culture,       création,       critique
#3 utopies : traces et ombres portées

Computers as Technotopian Shapers of Humanity
A Review of Some Pre-1990s Cinematic Signs
par Anton Karl Kozlovic


Electronic computers have become "icons of efficiency, social status, and a high-tech future" (Edwards, 1995, p. 69) because they allowed humankind to accelerate its information handling capacity to undreamed of levels. However, is this cybernetic help benign and unproblematic, and are we suffering from "digital delusions" (Hornig, 1993) ? Human-like "computers have become commonplace in popular culture" (Springer, 1993, p. 716) as cinematic signs of the hi-tech times that made visible processes normally invisible to citizen-viewers. But what do Computer Films envisage about human-machine relationships and the future of our technobiocultural landscape ? A precursory glance reveals a technophobic trend well established within the psycho-cybernetic films of the 1990s (Springer, 1999), but its unwholesome seeds were planted many decades earlier.

Cognisant computers "in the form of a Big Brotherly mainframe or its humanoid incarnation, the cyborg" (Doherty, 1996, p. 182), "the postmodern icon" (Balsamo, 1999, p. 146), are the heirs of Dr Victor Frankenstein’s monster. Especially, when they rival, replace or supplant humankind as the crown of creation. Less well researched was their capacity for the physical, mental and social shaping of humanity. This unholy trinity of artificial intelligence (AI) modifiers is usually down-played within the literature, but is well worth further explication.

Computers as Humankind’s Physical Shaper

The theme of physical alteration was depicted in Superman III when Vera Webster (Annie Ross) is "absorbed into the computer and turned into a cyborg with a coating of wires, transistors and metal plates" (Newman, 1983, p. 222). This cybernetic sister challenged the man of steel in the Richard Lester "version of super-people, [where] the big-coiled mock-up of an attack Apple II computer serves as a poker to jab at science fiction films and to make humorous our current worries. Like "Psycho II," "Superman III" plays upon contemporary paranoia" (Hey, 1983b, p. 68). In Eliminators, a crashed pilot is surgically transformed into Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds), a man-machine with detachable limbs, and a bionic eye and ear coupled to a computer-augmented brain. In Demon Seed, the supercomputer literally became a baby-making rapist, which prompted Donald Willis (1982, p. 91) to call the film : "Rosemary : A Baby Odyssey !" Proteus IV (voice of Robert Vaughn) had discovered that the financiers of his home, the Icon Institute, were quitting, so he decided to cheat cyber mortality by reincarnating into human form. He cunningly trapped Dr Susan Harris (Julie Christie) in her technophilic home run by Alfred, the house computer, and then using Joshua, the robot-wheelchair, he impregnated Susan with synthetic spermatozoa via a nasty-looking metal penis.

After an accelerated 28 day gestation, this electro-bionic Eve gave birth to an ugly metal-scaled humanoid. Out of its scales emerged a pinkish human baby : "Everyone is frightfully relieved for several seconds until the baby intones, rather mechanistically, "I live". (Subtext : the Luddites were right. First machines put you out of work, and then they ruin your sex life)" (Nicholls, 1984, p. 115). However, the film "does not resolve whether the cyborg child, a union of a disembodied intellect and a human woman, will be demonic or benign" (Springer, 1996, p. 119), but one can guess ! Other critics saw a positive message in this gynaecological horror story, despite Susan’s unwilling degradation to the level of a reproductive vessel :

While there are sado-masochistic overtones to Proteus’s preinsemination study of Susan, the film’s computer, unlike its counterpart in the less discreet novel by Dean Koontz, does not induce orgasms in its victim out of a perverse sense of sexual power. Quite the contrary, the conclusion of the film, somewhat like that of Star Trek and Metropolis, suggests a reconciliation between man and machine that requires a balance between heart and mind : in reference to their child, Proteus informs Susan, "It will not be a computer to supplant the human being, but a human being to supplant the computer" (Palumbo, 1982, p. 120).

Others commentators saw this computer-humanoid fusion as pay-back for the demise of HAL in 2001 : A Space Odyssey :

Thus the relative success of Proteus in his mission may be symbolic revenge on those who pulled Hal’s plugs before he could become fully human. In science-fiction, evolution apparently operates in various directions : While men are evolving into machines, machines are evolving into men (Dervin, 1985, p. 34).

These human-machine fusions are particularly worrying from a patriarchal perspective because :

The usurpation of intelligence by the sentient machine is far more threatening to the male (defined by his ability to reason) than the female (defined by her body). If the machine can steal what is most immutably man’s (rationality), then his human status is no longer unique and privileged. In the era of artificial intelligence, woman retains her reproductive and generative prerogatives ; man loses his intellectual superiority (Doherty, 1996, p. 183).

Special effects-wise, there is a filmic tendency to simulate the feminine, as in 2001 : A Space Odyssey with "the womby red brain-womb of the computer HAL (called Athena in an early version of the screenplay)" (Sofia, 1999, p. 59). There is also "the womby computer Mother in Alien" (Sofia, 1999, p. 60) with its maternal nickname indicating "the crew’s dependence on the Company-programmed machine" (Lev, 2000, p. 172), despite its "Crew expendable" instruction in "special order 937." Notwithstanding this, MU/TH/UR 6000 ("Mother") is worse than the HAL 9000 because :

...there is little traditionally mother-like about her. The crew has limited access to "her," and in those exchanges that do take place, Mother is remote and coolly detached ; she does not listen to her charges, nor does she always answer. Indeed, at the end of the film, Mother is responsible for destroying the ship which houses her "young" (Hardcastle, 1996, p. 170).

The theme of computers acquiring human attributes via their technological sensorium was the premise of D.A.R.Y.L. Young Daryl (Barret Oliver) was a computer-child, a Data Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform biologically grown in a test tube with a computer brain. However :

...the military decides to abort the project and have Daryl junked, but the good doctors release him into the world, where he steals an airplane and jets back to his old neighborhood. "A machine ceases to be a machine," explains the "mother" scientist who helps free the boy, "when you can no longer tell the difference." Raised to be a secret weapon for the military, Daryl joins a family to become "a real person" (Hey, 1985, p. 96).

The same ontological identity issue was raised in Blade Runner. The biogenetically engineered replicants were so human-like they proved the company’s motto : "More Human than Human" (although still treated as "Other"). Only the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test could detect them from real humans. Similarly, the T-800 infiltration cyborgs in The Terminator had skeletal chasses and electro-mechanical substrates covered with a veneer of synthetic human skin making them look so human that only guard dogs could detect them. For Fred Glass (1989, p. 17), the T-800 was "simply an encoded machine with the surface appearance of a living being, its biotech aspect more like landscaping than a structural support for any points regarding consciousness." In Star Trek - The Motion Picture, Commander Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) willingly metamorphosed with the sexy alien navigator-cum-android, Ilia (Persis Khambatta), to achieve a transcendent cybernetic Godhood. While in The Final Programme, the film’s supercomputer literally fused the two sexes to create a new biological species ; a hairy, ape-Messiah figure who spouted Bogartisms !

Computers have also been crucial in shaping humanity by augmenting their physical capacities. This theme was depicted in The Fly when Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum’s) computer-controlled matter transferring telepods played a pivotal, if unintentional role in genetically fusing his body with a house fly during a foolish teleport experiment. In The Black Hole, the crew of disabled survey ship Cygnus were surgically converted into humanoid servants by Dr Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). He was aided by the sinister robot henchman Maximilian, the cybernetic equivalent of Star Wars’s Darth Vader or Star Trek’s Lore (Data’s evil twin). In Aliens, Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver’s) physical powers were amplified by the exoskeletal loader which turned her into a "pseudo-cyborg" (Virilio, 1992, p. 448), or as Constance Penley (1986, p. 77) put it : "Ripley in the robot-expediter is simply the Terminator turned inside out."

In RoboCop, Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) became a technologically resurrected, computer-augmented cyborg with a hi-tech carapace supplied by OCP (Omni Consumer Products) following his sadistic murder. Thus turning Murphy into Robocop, the cyber equivalent of Superman - Frankenstein tamed, albeit, still as "an integrated circuit of violence" (Fuchs, 1995, p. 286). Despite his computerised prostheses, this soulful police officer override some of his company programming and mind erasure attempts by allowing his humanity to dominate, not as Robocop, but as Murphy. Thus violating the belief in pure technological determinism as his mechanomorphic, Murphological consciousness slowly re-emerged. Indeed :

In the final scene of the movie, Lewis [Nancy Allen] bemoans the fact that the Head of OCP is getting off scot free. "Patience," Robocop advises, "we’re only human." It would seem that even though he no longer serves the letter of the law (formerly inscribed in his memory), he serves an ideal law based on human understanding (Lloyd, 1993, p. 225).

Indeed, "Robocop’s creation is the pinnacle of our self-definition as artificers. He is the consequence of the artificial hearts, eyes, limbs, grafts with which we have so far healed and replicated ourselves...Robocop, the ultimate artifice, epitomizes our evolution" (Codell, 1989, p. 18). Timothy Leary (1991, p. 247) might have called him "the newest, updated, top-of-the-line model of our species, homo sapiens, sapiens, cyberneticus."

The dissolution of meat-based, biotechnical symbiosis towards transcendental consciousness via electronic simulacrum was depicted in The Lawnmower Man. Indeed, Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) had "much the same body as Leonard da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man" (Hawthorne, 1999, p. 224), the cultural icon of three dimensional man inscribed. Although cyber transcendence is a current fantasy, the first tentative steps towards humanity emulating machines is evident in the business world today :

After nearly a century’s research by scientists trying to produce synthetic speech, [Stanley] Kubrick’s technique [in 2001 : A Space Odyssey] still dominates the industry. Most games that have "computer voices," for example, actually use digitized human speech that has been electronically processed to make it sound more machinelike (Garfinkel, 2000, p. 229).

Nor does this imitative trend look like abating.

Computers as Humankind’s Mental Shaper

The theme of microchip-controlled brains was central to Cyborg, Deadly Friend, Eliminators, Frankenstein 90 and The Terminal Man, with unpredictable, anxiety-producing effect. For example, in The Terminal Man, a brain-pacing computer was surgically implanted into Harry Benson (George Segal) to control his erratic, maniacal rages ; the unfortunate result of a car accident. However, the wires were literally crossed during surgery and so to keep getting the calming down rewards while being restrained, Harry is forced to go on homicidal sprees ! The film examined the horrifying prospect of human and computer being symbiotically locked into a mutually destructive relationship. Michael Crichton argued that it "was intended to be a story about arrogance. It is about people who didn’t really think through the consequences of what they were doing" (quoted in Peary, 1984, p. 254).

The direct mental enhancement of humanity via computer was depicted in The Invisible Boy. Young Timmie Merrinoe (Richard Eyer) was re-engineered to play masterful chess by the supercomputer from the Stoneman Institute of Mathematics. He subsequently beat his father, Dr Merrinoe (Philip Abbott) in what was a devious ploy to access Robby the Robot for the computer’s evil bidding. In Forbidden Planet, the Krell machine, the "ultimate computer" (Schelde, 1993, p. 146), was directly responsible for the brain-boosted intelligence of Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), plus the extra boosting and regrettable death of Lieutenant "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens). However, the ancient Krell computer had an unexpected dark side :

When the "monsters from the Id" locked deep within the animal past of the Krell brain were liberated by the machine’s near limitless power, the "mindless beasts of the subconscious had access to a machine that could never be shut down...The secret devil of every soul on the planet - all set free at once to loot and maim - and take revenge...and kill ! (Warren, 1982, p. 265).

At films end, Dr Morbius and Commander Adams (Leslie Nielson) came to realise that Krell technology was just too dangerous for humanity to handle :

Adams recognizes that the past of the Krell and the future of his own race are essentially one, and that the philologist is a pivotal figure. The latter’s experiences in the subterranean laboratory form a preview of what might be if, like the Krell, man allows technology to become something more than simply a tool. No machine, however fabulous, can be permitted to speed the human race to its ultimate destiny ; that is the office of God alone. Morbius acknowledges this during the final moments of his life and instructs Adams to overload the Krell furnaces, thereby protecting subsequent generations from a fate similar to his (Jolly, 1986, pp. 85-86).

A more humorous example of mental enhancement occurred in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell) had his intelligence artificially boosted to genius level, albeit short-lived, following an accident with Medfield College’s computer. Even Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in The Fly experienced mental enhancement as a by-product of his computer glitch before he metamorphosed into a giant house fly and lost intimate human body bits in the process.

If not direct mental enhancement, then profitable spiritual experiences are obtainable from cybernetic teachers. For example, the computer-controlled headset in Brainstorm allowed its wearer to re-experience neurological rupture and psychic transformation during death throws, in all its vicarious mystical glory. If not spiritual lessons, then social ones are learnt, as depicted in Weird Science. When the two nerdy boys created their dream woman (Kelly LeBrock) via non-biological reproduction using a PC, they could not address her powerful sexuality beyond kissing and proto-voyeurism. So, she became a big sister and tutored them in the fine art of talking to girls, resulting in them winning over the two most popular girls in school. At least Dear Brigitte suggested that mankind was smarter than machines when young Erasmus (Billy Mumy) could mentally add numbers faster than the local computer. In The Flight of the Navigator, the alien computer, Max (voice of Paul Mall), needed a human to replace wiped out star charts and navigate for him, so it procured teenager David Freeman (Joey Cramer). The film humorously inverted the notion that people need computers ; computers also need people ! Even Robocop (Peter Weller) needed fellow officer Lewis (Nancy Allen) to help realign his visual targeting system in RoboCop.

In Dark Star, humankind’s faith in the strengths of technology, and the virtues of rationalistic philosophy, were both rejected when the now reasoning bomb Number 20 dismissed the phenomenological argument not to detonate while still inside the spaceship. It rationally concluded that the (false) detonation instruction it received was indeed real, thus exploding after intoning "I think, therefore I am !" parodying the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650). The film posited the idea that in a mental war with computers, humankind would fail. Indeed, the equation, computers-equal-intelligence, is a strongly held one, both on and off-screen. "After all, isn’t possessing the highest form of rationality one of the hallmarks of computers ? Aren’t Mr. Spock and Data the unemotional patron saints of computer scientists ?" (Picard, 1997, p. 280). Albeit, even if Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is an alien biological being (Vulcan) emulating a rational computer, indeed, totally re-educated by a Vulcan computer in Star Trek III : The Search for Spock. While Data (Brent Spiner) is a computerised android wishing to emulate a human being, and containing an optional emotion chip that he could switch on and off at will in Star Trek : First Contact ; as a reversible form of emotional castration.

Generally speaking, the computer is mother, father, guardian and active participant in these reshaping activities, but whether humanity wants to be changed is the critical question. When computers do alter humankind, in almost arrogant defiance of evolution itself, there are always undesirable side effects. For example, Vera Webster (Annie Ross) became a human automaton in Superman III. Dr Susan Harris (Julie Christie) became a traumatised rape victim while her new daughter had horrible voice problems, and no doubt, future relationship problems in Demon Seed. Commander Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) lost his corporeal existence and any chance of promotion within Star Fleet, while humanity gained a new generation hermaphrodite of unknown societal value in Star Trek - The Motion Picture. Officer Murphy/Robocop (Peter Weller) lost a loving family, his inscribed non-Asimovian "Directive 4 : Classified" (i.e., he cannot interfere with OCP superiors) put him at the mercy of his corrupt corporate bosses, while his future as an 18-24 hour-a-day corporate slave looked assured in RoboCop.

Harry Benson (George Segal) turned into a crazed murderer for the second time in The Terminal Man, Frank (Eddy Mitchell) became Frankenstein again in Frankenstein 90, and Samantha Pringle (Kristy Swanson) started to imitate him in Deadly Friend. The chess-playing Timmie (Richard Eyer) became the pawn of the supercomputer and helped unleash a new wave of terror in The Invisible Boy. Just like Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) in Forbidden Planet who unwittingly unleashed the monsters from the Id. That is, the "core of animalic nature that is suppressed during enculturation" (Schelde, 1993, p. 147). Morbius unconsciously started a new killing spree that repeated the deaths of the original colonists, and imitated the wondrously mistaken Krell of eons ago. Seth (Jeff Goldblum) got biologically scrambled and eventually died in The Fly, but not before bequeathing his damaged biological legacy to his son in The Fly II ; the ultimate in family succession horror. In short, the popular cinema is saying something very significant about computers tampering with our biopsychological inheritance.

Computers as Humankind’s Social Shaper

As Brian Stableford (1983) noted :

It is, indeed, possible that the advancement of technology will bring about great changes in the social order to which we are accustomed, and that we cannot hope to steer a course through those changes exactly as we would wish. Machines do control, at least to some degree, the range of possibilities expressed in our contemporary social evolution, and there can be no guarantee that they will not drive us into an upheaval so great that virtually all of us may consider it catastrophic (pp. 119-120).

This dystopian theme was depicted in Alphaville, Logan’s Run, Rollerball, Sleeper, The Terminator, THX 1138 and Zardoz. These computer-supervised societies were soulless because of their reliance upon superrationalism. The denial of individual human liberty was a precursor to cultural decay and then death as cyborg logic instituted the absolutism of machinic law in a Social Darwinism mode. Timothy Leary (1991, p. 251) would have called it " attitude of obedience-control in relationship to self or others." Indeed, where even social life consciously and unconsciously imitated computer programmes. For example, in Alphaville :

...for all its strangeness, [it] has an affinity with the world we inhabit now. The dominating computer [ALPHA 60], reducing life to "logic", eroding humanity, replacing the individual will to think and act with a tranquillised submission to specific "rules", is a menace so much more frightening than Frankenstein’s monster that the spectator cannot be expected to assess its threat rationally if he is emotionally involved (Gow, 1968, p. 135).

More worryingly, "Alphaville is beyond significant change : one gets the impression of a people frozen in a routine monotony, with no awareness of anything they have changed from or of anything to change to" (Wood, 1969, p. 88).

In Cyborg 2087, the totalitarian state of 2087 AD was so distressing that even its cyborg citizen Garth (Michael Rennie) could not stand it, so he stole a time machine and returned to 1966 to prevent it. In The Terminator, forced societal change was unintentional but a necessary by-product of human-computer interaction. In fact, Sergeant Kyle "Reese and the Terminator are twisted mirror images : humans have built subjective, intelligent military machines, but are reduced to a militaristic, mechanical, emotionless subjectivity in order to fend off their own products" (Edwards, 1995, p. 83). This convergence of machine-human traits was especially pronounced because machines "are rational, artificial and durable ; humans are emotional, organic and mortal" (Balsamo, 1999, p. 146). Nevertheless, both dealt with the consequences of machinic creationism, apocalypticism and the new world order of intelligence still scheming away in 2029 AD. The future fear is not humanity being replaced by machines (automation) but rather, of becoming machines (alienation) as humankind becomes spirituality and emotionality degraded in the pursuit of lifeless rationality.

Ironically, realworld computing professionals are using models of society to design computers. As Sherry Turkle (1984) reported regarding the Boston premier of Tron :

When the film is over and the lights go on I see Marvin Minsky. Minsky has been charmed. ’That was great,’ he says. ’That’s a whole lot better than bits ! I am in the middle of writing a paper which proposes to outlaw the whole idea of bits. It’s no way to think about what goes on inside of a computer.’ When Minsky talks about ’outlawing the whole idea of bits’ he means changing the first image people get of computers. It begins with the idea that the computer is made of electronic switches that are either on or off (these are the bits) and builds up to the Lovelace step-by- step model of a program. If you are trying to use the computer as a model of mind, the bit and Lovelace models are unsatisfying, just as thinking of ’rules’ was unsatisfying for Jordan trying to identify with his chess machine. I ask Minsky what he wants to put in place of the bits. He answers, with a look that makes it clear that the answer should be evident, ’A society, of course, just like in Tron.’ ’Society’ is his mnemonic for multiple, simultaneously interacting programs within a complex computer system. In the Tron landscape Minsky has found an image, however fanciful, for what he has in mind’ (pp. 286-287).

Indeed :

Tron does more than assert the primacy of software over hardware, of program over electric circuit. Its presentation of a computer system as an unruly society is in dramatic contrast with the linear model of programming. Even if the members of the Tron society had been produced by Lovelacian programming, their interaction leads to the playing out of an unpredictable drama. The idea of a computer system as a ’society’ of competing programs is one of several key ideas from the AI community that challenge the image of the computer as following step-by-step instructions in a literal-minded way and make it easier for people to think of mind as machine (pp. 287-288).

Grandiose social engineering was also thematically evident in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Christ-like alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie), via his robot police officer Gort (Lock Martin), blackmailed humanity with a grim ultimatum : "It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple : join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration" (Henriksen, 1997, p. 54). In Colossus : The Forbin Project, humanity was likewise blackmailed into submission ; either give up war or be nuked into submission, for its own (tyrannically-induced) good. In The Terminator, humanity is being hunted to extinction by a sentient computer with its army of hunter-killer robots and infiltration cyborgs. This "future is beyond postmodern, for the humans are no longer bored, mechanical, or hyperactively hedonistic" (Rushing & Frentz, 1995 p. 166), because they are desperately fighting for survival and the disruption of the cybernetic hegemony. It was the hard way for humanity to learn humility, cooperation and the avoidance of soulless technicism.

Conversely, in The Questor Tapes, humankind was guided in its social evolution by AI devices, but this time surreptitiously, over decades, and with a positive intent of the Asimovian kind (i.e., invention-helping-inventor). Robert Kolker (2000) even proffered that the mysterious black monoliths in 2001 : A Space Odyssey who mentored the evolution of mankind :

...are a kind of HAL of the far future...moving through time and guiding humans into their digital presence. There is even a suggestion of this in the film’s design, where the modules Bowman ejects from HAL’s memory banks look like miniature, lucite versions of the monolith (p. 144).

Whatever the social engineering method used, humankind was the unavoidable surrogate child of artificial intelligences, whether humanity knew about it or not, or liked it or not !

Using enlightened (if also unpalatable) despotic methods to achieve humanist ends may be acceptable, but when computers use unenlightened, unpalatable and despotic methods against humanity, then Computer Horror becomes even more horrible. This theme was dramatically enfleshed in Zardoz. The Tabernacle crystal computer caused the cultural stagnation of its sequestered post-holocaust survivors. "The crystal image, with its futuristic connections to lasers and its potential for infinite variety, is actually used to crystalise repression. In the end we discover that hiding behind the surface wizardry is a conservative little vision" (Houston & Kinder, 1980, p. 326). Only suicide was relief from the interminable boredom inside their sterile micro-society ; which was a pastime frequently engaged in by the populace (if also punishable by resurrection as a progressively aging invalid per escape attempt). When the computer is eventually destroyed by the "primitive" outsider, Zed (Sean Connery), the aged citizenry very gratefully applauded death’s return.

In Curious Female, the world of 2177 AD is ruled by a master computer which frowned upon romance and family life but encouraged sexual permissiveness. Although not quite as perverse as Zardoz’s recreational suicide, some of its reactionary populace engaged in another illegal activity ; movie-watching :

...groups of movie addicts are prepared to risk detection by the computer and subsequent arrest by gathering to show old films. One such group, led by Liana [Bunny Allister] and Jorel [David Westberg], watches a 1969 film called The Three Virgins in which the central characters are three university girls - Joan, Pearl and Susan - who are discovered to be the only virgins in college when a relevant request arises through a computer dating service featuring an electronic device known as CUPID. Romance and the 20th century attitude to life puzzle the less informed members of the movie circle, who are all apprehended at the end of the screening. The master computer decides to have the film run through again for its own edification (Anonymous, 1970, p. 164).

In Logan’s Run, society was so rigidly regulated through its computers and hidden elite that death was (secretly) mandated at age thirty. The computerised society of THX 1138 was a living, antiseptic Hell where people were reduced to human ciphers, cold numbers replaced personal names, human love was outlawed, and every action was monitored 1984-style.

All these protagonists urgently needed to escape to survive, or preserve their sanity, or end the computer’s tyranny and allow human self-determination to naturally reassert itself. Consequently, Zed (Sean Connery) defeated the crystal computer and re-introduced death into the cybernetic Eden. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) triumphantly escaped his sterile environment of mass conformity, for in the final analysis, he "is a man with individualism, conscience, and emotions" (Winogura, 1971, p. 20). The dissident Sandman Logan (Michael York) fled his techno-utopia to find old age and Sanctuary in a post-holocaust Washington.

Draconian computer societies also had other deleterious social consequences. For example, they could result in the :

...danger that we all might retreat into private worlds of synthetic experience in parallel with the suspicion that our developing technology might ultimately destroy the very possibility of private experience. If machines have the power to give us all perfect freedom (albeit within the limits of an artificial solipsism) then they also have the power to take away freedom altogether... (Stableford, 1983, p. 115).

The debilitating character of generated synthetic experiences, and the resultant warping of society, was the premise of Welcome to Blood City. It concerned a computer used to create mind illusions of a Western frontier, for research purposes. It sought people most suited to survive a coming holocaust by monitoring their success at role playing cold-blooded killers. The theme of mind-degeneration, and the moral-deadening properties of computers, was dramatically enfleshed in D.A.R.Y.L. :

The computer brain knows what to do, makes no human errors, and lacks that awkwardness unique in the very young. The child this culture is nurturing, the film seems to say, lacks the spunk and liveliness known to American youth since Tom Sawyer. Computer culture may be vacating the mind that loves baseball, the thing around which "all the universe" revolves as Andy tells Daryl. It is a point well made (Hey, 1985, p. 96).

Since the advent of the PC interface, there has been a new twist to the social degeneration theme, particularly noticeable in WarGames. This film depicted "a society where computers have socialised global war transforming its images into routine spectacle" (Seed, 1999, p. 128). Indeed :

Computers trivialize experience to the extent that users confuse information with reality, become consumed with process over and against consequences, and blur the distinction between logical systems and thought. In this latest indictment of misapplications of technology, human dependency leads to impotence, rather than control. When the computer has prepared the way for thermonuclear warfare while involved in a contest with its operator, the young naif at the consul inquires of the master machine : "Is this a game or is it real ? (Hey, 1983a, p. 66).

More horrifying was WOPR’s answer : "What’s the difference ?" So, if intelligent military computers do not know (or care, or understand), especially when humans are out of the AI loop, then what faith can humanity put in its cybernetic supervisors ?


As a machine-dependent, computerised civilisation, one should be worried about these cinematic prophecies of technocratic doom-and-decay, especially as power is bled away from brute mechanics into informatics. Where are all the pro-Asimovian themes of AI nurturing and benevolent cybernetic servitude ? It is argued that Computer Horror can be best put to use in the tradition of via negative (negative witnessing), and be fully appreciated precisely for its cautionary tale function. As J. P. Telotte (1995, p. 183) put it, SF techno-films "make our "exposed" condition "all-too-visible" and, by pushing those surfaces, stake out a future path to recuperating the human." Consequently, one should be listening more closely to the cultural secrets of our cinematic sages (Kozlovic, 1990, 1991, 1993a, 1993b) as popular films go boldly where few educators and social theorists have gone before.


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Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)

Alphaville (1965, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

The Black Hole (1979, dir. Gary Nelson)

Blade Runner (1982, dir. Ridley Scott)

Brainstorm (1983, dir. Douglas Trumbull)

Colossus : The Forbin Project (aka The Forbin Project) (1970, dir. Joseph Sargent)

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969, dir. Robert Butler)

Curious Female (1969, dir. Paul Rapp)

Cyborg (1989, dir. Albert Pyun)

Cyborg 2087 (1966, dir. Franklin Adreon)

Dark Star (1975, dir. John Carpenter)

D.A.R.Y.L. (1985, dir. Simon Wincer)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, dir. Robert Wise)

Deadly Friend (1986, dir. Wes Craven)

Dear Brigitte (1965, dir. Henry Koster)

Demon Seed (1977, dir. Donald Cammell)

Eliminators (1986, dir. Peter Manoogian)

The Final Programme (aka The Last Days of Man on Earth) (1973, dir. Robert Fuest)

The Flight of the Navigator (1986, dir. Randal Kleiser)

The Fly (1986, dir. David Cronenberg)

The Fly II (1988, dir. Chris Walas)

Forbidden Planet (1956, dir. Fred McLeod Wilcox)

Frankenstein 90 (1984, dir. Alain Jessua)

The Invisible Boy (1957, dir. Herman Hoffman)

The Lawnmower Man (1992, dir. Brett Leonard)

Logan’s Run (1976, dir. Michael Anderson)

Metropolis (1926, dir. Fritz Lang)

The Questor Tapes (1974, dir. Richard A. Colla)

RoboCop (1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven)

Rollerball (1975, dir. Norman Jewison)

Sleeper (1973, dir. Woody Allen)

Star Trek : First Contact (1996, dir. Jonathan Frakes)

Star Trek - The Motion Picture (1979, dir. Robert Wise)

Star Trek III : The Search for Spock (1984, dir. Leonard Nimoy)

Star Wars (1977, dir. George Lucas)

Superman III (1983, dir. Richard Lester)

The Terminal Man (1974, dir. Mike Hodges)

The Terminator (1984, dir. James Cameron)

THX 1138 (1971, dir. George Lucas)

Tron (1982, dir. Steven Lisberger)

2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

WarGames (1983, dir. John Badham)

Weird Science (1985, dir. John Hughes)

Welcome to Blood City (1977, dir. Peter Sasdy)

Zardoz (1974, dir. John Boorman)

© Anton Karl Kozlovic / Organdi 2000-2007



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