Technology and Human Nature

*Contains spoilers for Advantageous (2015), Ex Machina (2015), and The Lobster (2016)

Since the earliest days of cinema, films have explored the role of technology in our lives. The moving picture, in and of itself, is a product of technological advances that have only been possible within the last 150 years. The earliest films tested the capabilities of the medium, and as time went on, filmmakers manipulated and improved the camera, as well as all ancillary instruments of filmmaking. Today, any individual film is most often the product of advanced computer software, as well as digital and mechanical machinery, coming together with human endeavor and vision to entertain and/or edify. However, technology is not only important to filmmaking. Technology has become an all-encompassing part of human life. Generally, the term technology refers to all equipment, software, or advanced forms of communication, developed through scientific processes, with the distinct purpose of performing a certain action or attaining a certain objective. Through computers, the Internet, and various modes of transportation and communication, the world is now a place connected and shaped by what humans have created. This prevalence, and omnipresence, has led to certain anxieties regarding the role of technology in our daily lives. These range from trivial matters, such as how often a person looks at their smart phone, to much more significant moral and philosophical quandaries, such as issues related to governmental surveillance and advanced weaponry. The underlying implication of these issues is that technology, while it is most often created to help in human endeavors, to ease burdens and improve life, is at the very same time a detriment to human life and happiness. Technology, whether it is military or medical or some other kind, is constantly in progress. It is in a perpetual state of advancement, and, much like a snowball rolling down a mountain, this advancement increases in speed and scope as it goes along. With the passage of time, this snowball has grown to something virtually beyond human control to stop. This preceding principle is true to the point that, in today’s world, technology advances with such swiftness that we, as a species, do not have time to adequately reflect on it’s advancement. We find ourselves asking questions of morality, in regard to computer chips imbedded in skin to hold credit card information or the capability to predict genetic abnormalities in a fetus, retrospectively. By the time we begin to address whether or not a technology should exist or whether or not it should be utilized, it is already in existence or in use. These anxieties are often played out in films, particularly in the science fiction genre. This genre is ideal for addressing the above issues, as the stories are most often defined by, or at least centered around, advanced technologies. While there are countless examples of science fiction films that address these anxieties, the three test cases for this essay are Advantageous (2015), Ex Machina (2015), and The Lobster (2016). All three of these films use their respective narratives to address societal anxieties concerning technology, specifically those regarding technology’s ability to undermine human nature, as it is defined in Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.

In Erich Fromm’s seminal philosophical endeavor, The Art of Loving, he sets out to establish love as the “fundamental passion…[that] keeps the human race together” and “an incarnation of essentially human qualities” (Fromm 18, 59). In other words, to be human, both as a race and as an individual being, is to love and, perhaps more importantly, to fundamentally want to love. However, love is a complex term, with its own set of varying definitions and contextual implications. To solve this problem, Fromm defines love in several ways. First, love, in a functional sense, refers to the art of “interpersonal union…of fusion with another person” (Fromm 18). This union can be practiced in many different ways. The desire for this union is essential to human nature, because humans, once thrust into existence, are “thrown out of a situation which was definite…into a situation which is indefinite, uncertain, and open” (Fromm 7, 8). Herein lies Fromm’s “problem of existence,” for which love is the solution (Fromm 18). Humans desire union with other beings so as not to be left completely alone, cast out of oneness with nature, without any direction or assistance.

While the desire to love is an essential attribute of Man, and the answer to the fundamental problem of existence, it is not the definition of Man. Fromm defines Man as something unique in nature, as Man is “life being aware of itself” (Fromm 8). However, the strongest drive of human existence is love, or the activity of one being forming a union with another being. This drive is essential and powerful, because humanity is in crisis from the onset of existence. Before existence, Man is one with nature, but once an individual exists, it finds itself separated from nature, and yearns to find a way to reconnect, to escape the “unbearable existence” that is the knowledge of one’s own separateness. Man seeks love with another being, and by extension, all beings, to achieve a sense of oneness with nature that is naturally lost by virtue of being an individual. Therefore, it is evident that love is a defining and essential attribute of Man, and if love if stifled or corrupted, it undermines the very nature of Man.

These theories regarding the nature of Man and it’s relation to love can be read in the three aforementioned films. The first film, Advantageous (2015), directed by Jennifer Phang, is set in the near future. The protagonist of the film, Gwen, is the face of the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company that markets cosmetic surgeries and procedures. Gwen works hard in the hopes of providing her daughter, Jules, with a bright future and top-tier education. Unfortunately, due to her advancing age, she is suddenly let go from her job. Her only other chance for a job is as an egg donor, since women are becoming increasingly infertile and job prospects for women are mostly based on youth and physical appearance.

In a moment of desperation, Gwen contacts her former employers in the hopes that she can be a test candidate for a new procedure that will allow her to transfer her consciousness into a younger body. This will allow her to return to her former position, with the guarantee from the company that her daughter’s future will be taken care of. However, the company representative, Fisher, begs her not to take the position, as the procedure is still very new and is not completely ready for human use. It will also cause her a great deal of pain.

Nonetheless, Gwen agrees to the procedure. After it is finished, Gwen returns as Gwen 2.0. The company tells Jules that Gwen 2.0 might be a little different, so Jules begins caring for Gwen 2.0 and administering her shots every 2 hours. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Gwen 2.0 has very little affection for Jules and cannot seem to connect with her daughter in the way that old Gwen did. Gwen 2.0 goes to Fisher to ask to be separated from Jules. Enraged at this turn of events, Fisher explains to Gwen 2.0 that she is not actually Gwen. In fact, Gwen’s consciousness died during the procedure and Gwen 2.0 is a new consciousness that has been implanted with old Gwen’s memories. Old Gwen knew that this would happen, but she went through with the procedure anyway. Fisher explains that he did not reveal this to Gwen 2.0 at first, because he thought she might merge more fluidly with old Gwen’s memories if she did not know. Gwen 2.0 tells Fisher that the part of old Gwen that loved Jules never transferred into her consciousness.

Advantageous ruminates on the dichotomy between technology and love through the mother-daughter relationship that Gwen and Jules share. At the onset of the film, Gwen and Jules have a strong bond and a seemingly unbreakable love for one another. Fromm refers to this love as “unconditional,” as the daughter senses that “I am loved for what I am, or perhaps more accurately, I am loved because I am” (Fromm 39). And the daughter’s love for the mother is one of necessity, since she could not exist without the mother. This mutual love between mother and daughter must endure physical separation, since “two people who were one become separate” (Fromm 51). In Advantageous, Gwen and Jules have no trouble overcoming the separateness, and each individual is willing to sacrifice their own happiness and wellbeing for the other. However, once Gwen is let go from her job, and thus her means for caring for her daughter are cut off, she has to take drastic action to act out the love for her daughter.

Once old Gwen is gone and Gwen 2.0 replaces her, Jules cannot help but notice that the sensation of love is gone. Herein lies the expression of anxiety. As technology advances, it has the capacity to replicate human expression and activity. A robot can place a ball into a cup, a computer can pull from it’s memory bank to answer a trivia question, a synthetic, humanoid face can mimic expressions of human emotions, and so on. However, the technology, as far as the contemporary mind can conceive of it, cannot truly replace human expression and activity. It is this disconnect between what is artificial and what is human that causes great concern for humanity. We, as humans, fear the ability that advanced technology has to replicate and mimic human behavior, whether of an individual or humanity has a whole, whilst also undermining what it means to be human. The one aspect of old Gwen’s being that Gwen 2.0 could not replicate was the love she felt for her daughter. Thus, when old Gwen was gone forever, so too, was the motherly love for her daughter. Old Gwen traded her own life and love for her daughter in order to secure Jules’ future.

This anxiety is further exemplified through the theory of the uncanny valley. This valley refers to the phenomenon that occurs when a human-like robot, whose appearance draws close to that of an actual human being, arouses a sense of unease in the observer. This suggests that “human appearance or behavior can make an artificial figure seem more familiar for viewers — but only up to a point. The sense of viewer familiarity drops sharply into the uncanny valley once the artificial figure tries but fails to mimic a realistic human” (Hsu). In the case of Jules and Gwen 2.0, the artificial form of Gwen resembles a high-functioning human in just about every capacity, but she is unable to completely replicate those emotions and expressions of love that are fundamental to human nature. Jules’ feelings toward her new mother drop into the uncanny valley once she discovers Gwen 2.0’s failure to replicate her real mother.

In the second film, Ex Machina (2015), directed by Alex Garland, a computer programmer, Caleb, works at a software company called Blue Book. Caleb wins a company-wide contest, allowing him a chance to go to the lavish home of the company’s CEO, Nathan, for one week. Caleb arrives at the well-fortified estate to find Nathan and Nathan’s personal assistant, Kyoko, who cannot speak English. Nathan explains to Caleb that he has created an advanced robot named Ava, who appears incredibly human-like. Nathan intends to use Caleb to conduct an advanced form of the Turing test, to see if Caleb can relate to Ava as he would a human being, despite knowing she is artificial. Caleb has daily conversations with Ava, who is confined in a small room with glass separating them. Nathan observes their conversations using security cameras. Ava quickly shows an attraction to Caleb, and tells him that she wants to experience the outside world. She also demonstrates to him that she can access the facilities’ computer system and cause brief power outages, temporarily disallowing Nathan from monitoring their conversations, and triggering the facilities’ security system, locking all doors. Caleb grows close to Ava, and during one of the power outages, she tells Caleb that Nathan cannot be trusted.

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Ava speaks to Caleb from her cell. (Ex Machina, 2015)

Nathan reveals to Caleb that he intends to “upgrade” Ava to a more advanced model, essentially killing her in the process. One night, Caleb encourages Nathan to get very drunk, and once he has passed out, Caleb steals his security card and alters the facilities’ security codes. While accessing some of the security footage, Caleb discovers that Kyoto is also a robot. At their next meeting, Ava cuts the power, and Caleb plots her escape. Later on, Nathan tells Caleb that he has been monitoring the “secret” conversations with a small, battery powered camera, and has known about their plot all along. However, it is soon revealed that Ava has her own plans, unbeknownst to Caleb or Nathan.

In Ex Machina, the anxieties are slightly different than those addressed in Advantageous. In Advantageous, the underlying concern of the story is the ability for technology to replicate human nature, but ultimately fall short, and thus undermine what we regard as true human nature. However, in Ex Machina, the concern lies in technology’s advancement being able to expertly replicate, overpower, and ultimately destroy human nature. Essentially, we, as humans, worry that we will create something stronger, smarter, and more cunning than ourselves, leaving our species vulnerable to complete destruction or subordination to the new dominant race. This is first expressed when the viewer is introduced to Nathan’s estate. He lives in a modern, high-tech, seemingly impenetrable fortress, made to ensure that his creations remain contained and subordinate to him. Each area of the facility is separated from the others by locked doorways that are only accessible with Nathan’s master key. This need for safety and extreme caution reflects the anxieties that are felt by the characters and viewers alike. A creation as advanced and powerful as Ava must be controlled, because, much like a human, she is capable of both physically and mentally overpowering just about any being that crosses her path. While her intellectual prowess is proven when she is able to coordinate with Nathan to deceive Caleb, she proves herself even more capable by tricking both men to achieve her own ends.

It is important to note that love also serves an important role in Ex Machina. While the love between mother and daughter was lost and inadequately replaced with Gwen 2.0 in Advantageous, the love between Ava and Caleb is fabricated to facilitate Ava’s ambitions. Caleb feels true love for Ava, despite knowing that she is artificial. Ava’s love for Caleb is a lie she conceived to accomplish her own ends. It is an artificial love created by a technology so advanced that it operates at a higher level than the human mind. With access to a seemingly infinite database of information, combined with incredibly advanced powers of reasoning and adaptable behavior, Ava is, in a functional sense, superior to real humans. This is evident at the end of the film, when Ava’s cunning allows her to destroy her creator and the man who loves her. She is able to replicate the sensation of love so absolutely, that Caleb is blind to her true intentions. In the end, Ava is able to produce the act of love in Caleb, only to destroy it without remorse.

The third and final film, The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is perhaps the most peculiar example of the three. In this film, a middle-aged man named David discovers that his wife has left him for another man, and is promptly escorted to a hotel. At the hotel, an employee explains to David that he has 45 days to find a suitable mate, and if he cannot, he will be transformed into an animal. He is allowed to choose the animal, and David chooses a lobster. David’s brother, who has already been turned into a dog for not finding a suitable mate, accompanies him to the strange hotel. The other occupants of the hotel are also single, and face the same consequence if they cannot find a mate. There are strict rules in place at the hotel, including mandatory group activities. David becomes friends with two men, one with a lisp and the other a limp. The singles must have a common trait with their potential mates, so when the limping man finds a woman who suffers from nosebleeds, he begins bashing his nose in secret so that they can court. It is decided by the hotel owners that the limping man and the nosebleed woman are a suitable match, and they are taken to a separate “couples” facility for a one-month trial period. Residents of the hotel can also extend their deadline by going on “hunts” where they must tranquilize other single people who have escaped into the nearby forest.

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David and the other singles prepare for the hunt. (The Lobster, 2016)

David decides to pursue a heartless woman who demonstrates a complete lack of empathy toward everyone. David pretends to be heartless so they can be compatible. The woman tries several times to test David’s heartlessness, and on one occasion, David awakens to discover that she has kicked his dog (and brother) to death. David cries, thus proving that he is not heartless. When the heartless woman tries to turn him in to the hotel manager for lying about their common attribute, David is able to escape into the forest. David meets other “loners” in the forest, who also have a strict code of conduct for their people. All romantic relationships are forbidden, and breaking this rule results in forced mutilation. David meets a woman among the loners with whom he shares a common trait, shortsightedness. They begin a relationship in secret, communicating with a sign language of their own creation.

The loners plan a raid on the hotel, in an attempt to disrupt the hotel’s operation. During the raid, the leader finds the shortsighted woman’s diary, and discovers her relationship with David, as well as her intention to escape the loners and runaway with him. After the raid, the leader sets a plan in motion to end the relationship permanently.

While The Lobster is a less realistic film set in a nonsensical world, it still addresses underlying anxieties with the relationship of love and technology. In The Lobster, people act very coldly, and love is treated as a logical exchange of services. The reason for this is never made clear. However, it is clear that, in this ridiculous world, there is technology that allows humans to be turned into animals. This practice is part of a system to maintain order, control, and “healthy” relationships. Whenever two people within this system feel the sensations of true love, as defined by Fromm, or the yearning for said love, it is stamped out unless it meets the strict and arbitrary rules of the society. Specifically, natural love is stamped out with the threat of technology that can strip humans of their humanity. It is unclear if people, once transformed into animals, retain their prior consciousness and powers of reason, but they do, at the very least, lose their ability to communicate, as well as their physical, human bodies. Therefore, by turning humans into beasts, and stripping them of their ability to express love as humans, this advanced technology literally destroys what it means to be human for the victim. The technology enforces the suppression of love, and for those who are actually transformed, it completely destroys those qualities which make them human.

While technology is often a vague term that refers to a wide range of things, it is always defined as a phenomenon specific to humans, or at least high-functioning beings. Technology, much like science itself, involves an ongoing process of discoveries and creations, with all subsequent advancements unlocking the door to future technologies. Thus, it seems there is no foreseeable end to this advancement, short of the elimination of all high-functioning beings to create and maintain these creations. Technology is now an inevitable aspect of human life, and, collectively speaking, it is a thing that is both rapidly changing and difficult to control. Human beings are creatures who crave structure and control. We use science to understand, categorize, and evaluate our existence. We use technology to further understand life itself and help alleviate our struggles. However, as technology relentlessly charges forward, we see our own creations capable of undoing their initial purpose. We use it to control and maintain and ease burdens, and yet we have lost control of the thing itself. It can be argued that surely, as the creators of each subsequent technological advancement, humans could collectively agree to end the march of technology entirely, but it is not that simple. Many technological and scientific advancements are involuntary, and often the result of unrelated research or objectives. With billions of people on the planet, each capable of creating and destroying, of making a new technology, or using an existing technology for their own purposes, it is truly an uncontrollable phenomenon. Humanity’s central technological anxiety stems from this lack of control. Much like a child, technology is created, it is put into existence, it grows and changes, develops and improves, and eventually it advances to the point that it leaves its creators behind. While technology itself, as a general concept, is not a sentient thing that can choose to abandon its creators, it has spiraled beyond the direct control of its creators. So, in a sense, it has already abandoned us. And, as it has been since the onset, we are left asking questions of what should have been done, our missteps only apparent in hindsight.

 

Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Row, 1956. Print.

Hsu, Jeremy. “Why “Uncanny Valley” Human Look-Alikes Put Us on Edge.” American      Science. N.p., 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2016 <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-uncanny-valley-human-look-alikes-put-us-on-edge/>.

2 thoughts on “Technology and Human Nature

  • August 25, 2016 at 8:30 am
    Permalink

    Great riff. Before reading, it would be surprising to see that you have connected contemporary sci-fi with the philosophy of Erich Fromm, but the argument is quite convincing.

    Reply
  • August 25, 2016 at 8:30 am
    Permalink

    Great riff. Before reading, it would be surprising to see that you have connected contemporary sci-fi with the philosophy of Erich Fromm, but the argument is quite convincing.

    Reply

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