A filmmaker of the future. Man fits video camera into prosthetic eye. Reality TV like never before?
Are moviegoers and entertainment seekers bound to gradually incorporate more and more computer technology into their daily life until they are indistinguishable from a mutated piece of software? Well, yes. The transformation has begun: digital technology is everywhere and it mediates everything, work and leisure, from telecommunications to interactive video games. Is a convergence between digital computation and human consciousness banished to the realm of science fiction? Ray Kurzweil answers in the negative.
In his writings he imagines a 21st century world in which quantum computers and nanotechnology change mankind’s proscriptions for the mind and the body. Foreseeing an age of neural implants, he predicted that by 2007 “haptic” interface technology would provide the human mind with alternative sources of sensory input, drawn from virtual reality environments. Well, he was a little off–but still maintains that in the near future there will be computer displays built into eyeglasses and digital “objects”, like movies, video games, and music, distributed as data files through the wireless network. The real world will gradually become fused with virtual reality, and human subjectivity will grow increasingly integrated with technology.
Surely, the moviegoer pleads, somewhere in the cinema’s vast annals of science fiction reels there are forewarnings of such a mind boggling transformation. Indeed, there are many (far more than the following list): Blade Runner, 2001, Alphaville, Tron, Johnny Mnemonic, The Fifth Element, Strange Days, Minority Report, A.I, The Matrix, and existenZ all confront aspects of cyborg culture, or the human-computer interface.
eXistenZ approaches near-future speculation from a different avenue: the video game industry. Directed by David Cronenburg, whose scripts often dabble in bio-technology, the film depicts a world in which video game and virtual reality technologies biologically converge. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra, the “game pod goddess”, a VR game designer and guru for the company Antenna. The first scene introduces Allegra’s latest game, eXistenZ, and situates its first test enclave, whom she will provide with 12 prototype meta-flesh game pods. The game pods– through she which she downloads eXistenZ into each player– look like rubber fetuses, fidgeting and whining. They are virtual animals, “grown from fertilized amphibian eggs stuffed with DNA” and charged by the gameplayer’s body.
Before the test enclave can begin its game, an assailant (whom we will later learn is a ‘Realist’) attacks Allegra. She escapes with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing trainee, who rushes her to a car and out into the countryside. We are to assume this is part of reality. Soon, Allegra convinces Ted , who has never played one of her games before, to be fitted for a bio-port (it takes some work, for Ted has a phobia of being penetrated). Afterward, they lube up one another’s bio-ports, which pucker excitedly, and insert the umbilical cord-like firewire.
Throughout the film, the process of downloading a game takes on an overtly sexual nature, culminating when Ted performs fellatio on Allegra’s bio-port. eXistenZ imagines a game world of polymorphously altered bodies, in which the bio-port has become both an invitation to play out fictional romances, as well as a new organ, subject to arousal and penetration.
By game’s end, the film, having supposedly disengaged from the interwoven game sub-plot, reveals that the entire test enclave scene was not even grounded in reality, but was actually part of the eXistenZ game. And Allegra is not the true game designer. That was her particular game avatar. In whatever ‘game-reality’ of eXistenZ the film started off in, Allegra and Ted work for the Realist cause, seeking to destroy eXistenZ before it bleeds into reality. As the film draws to a close, the final question– ultimately left unanswered– is whether the characters are still playing the game. The characters can no longer decipher what is real and what is game-based.
Cronnenburg’s sub-textual implication is that the film itself evolves into a version of the game, a blueprint for an interactive virtual reality game. Its gamers (film viewers) are left free to draw their own conclusions as to where fiction ends and reality begins. Of course, just as in the game, Cronnenburg provides “just enough [free will] to make it interesting.”
For anyone who’s dreamed of going to Disney World and never leaving, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003) is the book for you. Cory Doctorow’s novel is a precious literary artifact, functioning as both a potent science fiction missive AND as a challenge to copyright laws. Such an amalgam of trans-human speculation and social activism is unusual and refreshingly vital. There is certainly no overflow of writers with the aplomb to base a subversive SF story at Disney World.
Key concepts in the novel:
Bitchun Society – 22nd century technologically advanced America in which we basically live forever by enhancing our bodies and uploading our minds into “force-grown” clones; we live for centuries. Scarcity of resources is no longer a problem, due likely to nanotechnological advancement. Corporations and bureaucracies have been replaced by loose confederations called adhocracies. The Bitchun society “[doesn't] need to convert its detractors, just outlive them.”
Whuffie – In this post-scarcity society, wealth is relative to Whuffie, a reputation-based currency that is gained and lost upon favorable or unfavorable actions. Whuffie “recapture(s) the true essence of money….by measuring the thing that money really represent(s) –your personal capital with your friends and neighbors—you more accurately gauge your success.” Without Whuffie, it’s hard to catch even an elevator, much less a smile from a stranger. Since everybody has a HUD, a brain-implant giving them an interface with the Web, one’s Whuffie is immediately accessible.
Deadheading – Form of suspended animation hyper-freeze where people can check out for a while, thousands of years if they want. Alternative to suicide in the age of immortality.
Flashbaking – An exciting new synthetic memory-and-experience imprinting technology espoused by a rival adhoc group. In the Hall of Presidents, for example, ‘flashbaking’ allows one to actually experience being Lincoln. As the story progresses ‘flashbaking’ is said to be getting big at clubs, allowing dancers to really become the music. Imagine that rave.
Designer faces – Popular among teenage girls (a concept made all the more nauseating by its likelihood).
The story itself is about Jules, a young man barely a century old who has lived long enough to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies. He lives and works at Disney World (literally) with his girlfriend Lily, doing crowd control simulations for an adhocracy devoted to keeping the Magic Kingdom preserved from the kinetic enhancements of the outside world. They live their days among AI driven sims “spinning age-appropriate tales of piracy on the high seas.”
Meanwhile Jules has been murdered and the novel picks up with him investigating the circumstances of his own demise, which he believes is tied to an attempt by a new adhoc to take control of the Park and install the new ‘flashbaking’ technology into the Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion.
Jules argues: “You don’t want to be a post-person. You want to stay human. The rides are human.”
His best friend Dan, a burnt out missionary for the ubiquitous Bitchun society, who has spent his days and centuries converting villages to technologically enlightened colonies, decides he’s sick of the whole thing and wants to commit suicide.
“You can’t be a revolutionary after the revolution,” Jules argues. But he’s too late. Dan will hang around at Disney World just long enough to accrue an amount of Whuffie decent enough to make his suicide mean something—then it’s the big sleep.
Meanwhile, the rival adhoc run by the sinister Debra, presses further into the Disney brand-land, attempting to turn it into a virtualized caricature of its 20th century conception. A coup by Jules, wherein he attempts first to revamp the Park organically by stressing the human element, turns to drunken violence—Jules is caught smashing attractions, which pretty much drops his Whuffie off a cliff. After his implants become corrupted and he finds out that his best friend Dan and his lover Lily are having an affair, Jules hits rock bottom and descends into trans-human madness.
Disney: where nightmares come true. Usually LSD inspired ones.
Ultimately we find out it was Dan who had Jules killed, at the behest of Debra. This creates a wellspring of sympathy and Jules gets his Whuffie back in spades. Even though his interface is a malfunctioning train wreck, he refuses to restore himself, because doing so would erase his memories of that entire year, his last with Dan. The book is his attempt to manually document the happenings of the previous year so that when his present self finally perishes, his restored backup will have a record of what’s happened. Dan decides not to take the lethal injection, but to deadhead until the heat death of the universe.
In this age of YouTube and rampant blogging, it is humorous to note that Doctorow calls his book a “parable about the inevitability of crappy-but-more-democratic media.” Down and Out is a lucid evocation of the future but it’s also a hard-hitting critique of Disney, the eternal guardian of the copyright, as an impenetrable brand. Doctorow, a technophile with Luddite goosebumps (when it comes to some of the newer Disney simulator rides), reminds us that “Walt (Disney) himself was full of grandiose, hubristic, science-fictional notions. The original plan for Walt Disney World called for a domed city (based loosely on the Progressland Walt built for General Electric at the 1964 World’s Fair) — the original EPCOT (Experiment Prototype City of Tomorrow), in which tens of thousands of employees would live under corporate law whose premises would follow Walt’s nutty and sometimes saccharine ideals for social Utopia” (CreativeCommons.org).
The book, published under a Creative Commons noncommercial license, serves to remind us that copyrighted brands, these indelible monuments to capitalism, are not immune to inclusion in the imagination’s wackiest conversations.
Maybe we can’t have their toys, but we can damn well play with them.