Rise of the machines
A new book reminds us
of technology's dark side
After talking to author Dan Dinello for a while, a simple trip to the supermarket begins to sound like a science-fiction movie. On the drive in, a GPS device in your car monitors your exact location. Once there, you buy bread made with transgenic wheat, its DNA modified to resist pesticides. And on the way out, an automatic checkout machine awaits you at the register, monitoring your purchases before you leave.
“We have become way too accepting of advancements in technology,” says the Columbia College film studies professor and author of the new analysis, Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology (University of Texas Press, $24.95).
In his book, Dinello explores the dramatic conflict between real science, which predicts a utopia rising from new advancements, and science fiction, which thinks we don’t stand a chance against our burgeoning technology.
“Science fiction cautions society not to embrace the spread of technology without fully understanding the consequences of doing so,” the 57-year-old Dinello explains. “The best sci-fi often suggests how things might go awry. Essentially, it’s great social criticism.”
Dinello is plenty familiar with offbeat critiques, having directed episodes of the wildly satirical Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy, created by Second City alums Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and his own nephew, Paul Dinello. He also won the Best Short Film award from the New York Underground Film Festival in 1997 for Shock Asylum, a darkly humorous tale of a mad psychologist starring Colbert.
In Technophobia!, Dinello examines “posthuman” technological threats—such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology—and reminds us that science fiction’s evil machines are often spawned from an overzealous military industrial complex. The book explores the nonfiction world in which the U.S. government is the prime mover in technological advancement through the Defense AdvancedResearch Projects Agency, which spends billions to further weapons development. Add to that the tech corporations funded by DARPA—ruled by pursuit of the bottom line—and one can begin to see that an “unholy alliance” regulates the progress of technology. Sci-fi movies, Dinello points out, have warned for years of the dangers of such a cybernetic cabal: In Cold War supercomputer films like 1957’s The Invisible Boy and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator series, government and corporations create a grim, violent future.
The most captivating sections in Technophobia! examine technologism, a new “religion of technology,” in which the machines act as saviors. The idea is that humans will soon be able to implant their minds, as coded information, into computers or networks.
Dinello thinks technologism is a bit far-fetched, even for the remarkable advances of today’s machines. “It’s more techno lust than anything,” he says. However, he cites renowned scientists, including nanotechnology pioneer K. Eric Drexler and artificial-intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil (who predicted that a computer would best a grandmaster chess player), as major proponents.
Sci-fi, however, is right there to predict the horrific outcomes of this technological worship, demonstrating that the more reliant we are on technology, the further we become distanced from our humanity. In his campy 1958 classic The Colossus of New York, director Eugène Lourié imagines a future where the transference of a scientist’s brain into a robotic body causes him to go on a murderous rampage. In William Gibson’s classic sci-fi novelNeuromancer (which coined the term cyberspace), human characters with brains implanted into networks grow addicted to a life jacked in, rejecting their bodies and human connections.
While so much of this is still in the future, we’re seeing more and more technological intrusions today. A recent DARPA advancement has placed urban surveillance cameras atop traffic signals (there are hundreds in the Loop alone), under the auspices of finding terrorists.
“It’s amazing that today we’ll give up our rights of privacy so generously,” Dinello says. “I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not trying to demonize technology. But we have to be suspicious.” He hopes that through science fiction, public realization of a technological threat can raise questions, stimulate debate and even spur action.
Echoing Morpheus from The Matrix, Dinello warns, “We need to wake up.”Scanners wait to track your purchase of Technophobia! now.