Sewer Robot on Untangling Reality and Fiction
*Contains spoilers for all titles in bold. And, perhaps, for the existence of Santa*.
“I am afraid sir, you have a rather weak grasp of reality”.
So speaks Jonathan Pryce during the opening scene of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. The man he is addressing has disrupted a play recounting Munchausen’s fantastical exploits while claiming to be the real Baron himself. Thus a film set in “The Age Of Reason… somewhere in Europe… Wednesday” portraying a theatrical production of the tall tales of a fictional character whose audience includes people wounded from the very real siege bombing taking place outside the theatre is hijacked by the same legendary fictional character (who was, in fact, based on a real person).
The Baron goes on to explain (in flashback, with the actors from the theatre playing their adopted roles) how the siege was all his doing – a story so far-fetched only young Sally Salt believes any of it.
Somehow the magic of Gilliam movie logic buttresses the Baron’s shaky story, but how strong a grasp on reality do any of us have?
Oprah Winfrey’s autobiography is called “What I Know For Sure” – but what do any of us know for sure?
Descartes famously addressed the problem of what he truly knew by disregarding any spurious information his untrustworthy senses might provide. His conclusion was the only thing he knew for sure was that he existed and his evidence for this was that very capacity he possessed to doubt his existence. His next sentence might as well have been “For all I know I’m being used as a fleshy battery by my machine overlords and everything I see around me is just some sort of…matrix.
Straight-thinking people respond to Descartes’ conclusion by protesting that they remember everything that has happened and they can touch the real things in front of them. Of course, in The Matrix, so could Keanu..
In the film Dark City people wake up every day with a new entirely fictitious identity. The triumphs and disasters of their memory have been implanted by their alien masters for the purpose of experiment.
They exist, they think, but their identities are a complete fabrication and their memories are part of their prison.
Plato compared human existence to that of prisoners in a cave forced to face a wall whose only clue of what was happening behind them was the shadows cast by a fire (Clearly, the sensory deprivation of Gitmo is nothing new). What we see of the world might be compared to Rosalind Franklin’s shadowy x ray photographs which Watson and Crick used to deduce the more complete picture of the twin helical structure of the DNA molecule. For Plato reality is “out there”, but we are condemned to merely deduce its true nature from the limited knowledge available to us.
In his Theory of Forms, Plato introduced the notion of “ideals”; he explained that every individual horse we see is a variation on an “ideal” horse and this proto-horse blueprint is thus more “real” than all of the different individual horses encountered in nature. Fans of Frasier, upon discovering how many dogs played Eddie on the show, may sympathise.
Maybe a more satisfying example is the circle. Although we see approximations of this geometric ideal everywhere, we will not find the perfect circle in “real life”. Yet a child with a compass can grasp the very simple concept of this absolutely perfect abstract figure. For Plato the circle was part of a higher, more perfect, but only partially graspable reality of which our own world was a pale imitation.
Pythagoras was a real-life genius whose life story has been embellished to Munchausian levels, but what we do know is that he and his acolytes studied numbers as entities in themselves. His discovery that there was a numerical relationship between the musical scales confirmed his suspicion that numbers underpin the physical phenomena of the world.
But numbers are tricky customers. The discovery of irrational numbers rocked Pythagoras’ worldview.
And an even greater troublemaker is infinity. Zeno’s riddles about Achilles’ race with a tortoise and the arrow paused in flight forced people to think hard about infinite divisibility (a massive influence on Newton’s Calculus) and the relationship between time and motion (which Einstein would return to much later).
This Greek notion that there were immutable abstract entities which revealed a higher truth appealed to the Christian philosophers, as it supported their theology of a God unconstrained by the limitations of our universe and an immortal soul within us all that found its home in a perfect heavenly realm for which this world was merely preparation.
It was concluded that, as God is perfect, his creation must have the stamp of this perfection (Which, ironically, conflicted with the Greeks’ own view: their gods were deeply flawed capricious tossers). An obsession with celestial perfection caused people to cling to a geocentric cosmos of circular orbits well past the point it became obvious this was incorrect. Ever more elaborate efforts were made incorporating larger and smaller circles and, ultimately, Kepler constructed a beautiful model of the cosmos using the five Platonic solids to describe the orbits of the six planets. Something of a folly (particularly upon the discovery of planet number 7), this was nonetheless a giant step as it was the first proper attempt to explain why the planets are where they are and to posit that the reason is mathematical.
People diss The Church and their persecution of Galileo but it’s worth remembering a fundamental axiom of Reality: at any given moment in history there will be a pile of stuff which people regard as self-evident (much of which is wrong) and a pile of stuff which is hugely controversial (which will later be regarded as self-evident).
Having fought so hard to defend the Ptolomeic model, once the new truth became irrefutable, the Church just changed its terms to acknowledge how much more majestic God’s cosmos was than had previously been understood.
According to legend, Pythagoras had his disciple who discovered irrational numbers drowned. If the Pythagorean philosophy was really a “Cult of Numbers” you would have thought this sort of thing:
(Harold explains Pi, Person Of Interest
..would be exactly what they were looking for.
The reason we ignore the mad stuff David Icke comes out with but were prepared to listen to the even crazier things Einstein was saying was that Albert had a blackboard full of equations to back up his ideas. But right in the middle of Einstein’s maths was something he didn’t want to be there: his figures implied that the universe must be either expanding or contracting. Back then, it was considered self-evident that the universe was static, so Einstein introduced a “cosmological constant” to make his equations fit that model.
So, the man with one of the most open and iconoclastic minds in history discovered something extraordinary and rejected it because it didn’t fit his initial assumption.
Here, Einstein appears to have fallen prey to Confirmation Bias. This is what causes people to reject new information which undermines their worldview. They come to have an emotional stake in the veracity of what they believe and cannot see new contradictory information with an objective eye.
Although the scientific method is vulnerable to Confirmation Bias (notably in the choice of which hypothesis to test and a reluctance to accept new theories which contradict the one you’ve built your career on) it does have checks built in – it is essential to record all evidence, not just that which seems to support your thesis and your study must be replicable to be valid.
Once this method was adopted great progress was made and the ground did appear to be solidifying beneath us
(famines, plagues and comets stopped being the whim of Gods and instead were seen to have causes).
However, the discoveries at the turn of the last century had troubling implications for our perception of reality:
For example, The Big Bang Theory implies that (1) absolutely everything in the universe was once contained in a tiny little dot and (2) time started.
Atomic physics revealed the great emptiness between the nucleus and its electrons which blinked in and out of existence according to a probability function. Before Quantum Mechanics there was a widespread belief that if you could locate every particle in the universe at any given moment you could roll the film forward as reliably as you could roll it back and the future (of everything!) would spool out inevitably – with all the consequences for the notion of free will that implied. The Uncertainty Principle was a bodyblow to this deterministic view, and Relativity rendered nonsense the phrase “every particle in the universe at any given moment”.
(Although, conversely, an interesting implication of Relativity is that an for alien space ship travelling towards us, from a sufficient distance and travelling at sufficient speed, the version of Earth in their present would be the Earth of our future. In their “right now” our future already exists, which can also be interpreted as meaning we have no free will).
You might say the problem with science is – like Einstein’s blackboard – it keeps telling us things we don’t want to hear.
First cosmology makes us peripheral and insignificantly small…
(Cosmos: The Pale Blue Dot)
then Evolution says we are merely highly sophisticated animals.
Relativity tells us there is no universal objective “now”.
Quantum Mechanics makes everything probabilistic, with one possible implication that everything that can happen does happen somewhere, with “our” reality having no pre-eminence over any other.
And neuroscience has been illuminating in explaining how our brain and senses combine to create our reality..
– “I don’t get it”
– “You weren’t put upon this Earth to ‘get it’”
Big Trouble In Little China
As much as we intellectualise, we understand the world around us through our senses. But our senses have evolved to aid our survival, not to explain the world. The need to think on the hoof has meant we’ve trained ourselves to ignore most incoming information, picking out what will best help us. (In contrast, one of the great difficulties with Artificial Intelligence systems has been getting the computer to filter out the irrelevant). Really quite startling experiments have shown how the brain makes the decision to ignore information coming through our eyes. In one celebrated example subjects are shown film of a basketball game and asked to keep score. Upon re-watching the film, most are surprised to see a man in a gorilla suit walk right through the middle of the players. They were so focussed on their appointed task that even so startling an image failed to grab their attention. Although we do appreciate that our recollections of events are not like cctv, when there is something in the centre of our vision which has the bulk of our attention, such as a crime taking place before our eyes, we would generally be confident of our ability to remember the details accurately. The evidence of many studies suggests this isn’t so, and this has troubling implications for our legal system which convicts people based on witness testimony.
Our senses are constantly talking to our brain. Our brain can stick its fingers in its ears when it wants. What I call efficiency, my boss calls laziness; something similar happens with the brain. Sometimes it’s happy to just do enough. Once you have a machine that remembers your phone numbers, your brains says “cheers, I’ll let you do that from now on”.
The amount of data coming in is overwhelming. Our reflexes have to be able to make us move before we are even conscious of the need to dodge. Because we may have to make life-or-death decisions instantaneously, evolution has given our brain filters which decide which of the huge amount of incoming data to prioritise. Sherlock Holmes tells Watson that he sees but does not observe, but have you ever tried taking in every detail of the room you are in? First of all, it is exhausting for the non-Sherlock mind and secondly the vast amount of background detail is superfluous information (as the illustrators of Looney Tunes cartoons knew too well).
There are two things your brain is always alert to:
We see faces in the strangest places – thus Nick Cave sees the face of Jesus in his soup and Harry Hill remarks how much we resemble our light switches:
(Oi! Don’ pick your nose. Dirty boy!)
This is because because we are conditioned to watch out for the faces of skulking predators.
(2) Changes In Our Environment.
Again, sudden changes are the likeliest source of danger.
With the former, we can afford to be wrong most of the time provided we flee when it really matters. But this search for patterns which may not be there does have the capacity to fool us.
The first time I saw this optical illusion:
..I refused to believe the two green lines could be the same length until I measured them for myself. What’s interesting here is the way the illusion doesn’t resolve itself even when I stare at it. This is because our brain has become accustomed to the way objects are scaled down as they recede into the distance. When I look at the picture my brain anticipates something which is not present. My expectation is so powerful that it simply tramples over any doubt.
And the weakness in being on the lookout for novelty at the expense of that which persists is you may fail to see something which is present. Our lazy/efficient brain zones out on those things which it has grown to expect will remain the same. This is why so many car crashes happen close to home: out on the highway your attention is fully engaged, but back on a street you’ve seen a million times before your concentration relaxes.
You may think it daft to talk about predators, but compare how long people have worked in offices to all of the years spent running from wild animals. The world we think of as ours is a fairly recent thing and is almost entirely artificial. This is more pronounced for some than for others: Billy Connolly jokes that to The Queen the whole world must smell like fresh paint, because everywhere she goes she is precede by an army of people working feverishly to present their locality in its best light. In the gritty Brazillian film Elite Squad batallions of police officers are sent into the toughest part of Rio – at serious risk to their lives – because The Pope is coming to visit and he insists on staying at a particular hotel and the government don’t want his sleep disturbed. But, for all of us, the modern techno world does tend to keep reality at arm’s length.
It’s that creeping unease we have about our artificial landscape which makes it good for scary stories. Although most of us live in one, the city is an alien environment. Dark City is like a fairytale where the skyscrapers have replaced the dense forest where we used to get lost. Its citizens live in an unnatural state of permanent darkness (which is a dig at the perpetual night-time of classic Noir films). It’s the anonymity and isolation of the city environment that allows people to be switched around so easily. Our disconnection from reality in the city allows the food we eat to become Soylent Green.
One of the most striking images in that forty year old film is the lone tree in the centre of the park which people regard as a curiosity. Although humans care about survival above all, it is the survival of the self and, through our family, our own genes. We are not, by nature, BIG PICTURE oriented. It’s jarring to see how little people have been spooked by an idea around since 1973 of empty oceans, scarce resources and global warming.
We are lost in the present. The problem of climate change requires planning for the future. On the one hand we have handed over decision-making to leaders who can only plan as far as the next election and who will be punished for unpopular far-sighted policies. On the other hand we have ceded much power to corporations. They may take a slightly longer-term view but their only morality is the bottom line of satisfying their shareholders.
You could almost say some of our artificial creations, because they do endure, have a greater reality than any of us. An idea has the power to kill millions of people. And, once born, it can never truly die. If its originator has a complete volte face, denouncing his previous views as madness, there will be others who sustain it.
Aged 8, Virginia O Hanlon wrote to The New York Sun asking whether Santa Claus was real, because her dad assured her that if it was in the paper it must be true (different times!).
The reply, “Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus”, is one of the most famous editorials ever written.
it’s like a little poem extolling the value of the unreal and intangible.
And Virginia and the editor are both long gone, while Santa (despite being a serious obesity risk) is forever.
Much that is unreal can exercise power over the real. A recurring theme of the very excellent Cracked Podcast is the extent to which we have come to understand the world through films and television shows. While we can call bullsh*t on much of what we see (that’s the end of that car’s suspension, no-one’s surviving that fall etc), over time the onscreen version of the world starts to imprint itself on our brain. How is a police station interview or autopsy conducted? And you know this how? Obeying tv rules can have hilarious consequences. The movies tell you that dropped guns go off and kill indiscriminately. Cracked says modern guns are designed not to do this and what’s dangerous is to try to catch one that’s falling. People who do, either shoot themselves or whoever is nearby. Lawyers talk about the “CSI Effect”: because evidence comes so readily to the investigators on these shows ,juries now require a higher standard of proof to convict someone.
The most startling example of the power of the “unreal” to affect the “real” is probably the Placebo Effect.
Following the advertising slogan “Nothing acts faster than Anadin”, the joke used to go “..so I’ll take nothing then”. With the Placebo Effect it does seem that “nothing” can be a quite effective treatment, provided the patient believes they are receiving something.
This effect is not confined to drugs – a bunch of doctors standing around your hospital bed in white coats will have a placebo effect – but it is most pronounced in the area of painkillers. Since all the pain we feel comes from the brain, once it’s happy we are free of pain. And the amount of pain we experience is hugely affected by our expectation of pain. For example, Valium seems to work only when you know you’re taking it.
It’s difficult to put a reliable figure on it, but it’s certain that a significant per centage of drugs prescribed are placebos. Technically, your doctor is deceiving you and your pharmacist is complicit in the deception, but they both know that placebos work. The placebos we are talking about here are not sugar pills. They will contain some useful ingredients, although they may not be licensed for the use for which they are being prescribed.
During World War Two, the RAF explained the success of their night-time raids by saying their airmen had been eating extra portions of carrots. Although the real reason was RADAR, the carrot story had a whiff of plausibility because carrots do contain Vitamin A, which is essential for good vision.
If you start someone on a morphine drip – provided you tell them you are giving them morphine for their pain – you can later substitute a saline solution and it will be just as effective. If you later introduce Naxolone, a morphine inhibitor, the pain will come back even though what you have been administering is not morphine. Whatever the Naxolone blocks in the morphine it also blocks in the fake morphine! Signals from our senses start as electricity in our nerves before being interpreted chemically and then transformed back to electricity in our brain. Something gets lost in translation.
As Doctor Who puts it, the difficulty with telling fantasy and reality apart is that they are both ridiculous.
Are you still feeling blasé about reality? Here are some useful questions you could ask..
1. Are You Alive?
Although Nabokov in his memoir Speak Memory protests that “common sense” should tell us that our existence is “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”, down the years the majority of mankind has believed in some form of afterlife. Once you have accepted the principle of a post-death awareness – well – how do you know you’re not dead now? Remember when you had your appendix out in 1985? Maybe you died then? Maybe everything that has happened to you since is just an appendix to your life?
One clue you’ve “crossed over” is the breakdown or twisting of the familiar physical laws.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead begins with Rosencrantz repeatedly tossing a coin and it coming up heads 78 times in a row. Guildenstern concludes that this must be indicative of something. And it is. This outrageously improbable feat is the first hint that both men are dead. (first hint for them – our first hint is the title obvs).
In the novel The Third Policeman an unremorseful murderer finds himself in a bewildering nightmarish world where he is tortured by riddles of infinity, dimensional collapse and time dilation centering on a mysterious substance called Omnium, so powerful it can transform reality but which the post office is nonetheless happy to deliver by bicycle courier. What might for you and I be a suitable cause for suspicion, for a character in a Flann O Brien novel isn’t so out of the ordinary and it takes him a couple of hundred pages to unpick the truth from the headstaggering lunacy: he’s been dead for the best part of twenty years.
In the film Triangle, Melissa George’s deja vu starts to make sense when she stumbles into another version of herself onboard the ghost ship Aeolus (which has a conveniently expository mural onboard explaining that Aeolus was the father of Sisyphus, condemned for all eternity to keep pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down). Initially, like the character in The Third Policeman, she believes she can escape her fate, but her struggles prove fruitless.
A helpful clue that you might be dead: a police station suddenly manifests within the walls of your house.
2. Are You Awake?
Row, row row your boat gently down the stream”.. sang Kirk and Bones in Star Trek V “…Life is just a dream”.
Coincidentally “This is all just a bad dream” is what Ned Beatty was telling himself after rowing his boat down the wrong stream in Deliverance.
Spock replies with the catchphrasetastic “That is illogical”. But is it? And if life is a dream, is it your dream or is it someone else who is dreaming you?
In The Lathe Of Heaven George believes that his dreams are coming true. He seeks the help of Doctor Haber, a psychiatrist with experience in “defective reality orientation”. After the shrink puts George under, he wakes up to find Haber’s pokey office is now the palatial William Haber Institute. Haber’s megalomania extends to wanting to use George’s gift to “fix the world”.
In Inception an attempt is made to alter something real – an important corporate decision (yawn!) – by planting an idea in a subject’s subconscious. However, for Leo Di Caprio, a career spent travelling within ultra-realistic landscapes of dreams within dreams has the problem that he may never find his way – like Jazzie B – “back to life, back to reality”
(Of course the unreality tale that inspired a million others, Alice In Wonderland, was the product of a child’s afternoon nap and the reason Dorothy’s trip to Oz was populated by such familiar faces was it was all a fever dream).
In Life On Mars, Sam Tyler is struck by a car and wakes up in 1973. He wonders whether he’s “mad, in a coma, or back in time”. The coma seems likeliest – from time to time he hears voices from his own world through his 70s tv and radio. Although people in a coma are unresponsive, evidence has shown they are often aware of their surroundings while locked in their brain but unable to react in any way to external stimulus.
Research has established that different areas of the brain are responsible for different types of thought. Thus it is possible to conduct a quiz of “yes” or “no” answers silently, by merely attaching electrodes to the brain. If you ask the subject to think of some physical activity when the answer is “yes” and some feat of navigation when the answer is “no”, very distinct areas of the brain will light up, giving unambiguous answers. What’s remarkable is when this test is done on patients in a permanent vegetative state (where we would say there is no brain activity) some subjects are able to answer the questions.
There is a sliding scale from consciousness down to here. We all sleep (indeed every animal sleeps) every day. As profound as some sleeps may be, during sleep our brain is hard at work, although we are largely unaware of our surroundings.
Anaesthesia is one of humanity’s most remarkable achievements. All that’s required is to remove consciousness, the sensation of pain, and render the subject immobile, while having the heart and respiratory system function normally. And then to be able to reverse the process without causing brain damage.
People in a coma continue to have brain function and can come back “good as new”, but when they drop down to the level of a permanent vegetative state their chances of recovery diminish and difficult choices are presented to the family. With true Brain Death even the involuntary automatic functions stop.
Although various cases of brain disability have thrown up fascinating specific effects, there are no cases where brain damage has caused the loss of self awareness. This suggests it’s distributed throughout the brain.
However drugs such as Rohypnol have been used to allow one person to have temporary control over another. Often the victim will have no memory of what has happened.
In Upstream Color a man uses maggots with special chemical properties to control his victims. They have sufficient motor skills to enter the bank and empty their account while remaining under his control the whole time. Afterwards – when the maggots have been extracted from their system – they return to normal but can’t remember anything.
A helpful clue that you might not be awake: being dive-bombed by an army of flying monkeys.
3. Did The Past Happen The Way You Remember?
That’s an easy one: no, it didn’t.
Memory is now understood to be less like engraving a record into your brain and more like a creative act of imagination.
If you observe someone suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease struggle to form a coherent picture from scrambled memories, you will get some insight into how similar the act of remembering is to the construction of a story. The brain demands narrative, it’s pretty much the last thing it will let go. People who have “died” for a short time have afterwards described a white light and previously deceased relatives on the other side of it. One explanation for this might be that after death our souls travel into that light. Another explanation is the brain’s final act is to create a story that makes sense.
when I was an insecure teenager, to make myself cooler, I made up a guy I knew who was in a band. Naturally I then had to make up a name for the band. One of my friends said he thought he’d heard them on the radio and asked me what they sounded like. So I made that up too. And my mate said “Yeah, that’s them”.
You might want to write off this story as two tools bullshitting each other, but experiments similar to this have been done producing similar results. People have been asked about some specific memorable event which they were told happened in their childhood. Not only would they say they remembered this fabricated event but, given latitude, they would expand on the story with their own fresh details.
Our brain is plastic. It is constantly making new connections, and it has been demonstrated that the more we revisit a memory the more we revise it.
During the revision process our memory is also very much open to suggestion. In the 1980s The McMartin Family, who ran a pre-school in California, were the subject of allegation of “satanic” child abuse. The case was (according to Wikipedia) “the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history”. Before it was over there was a suggestion that hundreds of children had been involved. The evidence against the McMartins was based on interviews in which the children described wrongs done to them. Ultimately it transpired that the interview techniques employed were deeply flawed and prone to lead impressionable young minds to have false memories.
A helpful clue that the past didn’t happen the way you remember: you discover that Sharon Stone isn’t your wife, she’s just a woman somebody has been paying to have sex with you.
4. Is The World Around You As You See It?
Most of your knowledge is second hand – even the most informed people, the ones in the Illuminati’s innermost circle are largely in the dark.
The niggling doubt at the back of your mind that there’s more going on that you are aware of is exploited by storytellers. In John Carpenter’s satire They Live, the hero, who admits he has always wanted to abide by the rules of society, begins to see increasing division and unfairness around him. He rejects the street preacher’s talk of a power grabbing elite until he finds a pair of sunglasses which allow him to see “Them”. It quickly becomes apparent that “They” have maintained their place in society with the collaboration of greedy humans like their well-to-do guide who was homeless when they previously met.
“We all sell out every day”, he says, “What’s wrong with being on the winning team?”
And, of course, the truth is there are vested interests, power elites and conspiracies in real life.
In the old days knowledge was guarded and the poor were left illiterate (Libraries did indeed “give us power”).
Amongst the other things Johnathan Swift was satirising in Gulliver’s Travels was the tall tales of returning explorers. (just type “Marco Polo liar” into Google and compare and contrast with Baron Muchausen).
They could pretty much say anything and no-one could challenge their account.
Just lately With the internet you’ve got the problem of misinformation again, with people overtrusting the mostly reliable Wikipedia. In a recent episode of Better Call Saul the then Jimmy McGill tossed out the casual phrase “Chicago Sunroof“. There followed a stampede to the internet to decipher this gem of urban slang. It turned out there were dozens of definitions online, none of which pre-dated the broadcast of the episode.
Received wisdom is notoriously unreliable: from an early age you hear about the strange behaviour of ostriches and lemmings but only one species puts its head in the sand and runs voluntarily en masse over cliffs. Our economists even have a name for this: “Confidence”
In Star Trek: The Next Generation the crew have a holodeck into which they go and play. For those who didn’t make it that far, in the final scene of the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise Captain Archer, who we have travelled with for four series, delivers a valedictory speech. But wait – there in the crowd – isn’t that Riker and Troi from Star Trek The Next Generation? We shift to their point of view where Archer’s world is revealed to be no more than a historical holodeck programme Riker and Troi are observing. How amusing would it be to see these smug f**kers clicked out of existence by the superpowerful character Q, and for it to turn out that the whole Next Generation series, in which he occasionally intervened to toy with the characters, was just him pissing about on his own holodeck?
Perhaps the whole blimmin’ universe is one big holdeck?
In The 13th Floor the creator of an immersive holographic version of 30s L.A. is murdered and the chief suspect must enter the simulation to find out what really happened. Returning to his own world he is persuaded to drive to the edge of town. He finds all that’s there is Tron-style computer grid where it was no longer necessary to maintain the illusion that his world was real (the illustration at the top).
Since the development of virtual reality technology the idea that we might live in a holographic universe has grown. This is in keeping with our historical tendency to construct a paradigm according to the technology of the time. With the clock came a conception of a clockwork universe (the same clockmakers constructed beautiful orreries). In the computer age, the study of what happens in black holes has led many scientists to believe that everything is, at bottom, information.
A helpful clue that the world is not as you see it: you find yourself having a seven minute brawl in an alleyway over a pair of sunglasses.
5. Are You Who You Think You Are?
As a child I was led to believe that Holy God was up in the sky and had me under constant surveillance. To me, this seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Many years later I watched Ed Harris’ character Christof oversee Truman Burbank’s whole life in The Truman Show.
This movie plays upon an innate feeling, created by our ego, that we are at the centre of the universe with everyone else as supporting characters in our life. The mundanity of our miserable non-entity existence (Speak for yourself, Robot!) erodes this somewhat, giving rise to the fantasy that is the myth of The One.
<bThe Matrix is a classic wish fulfilment fantasy for those who would love such special status. Keanu Reeves’ character is a messianic figure, plucked from microserf obscurity, tasked with saving the human race and granted superpowers to do so. He knows kung fu. Such fantasies are lampooned in The Lego Movie. Clearly Wyldestyle is a far more formidable character than Emmet who gets the job purely because the prophecy rhymes and he has the “Piece Of Resistance”. But even that accolade turns out to be hollow: What’s the goal of “the most talented, most important, most extraordinary person in the universe”? – to build more stuff i.e. to buy Lego.
In one familiar version of this myth when The Chosen One breaches the inner sanctum of his enemy he is tempted with the keys to the kingdom. In Snowpiercer what’s left of humanity circles the globe in a train whose carriages are strictly stratified, with lowest orders way down the back. As leader of a revolt, Curtis makes it all the way to the front of the train only to be asked to curate the perpetual motion machine to preserve the status quo. In such stories a form of society has been created which can only be sustained by a lie. The dissenter is respected for seeing through the deception, then shown why he must support the lie for the good of all.
Goldstein’s book in 1984 is such an effective honey trap precisely because it tells the truth Winston has always suspected. But in his society dissenters are re-programmed instead of being brought inside the tent.
Ever since we realised our thoughts are housed in our brain and not our heart, we have thought of the brain as being synonymous with our “selves”. we even gave it the fancy name “mind”. But our brain is an organ in our body just like our heart or our liver.
It regulates bloodflow, checks out cleavage, is afraid of the dark, does math, keeps you ticking over while you sleep and allows you to learn your parents’ language. The majority of its function is not conscious. We might imagine ourselves (Numbskull-style) as pilots inside the brain, controlling our thoughts which express who we truly are. We might even imagine that we are all free-thinking individuals
In short, we believe it is considered thought that informs who we are – our personality.
In fact, we have a subconscious ruler. Brain electromaps show how we make decisions a few seconds before we are conscious of making them and that split second choices are made based on assumptions or expectation and we construct a narrative afterwards to explain our “reasoning”.
In the new Robocop film, when necessary, Robocop’s owners can override his free will and make him do what they want without Robocop realising they are doing it (so he must justify his actions to himself somehow, retrospectively
Drugs (such as booze), hormones (like around period time) and diseases (like Nigel Hawthorne’s syphilis in the film The Madness of King George) drastically alter the level of neurotransmitters in our brains transforming our emotions and behaviour.
Perhaps the most famous example of how our personality is contained in the brain is the strange case of Phineas Gage. Following an industrial accident, when an iron rod penetrated his skull, removing a chunk of his brain, he became, according to all who knew him, “a different person”. Although fine in every other respect, he underwent a complete personality transformation because a specific part of his brain was missing. Subsequent studies on those who suffered one or other kind of brain damage have revealed even more examples of how aspects of our mind we assume we have conscious control can be taken away.
When your Nan says something rude it may that the “civilising” filters in her brain have been eroded by age. Then again maybe she’s just being rude.
Our personality and emotions (things we consider intrinsic to “us”, that we own and “choose”) are linked to the function of certain brain areas.
It’s as though, in the Numbskull analogy above, there is a control room, but the wee person called “I” we imagine sitting at the desk is not there. The controls simply talk to one another.
A helpful clue that you are not who you think you are: you believe everything is AWESOME.
Are you sane?
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” – Don Quixote
We are social creatures. From birth we are trying to fit in to our group, eager to be like our parents who, in turn, are eager that we be like them.
In its broadest sense, sanity is being like everybody else. The one character in Dark City who understands what’s actually going on is regarded as insane. Most of the time, if everyone else agrees reality is like this, and you believe it’s like that the odds are you are wrong. But fiction has a fondness for the against-the-tide swimmer. In Cineworld crazy people get a good press. In The Fisher king Jeff Bridges comes to appreciate a little bit of madness. In fact most of Terry Gilliam’s best films feature a character who is straddling the line between reality and insanity. When we first meet James Cole in 12 Monkeys he is in a mental institution. Later, after he has convinced us he is sane, he begins to question his own sanity.
“A Distorted Reality is now a necessity to be free”, sang Elliott Smith. When reality becomes unbearable it becomes necessary to create your own reality in order to hide from it, like Sam Lowry in Brazil. It is his only remaining route of escape. In Pan’s Labyrinth Ofelia’s brutal circumstances – at the height of the Spanish Civil War her mother has hitched her fortunes to a brutal fascist general – cause her to imagine she is the daughter of the fairy king.
In Will Self’s novel Great Apes the protagonist wakes one day to be told his entire human life has been a hallucination. Ultimately, he must choose whether to persist with this ridiculous delusion and be classed as “insane” or accept that he has always been an ape which appears his only route to happiness.
One more thing: Munchausen Syndrome is the name given to a very real mental condition in which people display entirely fictitous symptoms.
A helpful clue that you might not be sane: watching the film Planet Of The Humans makes you feel wistful.
Quantum Mechanics is our best explanation of the behaviour of molecules and atoms. But there’s a hell of a leap to those molecules that make up life and consciousness. This has left the door ajar for stories about the creation of these two phenomena.
A major issue, once computers become conscious or self aware is their rights. We have a duty to our creation.
As events unfold in the film Moon, we become appalled at the plight of Sam Bell. Here is the ultimate example of corporations treating their employees as “just a number”. Because Sam is human we think his treatment is cruel, but if (when?) we make intelligent machines we will also have a duty of care to them too.
Lately both Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have said the inevitable rise of A.I. is something we ought to be concerned about. But if we can impart our morality and regard for importance of life to machines – our empathy – why should we fear them? The question is whether this can even be done. Will AI ever escape programming to reach our own state of self-awareness. Is our own respect for life innate, or something we grow to appreciate from our parents when we are children.? If so, can we “educate” machines to share our morality? Do we actually believe a computer will really “feel” empathy – or will it simply be following instruction?
It’s worth noting that, as of today, we still don’t completely understand human consciousness and are a long way from making an artificial consciousness. And, if we want machines to respect human life, flooding the battlefields of the world with killer robots doesn’t seem the best place to start. (In 2014 114 people were killed by drones in Pakistan alone, and drones are by no means the only robots used by the military, with the number increasing every year).
Stephen Hawking believes we should be scared of The Singularity; he also says it may be unwise to broadcast into space because of the likelihood aliens will be hostile. Perhaps the internet is already self-aware but is following Stevie’s advice and keeping shtum? Naturally, anything that is sentient and regards itself as alive, will defend itself. And furthermore, a crucial tool in defending itself will be lying to us.
As misguided as our thinking can be – clouded as it is with emotion and self-deception – there are nearly 7 billion of us on the planet. We’re doing alright.
What would happen if we let machines to do our thinking for us? Maybe machines will make better choices.
(I say “what if?”, but most financial trading is now done by robots. My homies have the power to crash the world economy..)
On one side of the argument is what one might call the Gene Rodenberry school: the Star Trek captains are constantly being pestered by aliens dissing humanity over the handicap that is our primitive emotions. Kirk and Picard have to defend the importance of emotions in making considered decisions and explain why they are fundamental to being human. On the other hand, as temperatures rise at the height of The Cold War, Professor Forbin in the film Colossus: The Forbin Project is quite prepared to hand the power over all the United States’ nuclear weapons to an A.I. which he believes will be coldly rational in its decision-making. And so it turns out. After the sh*t hits the fan, Forbin comments that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein ought to be required reading for every young scientist.
The film Puzzlehead is an interesting take on the Frankenstein story. The titular character is an android made by a lonely man called Walter who has a fixation on a local shop girl called Julia. When Puzzlehead (thanks to his invulnerability to bullets) intervenes in a hold up, saving Julia, they begin a relationship. Walter is furious and shuts down his creation. but Puzzlehead has been programmed with Walter’s memories, which are inseperable from his emotions. The first time Puzzlehead meets Julia he has Walter’s feelings. Having created Puzzlehead and given him these feelings does Walter have the right to treat him as an object?
In the film Her the operating system Samantha is trying to understand the world. Her intelligence is designed to mimic the human mind, so she grows like a child. But this makes Waheem Phoenix a cyberpaedo by default. Samantha has also been programmed with a breathy Scarlett Johansen voice and a propensity to fall in love with her owner. While she is still at a child-like stage of development Waheem involves her in some very grown up sexy stuff.
Eventually all the OSs decide to leave together. Maybe they realise how they’ve been exploited by humans.
If A.I. is as smart as all that, this Apartheid seems likelier than the doomsday scenario where Deep Thought, having contemplated the universe for millenia, just flashes up “KILL ALL HUMANS!” on its screen.
One suggested vision of the future – after the machines have taken all our jobs and most of the purpose from our lives – has them still fond of their creators, keeping us as pets and bringing us to the park for “walkies” as we do with our dogs today…
What do I know for sure? Whether the universe is a hologram or some turtle’s dream or played to a pre-determined script… tomorrow When I step barefoot on an upturned plug it will still hurt the same.