I just picked up James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator on Blu-ray the other day and I’m glad I did. I’ve always been a fan of the Terminator films and the original is still my favorite. I loathe James Cameron as a person (I think he’s a conceded, egotistical prick) but I can’t deny he makes good films. Ok, so maybe Avatar and Titanic aren’t that great (Titanic is enjoyable, even though it’s overly sentimental) but films like Aliens, the Terminator films, Piranha II: The Spawning, and True Lies are excellent – a prime example of why Cameron is lauded by so many. However, moving back to The Terminator, I’ve always felt this film is a great example of what technology can do when left to its own devices. Neil Postman argues in Technopoly that the makers of a technology aren’t the best candidates for determining its application; The Terminator demonstrates how a technology, which resembles cloud computing and is a form of artificial intelligence, can go awry when implemented by those who create it.
According to Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) the machines became smart, starting a nuclear war against the Soviet Union because they didn’t just see the Russians as enemies but all humans as a potential threat. The technology created to guard America against Cold War attacks and other aggression turns out to be the catalyst for the annihilation of humanity – save a few survivors. Reese also claims, “we [humanity] were that close to going out forever,” but one man (John Connor), “brought us back from the brink,” turning things around for our sorry little species. Because of our petty little squabbles over land and ideology the characters in The Terminator allowed their tools to turn against them and eradicate everybody. It took a man appealing to humanity’s innate will to survive for everything to change. In short, it was an embrace of the human spirit which allowed Reese and the other survivors to change humanity’s fate.
Is this a rejection of technology? Not exactly. Martin Heidegger claims in his essay The Question Concerning Technology that, “everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.” Language is a technology and I doubt Connor just looked at people to spread his revolutionary ideology. Where Heidegger believes everything is technology, a view also held by Postman, The Terminator is mostly focused with contemporary technologies – technologies which don’t necessarily serve humans and instead enslave us. One of Heidegger’s criteria for technology is that, “technology is a human activity,” an action relegated solely to our species. When we use technology (whether it’s a club fashioned from wood or bone or an iPhone) we are using it solely for a human action. We give agency to the technology as our existence is the technology; without us these tools we create are just objects without purpose. They become what theorist John Searle calls Ontologically Objective – things which exist in the real world but have no context without human subjectivity.
I’m not certain if Cameron was reading Heidegger prior to making The Terminator but his film does discuss what happens when our technologies cease being human activities and instead become something else. Skynet was originally a human technology but later becomes its own technology. In essence, Heidegger’s qualifications for technology would have to change because Skynet’s technology would become technology’s technology. Cameron’s film posits Skynet becomes self aware (one of the qualifications for life); therefore, technology once crafted by humans becomes something which is then usurped by the creation itself. It’s almost as if the humans creating Skynet were its god and Skynet is now eliminating its maker.
Like a vengeful god, John Connor and his band of angry post-apocalyptic warriors rain fire down upon their creation, reclaiming the world. A bloody conflict (in the future) ensues and in its death throes Skynet sends Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time to kill Connor’s mother. Reese even claims the humans had won (from an interrogation room at a police station manned by Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield). The humans had defeated the technology which escaped them, creating its own existence and essence – is this not reminiscent of a certain technological and cultural war being waged right now, possibly the war between internet freedom and control over the Wild West version of this technology?
Today I heard an article on All Things Considered about Apple’s newest innovation: iCloud. From what I can gather, iCloud is a new version of iTunes where all the media is kept within a giant server somewhere and when somebody wants to access a song they access it from this distant database instead of through their hard drive. Rather than clogging up your computer or mobile device with hundreds or thousands of mp3 files you can now keep your devices clear and let Apple store it for you. The catch is that if you have any media you received from a non-authorized source you’re charged for it. Goodbye free music, free films, free books, and all the other free media you’ve accumulated over the years – Apple now has you by the balls and the days of free media on the internet are over. Or are they?
Much like the ending of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Judgment Day wasn’t something which could be stopped from a single location; instead it spread like a virus through the internet. Apple is proposing everybody attach themselves to a single location which stores all their media – a feat which many will dismiss. I, for one, don’t want anything to do with iCloud – it leaves proprietorship in the hands of a company and the existence of my media is based on the trust I put in them. As we’ve all learned over the last few years (and some have believed this for much longer), we can’t trust companies like Apple with our information or our possessions. Look at what happened to Playstation’s network a few weeks ago or the countless hackers which break into systems and walk away with millions of people’s personal and financial information. What about what the companies themselves do – taking your private information and using it to market products to you more efficiently. Data mining is a large business where your privacy is null and void.
When you leave such information and property in the hands of a corporation you can throw trust out the window. Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s 2003 documentary The Corporation asserts a corporations are nothing more than sociopaths and psychopaths. In this film the directors analyze corporations and use the qualifications found in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a manual which lists all the recognized mental health disorders) to diagnose them, finding corporations are aggressive, violent, and untrustworthy. When left to their own devices they don’t have the public’s interest at heart and only look after their own. The Terminator is a great metaphor for what happens when you let groups like this create a technology that takes decision making out of human hands.
Naturally human decisions are sloppy and sentimental – humans aren’t perfect. However, leaving decisions in the hands of computers or corporations (whose only interest is the bottom dollar) takes the human element out of our hands and places it into the domain of those without empathy. While Cameron’s apocalyptic, anti-technology film discusses the violent repercussions of such decisions the world we live in will potentially experience these kinds of actions without nuclear bombs. Instead, these kinds of decisions will take away your privacy, leaving you open to a form of freedom that’s not exactly free. What happens when your world is so narrowed by internet personalization and data mining that your knowledge of events is limited to your sphere of interest? What happens when your ability to navigate a medium (the internet) is hindered by corporate control and filters? What was supposed to be a free platform is slowly shrinking, morphing into a corporate controlled oligarchy.
This is the real suppression of humanity, not some cyborg with muscles sent back through time to eradicate the mother of a revolutionary leader. The battlefield isn’t the charred remains of Los Angeles but our minds. The threat to hegemonic corporate power isn’t a nation state but paradigm change – a change where information doesn’t carry a price tag and isn’t controlled by a select group of people. The internet, with all its flaws, was supposed to be a vast network where the free exchange of ideas and materials happens unabated; if things like cloud technologies become the norm that’s gone. It’s already happening and we’re allowing it to. Like in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, we don’t need aggressive authority figures to physically coerce us into submission – we’re doing it ourselves by consuming these hindering technologies. While we won’t live in a post-apocalyptic landscape, eating rats, and watching a fire glow inside a broken television our minds will become a wasteland where creativity and access to new, and challenging, ideas will disappear. Instead of the eradication of the human race it’s the eradication of evolution, with humanity becoming stagnant and docile to a remote master resembling Skynet.