Saturday, September 12, 1998

Let the chips fall where they may

OK, big news. A scientist somewhere has implanted a chip in someone's brain. The chip in his internal skull talks to an external computer. Certain mental states make the computer go "beep boop." It's a brain-bot interaction. Small, maybe. But you gotta start somewhere. The cyberpunk revolution has begun.

Maybe. Or maybe not. There's a difference between PR science and real science. This strikes me as the former...

This is no more a "man-machine" interface than a pirate with a peg leg is a cyborg.

Sure, it's an extension of humanity into the realm of the mechanical. But then, McLuhan's big point was that all technology is an extension of ourselves. TV tubes are an extension of our eyes, radio an extension of our ears, computers an extension of our brains, etc...

So, in that sense, a pirate with a peg leg is a cyborg. But I don't think that's what the cyberpunks were talking about.

If you look at the cyberpunk universe (and I'm mostly talking about Gibson's universe) certain basic technological leaps have been postulated.

The most basic being the readable-writable human brain.

At the moment, we're stuck inside our skulls, on the inside looking out through our eye sockets. I can tell you what I'm thinking or imagining. I can write it down. But there's no direct way you can experience it (unless you're a telepath, which is a different story.)

There's also no way for the memories in my skull to be uploaded and stored; no way for my brain to download conversational Japanese; no way for my brain to operate peripheral mechanical devices by pure conscious thought.

The cyberpunk universe postulates hardware/software sophisticated enough to change this. Descartes' mind-body problem turns into no-problem...

In the cyberpunk universe, you, the user inside the subjective privacy of your own skull, can directly access entertainment, information, whatever; operate machinery via pure conscious thought; hook yourself up to peripheral "puppet" robots for sexplay; make backup copies of your childhood memories; earn a living as a courier by storing other people's memories in your head.

This mental permeability also allows the badguys to get inside your head and fuck with you.

Something tells me that this is all going to happen someday. At the moment, as far as I know, scientists are just beginning to be able to operate primitive prosthetic limb replacements via neural impulses. Nothing that actually works yet. A jerk here, twitch there. Maybe one day, walking...

But it's still a long way from that to watching movies via a port in your head.

I'm not really knocking what the prof did -- just the overreaction to it, the premature victory party. Technological change ain't continuous -- it evolves by a kind of punctuated discontinuous disequilibrium. You can make all the incremental improvements you want. But every now and then, something comes along that's different in kind...

Like mechanical reproduction and storage media.

Once upon a time there were no photographs, no records, no audiotape, no movies, no video. You could draw somebody's picture. You could write down what they said. But there was absolutely no way to get an objective record...

A tape-recorded deposition is different in kind from a written record created by a Roman scribe with pen and ink. A photograph is different in kind from a painting.

What the cyberpunks are talking about is like that. When it happens -- everything will change. (And nothing will change.) But it hasn't happened yet. It hasn't even started. It's just an SF dream. So, for the time being...

Let the chips fall where they may.

Monday, September 7, 1998

Credit where credit is due

The idea for Gorilla Suit Jesus came to me not from Satan, but my cousin, Chris Jefferson. He called me out of the blue, laughing hysterically. When he could finally talk, he said "What if Jesus came back, not as a gorilla ..." Another five minutes of hysterical laughter. "But in a gorilla suit?"

So I speculated.

Sunday, September 6, 1998

Brazil nuts

Finally got a look-see of the uncut, VHS copy of Terry Gilliam's Brazil -- helpfully duped from the Criterion laser disc by my pal in SoCal. (Thanx and a hattip to BadCog.) I'd seen the mangled version on TV, but never the real thing.

Jesus. Entertaining? Yeah. In the sense that the Book of Revelations is a wacky, comedic romp. What an experience. Terry Gilliam just mugged my subconscious. I'm still wrapping my brain around the sensory/conceptual assault.

But here's my preliminary verdict ...

Brazil is a movie about baby men. Baby men and their baby dreams.

The men in this movie are all boys. They blather stale sports metaphors. They whine, "It's not my fault!" like squabbling brats. They play tug of war with desks and computers. They exact revenge by switching oxygen tubes with feces tubes. Not even boys. Babies all. But let's stick with the hero ...

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price) is the so-called hero. Sam's what Hans and Franz would call a baby man. His dreams are baby dreams. (The dreams of a "fifth grade comic book mind," to quote Mr. Roat.) In Sam's dreams, he’s a superhero—an artificially-winged knight out of a DaVinci notebook, rescuing a damsel in distress from the Forces of Darkness. The woman of his dreams ...

In reality, Sam’s a clerk. (Or “clark,” as they say in the UK). His world is a crappy, low rent dystopia: a cross between 1984 and a screwball comedy existing, “sometime in the 20th century.” The ecology is a polluted wasteland covered with happy billboards. The machines are Rube Goldberg contraptions that don’t work right; all the buildings are laced with ugly ducts (the way our streets are laced with wires and telephone poles). Sam’s society is obsessed with consumerism and paperwork. There’s also (in an echo of the IRA London bombings) a constant background noise of terrorism. People are always getting blown up, then soldiering on and pretending nothing happened. (The movie broadly hints that the terrorists are all working for the government.) Said government responds by grabbing terrorist suspects and interrogating them under torture—though reluctantly, and never in a mean-spirited way. (And charging their credit cards for the expense.)

Shitty world, kids. Sam, wisely, has found a hole to crawl into. A low-level, nothing job in the Ministry of Information. A safe place to hide from the universal bullshit. Sam lives in his dreams -- which are mostly daydreams. (Like Walter Mitty before him, Sam is constantly zoning out into heroic fantasies. Sam battles giant mechanical Samurai, baby-faced Hydra and other monsters.) It’s clear Sam's baby dreams come from Hollywood — based on Sam’s quotes from Casablanca and the movie posters in his apartment. His mother keeps trying to get him promoted, but Sam's not interested in climbing the ladder. He’s keeping his head down.

Sam's separate peace gets shot to hell, thanks to a paperwork error. A clerk kills a fly; the dead fly gets into the printout machine, and scrambles an arrest order. "Tuttle" becomes "Buttle." The wrong guy gets arrested and dies under torture. Jill, a woman who’s also dropped out of her society and found an anonymous job as a truck driver — gets involved. The Buttles are her neighbors, and she hates what's happened to them. Jill fights to get justice for the dead man’s family. Sam sees Jill making a scene at the Ministry of Information — and he’s seen her before. She’s the girl of his dreams, natch. Unfortunately, Jill's making a lot of noise and is now on the terrorist suspect list.

Sam's fantasy world and the real world converge. Sam, the human cipher, starts trying to act like a hero in real life to save the girl of his dreams. It ends badly. In a brilliant but sadistic move -- Gilliam gives us both the happy ending and the sad ending.

In his dreams, Sam rescues Jill and takes her away to a prefab home in an idyllic spot of countryside. (There's sheep, yet.) They live happily ever after.

In reality, Jill gets shot and Sam is lobotomized.

What a kick in the head, eh?

But it's chock-full of laughs. The script, by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Tom McKeon, is a brilliant collaboration. It's funny as hell, and simultaneously surreal. (Nice trick. Surrealism usually ain't funny.) Lotsa bizarre imagery, as seen through a fish eye lens darkly; lotsa sparkling wordplay.The performances (by Price, Robert DeNiro, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins and others) are astonishing, and just one turn-of-the-screw over the top. Gilliam's art-direction/set design is dense, claustrophobic, brilliant and convincing. It's expressionistic. (In case you miss the point about the babyishness of it all, Gilliam puts his torturer and various dream monsters in baby masks.) Simultaneously, the sheer, multilayered texture of it all creates its own reality. You believe in this world, the way you believe in the world of Blade Runner.

So, why Brazil?

The title takes its name from the corny song from the 1940s, which threads through the movie like a lietmotif on the soundtrack. "Brazil" is the land of dreams, the place of escape, the place where people can be free, the place where they can love, the place that this world ain't. It's the Golden Country from 1984.

Evidently, that's a baby dream.

Sam and Jill should've minded their own business. Bad boy revolutionary filmmaker Terry Gilliam sez: You can't change the system. You can't fight City Hall.

No. That can't be the moral of the story. No.

Like I said, I'm still wrapping my brain around it.