There appears to be a fear and curiosity surrounding the idea of things we (mankind) make getting out of hand. There are numerous ways in which this curiosity manifests itself in film and literature and, it being a hearty and prevalent topic, I’ve begun to wonder why it resonates.
It starts with Pygmalion and progresses to Frankenstein; exploring the idea of falling into obsession with the work of our own hands until we lose touch with reality, or finding what we have made to be a danger to others or even to ourselves. Did we tamper with forces we cannot control? Is everything we make doomed to go awry? There is a simultaneous fascination and dread with something created by our very own selves becoming independent of us and our intent.
The trickiness of the situation isn’t revolutionary; many have commented on it. Technologies of advancement and convenience develop right alongside technologies of destruction and manipulation and we don’t always have control of how what we make will be used or developed. It’s good, it’s bad or it’s ugly, and everyone has something different to say about it:
I have an almost religious zeal…not for technology per se, but for the Internet which is for me, the nervous system of mother Earth, which I see as a living creature, linking up.
-Dan Millman (self-help guru)
If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.
-Frank Lloyd Wright (Architect)
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.
-John F. Kennedy (President)
Men have become the tools of their tools.
-Henry David Thoreau (Poet)
A small sampling, and it is Thoreau’s take which so often fascinates us in literature and film: what happens when the brain-child of man—be it a piece of technology, or a form of government—turns on its maker?
There are two main versions of this: The A.I. tale (Robots and machines on the rise!) and the Dystopian tale (We thought it was for the best! But the perfect government turned out to be even worse than what we had before!)
I could make a very long list of examples, but instead I will make short ones which highlight the central themes which seem to so strike us. The main ones for A.I. start with the Terminator, in which man-made machines battle humans for control of the world. That which we made to do our bidding now seeks to destroy us and take our place.
In i, robot, a similar thing happens, but with a twist; the robots are not out to destroy humans…they are trying to protect us by efficiently eradicating our flaws. We have wars and violence, and in order to fully protect us (as their protocols dictate) they must choose how to cultivate us “for our own good” which may include killing some of us and removing from us our freedom.
Finally the most obvious one, which surpasses all the prior stages: the machines we have made no longer battle mankind. They have long since won, and now control humans, mind and body. They make use of us as we once made use of them. The story has become a modern classic: The Matrix.
The list goes on, well into children’s films: the too-clever robot in “The Incredibles” and the atrophied bodies (due to over-reliance on technology) of the humans in the brilliant robot-centered cartoon “WALL-E.”
Dystopian tales are a slightly different beast, but they ask the same questions: what happens when our best plans eat us alive?
In the Hunger Games books (a young adult series), the government demands children from each district as tribute to take part in a battle to the death for the simultaneous sake of entertainment and retention of control. It’s Battle Royale, Gladiators and Reality TV all rolled into one. As the story progresses, the theme arises that the cure (revolution!) for the ill (oppressive government) quickly becomes a disease in and of itself (i.e. the French Revolution).
(the hunger games heroine in the film version)
Dystopians are popular now, so the young adult literary list in particular could go for miles. In the film Equilibrium, art and affection are considered inciters of violence and instability, so they are suppressed.
In Fahrenheit 451, literature is deemed the chief danger to society, and books are to be burned.
In the book Divergent, society is formed—and deeply divided—around each individual’s belief regarding how to prevent war. Five factions separate five belief systems regarding what society most needs—courage, peacefulness, selflessness, knowledge and honesty—and from the divisions grow mutations of every virtue. Courage becomes violent recklessness. Peacefulness becomes withdrawal/inaction. Selflessness becomes suppressive stoicism. Knowledge becomes pride and power-hunger. Honesty becomes cruelty and moral ambivalence.
In V for Vendetta, a crisis ushered in an extreme government (blatantly reminding the viewer of Hitler’s rise in Germany due to financial crisis) and the government controls the arts, objectives and morals of the people. Moreover it is the extreme example of one classic definition of ‘the state’: monopoly on violence.
On and on the list goes: governments that control the arts, conventions, technology, marriage or religion. The point here—which seems peripheral to these stories but ought not to be—is that these governments were not formed by one all-mighty Lex Luther-style bad guy. Most of the governments in these stories were formed by either the will or at least the consent of the people. The people in these books and films demanded safety, security or stability in some fashion, and the government responded accordingly. But then, like all these other man-made aspirations towards man-made ideas of perfection, they went badly, badly awry. Why we all assume the ‘awry’ part to be inevitable is another discussion entirely. Why we are so interested in the concept of our own creations turning on us is the crux of the thing.
Because we are the made things that have run off and tried to make ourselves like unto our maker. We are the created servants hell-bent on usurping the creator’s place. We’re the ones set in a position to rule, who rule so ruthlessly, and so very far outside of the original intent.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is us. Except, unlike robots or governments, we are actually lit up with the divine spark (should we choose to live in the light of that fire) and that means the comparison to bureaucracies and machinery stops pretty well short of the full effect. We do not love tyrannical governments or violent robots. We do not vie for their salvation. We want them dead and destroyed…by machine guns and grenades if at all possible. We want them toppled, dissembled and unable to recover.
God seeks our recovery from misguided usurpation and self-dictatorship. He wants to fling us the rope, pull us up and mend us. He gives us the very strength we use to either fight him or seek him. So this is the crucial difference between our approach regarding when the things we make go awry (pull the plug?) and when we go awry:
“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”
This is a fact which, quite honestly, I can scarcely begin to grasp, and from which springs restoration. Since I'm pretty troublesome and often awry of God's best and have trouble balancing judgement and mercy this is befuddling to me. But it's so. We are not glitchy products but rather, He tells us, a labor of love.