Targeted by Technology

We get along in life, I believe, by routinely ignoring the rather constant dangers that surround us.  Oh, we’ve taken care of the larger faunal predators, but we’ve replaced them with ourselves.  Our success as a species leads us to places we might not be comfortable being.  I was recently exposed to the documentary National Bird.  It’s about drones.  Not the friendly ones from Amazon that we hear will soon be delivering books to our doorstep, but the military grade kind.  I first became aware of how pervasive the military use of drones is while reading Wired for War (on which I posted here some years back).  The difference between that academic knowledge and watching the documentary is the human element.  Drones are assassination machines with high explosives and they are subject to no regulation.

Many of us feel, occasionally, some level of discomfort with how much information “they” have on us.  We don’t even know who “they” are or what they want.  Using the internet, we give them our information.  Caving to our desire for instant communication, we carry around smart phones that know where we are constantly.  Martin Luther once said you couldn’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from making a nest in your hair.  It’s becoming harder to shoo them away.  The nest is well established.  Our houses are easily found on Google maps, and drones can keep constant watch, like weaponized guardian angels.  Only they’re not our guardians.  As National Bird makes clear, drones kill civilians.  Women and children.  The conversations of the operators reveal how much they’ve bought into the jingoism of the “war on terror.”  The film also deals with the human cost of those who operate drones.

Technology stands to make life better, for some.  Watching people who have very little, who live in what would be considered poverty in this part of the world, being bombed by people remotely, is disturbing.  The operators, trained as if they’re playing a game, kill and then have to deal with it.  The use of tech to try to sanitize brutality was dealt with decades ago on a particularly famous episode of Star Trek appropriately called “A Taste of Armageddon.”  Rather than try to resolve conflict we, like those of Eminiar 7, readily accept it if it’s kept at a distance.  Only drones aren’t science fiction.  We’ve been using them for over a decade now, and we prefer not to think about it.  This isn’t an option, unfortunately, for those who’ve been targeted by technology.  The predators are still out there after all.

Beam Me Where?

It’s kind of like the transporter dilemma on Star Trek. Where is the person/Vulcan/Klingon when their atoms are being disassociated in one location and reassembled in another? In the classic series, McCoy was never happy with the technology, and even today our doubts linger about what constitutes a person. The other day in a routine medical procedure, I underwent anesthesia. Lying there in the corridor, staring at the calmly themed over-head light colors (no, they actually were themed covers; the drip hadn’t started yet), I wondered where I was about to go. I’ve only had anesthesia once before that I can remember, and I recalled awaking suddenly from the most profound, dreamless sleep ever. It was very different from ordinary sleep. So where was my consciousness at the time?

We have no satisfactory answer to the question of what consciousness is, let alone where it is. Materialists would say, literally, it’s all in your head. Consciousness is a happy mixture of electro-chemical signals in a dull gray organ that’s busing churning out this illusion that Steve A. Wiggins is something more than, well, a mixture of electro-chemical signals. Those of us who’ve experienced enough to question such simple answers wonder a bit more deeply about it. What is consciousness? We’ve all had that feeling, I suppose, of awaking from a dream and being disoriented, even throughout the day at points, as to whether it was real or not. Or, alternatively, remembering something but not being sure if it “really happened” or might’ve been a dream. Ordinarily we recognize the difference between waking and dreaming consciousness, but sometimes the line is blurred.

My experience this time around was the same as last. One moment you’re talking to an anesthesiologist and the next you’re awaking from a completely blank state of mind, a little confused about where you are. You haven’t been in dreamland since there was nothing there. The exact mix of chemicals isn’t the same as when you fall asleep. For all intents and purposes, you are completely gone for that span of time. When I woke up I remembered the anesthesiologist and the watch he was wearing. His accent. His assuring me that the bubbles in the tube were okay. Between that moment and this, nothing. A complete blank. I went in hoping that I might explore alternate states of consciousness in those few disassociated moments, but that’s not how it happened. I think I’m ready to beam back aboard now, though. I trust my consciousness will follow my gray matter, even as I’m being beamed through the ether.

Found in Translation

embassytownTraduttore, traditore—“translators are traitors”—is an Italian saying invested with a great deal of truth. Anyone who’s worked with the proliferation of languages in the world knows the truth of the adage. What is said in one language can’t be stated precisely in another language with all the depth and texture of the original. China Miéville’s Embassytown is a sprawling novel that addresses the question of how cultures evolved on widely separated world can ever understand one another. I can’t possibly go into a detailed summary of the story—it took me about 30 pages to begin to understand what was going on—but the book drew me in nevertheless and left me happy to have expanded my conceptual world.

The reason that I’m bringing this novel up in a forum where religion lurks in the background is that Miéville explicitly brings religion into his story. It may be impossible to explain precisely how he does this without the detailed summary that I’ve already begged off giving, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in any sufficiently complex world religion emerges. We tend to think that religion is something that evolved from the slime and now that we’ve bathed in the light of pure reason it will eventually be washed into the gutter of discarded concepts. History demonstrates repeatedly that such is not the case. Religion is resilient and, dare I say it, inevitable. Human beings—perhaps also other conscious beings—know that there is something outside ourselves. That’s the foot in the door for higher beings or forces or worlds. In a word, religions.

Fiction writers frequently appeal to religions for verisimilitude. Are imaginary worlds believable without religions? It’s a long stretch. Star Wars has characters calling belief in the force a religion. Star Trek, in any number of episodes, dealt with gods. Anathem was based on the monastic ideal. Science fiction has trouble when it leaves religion completely out of the picture. A non-deistic universe is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even great scientists and other rationalists occasionally lapse into thoughts about luck, fate, or fortune. Embassytown doesn’t focus on religion throughout, of course. It may be a minor subplot. But translating an alien world with a language that can’t be understood into a fiction of English is facilitated by putting a religion into the general mix. This is a smart and complex world, but when you read it you’ll find it believable because a religion naturally emerges. And that, I say, is realism.

Head of STEAM

The market producing doctorates in the humanities is showing no signs of slowing down. The fact is we’re all human, and many of us aren’t very technically inclined, unless we have to be. There are fewer and fewer jobs for these bright students who graduate with doctorates in the humanities, but the plight of the “privileged” is no concern to wider society. Let the eggheads figure it out. At the same time, wisdom in the job market is that careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM subjects) are growing and showing the most promise for future careers. The pace of technological change is so rapid that yes, obsolescence for new devices is six months or less. My iPhone 4 is a dinosaur, although when I first held it some three years ago it was so advanced that I was afraid of it. A moment’s reflection will reveal that the most advanced technology is already in use in the military since staying ahead of the enemy is always the bottom line.

This situation has led to some concern, and not just among those of us in the humanities. Some in the world of STEM are saying that quality of life suffers. To indulge a stereotype, try to imagine geeks without Star Trek. We know that Star Trek was as much fantasy as science fiction. My iPhone makes a communicator look just plain silly. Star Trek is, however, creative indulgence. While many would hesitate to raise it to the status of “art” it is part of the Arts: fine arts, literature, film, music, and some television. The stories it tells are the stories of human beings (and one alien) struggling against often more advanced civilizations. In the end, humanity always wins. If we exit the stereotype, scientists are often musicians and writers as well. Some become novelists or consultants on box-office busters. We are more than meat machines.

Recently voices have been heard suggesting that STEM should be STEAM. The Arts have an integral role to play in the scientific and technological fields. Even some numbers are imaginary. The basis for developing imagination is the Arts. Although we could have made it to this point in our development without Star Trek, the fact is that many of us growing up with it, as well as the more silly, but also influential Lost in Space, and what we now know is a most assured cash cow, Star Wars, know that these shows helped shaped the present we inhabit. Arts give us visions. There continue to be those who castigate the Arts as “soft” and “weak” and tangential to the cold hard facts. But they are wrong. Humans can’t survive without a source of warmth and energy. And the first great engines of advancing civilization still have much to teach us, for those engines ran on steam.

Final Final Frontier?

Over the past several months my wife and I have been making our way through the Stars. Not really Trekkies or Jediists, we both came of age during the early days of Star Trek and the dawning of the original Star Wars. Both franchises have continued to grow and have become cultural markers in their own rights. We have survived all the episodes of Star Wars I through III, and have made it, so far through Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. As we switched off the DVD player, we mused that we hadn’t seen this particular installment (with good reason) since we had originally watched it together shortly after it came out. It has its moments, but it just doesn’t measure up to what Kirk and Spock can usually muster. Watching it as a somewhat jaded critic of space movies, however, its religious elements simply couldn’t be ignored. After all, this is the episode where they find God, then shoot him in the face.

Opening with Sybok, the emotional Vulcan messiah, with a tacked-on identity as Spock’s brother, healing his first convert, the movie follows a typical kind of progression of a boy and his god. The town on Nimbus III (every Trinity watcher surely caught that reference) is named Paradise. Some wag painted the Miltonesque “Lost” after the town name on the gate through which Sybok rides like Jesus entering Jerusalem. Hijacking the Enterprise turns out to be remarkably easy, even with Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, and Kirk in the shuttlecraft. And soon we’re off to the Great Barrier, which, as it turns out, is just a bunch of colored lights.

When God appears, he takes the shape of a typical Terran, white beard and everything. When Sybok questions him he briefly turns Vulcan, but we get the sense that God is whoever you want him to be. He is definitely masculine, and he has anger issues. His Eden is a barren rock, and he feels trapped and requires a starship to get about. We are forced to conclude that this is no deity after all and life is but a dream.

Despite its many disappointments, Star Trek V is a theologically aware movie. Its conclusion of science trumping the need for the divine leaves us with three old men around a campfire waiting to die. A trinity in its own right, but one where the only hymn to be mustered is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” And God lies dead at the center of the galaxy.

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Live Long and Prosper

He lived long and prospered. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but the icons of my youth have been dying. I have to confess to having sat far too many hours in front of the television as a young person, but fantasy of all sorts helped me cope with reality. Leonard Nimoy was a kind of father figure, in a way. Similar to Jonathan Frid, Russell Johnson, and Fred Rogers, all of whom stood in for an absentee parent and showed me different aspects of what it meant to be a man. Watching them die is like having someone tear pages from the book of my life—they made strong impressions, even though it was all make-believe. It’s difficult to say why Leonard Nimoy’s passing hit me so hard. I guess that the conceit of Spock living far longer than humans took hold at some level, and the rational, unflappable Vulcan seemed like a stable, if somewhat emotionally cold father to a child who was, in his own mind, conceived by the television itself.

I don’t really consider myself a nerd. I don’t have the tech to back me up. I’m more like a hermit who spends weekdays in Manhattan. Still, when anyone says Kirk or Picard, there is only one right answer. I watched Star Trek when it was new, still in original reruns. My mother decried it as “silly nonsense,” but along with other monster generation kids, I had my face pressed to the screen waiting to see what new and weird form of life might appear. It was the late sixties and all of this was fresh and untried. Star Trek became a vital part of my childhood. I think it might have been because this was a place with no limits. No limits beyond a shoestring budget, in any case. Space, as I was learning, was vast. There were endless possibilities out there.

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As an adult, the possibilities seem somewhat severely effaced. I’ve tried to be rational and moral and conscientious, but I haven’t really held down a regular career. I don’t watch television any more, and instead read books and ask probing questions. Why does Spock resonate so much with me? Was it because he was apparently immune to emotion? Or maybe he was simply able to rise above it, since everyone knows he is half-human and even Vulcans have emotions, albeit deeply buried. Those of us who followed the original crew through the movies suffered through his death before. And his resurrection. This time, though, it’s not Spock who’s gone. Leonard Nimoy is one of those few people who, in their own lifetime, become a symbol. And symbols, if they are of any use, live long and prosper well after their creators pass on.

The Force Re-Awakens

StarWarsMoviePoster1977In a galaxy long ago, in a galaxy far, far away… The year was 1977 and the Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars was like nothing we’d ever seen before. The film captured the essence of good versus evil in what, for the time, were realistic scenes in space. Many of us were in awe. Some worshipped. In fact, some six films later, an only quasi-ironic Star Wars religion does exist (Jediism) and its adherents must be buzzing after yesterday’s announcement that a new Star Wars movie will be released next year. What particularly caught my attention was the New York Times article on the event. Peppered with religious language, the trailer review (have we come to this?) by Dave Itzkoff plays on the fact that fans are nothing less than religious about the movies. I have to admit to falling a few movies behind. I’m a lapsed Jediist, I guess.

The new movie, The Force Awakens, will be directed by J. J. Abrams, and that seems to be a prophecy for a positive outcome. It also provides me with a goal; I need to see the episodes I, II, and III that I somehow missed early in the new millennium. Some see, to borrow Itzkoff’s language, the original trilogy as being canonical. The original novelizations—all of which I read as a teenager—were written by various guest writers with names like Glut and Kahn (the latter somewhat prescient for the upcoming Star Trek movies of the time), recording the sacred texts of the nascent religion. Rituals developed, light-sabers were purchased, and imagination became the vehicle for theology.

Behind it all, of course, is the force. This is a deity for a rationalist world. Even today we know that things don’t always turn out the way they should. Juries make the wrong decisions, computers still crash, even even two space shuttles—highly sophisticated though they were—failed and exploded during routine operations. Many find the white-bearded God untenable, but somewhere out there amid the comets and stars, there seems to be a moral force guiding us in the constant struggle of good versus evil. Heaven is still over our heads, although lost in the darkness of space. Less than 90 seconds of film footage have lit up the web with speculation, critique, and yes, reverence. We may have become the consummate secular society, but there is still always room for the force. Indeed, The Force Awakens may contain a not-so-subtle message for those who have ceased to believe that its personified form still exists.