Saturday, 6 June 2009

"'Vampires vs. Robots': the new 'Ninjas vs. Pirates'."

Last night’s Newsnight Review highlighted an interesting parallel: the contrast between vampires and robots. The panel discussed how vampires were re-emerging into the cultural zeitgeist with a number of arthouse vampire films and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. They then moved on to discuss Terminator Salvation, a film where the machines have risen up to subjugate their human masters. Though it went unmentioned, the cultural icons of vampires and robots express a common trend in society.

These two tropes of fiction represent our culture’s emphasis towards the irrational. Last night John Carey mentioned how vampires are a manifestation of the desire to believe in something that transcends the rational – something supernatural and inexplicable. In other words, vampire fiction aims at making the mysterious sexy. In parallel, the theme of ‘bad robots’ exemplified in Terminator represents the message that science is an evil.

How often have you seen a film with the premise of ‘machines rising up to kill or enslave their human creators’? Or where a ‘mad scientist oversteps the natural law and unleashes something terrible’? How many apocalypses begin with the release of a virus that should never have been produced? Or with research that should never have been done? The prevalence of the ‘careless/heartless scientist’ trope is both a symptom and a cause of a widespread distrust in science nowadays. Mainstream fiction often presents the idea that ‘science is bad, cold, etc.’ and that irrational leaps of faith should be rewarded.

Don't be afraid of this guy.

The mainstream cultural distrust of science has been around since the days of Galileo but came into greater prominence during the 20th Century when two World Wars, a Cold War, and a certain Manhattan Project led people to fear for their lives in the fact of destructive technologies. This has continued to the present day: NASA no longer has the prestige or the funding that it once had; the Large Hadron Collider , an experiment that will reveal the nature of the universe, is looked upon with suspicion and anger; thousands of people refuse to give their children MMR jabs because of an unscientific piece of research which linked the vaccine with autism; the UK’s Green Party stands on a platform of anti-science (the main reason I chose not to vote for them on Thursday). Scientific research and principles of empirical verification are put down and this is seen in the products of mainstream culture.

The converse of this is the high regard given to irrationality and the supernatural. Along with the sexification of vampires, there are the popular morals of ‘following your heart’ and ‘returning to nature’. Even the great and forward-thinking Battlestar Galactica ended with a message of embracing irrationality, returning to rural living, and avoiding technology. This represents our society’s pull towards the irrational and the illogical. We live in a society where feelings are lauded above thought: where faith is emphasised over logic. We’ve ended up with a culture where anti-intellectualism is rife, where the intelligent are called elitist, and where people think with their heart rather than their brains often leading to dire consequences.

Don't idealise this guy.

The message we should be projecting is that science is not the enemy. Technology is a positive thing. Empirical verification can be rationally justified through abduction – inference to the best explanation – and it should not be regarded as cold or inhuman when someone reasons using logic. Conflict is the essence of drama and it is easier to produce conflict between man and machine, faith and reason, rather than bold humanist fiction based on science and logic. In order to stop large swathes of the population idealising a world without reason, we need the mainstream media and Hollywood to abandon the old distrustful tropes of the 20th Century and move towards a more enlightened view. People need to learn to be distrustful of the vampires and more accepting of the robots.

1 comment:

hamst3rf1sh said...

What you really need to watch out for are vampiric robots. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/jul/19/robots-research