this confused romp through sci-fi horror, excused only leniently for having been filmed in 1936, the terms robot, zombie, and automaton are used interchangeably. This is one of the technically redeeming features of the film. The term “robot” was coined to indicate a mindless servant, and in their religious origins zombies shared exactly that function of the automaton. Today’s robots are machines, and the future of the Singularity (posted on a couple weeks back) revolves around this very point: machines will complete the degenerating biological frame. Somehow the zombies will save us.

The zombies of 1936 were surrounded by swaggering, stereotyped caricatures of the helpless female who has very little mind of her own (perhaps less than the zombies who actually do something to better their state). Racist images including a wizened Scot called MacDonald and subservient Asians make the film uncomfortable for present day viewers. One glimmer of intelligence in the film, however, comes from an awareness of the classics. After a rat’s nest of a plot that is essentially one man wanting another man’s girl, old MacDonald gives a commentary on the assassinated master of the zombies. He takes his line from Euripides’ play Medea – an original strong female that the Greeks so feared. “He whom the gods destroy, first they make mad.” Second, I would add, they make watch Revolt of the Zombies.

When Machines Fall in Love

When I want to have a good scare, I seldom think to turn to Time magazine. This week’s issue, however, has me more jittery than a Stephen King novel. One of the purest delights in life is being introduced to new concepts. Those of us hopelessly addicted to education know the narcotic draw of expanding worldviews. Once in a while, however, a development changes everything and leaves you wondering what you were doing before you started reading. A change so profound that nothing will ever return to normal. Singularity. The point of no return. According to the cover story by Lev Grossman, we are fast approaching what theorist and technologist Raymond Kurzweil projects as the moment when humanity will be superseded by its own technology. The Singularity. Noting the exponential growth of technology, Singularitarians – almost religious in their zeal – predict that computing power will match and then surpass human brain speed and capacity by 2023. By 2045 computers will outdistance the thought capacity of every human brain on the planet (more challenging for some than for others, no doubt). The software (us) will have become obsolete.

A corollary to this technological paradise is that by advancing medical techniques (for those who can afford them) and synching tissue with silicone chip, we may be able to make humans immortal. We will have finally crossed that line into godhood. Kurzweil notes laconically, death is why we have religion. Once death is conquered, some of us will be left without a job. (Those of my colleagues who actually have jobs, that is.) We have empirically explained events as far back as the Big Bang, and no deities need apply. The evolution of life seems natural and inevitable with no divine spark. And now we are to slough off mortality itself. O brave new world!

There was a time when mythographers created the very gods. They gave us direction and focus beyond scraping an existence from unyielding soil. We have, however, grown up. There are a few problems, nevertheless. Scientists are no nearer explaining or understanding emotion than they were at the birth of psychology. We might explain what chemicals produce which response, but we can’t explain how it feels. Emotion, as the very word indicates, drives us. Until Apple comes out with iMotion and our electronic devices feel for us we are stuck falling in love for ourselves. Computers can only do, we are told, what they are programmed to do. The mythographer steps down, the programmer steps up as the new God designer. Having dealt extensively with both, I feel I know which I trust better to provide an emotionally satisfying future.

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