On Wednesday morning at 7am (Australian Eastern Seaboard Summer Time) I sat up in bed with my laptop and joined in the mini-film festival using TogetherTube. The films we watched were:
Memory 2.0 – 11 mins
Address is approximate – 3 mins
Tears in rain (from Bladerunner) – 4 mins
When we were watching the films, I was most struck by the consistently melancholy tone, each of them reflected on some gulf or gap between actual life (remembered or experienced) and the virtual memories or experiences they were able to attain. Each of the films had, at it’s core, some kind of loss or lack.
Having woken up a bit more, I thought about the ‘wrongness’ in each of the films, the awkward or slightly ‘off’, as portrayed by the false-memory Sophie in Memory 2.0, or the almost inhuman replicant Roy as acted by Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner. This was prompted by a comment made by one of the other students about Address is Approximate, about the ‘uncanny valley‘. (I wanted to go back and attribute it correctly, but the Temporary Room in TogetherTube doesn’t keep the discussion, which I’ll have to remember for next time).
But as I was making dinner that night, my academic training kicked in, and I started thinking about money.
I couldn’t shake the line from Memory 2.0 where Steve, the lab tech, races after Henry to find out what happened. ‘I’ve got my uncle screaming at me, claims they’re asking for their money back‘ he says. (All film clips are designed to start at the relevant line… you shouldn’t have to watch the whole clip for each quote).
- Who is paying for Henry’s memories of Sophie? Why is this worth something for them?
It’s clear that ‘they’ pay the lab enough for the lab to pay Henry, as we see earlier.
This made me think again about the desk in Address is Approximate.
- How does the fact that this is a workspace make it different from toys-coming-to-life stories like The Velveeteen Rabit or Toy Story?
And of course this is the backbone of Bladerunner. Replicants are made by a corportation, and destroyed by the state.
- What financial or market forces led to the creation of really believable androids? Who benefits (cui bono) from their destruction?
And thinking about slavery took me back to Caliban in Address is Approximate.
The cute little white mono-brow robot gets to live out his dream, a version of the American dream, by riding his mini-fig convertible along the Pacific Coast.
But who is driving the engine of the machine?
A small, monsterous- or native-looking black robot Caliban with pointy teeth.
The fact that I can’t work out if the robot is supposed to be a monster, a monkey, an indigenous person, or an Afro-Carribean person basically says it all about the representational Othering going on here.
(For more on this, see Edward Said.)
The comments beneath the video, and the responses of the class (and my own) were overwhelmingly positive: ‘cute’, ’emotional’, ‘heartwarming’. Yet, clearly, all of this white affective labour is being made possible by the invisible others in the engine room.
Historical technology, knowledge and machinery are often coded as ‘transparent, self-invisible’, and implicitly white and male, Haraway reminds us (p.29). A focus on the virtual mind enables physical difference to be erased, making ‘most men and all women… simply invisible’ (p.29). Making difference invisible, she suggests, does not liberate those whose difference is written on their bodies, but rather continues to force those differences away from the public sphere, even as the different continue to sustain the public sphere from the background. (Embodying Learners in New Media Literacies: Cyborgs, Androids and the Dance Apocalyptic I)
As a recent post from danah boyd demonstrated, the tech industry ‘whitewashes’ what teens do on social media, for example “critiques of youth use of Twitter are often seen in a negative light because of the heavy use by low-status black and brown youth”. The significance of ‘Black Twitter‘ to Twitter is not to be overlooked.
There are responses to this problem that take us further, that give us ideas of how to not just notice the problem, but perhaps deal with it. Ta Nehsi Coates in “The Case for Reparations”, notes that (especially if, as Picketty has argued, inherited capital is a major force for income inequality) a long history of dispossessing black people of the fruits of their labour, means they continue to be disadvantaged.
Another route is Janelle Monáe’s Electric Ladies cyborgs. For a more academic survey of how Monáe embodies the theoretical positions of Philip K Dick, Octavia Butler, and Donna Haraway, see The Dance Apocalyptic II. But for now, watch how she combines product placement, black middle-class life (with cupcakes, sororities, majorettes and her own convertible), and the life of an escaped revolutionary cyborg.