The relationship between human and machine, the organic and the mechanic has traditionally been portrayed as one of opposites and incompatibilities. The organic has been fiercely defended by traditional theorists and conservative thinkers and filmmakers, portraying the cybernetic as the evil and inferior corruptor of humanity. More radical and progressive theorists have put a spin on such a belief by emphasising the very intimate relationship that humanity has with the technological, as the supposed evil is really a product of what we have created and programmed.
At the root of the debate is the perceived fear that there is potential for human beings to be eclipsed by, and hence destroyed by their constructions. However, the dawning of an age of technological superiority can only be possible because humanity has become the maker of its own demise by creating his/her own successor.
The reality is that the human and the machine share such a similitude, that the meaning of what it is to be human has become indistinct, uncertain, and potentially irrelevant. Traditional ideas of how one is distinguished from another have become redundant as images of the organic and the mechanic move towards a state of hyperreality -- the original and the copy simulate each other to the extent of indiscernability.
Therefore, the notion of what it is to be human has become ambiguous to say the least. While the machine and the human have many obvious and distinct differences, that they also share common characteristics may be a disquieting thought to some. Blade Runner and both Terminator films demonstrate how easy it is to 'pass' as human in the present and future. In the former, the only way to discern a replicant from a human is to take a very precise test of the dilation of the subject's pupils. In the Terminator films, a leather jacket, sunglasses and a motorcycle was enough to allow the T-800 to 'pass' as human among present day Angelinos.
This ambiguity in what it means to be human has led to the realisation that that today and tomorrow's human being has become hybridised with the technological. Whether this is in the form of humanity's reliance on everyday technologies, or in the possibility of a more advanced form of consciousness (ie. the cyborg or the android), the organic and the mechanic can not realistically be portrayed as duelling opposites of good and evil.
Donna Haraway, in her 'Manifesto for Cyborgs', played upon the hybrid nature of the cyborg to comment on the confusion of the cultural, physical, and now technological boundaries humanity faces. More of a politico-feminist discourse than a literal dissertation on the physical and psychological effects of the technological on the organic, she still managed to provide a 'potent talisman for the global convergence of human body and electronic network, extending our post-Futurist romance with mechanical technology' (1).
The cyborg may be seen as a result of the continuing interchangeability humans are experiencing with technology. The human beings in the four films discussed in this essay are directly dependent on the technological. From the motor vehicles, answering machines, and Sony Walkmen of The Terminator, to the spaceships, replicators, and transporters of Star Trek: First Contact, human beings have ultimately become one with the machine in film, and hence in their daily lives. The humans in The Terminator failed to noticed the Terminator because they were 'plugged in to their mechanical devices' (2), as we as human beings have become 'plugged in' to the abundance of everyday technology that currently exists.
In the reality of day to day life, humanity has become intrinsically connected with the technological, where everyday instances of technology are utilised to enhance and expedite our daily lives. It would seem that the emergence of the cyborg, a new hybrid entity, is simply the next step, like Turing's Man -- 'a complete integration of humanity and technology, of artificer and artifact'. (3) The fusion of the body with mechanical enhancements already exists today, from basic prosthetic limbs, to telecommunications, and to neural network computers, technology has become a very entrenched part of our lives. (4) Only a month ago did the Sydney Morning Herald (5) report that a man had been able to control a computer by thought alone after receiving an electronic implant that fused with his brain cells. What would have seemed impossible years ago has now become a reality. The emergence of a cyborg culture now seems more than imaginable: it is inevitable, and is happening now.
The cyborgs depicted in the cinema are a more elaborate construct, but are still based on the same principle of the organic/mechanic hybrid. In both Terminator films, the T-800 is a robotic endoskeleton encapsulated by the flesh of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg are a collective of hive-like beings, encrusted with metal armory, enhanced limbs and faculties. The T-800 is programmed with an unwavering will to terminate its target Sarah Connor in the first film, and her son John Connor in the sequel. The Borg are on an unflinching mission to assimilate organic lifeforms so as to enhance their own knowledge and absorb their technology.
The cyborg represents the hybridisation of the organic and the mechanic. The android on the other hand, represents the mechanic as simulacrum of the organic. The android does not combine organic elements with technological parts. In Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel that Blade Runner is based on, the author describes the androids (or replicants) that populate this dark techno-world as 'fierce cold things trying to pass themselves off as human, but are not.'(6) The deception that androids generally demonstrate suggests that such an entity would be defined by its appearance, or how people see it.
Everything begins and ends with appearances, surfaces without depth, copied human behavior [sic] lacking a basis in human nature. In this respect, the android queers the distinct categories of human and machine.(7)
As figures that are intrinsically all surface, androids do not play with the relationship between the organic and the machine, but instead, concentrate on how the organic and the mechanic replicate each other to the point of no distinction. The T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day is
[v]isually indistinguishable from the human … more indomitable and unswerving in its antihuman mission … in many ways [it is] a starker projection of a tecnologized world. (8)
The android is pure simulacrum. As Baudrillard notes, as simulacra, 'images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction.' (9) As the T-1000 mutates into the images of those people and objects surrounding it, the original and the copy are no longer discernible. The T-1000 smooths out the rough edges of its predecessor; it blends in. As a 'trickster' and 'shape-shifter', the T-1000 annexes the human body and soul rather than simply terminating it. The T-1000 is a perfect example of the hyperreal -- a copy with no distinguishable original.
Thus, as cyborgs and androids populate these films, and as today's world has already become so technologised that such entities do not seem so far-fetched, one must recognise that the organic and the mechanic share much in common. However, the mechanic has been portrayed as the 'other' for centuries.
Descartes compared humans and machines in the seventeenth century, maintaining that humans are always superior to machines because humans possess the unique ability to reason. (10) Similarly, the Enlightenment allowed humanity to believe that their ability to reason gave them the capacity to create their own destiny rather than submit to a preordained social order. (11) In The Terminator, Kyle Reese tells Sarah Connor that 'You can't reason with him'. The Terminator is programmed to kill; he does not determine that for himself. He does not possess the human ability to reason, to feel compassion, or decide for himself what is right and wrong. The Borg of Star Trek do not listen to reason either, illustrated in their mantra, 'Resistance is futile'. Futile because they are programmed with the unswerving goal to assimilate the organic and technological into their own collective.
Entities such as the Termintor, the replicant, and the Borg are figures of human artifice, but at the same time, they demonstrate the vulnerability of the human body because they have been enhanced. They are the new model, an improvement on their originators. They are hastening the replacement of the organic by the very technology that is already replacing human beings in the present -- in factories and with computers.
From a conservative perspective, technology represents artifice as opposed to nature, the mechanical as opposed to the spontaneous, the regulated as opposed to the free, an equalizer as opposed to a promotor of individual distinction, equality triumphant as opposed to liberty, democratic levelling as opposed to hierarchy derived from individual superiority… it represents the triumph of radical change over traditional social institutions. (12)
Human and machine are portrayed as opposites, or even as enemies, in a battle for supremacy, a battle of good and evil. Technology represents everything that threatens the tenets of conservative thinking. Therefore, a spate of films have been made with this attitude, most particularly, with The Terminator, which portrays the mechanic as a menacing evil intent on the annihilation of humanity.
Perhaps the most pervasive fear within this persuasion of thought -- along with the annihilation of the human and rise of the superior machine -- is the potential for the organic to become obsolete. The slogan used by the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, 'More human than human', seems a frightening thought in light of the fact that the product of this multi-world corporation, the replicant, has become indistinguishable, 'a nearly perfect mimesis … as the replicants threaten to render their creators superfluous.' (13) The mechanic is expedient, driven and unhindered by the emotional weaknesses of the human. Hence, the mechanic is portrayed as dangerously superior, amoral, and evil.
This 'technophobic' portrayal of the mechanic as 'the other' in film is undisputable. However, it should be recognised that the organic and the mechanic do have certain fundamental differences, especially when concerned with their reproduction and with 'the gaze', maybe even regardless of the fact that their portrayals in film are politically or socially unbalanced.
The reproduction of the organic and the mechanic provide a stark contrast between forms, as is illustrated in the aforementioned films. In both Terminator films, technology has virtually destroyed all traces of the human in the post-nuclear world of 2029, reconstructing the environment in its own image. The facilitator of this reconfiguration is Skynet, who has ultimately rendered the organic body obsolete because it has discovered the means of its own reproduction. Indeed , the fundamental tenets of organic reproduction -- the sexual, have been eradicated.
Without feminine or masculine creativity -- indeed, without human imput of any kind -- Skynet produces machines, or terminator units, totally artificial simulations of humans to act as weapons in the hunt for the few remaining people that pose a threat to its autonomy. These creations are not forged from some universal human code, like the DNA molecule, but rather from the logical parameters of electronic circuitry. (14)
In The Terminator, the heterosexual act of procreation between Sarah and Reese is re-affirmed as the only way to save humanity in the future. A definite line is drawn between the organic and the mechanic in terms of reproduction. The self-replicating automata of both Terminator films, Blade Runner, and Star Trek: First Contact are pitted against the sexual and natural 'procreators' -- human beings. Ironically, the drone has the capability of exerting its own sexuality in these films. The Terminator exhibits a tough, masculine image, his leather-clad and rippling muscles have been designed by the filmmakers to arouse sexual desire in the women and men who watch the film. Even the grotesque Borg Queen in Star Trek seduces the android Data with her overtly erotic demeanour. One may reconcile this by recognising that any sexual characteristics a cyborg may possess are still originally human characteristics copied by the machine.
In its self-replication, the cyborg/android produces an infinity of beings -- a collective programmable force. Humanity produces individuals, or specifically in the aforementioned films, one man -- a saviour. John Connor, Rick Deckard, and Jean-Luc Picard exemplify the bastion of the organic -- the unique individual defending the human against the analogous threat of the technological.
The gaze of the organic is motivated by such things as survival, desire, and hunger. Kyle Reese has spent a lifetime gazing at the photo of Sarah Connor. He has 'come across time' for her. For the cyborg/android, the gaze is of much less significance. The gaze of the cyborg in The Terminator is enhanced with infra-red, kilobytes of data, and programmed options. They are programmed, and hence do not have to rely on their eyes to determine the truth. In Blade Runner, the means of deciphering who is human and what is replicant is done through the Voight-Kampff test, observing the dilation of the subjects pupils upon being prompted with questions leading to emotional responses. The film is rampant with images symbolic of the eye, especially the fact that the replicant's maker, Tyrell meets his death at the hands of his progeny, literally, after Roy pokes Tyrell's eyes into his brain. Tyrell sees the truth, but all too late.
In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the security guard in the hospital discovers 'the truth' -- that the T-1000 exists before him as replication of himself, only when the T-1000 pokes him between the eyes. (15) As windows to the soul, the eye is the fundamental part of the human. It allows us to 'see' the truth, and is not just an artificial enhancement that is programmed.
Nevertheless, in the face of distinct differences between the organic and the mechanic, the conservative ideal of placing them in opposition is unrealistic. Both the human and the technological share an intimate relationship that recognises that what it is to be uniquely human has become indistinct and uncertain. The organic and the machine have become hybridised in the present, opening the way for the future emergence of the ultimate hybrid form, the cyborg, or the ultimate simulacrum, the android.
A film such as The Terminator addresses the fact that it is impossible to clearly distinguish between human and machines.
It focuses on the partial and ambiguous merging of the two, a more complex response … [rather] than the Romantic triumph of the organic over the mechanical, or the nihilistic recognition that we have all become automata. (16)
Two major issues spring from the aforementioned films that illustrate the hybridisation of the organic and the mechanic. The portrayal of human and machine has been played with in these films, and in most cases, their 'roles' and characteristics have been reversed. Concurrently, the meaning of what it is to be human has become blurred by such a portrayal.
The two Terminator films most clearly illustrate the role reversal between the human and the machine. Janice Rushing and Thomas Frentz have noted that the films themselves are aptly named.
[The word] "termination" is a term not ordinarily applied to human homicide: it usually is reserved for the cessation of mechanical functions. (17)
Since the humans in the film are superfluous nuisances to the superior machines, they are not 'murdered', but are merely 'liquidated' or terminated, a function that would seem to fit better in the reverse.
As the roles or characteristics of the human and the machine have become reversed, we seem to have become more like the machine. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Sarah Connor undertakes her mission to save the world with 'a mechanical determination and [a] tunnel vision that befits both terminators.' (18) When she finds the scientist responsible for Skynet Miles Dyson, she takes on the role of the mechanically driven hunter stalking the weak human prey.
When Sarah reaches Dyson's house, the red dot from the infra-red sighting mechanism on her weapon fixes on the back of his head while he works at his computer, duplicating the scene from T1 where the dot from the Terminator's weapon appeared on Sarah's own forehead at the Tech Noir. (19)
Just as the machine is programmed, human beings are programmed in their own cultural and sexual constructs. The Terminator films warn of a technologically inspired way humans have of judging the world and those in it on the basis of appearance,
while it also cautions us about the basis of those appearances -- how much they are simply constructed for us, without our awareness, and made to seem quite natural and transparent. (20)
The Terminator initially passes as human based on its appearance, but as the films progress, we see what it is really made of, on the inside. It perfectly illustrates that bodies 'do and don't end at the skin.' (21) At the same time, the humans in the films present us with an initial image we accept as normative, until the film progresses and we see inside them as well. (22)
In Blade Runner, the replicants act in a manner more akin to the human. The humans in the film seem apathetic and oblivious to one another. The replicants seem to genuinely care about one another, planning their survival, protecting each other from cancellation, and grieving over each inevitable death. In an almost cliched twist, they are 'more human than human'. The mechanic figure of the film is, ironically, Rick Deckard, who mechanically pursues the replicants in his unswerving goal to kill them.
The film most effectively demonstrates that the division between the organic and the mechanic is no longer clear cut obvious. The replicants in the film simulate behaviour so well that real people do not know that they are not human. The 'problem is so acute that the burden of authenticity, of having to prove you are in fact human, falls on virtually everyone.' (23) It is one of the first, and is the most effective film to challenge the traditional and conservative view of the organic and mechanic in constant battle and opposition. Blade Runner debunks and deconstructs the oppositions at work within conservative views on the organic and the mechanic.
The marrying of human and replicant undercuts the posing of nature as an opposite to a negative technological civilisation… [T]he film deconstructs the oppositions -- human/technology, reason/feeling, culture/nature -- that underwrite the conservative fear of technology by refusing to privilege one pole of the dichotomy over another and by leaving their meaning undecidable. (24)
The meaning of what it is to be human is now less defined and more uncertain. The present day attests to such a statement, as humanity has become 'plugged in' to everyday technologies to make our lives easier, more convenient, and more enjoyable. The four films previously discussed have shown that the cinema has taken this idea and has merely enhanced it by introducing such mesmerising creations as the Terminator, the replicant, and the Borg. It is the hybrid form (whether as physical hybrid 'cyborg', or simulacrum 'android') that seems to be the most accurate and realistic description of how the organic and the mechanic exist in relation to each other. It is a symbol of the relationship we have with the technological in the present, and is the image used by filmmakers in portraying the future.
1. Tofts, Darren. 'Machine Metaphysics', 21C, as cited at www.21c.worldideas.com/index2.html
2. Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz. Projecting the Shadow : The Cyborg Hero in American Film, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, 170.
3. J. David Bolter. Turing's Man, London: Duckworth, 1984, 13.
4. Another example of the entrenchment and control technology enjoys over the lives of human beings is The Millennium Bug, and the apocalyptic hysteria surrounding its arrival (Bill Sheaffer)
5. Sydney Morning Herald, 'How to really develop a brain for computers', Friday October 16, 1998, 1.
6. Darren Tofts, note 1.
7. Darren Tofts, note 1.
8. J.P. Telotte. Replications: A Robotic History of the Science-Fiction Film, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995, 176.
9. Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images, Sydney: Power Publications, 1987, 13.
10. Claudia Springer. Electronic Eros : Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996, 16.
11. Claudia Springer, note 9, 17.
12. Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, 'Technophobia', Alien Zone, ed. Annette Kuhn, London: Verso, 1990, 58.
13. Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz, note 2, 149.
14. Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz, note 2, 167.
15. Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz, note 2, 192.
16. Constance Penley, 'Time-Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia', Camera Obscura 15, 1986, 70.
17. Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz, note 2, 168.
18. Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz, note 2, 188.
19. Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz, note 2, 189.
20. J.P. Telotte, note 7, 173-4.
21. Carol Mason, 'Terminating Bodies: Toward a Cyborg History of Abortion', Posthuman Bodies, ed. Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1995, 227.
22. Sarah goes from the naïve, and overtly feminine waitress to the literal 'mother of the future', culminating in the machismo freedom fighter of the second film. John Connor is initially seen as the unlikely hero: antisocial, rebellious, and troublesome. The film peels the layers of the surface away to reveal an intelligent, ingenuitive and lonely young man.
23. Darren Tofts, note 1.
24. Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, note 11, 63.
Baudrillard, J. The Evil Demon of Images, Sydney: Power Publications, 1987.
Bolter, J.D. Turing's Man, London: Duckworth, 1984.
Hocker Rushing, J., and Frentz, T.S. Projecting the Shadow: The Cyborg Hero in American Film, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Mason, C. 'Terminating Bodies: Toward a Cyborg History of Abortion', Posthuman Bodies, ed. Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Penley, C. 'Time-Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia', Camera Obscura 15, 1986.
Ryan M. and Kellner, D. 'Technophobia', Alien Zone, ed. Annette Kuhn, London: Verso, 1990.
Springer, C. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
Telotte, J.P. Replications: A Robotic History of the Science-Fiction Film, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Tofts, Darren. 'Machine Metaphysics', 21C, as cited at www.21c.worldideas.com/index2.html
Sydney Morning Herald, 'How to really develop a brain for computers', Friday October 16, 1998, 1.
Blade Runner, (1983). Directed by Ridley Scott.
The Terminator, (1984). Directed by James Cameron.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day, (1991). Directed by James Cameron.
Star Trek: First Contact, (1996). Directed by Jonathan Frakes.
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