Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Aeon Flux and the Future of Technology

The new movie Aeon Flux makes some interesting projections of the future of technology. People communicate by ingesting pills that send information directly to their brains. Nanobots lie dormant and then spring to life when needed. Computers use voice and visual input and output—no mice or keyboards. A 3-D hologram camouflages a research laboratory. A surveillance system inputs information from drops of water and projects images and sound in a pool. Cool stuff.

Now I’ll go nerd on you.

Movie bad guys always were bad shots, but what they’re shooting should change with the times. Future guns that shoot little bits of metal that don’t at least have some nanotechnology for when they hit the good guys are not consistent with the technologies that are used in the movie. Aeon’s little ballistic ball bearings activate themselves, move, travel around corners, line up and blow a hole in a wall so she can escape. Is it too much to ask the bad guy’s bullets to do as much?

Projected security technology is worse. Bad Guy Central is protected by visually artistic devices, which don’t do their job! Aeon and her co-assassin storm the fortress and are detected by sensors. Security devices shoot thousands of projectiles that always miss their mark. Future security system engineers should watch the movie Hero to see what one wall of arrows fired at one time can do. As the intruders approach patches of grass, sensors angle spikes toward oncoming feet—or hands if you have hands where your feet should be (See the movie.). But the spike grass is useless unless you step or fall on it. Stopping inches from the spikes avoids injury since it was designed with a three inch range.

In the movies bad loses because bad goes with stupid. Zion survives in the Matrix series because the machines are tactically stupid. Machines program the Matrix but don’t study the battle of Thermopylae before conducting a frontal assault through a narrow opening. In Solider the bad guys vow to kill all the good guys, but don’t just nuke’em, although the good guys live on a different planet. And the bad guys have all the nukes.

Why care about how technology is portrayed in sci-fi movies? Movies serve as pop culture devices to get people to reflect on various issues. Set in the last city on Earth, a sub-theme of Aeon Flux is the way that technology separates humanity from nature. In Hollywood films bad also goes with an over-reliance on technology. In Aeon Flux a wall keeps nature out using devices on top to spray poison to keep plants away. At the end of the story, one of the technology symbols crashes through the wall and people begin to venture outward. Nature triumphs.

Technology does separate us from nature. As the fire warms us, our pupils contract and we cannot see into the darkness. Fire wards off predators but smoke and crackling mask the smells and sounds of our environment. Technology is a Faustain bargain, giving us power over nature while threatening to take the soul that unites us with nature.

In Star Wars, as Darth Vader becomes more machine, he becomes more soulless. Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star by turning off his targeting computer and trusting the Force that binds all living things. He saves his father's soul by symbolically freeing him from his technological prison. Star Wars, Soylent Green (1978), Solider (1998) or The Matrix (1999) each incorporate a sub theme of “humanity versus technology.” Good triumphs in all, but it is a mistake to read these movies as humanity triumphing over technology. In every one, good guy technology triumphs over bad guy technology. The battle is not won by rejecting technology but applying it to higher purposes. Luke turned off his computer, but without his star fighter, bad wins.

Technology is shaped by the purposes to which we will put it. It can separate us from nature, but that is not inevitable. The first electric car was built in 1835. The principle of the fuel cell was discovered in 1838. In 1861 a solar powered steam engine was constructed. The first electrical generating wind turbine was created in 1888. Each was set aside as people chose cheap over nature friendly.

It is not our technologies that separate us from nature, it is our choices—individually and collectively. Technologies will continue to develop building on each new discovery and fueled by human creativity. As Stanley Kubrick represented technological development in 2001: a Space Odyssey, what goes up as the first bone tool, must come down as an interplanetary space ship. If only educators could make us wise as fast as engineers can make us powerful.

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