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Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi’

This article on goal-oriented and process-oriented objectives is interesting and well articulated. The distinction is important, and worth picking apart if you want to gain some useful insight into human motivation generally.

I’m still not convinced it makes a conclusive argument against wireheading.

This is where I get the impression that I’m somewhat out of step with much of the rationalist community. I think the potential of wireheading deserves much more time and serious attention than is generally fashionable.

At least, if the term can be interpreted widely enough. One understanding of it specifically refers to stimulating the “pleasure centres” of the brain; whether or not “pleasure centres” is itself rigorously defined, this presumably relates only to the more immediate or straightforward physical pleasures available to humans. A shortcut to the experience of delight usually available only through sex or food would be interesting, but probably not something we’d all want to embrace to the exclusion of all other avenues we could be exploring. (At least, most of us probably don’t want that now. If we actually had access to such a device, studies suggest we’d end up wanting to do exactly that – another reason it doesn’t appeal from our putatively rational position of indifference, made possible by not currently experiencing overwhelming pleasure.)

But this doesn’t apply much imagination to wireheading’s potential. Our capabilities are clearly limited at the moment, but taking a longer-term view of the science of neuro-hacking, superior technology could in principle get around any objection to wireheading that isn’t purely ideological. It’s understandable to suppose that constant physical pleasure might get “boring” after a while, because in our natural lives we do get bored. We never go very long without craving some variety in the stimuli we’re experiencing, even those stimuli we rank among our favourites and return to again and again. It seems like any attempt at wireheading would fall prey to our same fickle tendencies.

But come on, we’re already talking about using futuristic technology to hack the human brain. Think bigger! Boredom is just as much a result of physical processes in your grey matter as pleasure is, so hack that too! Why not have a brain implant which stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain and simultaneously puts a hold on whatever accompanying brain processes would normally make you get bored? You’re right that nobody enjoying a game would want to just skip to the end, because the challenge of playing it is what they’re enjoying – but then why shouldn’t wireheading include porting that feeling right there directly to your brain? Why not have a more complex implant which directly interacts with multiple areas of the brain, and provides some “higher-level” desirable mental states, such as the satisfaction of completing a tough physical job, or the sense of comforting rightness that comes from a deep and heart-felt conversation with another person with whom you share a complete mutual love and understanding? Why not have it regularly switch to something else joyous, blissful, fulfilling, or otherwise desirable, in whatever manner currently provides the most positive adjustment to that particular brain-state?

Of course, if any device claims to be able to offer a short-cut to all these good feelings without the need to slog through reality like usual, you should be very suspicious of just how much it’s actually going to fulfil all your current desires. And you should definitely be wary of the effect on other people of your withdrawing from the world – maybe a futuristic implant really can artificially provide you with all the flow you get from your real-world work, but if you used to work as a heart surgeon, there are other considerations than whether you’re missing out on job satisfaction. There are good reasons to want our experiences to be generally rooted in the real world. But I’m not convinced it’s important for its own sake.

A follow-up post discusses this to an extent, but I don’t think the “simulated reality” distinction saves the argument. Pull-quote:

Of course I think a complete retreat to isolation would be sad, because other human minds are the most complex things that exist, and to cut that out of one’s life entirely would be an impoverishment. But a community of people interacting in a cyberworld, with access to physical reality? Shit, that sounds amazing!

I totally agree with the latter point, and it’s worth bearing in mind how much more likely something like that is than any of the sci-fi hypotheticals I’m talking about above. But cutting other human minds out of one’s life would only be an impoverishment if they couldn’t be replaced with some equivalent experience, to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Obviously anything like that is a way off. But I’m intrigued as to the direction things are going, and I wonder if this kind of direct brain-stimulation won’t be a significant part of the post-trans-humanist techno-utopia we’re all supposed to be pontificating about.

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I’ve never enjoyed Blade Runner, or anything by Philip K Dick. Which is probably heretical in some way; I don’t object to them or people who do enjoy them, they’ve just never landed with me.

I re-read Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep recently, and one thing I don’t get is why humanity gives a crap about tracking down and identifying the andys (or replicants) in the first place. Seriously, why does it matter? It doesn’t seem like they’re infiltrating us as the first phase of some kind of invasion plot; they’re not obviously physically superior to us, they don’t pose any particular threat. All they seem to want is to just get on with being alive and being treated as human, until they inevitably die in a couple of years anyway.

The differences between them and humans are made to sound deeply trivial, anyway. To tell them apart takes either a detailed bone marrow exam of some sort, or the Voight-Kampff empathy reflex test, which would surely produce wildly varying results for genuine humans anyway, and thus be unable to tell an android from just a common-or-garden sociopath.

So why does Deckard’s job exist? Why are substantial resources being spent on tracking, identifying, and eliminating andys at all, as well as continually researching superior methods for doing so? If they’re basically just people, why the fuck not let them get on with it? Why does the planet obsess over sorting them into the right category, so that we know whether they’re inhuman and must be exterminated?

There’s interesting ideas to explore there, about mankind’s insecurity, and why we feel the need to compulsively draw these boundaries to protect our sense of self, and the looming existential dread that we’d have to face up to if we acknowledged the way andys blur the bounds of what being human means. But exploring any of that doesn’t seem to be Dick’s point.

Later in the book, when one character feels empathy toward the plight of an android, they’re warned that this amounts to “reacting like they react”, and is taken as an unquestionably bad sign of some kind. But the idea that the natural human inclination is to feel empathy only toward other humans, and that we wouldn’t normally have the same feelings for a creature we know isn’t “really human”, is just bizarre. Humans will empathise with anything.

A single animation studio has, in the past couple of decades, made millions of people care deeply about plastic toys, insects, monsters that jump out of children’s cupboards to scare them, fish, robots, cars, and a bunch of vaguely person-shaped blobs representing anthropomorphised emotions, among many other non-human entities. Look at the human emotions and personalities the internet ascribes to cats, or sloths, or an elephant seal having its bucket stolen. We will attribute full agency and inappropriately gendered pronouns to a picture of a rock, and some of us will get tearful over how adorable it is if you give it googly eyes and a two-line tragic back-story.

I mean, it’s not like we wouldn’t find countless other ways to hate and dehumanise androids, however much like us they are. Just look at our track record of treating actual human people like shit. But the universally accepted obviousness of eliminating them for not being quite human enough was just another thing that felt unconvincing.

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Well, to paraphrase a recurring Twitter joke that’s usually about Baz Luhrmann or Wes Anderson or someone: I see Charlie Brooker’s made his bleak dystopian satire again.

The thing about Black Mirror, which recently aired a one-off Christmas special, is the same thing that’s always the thing about Black Mirror. It’s really worth watching, it’s generally frustratingly unsatisfying, and it’s sufficiently engaging that it’s prompted me to pour more words into a blogpost about it than any other subject in months.

The way the show presents its ideas is always gorgeously realised, with glorious production values, beautiful sets, fantastic performances, and all that jazz. It suckers you into its shiny world, but there’s not much substance beneath all the pretty and highly watchable gloss. To someone even moderately sci-fi literate, the ideas themselves often aren’t especially revolutionary, or original, or insightful – and the way it takes its time over them makes it seem as if it’s more proud of itself on this score than it really deserves.

It consistently hits “quite fun” levels, but seems to be expecting my mind to be blown. Which is really distracting, and leaves me wondering what could be done if such effort and skill that’s clearly been put into the production could be applied to some really bold, creative, intense sci-fi ideas.

Or at least some sci-fi ideas which aren’t basically always stories about stupid people who are deplorably, unforgivably shit at dealing with their (often self-inflicted and entirely avoidable) problems.

See, I don’t doubt there are things which speculative fiction is well placed to address, regarding humanity’s tendency to be unforgivably shit at dealing with their problems. We are a species with no shortness of innate shitness at all kinds of things, after all. But the lesson I tend to draw from Black Mirror is “you can avoid this terrible fate if you somehow find it in yourself to be fractionally less shit than these complete incompetents”, which doesn’t take long to learn and doesn’t particularly expand my mind in the way good sci-fi can.

In many ways, this show about how technology impacts our lives is much more about the lives than about the technology. It’s not exactly a deep insight to say that the science parts of science-fiction are often primarily a device for talking about universally recognisable aspects of human nature and its flaws. But when seen this way, both the technological dystopias of Black Mirror, and the dark corners of humanity they reveal, are disappointingly unsophisticated.

The bits of the show that work best for me – and thus, by extension, the bits which are the best in objective and unquestionable truth – are the opposite of the bits that are most clearly intended to be powerfully bleak and viscerally horrifying.

Spoilers for White Christmas to follow, because it’s the one I can remember most clearly to cite as a useful example:

People being tortured or simply imprisoned in those cookie things is a genuinely chilling idea. For all that I’m bitching a lot about this show, when it has a thing it wants you to look at, it does a fine job of showing it off, and you definitely felt how sinister that notion was. What’s happening in the story is seriously creepy, and if seeing it proposed as something which could really happen doesn’t deeply unnerve you then you’re thinking about it wrong.

But it gets stopped short of being genuinely insomnia-inducing. In part, the effect is muted by the nature of the proximate cause of the nightmare: namely, the active and direct malice of Jon Hamm’s character (and later of the police officer casually ramping up the torment beyond anything experienced by a single individual in human history). Both the characters we see being tortured in a digital prison are having this punishment deliberately inflicted on them.

That’s fine as far as it goes: Person A really wanted Person B to experience great suffering, and made it happen. On an individual basis, that’s horrible, and scary, but it’s not exactly new. The scale of it that’s enabled by the technology is impressive, but still not unprecedented.

But while it’s certainly believable that this kind of cruelty could take place, I don’t think it identifies a broader human failing that our species as a whole should be worried about. In both instances in the show, this kind of cruelty seems to have been institutionalised into a system in widespread use. Torturing a replica of yourself into acting as some kind of household organiser seems to have become mundane and everyday. Given how much straightforward evil that would require of basically everyone who accepts this system, I don’t see it as likely that we’re going to backslide that far into that level of callousness. (Recent poll results on the support for torture as an interrogation tactic by the CIA among the American public makes me think twice on this one, but it still doesn’t feel authentic, as a path we might be in danger of going down.)

I could’ve sworn I remembered the title Black Mirror as being a classical literary reference of some sort, describing a reflection of the dark side of humanity and making us face the blackness that stares back when we look at ourselves, or something. Apparently I made all that up and it just means computer screens. But even so, the resonance that stories like these will have depends on how well they convince us that they do reflect something meaningful about us. It needs to feel representative of life as a whole, or of “the way the world works”. When a story doesn’t feel believable, it’s not necessarily that we think it defies the laws of physics and could literally never happen, but that it doesn’t fit with the stories we use to frame real life.

So, good guys win, because the world is basically fair, and good will win out in the end, really. Or, the good guys fail, because we live in a hopeless godless world that doesn’t care about us, in which the good guys won’t get what they want just because movies have always told them they will. Either way, the specific example in question is implying this broader set of conclusions about the way the world works.

With Black Mirror, there’s never a “happy” ending, and the conclusions it leads us to about the real world and human nature are always something dark and disturbing. This isn’t a problem in itself; as I say, there’s plenty that’s dark and disturbing about life and humanity that’s worth exploring. But it’s the part where the characters (and by extrapolation humans in general) are flat-out evil, bringing about our doom by deliberate malevolence, that doesn’t ring true.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Almost no one is evil; almost everything is broken.

So much more harm has been brought about by well-meaning folk being badly organised, by good people getting stuck in harmful patterns of self-defence, by broken systems where nobody’s getting what they want but nobody’s incentivised to change anything, than by evil people simply wishing evil things. And the former has more gut-wrenching horror lurking inside it, too. There doesn’t have to be some brilliantly dastardly mastermind plotting and scheming, derailing the universe’s plan for good people to be rewarded; people can just be human, and well-intentioned, and recognisably good in every important way, and still effect unimaginably terrible suffering. That’s a more relatable and frightening idea to explore, and rings far truer as a probable harbinger of actual future dystopian calamity.

There was a lesson in White Christmas which resonates more strongly with me, about faulty thinking regarding artificial intelligence, and a glimpse of the consequences of fucking that up as badly as we probably will – but that didn’t seem to be the pitfall the show was warning us about. The main message seemed to be the usual theme of technology’s potential to be used to cause suffering when it’s convenient for us, with our philosophically inadequate notions of consciousness tacked on as a chilling coda.

The really scary and horrific things done by humans, historically, have been much more down to social influences than technological ones. Any truly dark and nightmarish future will come from a far less easily predicted direction than that suggested by an entertaining, whimsically spooky TV show.

Merry Christmas.

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As you may have noticed, last Monday I went and got myself a wife. And things are all pretty nice. The wedding and ensuing consecutive mini-honeymoons are all worth gossiping about, and now that I’m back home with a computer and all the free time that comes with not having a wedding to plan, I’m getting myself back into writer mode. So, gossip ahoy-hoy.

Taking events in reverse chronological order, then, this post’s starting off with the London Nine Worlds convention, from which we returned yesterday. Two and a half days of geeks and sci-fi and fantasy and pop culture and room service. We’ve just bought tickets for 2014 and my wife is already making plans for how to dress me up next time, so I guess it must’ve gone kinda okay. A selection of things I took away from the weekend:

1. I’m a nerd.

(Or a geek, or whatever.)

My wife and I spent the last several days sitting in conference rooms and lecture halls, listening to learned and erudite discourse on such topics as: chaos theory and infinite monkeys; the legal challenges and implications resulting from the increased proliferation of robotics in everyday life; Hermione Granger’s credibility or lack thereof as a feminist icon; what conclusions can be drawn about plausible alien ecologies from our own planet’s evolutionary biology; and the restrictively binary mainstream perceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality, along with aspects of culture which tend to reinforce or subvert the dominant paradigms.

And we spent a non-trivial amount of money for the privilege and it was totally worth it.

I also bought a couple hundred Magic cards, a few urban fantasy novels, and a pixel-art necklace for my beloved – and this only after several very restrained tours of the vendor hall, gawping at all the shiny and reining in our impulses to fill our home with all the things.

These are not ways the majority of folk would be thrilled to spend their time, I think. I mean, I hang out almost exclusively with other nerds of one sort or another, in the parts of the world where I get to choose my own socialising schedule, so it might start to seem like swooning over Cory Doctorow is the kind of thing that everyone will immediately get. But really, it all puts me in something of a niche. I’m already thinking about how much of this detail I’ll end up skimming over when I go back to work next week and am quizzed on what I’ve been up to by my work colleagues. They’re not nerds.

2. I’m not that much of a nerd.

(Or maybe just not the same kind of nerd as some other nerds, maybe it’s not a matter of scale, or whatever.)

There’s a particular kind of geek/nerd behaviour I’ve witnessed a lot. The stereotypical nerd is a social misfit in everyday life, who doesn’t have much to say to all the normal people they’re surrounded by, and is largely inept at saying it. They’re an introvert, a loner, with little capacity for interaction with other humans and a tendency to shy away from situations where they might have to do so.

But what you actually see among a lot of nerds is a tendency to congregate eagerly with their own kind, and ample capacity to become extremely extroverted, expressive, and engaged with others, under the right circumstances. It’s really not that these people don’t like socialising, or are all painfully shy; they just don’t give a shit about football or whatever the hell the rest of you guys are talking about. Get them going on something actually interesting, though, and you’ll often have trouble shutting them up. (And you’ll encounter a similar proportion of obnoxious, aggressive dicks as can be found among the species as a whole.)

I really don’t do that one myself. I don’t simply have to join a crowd of the right people, my people, to suddenly find myself opening up and becoming a whole different, chatty, person, just because I finally have something in common with them. It’s not just the fact that muggles want to talk about football that I find off-putting and alienating. Even in subjects where I feel both interested and knowledgeable, I’m not always easy to draw into a conversation, depending on the circumstances (crowds and/or strangers being among the key factors).

Which I guess kinda sucks. I don’t have that sense of “coming home”, or suddenly being among friends, the way some people do at such geekfests. I can’t really imagine that a different sort of crowd ever would give me that feeling, either, because it’s not a matter of being among the “right people” that’s lacking here.

Having said that, there’s one related thing which strongly comes through from all the feedback that Nine Worlds has been receiving:

3. If you wanted a “safe space” for just about any minority interest or quirk, this was it.

For whatever reason (and I’m sure there are fascinating sociology papers discussing this somewhere), there seems to be a significant overlap between, say, reading comics/watching Doctor Who/playing board games/exploring steampunk/enjoying Tolkien/critically analysing Harry Potter, and possessing a not-completely-straightforward gender or sexual identity.

That’s a clunky way of phrasing my point. But there were a lot of people at this con dressing in ways not traditionally associated with their apparent gender in the mainstream world. And, if someone’s a stranger to you, but you happen to know that they’re way into My Little Pony, your estimate of how likely they are to shout transphobic abuse at you should go way down.

There was a whole track devoted to “Queer Fandom”, whose purpose was described as “celebrating and exploring LGBT themes, characters and creators throughout SFF media”. And even though my experience of the con had little overlap with any of their stuff, the general atmosphere of acceptance, welcoming, and camaraderie pervaded the convention as a whole. The idea of making it a friendly and safe space for people who wanted to dress, or wear their hair, or in any other way present themselves, in a fashion that might be controversial elsewhere, was built into the running of the con and its ethos.

Even refreshing the #nineworlds hashtag results now, I’m seeing more mentions of the phrase “safe space”. And it means a lot more coming from most of these Twitterfolk than it does from me. Because, y’know, I’m a straight white male. My odds of being “safe” in just about any environment amenable to human life are about as good as you could ask for.

For me, dressing myself comfortably – in a way that I feel truly reflects the person I consider myself to be – involves throwing on the nearest reasonably clean check shirt and cords that are lying around. It takes seconds, and the end result renders me entirely unremarkable. For some people, that’s not the case. They might want to use make-up, and hair dye, and creative outfits, and costumes, and personal accoutrements and ornamentation of all kinds, often in ways that don’t align with any conventional social demographic.

In its simplest form, this means that, if you were at Nine Worlds, you will likely have seen at least one bloke in a dress milling around. And that’s at the least inventive end of the scale.

And my general impression, based on the reports of actual blokes in dresses, among other people who lie outside of various social norms, is that they mostly felt safe and comfortable being themselves at this convention, in a way that starkly contrasts with their experiences in the world in general. Which is groovy.

Actually listening to other people’s personal accounts of such things is important. I mean, I know that to me everyone seemed nice and friendly, but then, someone massively racist or homophobic may have no reason not to be nice and friendly around me. But a brief wander outside my bubble serves as a reminder that, for some folk, it’s a genuine lifeline to have some space where you can just be yourself, without always wondering how long it’ll be before the next mocking catcall or physical abuse, and whether it wouldn’t be simpler to just keep lying to the world about who you are, for the sake of a peaceful life.

So, yeah. I support all of This Sort Of Thing, with very few reservations and a great deal of optimism for the future.

Also we had three nights in a hotel where you can just pick up the phone and ask them to bring you all the food on a trolley and they totally will and you don’t even have to get properly dressed or go outside or anything. How long have I failed to appreciate that that’s a thing?

More to follow, after a much shorter wait this time. I’m feeling back on the wagon now.

Edit: The aforementioned wife has also composed her own report of the weekend, which has a lot more description of the stuff that actually happened there. Also, pictures!

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Quidditch

Daniel Radcliffe was on some chat show a few years ago, being his thoroughly charming and impressively nerdy self, and the topic of discussion came around to Quidditch players.

Not the fictional ones in the films he’s in and the books they’re based on. Actual, real, formalised, genuine, International Muggle Quidditch.

They have a World Cup with a hundred teams competing. They have a shitload of university teams.

It was a bit less widespread and serious at the time, when I saw a few clips of amateur matches being played on whatever talk show it was. But it was still very definitely a Thing. And I came to a realisation.

I fucking love this shit.

I don’t mean Quidditch. Any sport close enough to rugby to give me horrifying junior school flashbacks can eat a dick. But not everyone feels that way about it. Some people liked the idea of it enough to get together on a playing field in their robes and wizard hats and whatever the hell else you need to play a sport where if you were doing it properly you’d be flying on broomsticks, and have some fun.

They don’t care that it’s a ridiculous made-up game, whose rules wouldn’t make any sense even if it wasn’t six kinds of impossible to even play. They saw an idea they felt strongly enough about to make it happen. For the sake of creativity, and deep personal fulfilment, and fun.

I love that shit.

And it’s everywhere. WorldCon is just finishing up as I type this, and if you’ve ever been to a WorldCon, or a Comic Con, or if you’re aware that there are these things called nerds, you’ll know how much time and effort people put into making costumes for occasions when thousands of them will be getting together.

Where the hell did this guy get one of those Bane masks? No idea. What the heck’s on this guy’s face? I don’t know, but he can taste it all day. Any one of these people has put more thought into each of these outfits than I have collectively spent contemplating what I’m going to wear throughout my entire life. That last guy was so taken with that time Heath Ledger dressed up as a clown dressed up as a nurse, that he said: “I want to do that. That’s what my free time is going to be for.”

The man-hours spent on all this nonsense entirely for its own sake are staggering. And they are loving this shit.

And, for the record, I think all of it is awesome.

The only ever-so-slightly crushing disappointment came when I eventually realised that, if I’m going to be consistent, I kinda have to feel similarly about more mainstream passions. Like… football. Ugh. Nerd culture’s so much more interesting.

But, oh, go on then.

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So I’ve finally seen this movie that you probably lost interest in months ago, and I has some thoughts. (And some spoilers, though not much more than is given away by the title.)

I’m not a proper film critic type, so I don’t really know how to integrate the various levels on which the film acts, or how much weight to give them. On a scientific level, for instance, it was seriously problematic. The “gene therapy” that gives the apes super-intelligence is well beyond even plausible science fiction, and acts as a mixture of miracle and MacGuffin in its ability to do what the story needs it to. A single treatment, and every chimpanzee it’s exposed to suddenly acquires human-level thinking. In humans, the same stuff cures Alzheimer’s overnight. (And it’s aerosolised, for no good reasons that aren’t contrived by the plot.)

The notion of just what intelligence is bothered me as well. The apes don’t just get smarter, they essentially become different-looking humans. Every facial expression, every tic, every gesture, is clearly recognisable and understood when you watch them. You can follow the thought processes behind every decision they make, and even their manual dexterity suddenly seems to mirror that of humans in a way I don’t think is natural to chimps. I get that this kind of relatability is generally something you want in your protagonists, but it jarred here. Andy Serkis does a brilliant job in the whole motion capture thing, but that may be part of the problem. It felt like there should be a less lazy way to humanise these characters – or, perhaps, to make us care about them even when humanising them isn’t appropriate.

(At the same time, the extent of the apes’ physical superiority to humans was off-puttingly exaggerated. They regularly leapt through plate glass as if it literally wasn’t there, and fell forty feet onto concrete ground as if hopping off a bus. I know they could all kick my ass without breaking a sweat, but this was a bit much.)

The counterpoint to all this, on the other hand, is that I’m not sure how much it matters.

Well, no, I’m sure that a lot of it does matter, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly for the sake of internal consistency. But on another level (if I can talk about there being, philosophically, “another level” to a film without sounding like either a pretentious twat or someone trying to retro-actively buzz-market Dane Bowers’s music career) it’s not really about any of these things. It’s about an uprising; it’s about oppression; it’s about a race realising what their rights are, and that they’re being trampled on, and that they can fight for them.

On some level, it is about different-looking humans.

It’s not that the apes are simply a metaphorical stand-in for black people, or Native Americans, or the proles, or anything that straight-forward. They’re apes. But maybe some of the technical details need not be as important as the story that the film’s trying to tell, and what it says about the world. The apes treated with the gene therapy unquestionably have intelligence, personalities, “personhood”, and just about everything you’d expect to see in an agent deserving of human respect and dignity. But they’re seen as less than human, as pets, as experimental subjects. They’re hated and feared, in a way that shows up our prejudices, rather than reflecting their own nature. We act like we can treat them essentially however we like, and when they rebel they display unexpected levels of intelligence, self-control, and humanity.

Never mind for a moment that it’s not technically realistic in apes. Do we see something like this anywhere else in the world?

As a simple tale of rising up against bondage, it’s entertainingly told, but even this could have been handled better. The antagonists are too… antagonisty. (Thought I should remind you I’m really not a proper film reviewer.) We’re not given anything at all to like about David Hewlett’s character; he first appears only to exemplify the prejudice with which the apes are seen, when he violently threatens a chimp who leaps playfully onto his property without meaning any harm. (In fact, given what we know about chimpanzee behaviour in the real world, he would have had every reason to be seriously frightened for the safety of his children – a significant problem with the set-up of the apes as unfairly maligned underdogs.) Draco doesn’t get any more of a rounded character when he turns up; he’s just a total bastard all the time, and when your bad guys are all just total bastards all the time, I think it weakens the power of your allegory.

I haven’t seen the film The Help, but I read one criticism of it which seemed insightful (though might not be fair, for all I know). The attitudes toward race and racial roles in the film (as I read) are basically divided between two types of characters. Some are as magnificently progressive as you’d hope anyone could be (even by today’s standards), believe that any discrimination between whites and blacks is an injustice, and sympathise deeply with the plight of all the African-Americans in question. The others are entirely callous to the notion that black people might have any feelings worth worrying about, openly scorn and despise them, and ridicule the very idea that anything needs to change.

All of which ignores a substantial and vital aspect of the history of race relations: decent people who genuinely meant well, and weren’t evil or heartless by any means, but were so unable to see past their standard view of the world that they contributed little to any progressive movement either.

I think Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a similar problem. The baddies are very obviously baddies, because of how they’re mean to animals and stuff. But I think it could have been a more profound allegory if it had done more to take into account the role of complacency and rationalisation in tyranny and subjugation.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. It’s not always about inhumanity and malice. Sometimes people are just wrong.

Three stars.

(Abrupt ending due to losing my train of thought a bit and deciding I’ve probably made my point quite well enough, whatever it is.)

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Charlie Brooker’s newspaper columns and often bleakly satirical TV spots are among the most valuable and entertaining cultural commentaries to be found in the UK.

But recently he’s had another stab at writing proper drama. After watching two episodes of his dystopian-allegory-warning-thing Black Mirror, I’m guiltily hoping he goes back to what he’s really very good at.

His prose and sarcastic voiceover narratives demonstrate an enviably wry and nimble turn of phrase (“Come, friendly asteroids, and fall on Earth” was one I particularly enjoyed). But as much as he’s mastered the extraction of witty and withering one-liners from the darkness and depravity of the world, when he tries to stretch a point over an hour and a half it starts to seem rather thin.

In the second episode of Black Mirror, our protagonist is one of countless drably-clothed victims of some sort of authoritarian regime, and spends most of his time on a bicycle machine, providing the electricity that powers the world. The only other regular locations of his daily life seem to be a crowded elevator taking him to and from the cycle room, and an only slightly less cramped personal room, containing nothing more than a bed a few square feet of floor, and with television monitors making up every inch of wall and ceiling space.

Cycling earns him merits, which he spends on things like food, toothpaste, and brief reprieves from the string of loud and flashy advertisements that blare almost constantly from every screen. The only products we ever see him being encouraged to consume are a reality show clearly serving as a stand-in for The X-Factor, and pornography.

The message, such as it is, is not unfamiliar. What will happen if we get too enrapt by all this lowest-common-denominator passive consumption, and forget to think? The society of this episode (titled Fifteen Million Merits) has been entirely restructured around keeping the masses dumb and compliant, and providing them with ample mindless distractions to quell any thoughts of questioning the status quo. It’s so on-the-nose it’ll punch you in the sinuses, and Kirsty rattled off half a dozen books and films of which it was very clearly derivative without pausing to draw breath. But at least it does conjure the sense of abject turpitude it seeks to inspire, and if its ideas have been repeated often, it’s because they’re not unworthy of continued examination.

The problem lies in the shallowness of the show’s analysis of our inevitable moral and intellectual decline. The connection between society’s sexual obsessions and misogyny, our fixation with carefully manipulated and manipulative reality TV, and a decline in our capacity for (and interest in) complex thought, is made abundantly clear. But countless other important and intriguing social factors are glossed over or ignored. Surely there must be more going on, for us to have reached such a nightmarish scenario beyond the fever dreams of Huxley, than that we became too emotionally invested in some wannabe singers with tear-jerking personal histories. It starts to feel like the level of critique is dumbed down almost as far as the society we’re supposed to be thinking about.

One aspect of the world that was given less blatant emphasis was the avatars, or “doppels”, which people use to represent themselves when appearing on-screen or in a virtual world – a fairly minor extrapolation of an idea popular with a number of computer game systems today. The doppels are also customisable, and the drones are encouraged by their invisible overlords to spend merits upgrading their virtual characters with virtual accessories. Here, too, the parallel with current trends is not exactly opaque.

But the show’s examination of this phenomenon goes no further than to hurl contempt at the very notion of these unreal goods being a worthwhile form of consumption – and, dangerously, it does nothing to abnegate the spreading of that contempt to the consumers themselves. It doesn’t go any further than pointing at these forms of behaviour and labelling them as stupid, deplorable, reprehensible, and dehumanising. The people who act this way are either equally reprehensible and inhuman themselves, or (the more charitable alternative that we’re offered) they’re unthinking sheep who’ve been manipulated into ignorance of their own pointlessness. Which isn’t just an appropriately grim view of humanity’s possible future; it’s a dehumanisingly ungenerous assessment of humanity itself.

We’ve learned some fascinating things about ourselves and our brains, which relate to what we find entertaining, and the types of rewards we find enticing. What some games or advertising companies choose to do with these facts about human psychology may seem sinister, but they can also be used to improve ourselves. Will we, in the end, opt for self-improvement over low-brow gimmicks that push our pleasure buttons with all the casual ease of an addiction?

I don’t know. It’s a question worth asking, and an answer worth worrying about. But in the world of Black Mirror, there’s not much to suggest that the general mass of humanity are complex bundles of conflicting motivations and interests. It looks more like we’re a homogeneous crowd, doomed to irrelevance by our own flaws and our lack of interest in counteracting them. And it feels cynical in exactly the way Charlie Brooker is usually so good at destroying.

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