Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

I've had a really bad stomach flu for the last week, and so mostly just be lying around in the futon watching movies and various TV series on the laptop. I finished the last episodes of Battlestar Galactica, which ended last Friday. It's a great show, and much better than the name suggests--not just a geeky science fiction show (though its a bit of that). There was actually a UN panel to discuss the show a week or so ago. Thematically and metaphorically, it continually comments on current affairs. Anyway, check it out! I can't really hope to give a proper summary of the show, but the quick run-down is that it deals with robots (cylons) who get built as slaves but then rebel against humanity (well worn, but it is what it is). They sort of take off, but at the beginning of the series they come back, nuke all the humans, except for a small group who run off into space looking for a new home, in particular a mythological planet "Earth". One of the main themes is that some of these cylons happen to look exactly like humans--hence it played off ideas of both terrorism and paranoia (sleeper cells), as well as directly relevant ideas (to me) of machines ("toasters") vs humans. Anyway, it is long and complex, watch the series. If you plan to, I'm giving away the ending here, so if you don't want the final few minutes of your marathon spoiled, stop reading now!

In the final episode, at the very end, they arrive at Earth--rather "our" Earth, as they had already found the "real" Earth to find out that it became a nuclear wasteland centuries ago. They decide to setup shop at this new planet, calling it "Earth", even though it isn't "Earth" (which was nuked) because really "Earth is a dream" rather than a place. So they arrive here and find... "tribal" people, primitives (without language), as they say. But what they decide to do is give up all their technology and start a new, live a kind of neoprimitivist life (Part of the idea of the series is that there are cycles, particularly cycles of violence between the humans and the cyclons). The character who is pushing for this basically argues that people's minds, their technology, has outstripped their hearts (or souls, I forget the word he uses). Part of the idea of the series is that there are cycles, particularly cycles of violence between the humans and the cylons (the robots). All of these things have me feeling a bit uncomfortable--the easy association (whether positive or negative) between technology and morality, or technology and social structure. In fact, since the show is often commenting on current affairs, their social structure, social relations, cultural patterns, etc. are very contemporary America/Anglo/Western, it seems to me rather odd. The way "primitive" is used to me seems rather simplistic compared to how other themes are generally handed in the show. But I guess this is because it is being used as a vehicle.

Anyway, it jumps 150,000 years in the future, now in Times Square, and we find out that the people who landed were our ancestors (mixed with the locals, presumably). Some characters (perhaps ethereal, religion and spirituality are strong throughout the show) comment on the present circumstance, one on the decadence and consumerism of society and the other offering hope that the "cycle" doesn't have to repeat itself and any "complex system" is unpredictable and comes up with new possibilities. We then see a montage of current day Japanese robots (!!!) such as those from Toyota, Honda, etc. doing their little dances, and we are left wondering whether these things are the the precursors of a new generation of Cylons. Geee, that robot playing the trumpet looks cute, but will its great-great-great-great grand-daughter lead a robo-rebellion and nuke us all to death? Given the theme of war, though, I'm not sure why we didn't see some of the more real present day threats, ie. military robots.

While I'm not really doing justice to everything in this episode and certainly not the series, mainly it made me reflect on some issues I'd been considering recently and that this highlighted for me. In particular, the issue of teleology/history/evolution in technology and how this is theorized. On the one hand, both a popular folk theory, and a theory sometimes considered in evolutionist anthropology, is that technology has a strong relation to social structure and that it is in a sense teleological or at least directional. We can see this in the study of archaeology, for example, which is what the 150,000 years in the past idea was riffing on. Simple tools develop into more complex tools, and these complex tools sustain more complex forms of society and social life. This idea really does imply a sense of primitive versus civilized. For this reason, it is not popular among most social or cultural anthropologists nowadays.

The straight retort is that primitive is derogatory, that technological simplicity does not necessarily translate into social simplicity (L-S on the australian aboriginees, etc). This has a nice relativist logic, and also seems like decent policy since attempts at "modernization" have been quite brutal on indigenous peoples. Plus it isn't that clear that the above model is not just eurocentric and perhaps even racist. This theory (or perhaps "outlook") does see society as constantly changing. It is just isn't going anywhere in particular, and didn't come from anywhere. It just sort of wanders around in a tangled mess of accidents.

Further, I would say there is also a reverse-progressive model which is a kind of traditionalism or conservativism (in the literal meaning not the "right-wing" meaning). I guess this is what influences all that neoprimitivism, gaia stuff. Technology is evil, immoral, destructive. We should be like (or we should return to be) the "noble savages" before tradition and morality were swept aside by this destructive force. I think this is in the backdrop of a lot of anthropologists worldviews, but is not a dominant explicit theory.

To me it seems like the first and the last are most represented here in this episode (perhaps in the wider "public" as well). In the show, they decide to abandon technology because of its immorality, but they also end up with technology again because it is the inevitable march of progress. The middle doesn't make much of an impression at all really, which is interesting, as I see it, because it is the most influential view for (mainstream social/cultural) anthropology---indeed, perhaps because it doesn't make any determinist claims at all. This makes it attractive, I think, for theorizing any moment (which is what a year or two of fieldwork really would be) while making it somewhat difficult to theorize history (which is why I think it tends to be replaced by a progressive model in long-scale studies) or prescriptive morality.

Anyway, I've been thinking about the anthropological view lately because I'm just not even sure that it can be a real theory of technology and society---it implies, to me, that technology is not cumulative. If this is so, then some real explanation needs to be given for what exactly technology is, and how it works as a practice (some, like Ingold, seem to me to usually answer these kinds of questions with vagueness and changing the subject). Could you find an anthropologist that would tell you, as it seems to be implied in this theory, that technology is not better than technology 50 years ago? Probably not, but maybe, you could say, well that doesn't mean that society is better than it was 50 years ago. But then that would imply that technology is outside of society, something that seems quite problematic. Of course this all hinges on the word "better", which needs clarification. At the moment, I don't think it is clear, as far as I know. This seems to be getting close to what I imagine "anthropology and development" must be about, so perhaps whoever is familiar with that literature can give me some pointers.

Anyway, the other thing that struck me during that episode is how science fiction also provides opportunities to consider things in a different way. Because there is also a strain of cyclical thinking in the series, and the finale. Given a fictional narrative, it can posit a circle of technological and sociological change. I'm not sure how exactly, but my gut tells me that could be useful ;) I do see it as useful for thinking about ethics though, since to me discussions of ethics and robots have so much to do with science fiction thinking. In fact, imagining the future is the basis for it. While I may sometimes be skeptical when I read these science fiction accounts, on the other hand I think certain kinds of politics are essentially about imagination. Maybe this is especially true in science and technology. Or maybe not.

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