Review of The Politics of Perfection: Technology and Creation in Literature and Film

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The Politics of Perfection: Technology and Creation in Literature and Film. Kimberly Hurd Hale. Lexington Books, 2016.

 

In The Politics of Perfection:  Technology and Creation in Literature and Film, Kimberly Hurd Hale confronts one of the most serious political issues facing humanity in the 21st century.  Technology, increasing at an exponential rate, offers unique challenges and opportunities.  While most people have a positive view of technology due to incredible advances in creature comforts and medicine, it is important to keep in mind technology merely gives us power over nature.  Whether that power is used for virtuous endeavors or nefarious purposes depends solely on us.  So while those in the developed world have seen countless, tangible positives arise from the rapid advance of technology, nearly half of the last century was spent on the brink of nuclear war.  And while the Internet and cell phones have given us unprecedented access to information and communication in the 21st century, we also live under the threat of cyber terrorism/warfare.  Abandoning technology altogether is as unrealistic as it is foolish, but an unreflective, blind embrace of technology is dangerous.  So we must find a middle ground where we can seek to continue to develop beneficial technologies while minimizing the risk of misuse.  Instead of offering a philosophical treatise on the issue, Hale turns to popular works of literature and film to offer a glimpse into the relationship between technology and the quest for human perfection.  This approach has the advantage of gauging popular opinion and accounts for both rational and irrational impulses.

Hale offers analyses of two books and three films, which offer a “treatment of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering in dystopian tales, specifically as they relate to the pursued perfection of human beings.”[1] Hale rightly points out the thin line between dystopia and utopia.  According to Hale, utopia can be understood as a perfectly ordered society while dystopia pursues order for its own sake.[2]  Humans are creative beings, but creation usually is preceded by destruction.  Apocalyptic visions are commonplace throughout human history in part due to the opportunity they create for new beginnings.   Utopian thought is typically grounded in the assumption that if just one aspect of human nature could be changed, perfection would result.  In the context of the works Hale explores,  “serious institutional change” is proposed to address a specific failing of human nature.  This leads to a collapse of the distinction between public and private life, which Hale categorizes as inherently totalitarian.[3]

While the genre of science fiction has generally explored the relationship between man and technology, there is a particular urgency to the works explored by Hale since we more or less already possess, or are on the verge of possessing, the technologies portrayed.   In other words, we no longer have the luxury of relegating these questions to the realm of fiction and theoretical speculation.   Genetic engineering, cloning, memory alteration, space travel, and sophisticated A.I. are realities we must confront.  Space precludes a full treatment of each of the works covered in the book so I have chosen two standouts:  Metropolis (film) and Never Let me Go (literature).

Hale begins with an analysis of Fritz Lang’s classic film Metropolis, generally accepted as the first modern work of science fiction.   Written in the 1920’s, with the industrial revolution undoubtedly in mind, the film depicts a futuristic, bifurcated society with a privileged overclass and a large underclass.  Those in the overclass enjoy a life of leisure and luxury while those in the underclass literally live to serve the machine, and by extension, the upper class. The classes are kept separate and there is no distinction between private and public life.  Due to the strict separation, there is no sense of envy by the lower class (since they do not recognize their relative deprivation) and likewise, those in the upper class can be characterized as ignorant, rather than evil, since they do not realize the source of their luxury.  The system is interrupted by the unlikely love story between Maria, the daughter of a worker and Freder, the son of the ruler.   Freder sympathizes with the workers’ plight once he is able to see how they live firsthand, although as Hale notes, one wonders how far his sympathy to the cause would go if not for his love of Maria.  To further complicate matters, a fake (robot) Maria is created by Rotwang, a disgruntled scientist, on orders of the ruler.  Both Marias serve as the agents of change within the society, with the human version preferring to use persuasion while the robot incites violence.   The ending of the story sees a united city under the guidance of human Maria and Freder, but is ambiguous as to the role of technology moving forward.

Hale draws a parallel between Metropolis and Plato’s tripartite city as presented in his Republic.   The Head (Frederson, the leader), Hands (workers), and Heart (Freder) correspond to the rational, appetitive, and spirited parts of Plato’s city.   The Head lacks empathy for the workers’ plight while the Hands lack the rationality necessary to design a city.   According the Hale, “Freder, as the heart is not motivated by pure reason or unbridled passion,” but rather is motivated by love.[4]  The key of course is to model the city in accordance to human nature. Hale convincingly argues that love is what prevents each of the scientific utopias from being realized.  To create perfect order, humans must be predictable and calculable.  The public/private distinction must be abolished precisely because of the passionate, emotional attachments humans have to their own (familial bonds and property).

While Metropolis was composed at a time when many of our modern technological advances had yet to come to fruition, Never Let me Go was written in 2005, just two years after the completion of the Human Genome Project and a decade after the cloning of Dolly the sheep.  While the two works are separated by less than a century, the differences in the state of technology are astounding and serve to underscore the importance of directly confronting issues of technology and society. However, while the technology has changed, human nature has not, and one can see numerous parallels in the stories.  The story takes place at Hailsham, a fictional boarding school in the UK.  The students receive a comprehensive education in the liberal arts, yet there is something dark lurking behind the initial appearances.   We find out that the students are in fact clones who are raised with the sole purpose of being organ “donors.”  Much like Metropolis, we are presented with a class of people whose sole purpose is to provide for the well being of others.  Far from revolting however, the students accept their fate.  As Hale notes:

The clone program has effectively eliminated the threat of cancer, heart disease, and perhaps even the natural degradation of old age in the general public.  People who would ordinarily consider themselves moral and just are willing to tolerate atrocities to secure these medical miracles. Order has been perfected in the lives of the clones, and the system for their slaughter is startlingly efficient. The entire donation program is sanitized, made clinical and impersonal.  The clones may come to resent their fate, but they never openly defy it; they cannot even imagine defying it.[5]

The question of what it means to be human is central to the story.  While the public was willing to accept cloning for the purposes of curing diseases and extending life, they vehemently rejected the work of Morningstar, a doctor who used cloning technology to provide designer babies.  As Hale points out, public outcry was due to the concern the designed children would be superior to ordinary human beings.  However, there is no such outcry against the systematic slaughter of the clones.  How can such a system be morally justified?  Hale argues it is only possible in a society devoid of the natural rights tradition.  The clones possess reason, empathy, and moral agency, yet they are denied the basic rights and protections of “ordinary” humans.  The only justification for treating the clones as less than human seems to stem from the fact they were “created” by scientists instead of nature or God.  However, Hale notes this is a particularly weak justification in a “society that has embraced evolution, rather than divine intervention, as the origin of human life.”[6]

Other works covered by Hale include Prometheus, “which identifies knowledge of God as the key hindrance to human happiness” and deals with the complex relationship between creator and creature.  It also raises serious questions as to the wisdom of creating A.I. capable of acting independently of human control.   Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind follows the natural impulse humans have to avoid pain and suffering through the use of technology.  Memory alteration/control is explored as the avenue to erase painful moments of the past.  However, this overlooks the benefits that often arise from painful experiences. Only by remembering, can we learn from our mistakes and become better equipped to handle future challenges.  Oryx and Crake, a novel by Margaret Atwood, is the final “portrait of technology in action” covered by Hale.  It “depicts the development and aftermath of an apocalyptic event in genetic engineering.”[7]  A rogue scientist designs a humanoid replacement species and cleverly causes a worldwide epidemic through the creation of a drug that increases libido and inoculates users from STD’s (while unbeknownst to them, also causing sterility).  The society portrayed prior to the event is hedonistic and depraved, with child pornography, executions, and torture all streamed live on the Internet.[8] Ironically, science is used to return to nature and a simpler way of life as the humanoids live communally and peacefully after the apocalyptic event, which Hale suggests is meant to show the “answer to the ills of science is not more science.”[9]

Hale concludes the book by calling on philosophers and scientists to take the lead in conversations about the development of advanced technology.  However, she argues that conversation must take into account public opinion, which is reflected in the representative works she has explored.  While some of the works may be a bit under the radar, the themes seem to be gaining increased popularity as evident by the success of shows such as Westworld, Humans, and Black Mirror.  As Hale reminds the reader throughout the book, those works can serve as a “mirror” of public opinion, but are not sufficient to solve the problems contained within.  For that task, philosophy is necessary and Hale recommends a “renewed commitment to the values of classical liberalism” as the primary safeguard against the abuse of technology.[10]

She reaffirms her commitment to modernity by arguing “the task of political philosophy then, is to determine which of these goals is most likely to allow citizens to pursue their own happiness.”[11] More specifically, she embraces the natural rights tradition since it prioritizes individual liberty.   Hale acknowledges the need for an active, engaged citizenry, but one wonders whether classical liberalism is sufficient to this task.  She claims “widespread availability of information leads to a better educated, better informed populace.”[12]  While this is plausible on the surface, it assumes people will go through the effort necessary to inform themselves.  Is the citizenry really better informed now than thirty years ago? And while the argument for a private/public distinction is well founded, one could argue classical liberalism stresses the private at the expense of the public, common good.   Radical individualism may prove just as threatening as the authoritarianism Hale fears when it comes to abuses of technology.  It is also worth noting freedom in the world has been declining over the last decade so it’s particularly problematic to rely on liberal institutions to vitiate the potentially destructive impact of technology.[13]

Hale does acknowledge the need for an adequate account of human nature throughout the book, and this angle is arguably more fruitful in addressing the problem.  However, in order to account for the full amplitude of human nature, one must look outside of the reductionistic accounts found in the likes of Hobbes and Locke, the founders of classical liberalism.  Hale does acknowledge Plato and the ancients still have a place in the discussion, but perhaps the role needs to be elevated to adequately address the problem.  To be fair, Hale’s primary focus with the book is to raise critical questions and begin a conversation.  In that task, she fully succeeds.

 

Notes

[1] p.4

[2] p. 8

[3] p.8

[4] p.21

[5] p.86

[6] p.107

[7] p.13

[8] p.118

[9] p.119

[10] p.137

[11] p.138

[12] p.5

[13] According to Freedom House rankings.  https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2017

David Whitney

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David Whitney is Associate Editor of VoegelinView and Assistant Professor of Government at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. He is author of Maladies of Modernity Scientism and the Deformation of Political Order (St. Augustine's Press, 2016).