Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Some Unrelated Notions

Short Story: io9 has one of those comedic movie reviews that takes a bad example of genre X (in this case, super-materialistic rom-com Sex and the City 2) and casts it as a quirky, innovative take on Genre Y (in this case, Dark-City* esque solipsistic SF)

*What, you haven't seen? Go get it. But before you leave to do that, I have one fact that will save you a lot of breath: it was made before The Matrix.

Long Story: I wanted to dismiss this as a potential topic because in general I think the above meme (can we call it that? I think the ironic movie review has got to count!) is kinda dumb, probably because it fails occam's razor; are we to presume that mainstream writers are busy hiding complex themes of existence, identity, time, and control in (apparently) vapid fluff for calceivorous fortysomethings - especially when it is much simpler to believe that mainstream writers really do just write dreck? But I lingered just too long upon the topic, which is when a little voice in my head decided that it actually wanted to see that movie.

...no, the other movie, the one that doesn't exist about four women trapped in consumer heaven-or-is-it-hell for eternity, blessed/cursed to spend eternity buying more and more expensive shoes and handbags and dresses that somehow consistently fail to scratch the itch to consume more still, and where neither volume nor quantity of Manhattan hookups can fill the gaping void in their empty souls. And yet at the same time I think that somehow such a film would be an inevitably preachy condemnation of capitalist living; and why make that film when our propaganda (SatC2) does the same job so well already (apparently)? The natural objection is that satire can be done effectively, and that this "inescapable" cheesiness simply isn't, which is pretty valid. Next, then, we must ask how to avoid making an unenjoyable movie. I'd suggest that instead of focusing on the satire itself, or the nature of whatever dark forces are manipulating the characters, let's focus on the characters and their stories. People will have to fill in some of the gaps: Why are these people here? Is this nightmare world a function of their collective insanity, or the work of aliens/mind flayers/posthuman AI? You know, a movie that thrills by posing questions to which definite answers are not always given. But now the circle of paradox is almost complete, because I think the movie I just described would not look altogther that different from Sex and the City 2 (ok, so I haven't seen SatC2, but let's assume that one movie about the commercial and sexual exploits of four aging Manhattanite girlfriends looks like another?). Would audiences know the difference? Could you market a movie as SF that was really more inplicitly than explicitly so?

In more recent news, we have dolphins using touchscreen devices to communicate with humans. This is pretty damned cute, but also a sweet advance for anyone who likes dolphins and/or is a fan of David Brin's Uplift series (fuck you, Etarran**; I love those books!). I'd love to speculate about a glorious future for animal-human communication, but at first we get to learn about the nature of dolphin intelligence and language, maybe. Dolphins got flippers instead of 10 digits, so if they have a concept of or can be taught numeracy, what kind of base system will make the most sense to them, if any? How long an individual memory do they have? Do they have any kind of oral history, and if so how far back does it go? I'm not sure the last one will turn out to be true, but damn it would be bitchin' cool. If communication does turn out to be fruitful, of course, we have a further issue on our hands; we're going to have to re-evaluate our treatment of dolphins and other animals. In his uplift books, David Brin always (to my knowledge) ends with an ecological message about the value of preserving dolphins and apes so that one day we may know their minds as the characters in his books do (or something like it, I suppose). I think it would be a great step forward for environmentalism and animal rights if it turns out that we can communicate with dolphins on a complex and abstract level.

**Thinks David Brin is a hack.

Probably in large part due to Brin's work, I have a rather deep-seated fixation with the notion of uplifting other primates and dolphins to sentience, or failing that even establishing some kind of inter-species language. It's almost the same thing I feel about mechanical AI; I want to talk to one so that I can try to understand how another kind of being thinks about the world. Etarran has said before that anything we can understand is functionally human; it will think rather like us, and we should afford it the same rights as we would a human (I agree with the latter unequivocally). Even if this is so, I think there's still hope that communicating with a different kind of life-form could still be eye-opening; dolphins are astronomically unlikely to share any kind of cultural commmon ground with humans, besides what comes with being mammalian. If we talk to dolphins (and we don't just hear about how good the fish was, and other mundane details) and their thought processes aren't altogether that different, maybe dolphin similes turn out to be really neat, or something? Maybe they tell jokes we've never heard before! Again, it probably won't work like that but imagine someone just totally estranged from every bit of human culture that exists, and now imagine talking to them about what they think happens when you die, for example. I'll bet their answer would be surprising (assuming you speak a common language with some fluency, or established one with great difficulty). We're likely years away from any of my pipe dreams, but that we are even a step closer is pretty nifty. Also, if dolphins are taking to the iPad that means that even if they aren't all that smart, then neither are we.


Artist/Poet said...

Certainly some interesting notions. Personally, Dark City rates among the films I have most enjoyed, perhaps because it does not readily provide answers or explanations for the myriad questions it poses.
As for the rest: I haven't had the pleasure (or displeasure, if you like) of reading David Brin's work; but in my younger years I enjoyed Anne McCaffery's Pern series. In which of course, the sentient dolphins have been genetically enhanced, I believe.
But to stay on point: certainly there exist animals that possess intelligence beyond that which we, as human beings, credit them with. In my opinion, it is simply a matter a differing intelligences. Much like Einstein was no Beethoven, and Beethoven was no daVinci. A wonderful piece of music does not equal a great breakthrough in physics.
Goodness, I've gone on quite a bit, and I assume, left myself open to arguments I cannot win.

Loud said...

Actually, I think that's a better argument than I gave for how we might benefit from interactions with intelligences that are enough-like-ours-that-we-can-understand them; to say otherwise would be like saying that Einstein wouldn't have an interesting time talking to Beethoven (relativity does, I believe, allow for some kind of "time travel" but probably not of the Bill-and-Ted variety)

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