Transcendence, feh! A discourse on transhumanism.

β€œMan is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a flea, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.”
Michel de Montaigne

This analysis is rated S for super spoilers.

This is not a review. If you want my opinion and nothing else then here it is, I rate it a 2/5. It was one of the worst movies I have seen in a very long time. A convoluted mess of incoherent, illogical ideas and behavior. Although there was one or two interesting bits that saved it from the dank netherworld I banish 1/5 movies or tv to.

So, since you clicked on this bit I take it you have already seen the movie or don’t give a fudge about spoilers. So let’s get going.

I have some complicated feelings towards trans-humanism. On the one hand I am an admitted cyber Luddite, I tend to use the internet sparingly. I can’t help but feel that this is at least partly due to unusual circumstances which are beyond my control at the moment. On the other I know that actively fighting against the advance of technology is at best a losing proposition. At worst it is a manifestation of the worst excesses of statism. I want to go on record that I am not a believer in the archaic revival, a new dark age or whatever term the establishment has used to shine up the turd of technological regression.

I believe that it is inevitable that in time we will begin to upgrade our bodies or exist as digital copies. Biological enhancement is happening right now with recent breathtaking advances in prosthetic limb technology and brain stimulation. Heck the idea of a direct neural interface has been batted about for decades and crude versions of the tech exists right now. Although those who fantasize about creating super strong cyborg limbs in fiction often ignore an important weak link. You may be able to create a replacement arm that can lift 50,000 pounds, but your shoulder, spine and the rest of your body certainly can’t. But I will save that for a later writings.

I have written my own fantasies about the potentials of technology set free in a lib par type environment. It is something that always grabs my attention so a couple days ago I went to see the movie Transcendence. I had been warned that the movie was lousy by a local reviewer I trust. But I went anyway, filing it under research for future projects. Also there is a new IMAX theater in Sparks Nevada that I take every opportunity to visit.

I was shown to my leather reclining chair and after 14 minutes of trailers. One of the trailers was for another movie about transhumanism that looks quite a bit more exciting than transcendence. Though it also looked less scientifically accurate than the medieval concept of bodily humors.

The movie gets off to a terrible start. The whole thing starts in Berkeley California. You immediately find out that humanity has regressed to about a 1920s level of technology. To a world that any freedom feen or any sane person would consider a nightmare, a new dark age like something out of South Park where people trade rumors that they might have power in Florida, or phone service in Boston. They fondly recall those old days of a few years ago when life wasn’t completely backward.

In an unsubtle series of scenes broken smartphones litter the ground. Keyboards are crudely used as doorstops and the army patrols the streets. The most sophisticated technologies you see are bicycles and M4 carbines. So you immediately know that something has happened to make any work on or involving computers utterly pointless. Thus rendering most labor accumulated over the past 70 years or so as less than dust.

The movie goes on to most of what you saw in the trailer, a ted talks style lecture. Terrorist attacks against various research facilities. Johnny Depp’s character. The very occultly named Will Castor being shot with a polonium laced bullet. Coming down with super-cancer and the uploading of his consciousness into the matrix, oops, sorry I meant the Internet.

From there things very quickly progress along Scifi standard Frankenstein “oh no! We sinned against god by creating this thing and now it’s is out of control! Who’d a thunk it?” Protocol until the whole thing culminates in one of the stupidest final battle scenes I have ever seen in a movie in my life.

The final battle is something so ridiculous it deserves study. First of all the US government teams up with the terrorists (what an unexpected twist) who are working with a couple of scientists from the original project to take down baby Skynet once and for all. As a student of military history and current events I was horrified to see that they got everything wrong. First of all the soldiers they sent in, though dressed and equipped like mercenaries. Were stated to be active duty military. The government outsources operations like this for a reason, PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY!

Then there is their heavy equipment, a couple of old trucks, a World War Two era mortar and what looked like a World War One vintage light artillery piece. This thing was so old and tiny that it looked like it should have been towed into battle by two stout horses. This ignores the fact that the “good guys” are going into battle against a force that has all the hyper technology of the not too distant future and all they have is a few ford broncos without fuel injection and a couple of pop guns. It really seems like the producers blew their whole budget on substandard special effects, fancy sets. Or perhaps mr Depp’s paycheck and had nothing left over for the climax.

This completely leaves out the fact that if such an operation really was sanctioned by the US government it wouldn’t have ended in a battle. They probably would have retargeted a few minuteman ICBMs that use the incredible, un-hackable floppy disc technology revealed in a recent episode of 60 minutes. Three nukes later the desert town where all this happens would be erased from existence. Vaporizing, or electromagnetic pulsing all the evil transcendent technology without the need to send in ground troops. If you are already intending to take down every networked computer on the planet who is going to notice, or care about one shitty town? The casualties from taking down all networked computer systems would be in the millions, probably billions. Even if people did make a stink about it surviving government officials could say. “We did what we had to do to assure the survival of our species. Now back to your turnips, serfs!”

The battle goes off with predictable results and the movie ends with an absolutely nonsensical ending which seemed like a hell of a cop out. Or perhaps not, through some nonsense involving some ignoramuses knowledge of a faraday cage some of the nanotech containing the main characters consciousness survives the apocalypse? I really don’t know, but the last scene seems to say, “sequel anyone?”

All I can say about the ending though is that I was left with an overwhelming sense of. “What was the point of all that? What were they trying to accomplish here? They set out to help humanity and lost their souls? Is it really that cliched?”

Now, as I said my own feelings about transhumanism, the singularity, whatever you want to call it are complex. This was summed up in a conversation between two of my Facebook friends? Scott Beizer and John Newton. This conversation happened some time ago so I don’t have a record of it. Mr Beizer made a statement that transhumanism and all it entailed was the wave of the future and that anyone who stood in its way was foolish. Mr Newton disagreed somewhat saying that it would be perfectly fine for an adult to indulge in such a thing. But forcing it on someone against their will, or submitting a child to such a thing was very wrong.

I was going to say something, but I felt that mr Newton had already made my point more eloquently than I could. I largely forgot about that conversation until I saw this movie where the subject of forced upgrading to the human body comes up. But when you see the movie it’s much more insidious than that. When a human being is transcended their brain is basically replaced by a copy of the primary program. Leaving these people as little more than super powered puppets.

The other concern I have about all this is that many of the people working towards this technological end are obvious statists, insane, or in some cases dark occultists. Many of them work for or have worked for DARPA, which immediately places them under suspicion. Then there is all the symbology of this work which leans heavily towards esoteric or occultist traditions. In the lecture scene a student asks, “aren’t you essentially trying to create a god?”

Even if you ignore all the dark occultist stuff, which I think is unwise. You can’t get around the fact that there is some unspeakably ugly things that can potentially happen in this field of research. Additionally there is no shortage of people who wish to make the world an uglier place, regardless of wherever technology might lead. In time I believe that there will be people who fight against certain advances in technology. But there is no chance in hell that they will be as organized and determined as the fictional Revolutionary Independence From Technology. Such an organization would probably be violently decapitated if it offered even the smallest threat to DARPAs projects. Moreover, in their willingness to use violence R.I.F.T. ultimately winds up moving the work of transhumanism ahead on an improbably sped up schedule. A major theme of the movie seems to be that desperate people get results. Even if the results are horrifying. So perhaps there is one lesson that can be gleaned from this lousy movie. But it’s a lesson that we have already learned. That the use of aggressive violence is something that will usually produce more of what you are fighting.

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One Response to Transcendence, feh! A discourse on transhumanism.

  1. Michigan Escapee

    Like any popular media, the basic technology here is somewhat laughable. Yeah, you’ve got some quantum computing supercells, an uploaded mind, and the thing somehow managed to keep itself together and not glitch out inside of 4 hours.
    Add in self assembling machines, yada yada, and the old frankenstein disaster scenario. Probably not going to happen. At best you’d get a glorified expert system, or more typically, something that would chew on itself, and break into hundreds of simple minded fragments.

    A more likely scenario is, people start to live in virtual space more and more, maybe immersive enough to the point where you can think, and create a sort of AI agent to do things for you. Those aren’t going to take over the world. But what might be interesting is, when these AI agents start to cross pollinate and give rise to something that evolved in that medium.

    Probably it won’t be that spectacular, but over time it might get interesting.

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