The Terminator and Technology (part 1)

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.

5 responses to “The Terminator and Technology (part 1)

  1. Encrazed Crafts

    iCloud will still be a huge hit, mostly because it’s customers already are doing the exact thing it is going to offer, only mentally. Why think at all when this big (yet advertising as the underdog) company does all the thinking for you? They want you to buy this, they’ll spin it like anyone worth their paycheck on the Fox network, and it will be mindlessly bought, no matter the consequences.

    They’ll buy into apple (yet again) like those that bought into the end of the world a few weeks ago.

    The net should be a free exchange, free market sort of deal. But mostly because of corrupt governments who have no friggin idea what the net is, yet still spout out whatever a certain company tells them do for the right amount of green, they feel the right to limit it, anyway. Not too long ago I was listening to the Hook soundtrack on youtube because it’s a good track. Yet now I cannot watch the exact video I favorited because it is “blocked in my country.”


    Sad thing is, people from the other side of the pond have been getting these sort of messages for a lot longer, and no one seems to care.

    …But can you believe who they voted off of Dancing with the Stars? OMG! Let me look that up on my iCloud right now…

  2. I remember hearing something on this NPR show called On the Media recently about how the government isn’t really ready for any kind of cyber war and that our digital defenses aren’t of the quality we’re told they are. Wikilinks is a great example, where a ridiculous amount of government documents were leaked. Luckily, nothing that could cause any fatalities was leaked but the documents that became public were quite embarrassing for American politicians. Because of our government’s inability to do what they claim (and this is debatable because I’m certain there are certain aspects of our digital national security we don’t even know about) they look to private enterprise to solve the problem. The thing is, these companies don’t have our best interests in mind and making a platform which is naturally democratic into a commodity based medium is dangerous. The end of Net Neutrality is the gentrification of the internet, changing it into a network dictated by institutional interests, not public ones.

    I do agree that we’ll probably buy into iCloud but there’s a chance it might fail too. Apple launched a similar version of this for pictures and other documents and it didn’t catch on. In fact, according to the same NPR story, it was quite the blunder. However, with people moving more towards accessing the internet through smart phones and iPad’s I think this technology will catch on. After all, you can’t store large amounts of media on a device which has very little storage space. I just don’t like the idea of placing my possessions in the hands of a corporation who’ll charge me to access them. It sounds more like extortion than progress.

    There’s a book I’ve been really high on lately (and I talk about it in the second part of this article, which I’m working on currently (I have about three pages)) called The Filter Bubble which discusses how personalization is corrupting the internet. It argues that personalization (through data mining and so forth) is making it so the information we retrieve through the internet has a slant based on a corporately structured algorithm. By doing this the internet doesn’t actually show us information which challenges us but instead keeps us uninformed. What a shame.

    The girlfriend just got home and we’re going to get Lost for a while before band practice. I hope all is well out there in Illinois. Take care and thanks. =)

  3. Pingback: The Terminator and Technology (part 2) | Abortions For All

  4. I agree with your points here. Both your analysation of The Terminator and the iCloud. I’m in the same boat as you regarding Apple’s new venture. Granted, it’s a pretty small boat, but everybody on board feels far more passionately against iCloud, than those that accept the for for iCloud.

    It’ll be blindly accepted because 1. it’s simply an Apple product. And everybody wants Apple shit right? And 2. For the happy-go-lucky average Joe, who puts little thought into these things, it seems like a great idea. But we know that we’re no to trust technology with our media.

    What the fuck is the deal with soft copies of everything anyway? It drives me crazy. Why would you want a soft copy of any film, song or anything else? I want hard copies. I want lots of them. That way, I control what happens to them. It’s very rare I download anything. I never buy from iTunes because I buy CDs. Because I want a hard copy, and because it’s better quality audio.

    I don’t know the exact details regarding iCloud, but if it was only capable of storing MP3 data then it’s even more useless than I thought. Who wants MP3 quality for Christ’s sake?!?

    It seems like every post me or thee make is somehow related to the inevitable destruction of humanity when technology becomes self-aware or we kill ourselves. Hopefully, when that happens, they’ll look back and read out stuff and realise we had it coming a long time ago.

  5. Like politics we don’t see the results of something for years – possibly even decades. I think the inevitable results of our current technological leaps will not truly affect us now but in the years to come. I understand the idea that soft copies will eliminate the need for materialism, eradicating our reliance on natural resources for media and similar things. I get that this is a good thing in some respects but ultimately I think it isn’t if done the way Apple and similar companies propose. Technologies like iCloud don’t seem to actually further proprietorship and instead make you a continual renter, leaving your media in the hands of the people who market and produce it in the first place.

    I don’t buy CD’s because I think they’re aesthetically obnoxious; I personally like vinyl better and purchase that instead (I also sometimes buy cassettes because a good deal of the music I like is on cassette now). Most LP’s and 7”s now come with download coupons (I just bought the new Mogwai 7” today and it came with one) and I don’t dislike the mp3 but I don’t think it’s the paragon for the music industry’s future direction. It’s great for portability (I’m bringing my iPod overseas next week) but it has little other use.

    What’s really frightening about things like iCloud is how it’ll act as a curator for media. If there’s something not liked by Apple or anybody they work with it can just disappear. If we begin to rely too much on soft copies we can put ourselves in danger of a new form of censorship. Apple already veto’s apps because of ideology so what’s to stop them from censoring music, book, or even films? What’s to stop a government from keeping information locked away through a partnership with these firms? With a hard copy of something taboo you can pass it around and it’s only in the hands of those possessing it; with a soft copy it has the potential to leave your hands and become subject to the whims of others. Fuck that.

    Also, you’re right about people’s loyalty to Apple: they’ll buy anything carrying that shitty little logo. While I like the Mac (my girlfriend has one and if I had the money when I bought my laptop a little over a year ago I would’ve too) I’ve always felt they’re more expensive because they’re a symbol of status. I’ve heard people say Mac’s are computers for idiots and maybe they’re right in some instances. Then again, very few viruses are written for Mac’s and that’s why they don’t get them as much. If Mac’s become the norm I doubt their lack of virus will continue. In short, they’re nice computers for people who need something to identify with, not a tool to work with.

    I’m working on turning this Terminator article into a larger article for academic publication. We’ll see what happens. Thanks for reading man and take care. =)

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