Life Imitates Art: Cyborgs, Cinema, and Future Scenarios

Subject(s):

By Ramona Pringle

From utopian ideals to dystopian nightmares, the narratives we create about ourselves color our visions of our futures.

We tell stories.

Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself. Falling in love, fighting demons, and overcoming obstacles. It is said that to tell stories is what makes us human; it is how we store memories and how we process new information.

We understand ourselves, and the world around us, through the narratives we weave, a human truth that is documented as far back as Paleolithic times, when the images painted onto the walls of the Caves of Lascaux communicated the hardships of the hunt and issues of life, death, and survival.

The stories we tell—in the form of parables and fine art, feature films, and video games—don’t serve only to document the past; these tales are our attempts to understand the present and make sense of an uncertain future. Even in the ancient caves, it is believed that the tribal murals existed not only to document past hunting expeditions, but also to depict strategy and rituals thought to improve future hunting exploits.

Now fast-forward through the Renaissance and the Inquisition, through the Great Depression and the Moon landing. We recall these moments in history through the stories that outlive them—the archive of anecdotes, history books, digital data, and lore that shapes our understanding of where we, as a species, have come from and, in turn, where we are going.

But this is not the only history that shapes our culture, our foresight, and our beliefs. These moments and these movements are woven into our collective unconscious, interspersed with scenes from Blade Runner, Metropolis, and The Jetsons—fictional memories that blur the line between real and imagined, between science and fiction, that establish in our imaginations a framework for limitless wonder and possibility. They create an ethical continuum between possibility and responsibility, between the promise of innovation and the potential implications of our actions.

The relationship between art and life is cyclical: Art imitates life, and in turn life imitates art, making art an ideal catalyst for envisioning a sustainable future, as we imagine, test, and retest our visions of tomorrow. So intertwined are the imitation of life and the imitation of art that, within this cyclical pattern, it is practically impossible to pinpoint the nucleus from which present-day innovations have come forth: the scientist or the artist, the lab or the studio.

From augmented reality to data mining to biotech innovations, when we think of the future, we tend to think of it as something that rests solely in the hands of scientists and technologists. And yet, when we marvel at the newly possible, we speak of it as “the stuff of science fiction,” which would suggest that embedded in the process of innovation is a thread of imagination and creativity that comes from these tales of the fantastic, the incredible, and the not-yet-possible, the fodder for imagination that we commonly refer to as fiction. But perhaps fiction is really just pre-reality, and the artists, the creators of a prototype of the future.

In the current momentous rhythm of exponential growth, what’s increasingly apparent is that, if we can envision something, we can create it, but we do so at the risk of not knowing the implications of these actions five, ten, and fifty years into the future. How will Innovation X impact our relationships, our cities, our environment, our governments, our bodies? For answers and clues, we turn to film, art, and video games, creative forms that depict a world of tomorrow based on the facts of today. So while the practicalities of innovation might lie with the scientists, the artists and storytellers must wrestle with the ethics, implications, and power of such new future visions.

Ray Kurzweil says: “We are the species that creates tools, and those tools expand our reach.” But not only do we create tools, we create stories, also, and those narratives shape the future. We are in a new Renaissance, where interdisciplinary collaboration is key to sustainable progress. Technologists promise a future of smart machines, but it is artists who envision the human experience in the next horizon. From Blade Runner to World of Warcraft to transhumanist fine art, we rely on narrative—on art and media—to understand the human condition, from power and ownership to love and conflict. We mourn, we dream, we celebrate, and we cannot envision a sustainable future without accounting for these pillars of the human experience.

Film critic and historian Frederic Jameson has said, “In every utopia there is a dystopia, in every dystopia there is a utopia.” From history we know that there is a thin line between a singular vision for a utopian civilization and what can then materialize as a dangerous totalitarian government, as was the case in World War II. Films like Blade Runner show us a fictional future where there is a thin line between technological utopia and the dystopian remnants of consumerist industrial fallout.

In the quest for an idealized, utopian tomorrow, how do we recognize the possible threat of a dystopian outcome, and how do we find hope—the promise of a utopian society—amid an ecosystem of corporate greed, a pillaged earth, and inequality among beings?

At a crossroad of utopian and dystopian scenarios where man and machine are intertwined, we rely on creative minds to envision a future we want to inhabit, and create a blueprint for the centuries to come.

An Uncertain Future and a Blade Runner Reality

Tom Rand, a clean-tech advisor and venture capitalist, draws parallels between modern urban life and virtual reality: If you’re living on the twentieth floor of a condo, with air conditioning blaring, watching the news of international natural disasters on the television, and ordering fast food from takeout, you’re living in a virtual reality—that is, a fabricated world—he said in an interview for Rdigitalife, an online series I produce with Ryerson University to examine the evolving relationships between humans, values, and technology.

It’s a current-day scenario that hints at science-fiction plots: people living in acclimated pods, unaware of the environmental and political ebbs and flows of the greater world. Just recently, Superstorm Sandy forced us to ask, What happens to this fabricated reality when the power goes out? What happens when the grid goes down? What happens in the wake of an environmental shift?

We already know. We’ve seen these scenarios played out on screen and on the page.

Unlike the antiseptic and technologically efficient worlds of earlier science fiction, more-recent sci-fi films like Blade Runner show us what film historian Peter Ruppert calls “the grimy underside of contemporary American life, the junk and trash of a society of mass production and mass consumption, a baleful world in which the misuse of technology and greed have combined to virtually obliterate nature and natural life forms … [leaving us with] an overwhelming sense of loss: a loss of nature and natural life, the loss of identity and continuity with the past and a desire for a future; the loss of the sense of the city as a locus for community and more genuine collective activity.” But, says Ruppert, in relentlessly “exposing these intolerable conditions, these films also create a desire for alternatives.”

By exposing us to probable outcomes of certain choices and behaviors, the artist, in a sense, gives us the chance at a do-over, a chance to make different decisions, with the hope of yielding a different, preferable outcome. While it might seem at first that these films present us with a vision of an inevitable and inescapable future, the truth is, they are giving us a choice and empowering us to create a future that we want to be a part of, a future that is sustainable.

The vision created is a manifestation of the status quo—mass advertisement, urban decay, waste pollution, intolerance—in other words, the science-fiction film is less about tomorrow than it is about today. The wake-up call is clear: To create a future we want to be a part of, we need to reexamine our way of living, now.

Emotional Cyborgs and Unfeeling Human Beings?

Through creative practices, we explore the parallel between man’s primordial origins and our evolution as entities in the next horizon. Since the earliest renderings in marble and fresco of heroes like the biblical David, artists have asked what it means to be human. First, we asked that question of man in relation to his creator. Now, as man and machine begin to merge, the artist continues to ask that question, only now he asks what it means to be human, as the creator himself. Robots are the ultimate masterpiece. As the idealized images of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and Michelangelo’s David were humans created in God’s likeness, so we create these human clones, cyborgs, and replicants to be our counterparts and companions when the real thing is too difficult, too demanding.

With a possibility of the Singularity on the horizon, and the potential for artificial intelligence to surpass human intelligence within this lifetime, the artist asks, what traits do we value, not only in machines, but in ourselves? Do we value intelligence over emotion? Analysis over empathy? Data over nuance? What does this mean for our machines, and what does this mean for ourselves?

“My Cyborgs are anthropomorphic,” says transmedia fine artist Michaele Jordana Berman, whose series of photorealistic digital prints, Cyborg: The Human Condition, examines the relationship between human and cyborg, man and machine, and creator and child. “I endow them with human attributes, feeling empathy for them as they are perfected in our own image to co-exist with humanity as they seek out their own moral code. The series examines power, ownership, love and conflict.”

The danger is, of course, that, as machines become more lifelike, people lose their humanity; we lose sight of the value of empathy and emotion, favoring more programmable traits. But what is lost and what is gained? The artist envisions all possible scenarios, continuing to ask what it means to be human. As we teach robots to be lifelike, what can we learn about our own humanity?

We are lonely, but the human intimacy we crave has become too difficult, says Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011).

“People seem comforted by the belief that if we alienate or fail each other, robots will be there, programmed to provide simulations of love,” says Turkle. “Our population is aging; there will be robots to take care of us. Our children are neglected; robots will tend to them. We are too exhausted to deal with each other in adversity; robots will have the energy. Robots won’t be judgmental. We will be accommodated.”

So the robot becomes the ultimate caretaker and companion, but what happens to the humanity of the human? Isaac Asimov codified the laws of robotics, stating that a robot may not harm or injure a human being. But as Jordana Berman’s work reminds us, perhaps it is not the robot we need be concerned about, but his or her human maker. In an ecosystem where the human has become the ultimate creator—the maker, the programmer—the artist forces us to take accountability for our role in the world, future and present.

Writing a Blueprint for Tomorrow

Murphy’s law, seemingly a cornerstone of the human experience, states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. In this respect, as we look to the future, we must embrace an interdisciplinary collection of stakeholders, so that we do not continue to repeat the mistakes of our past. We must turn to fine artists and storytellers—from Francisco Goya to Hieronymus Bosch, and Steven Spielberg to Ridley Scott—who for centuries have explored the depths and depravities of pain, heartache, devastation, and war to envision the outcomes of the decisions we make and the way we are living.

Technology and humanity cannot be separated into distinct silos or isolated conversations. As we find new ways to make our machines more intelligent, and essentially more human, we must also take the time to continually reexamine our own humanity.

While these futurist scenarios, from film to fine art, depict robots, cyborgs, and dystopian renderings of the world to come, at its core the work is not so much a reflection of technology as it is a mirror on mankind. These works force us to examine our lives, decisions, and relationships with each other and with technology today. If technological advancements enable us to live forever, will we see multiple wars? Will we learn from our mistakes, or is pain and suffering just part of the ebb and flow of the human experience? These media warn us not to get lost in the temptation of all that glitters. We cannot create a future without addressing the present.

The emotional response triggered by these forward-looking artworks is a feeling of nostalgia—the desire for a return to a less complicated time, as if that were the choice we are faced with at present: to progress or regress. And while reality might not be so black and white, this rush of nostalgia does speak to a need for visionary checks and balances. We want to hear the birds singing, we want clean water to drink and uncontaminated fish in the oceans. As we are pulled by the allure of the promise of a techno-utopian future, these desires need not be nostalgic remnants of a bygone era.

These artworks, from science-fiction films to fine art to video games, also ask of us: What is utopia? Is it a glossy world of immaculate glass towers? Is it the ultimate in modern efficiency? Or is utopia a place where we get to hear the joy of children’s laughter, to witness the beauty of untouched nature, to feel the empathy of our fellow beings, and more than anything else—the primary source of joy and anguish in the human life—to love and be loved?

We may not be able to change the past, but we are able to change the trajectory of the future. By envisioning a tomorrow that we want to be a part of, we can reverse-engineer the blueprint to get there.

The story of our future is ours to write.

About the Author

Ramona Pringle is a new-media professor at Ryerson University and a multiplatform producer currently working on Avatar Secrets and Rdigitalife.com. E-mail ramona@ramonapringle.com.

This article is a preview of her presentation at WorldFuture 2013: Exploring the Next Horizon, the World Future Society’s conference in Chicago July 19-21, 2013.