SPOILER WARNING: This post completely spoils the plot of the movie TRANSCENDENCE.
This is the story of how I watched what was by all reports a terrible sci-fi movie and found either a subtle piece of anti-human film making, or a movie so devoid of meaning it acted as a vessel into which I poured my own thoughts until it spilled over into this very essay. You be the judge.
I'd been warned off Transcendence by people ranging from ordinary sci-fi fans to hardcore grinders and singularitarians alike. Everybody seemed unanimous that this was an instantly forgettable movie, bordering on a hate-crime against the future. So it was much to my surprise that upon eventually watching it – and hell, I'd sat through all three Left Behind movies (for reasons!), I could do this, surely – what I discovered was, ultimately, a stunningly anti-human movie that's arguably about our genocidal origins and fear of a world transformed turning against us. Less a technothriller than a tale of humanity's struggle against the forces of futurity it has unleashed upon the world; its inability to comprehend them and instinctual reaction to lash out against what it doesn't understand and can't empathise with.
Allow me to unpack my argument, and in the process completely spoiler a generic blend of Terminator 2, The Lawnmower Man and every other SF flick about the "rise of the machines" or a technological superman. Honestly, if you want a better examination of the ethics and issues of AI, watch the recent episode of Elementary, "Bella". If you want a more dramatic tale, read about Roko's Basilisk.
Transcendence is framed from the point-of-view of an AI researcher, Max Waters (Paul Bettany). He's afraid of the “rise of the machines” posthuman future, tries to fight it and ends up bringing about the ruin of mankind. (Are you beginning to see the moral of the story?) It stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster; the man who becomes machine consciousness who becomes AI Saviour who becomes nanotech villain who becomes inert dust. Spoiler.
Can't Fight the Future (The Neanderthal Dilemma)
In the second book of Ramez Naam's posthuman Nexus series, Crux, he defines the Neanderthal dilemma thusly:
Everywhere modern humans went, Neanderthals eventually went extinct. The groups mingled. They even mated. But the modern humans were just smarter, faster, better able to think and communicate and invent things. They made better tools and hunted and gathered more effectively. The Neanderthals couldn’t keep up.
If you were a Neanderthal and could stop humans from coming into being, or stop them from getting a foothold, you might extend the life of your species, but leave the world a poorer place.
This theme – fear of extinction, fear of erasure and replacement - is common to everything from Warren Ellis' newuniversal comic to the Brookings Report. Max, the AI researcher, is facing this dilemma as the plot of Transcendence progresses. It's what causes him to eventually join forces with the neo-luddite terrorists that kidnap him after killing the mortal form of his best friend - Johnny Depp, PhD - and in the process triggering the unfolding of the very future they feared and were trying to prevent. The upload and upgrade of a human consciousness to machine godhood, one of the technological singularities.
Just like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (T:SCC), he fears the consequences of a global, self-aware computer network and tries to destroy its becoming. Unlike John Connor by the end of T:SCC's run, he never learns that the only way out is through. That you can only combat an undesirable future by trying to construct a more desirable one. Instead, Max helps the terrorists join forces with the military to mount an assault on the complex housing the server farm that holds the mind upload. It's all for the “greater good”, right? They're saving the human race. RIGHT?!
So what has the Super-Sentient-AI-previously-embodied-by-Johnny Depp been doing exactly? First, he protects his wife from the neo-luddite cultists that killed his earthly form. Then, he protects his new life in the cloud, builds a home in a safe place and starts living his amazing machine god life – making all the sorts of technological breakthroughs a machine god might. Then, he saves his friend who helped build that home – okay, total Bright Green Bond Villain desert complex – but still, guy got hurt, he fixed him with his super nanotech powers, and not just that, upgraded him in the process.
Enter the transhuman species – part human, part nanotechnology. Witness the embodiment of humankind's coevolution with its tools in action! Word gets out via a viral video, and he literally becomes a biblical type saviour – taking in the lame and the infirm, the ill and the diseased. Healing and curing them. Upgrading them too, in the process. Change always happens at the edge, in the margins, and that's what's going on here.
But to neo-luddite and military eyes - who only recognise a threat in something they don't understand, and see in his enhanced human community only a potential growing army - this is something that must be destroyed. It could be the end of the world as we know it! Could...
It's an existential threat; but it's psychological, not physical. This isn't an asteroid about to crash into the Earth or a bomb, poison or plague. This is a mental category about to collapse. The most important of all: what it means to be human. It represents the end of everything they know, everything they are, and it scares the shit out of them. And as any amateur student of human psychology will tell you, fear is a hell of a motivator. The transhuman community and their posthuman leader aren't killing people, aren't conquering lands or launching missile strikes, they are quite simply being. But their very existence is frightening enough to the regular, baseline folks. The Neanderthal's in our tale. Faced with this dilemma, they don't choose to process their feelings, overcome their initial reaction, interbred and in the process merge cultures, as it now looks certain our hominid cousins did. They fight with certainty and conviction that its the only rational thing to do.
Fear of change, fear of loss of control. The idea that the AI could be running things without them even being aware of it. And how does it get the funds it needs to accomplish everything in the movie? High volume trading. And how exactly does this 'high-speed algorithmic trading' work in our world? Nobody actually knows the details. It's just an army of algorithms duking it out in thousands of rounds a second. And if we already don't have control over the financial sector, well...
The idea of a neo-luddite terrorist group maiming and killing isn't fiction either – I give you the Individuals Tending Towards Savagery (ITS).
While Strong AI may still be a dream, and mind uploading most commonly seriously discussed only by the ultra rational congregation of the Church of the Singularity, there's a great deal in Transcendence that is very much real and relevant to our daily condition.
But there's one more message to the audience embedded in this simplistic sci-fi, and it happens at the very end, as The Upload Formerly Known As Depp is defending himself and his tribe from the human war machine assembled to affect his destruction and dissolution. The boot that wants to stomp on the coming of a world it doesn't understand.
Having begun by uploading himself into the network, spreading across the internet, the Depp Entity later infects the world with his nanotech dust. Floating on the wind, penetrating the clouds, the bricks, everything. As the enhanced community march out in unison, borg-like, unarmed and unafraid. Neutralising their attackers. Disassembling their weapons. Like magic.
Fear of a Gray Goo Planet
In our consideration of ooze – as one facet of the hidden world – we have one more step to take, and that is to consider ooze not only as archaeological and geological, but noological as well. Here ooze is not just a biological amoeba, and not just the mud of the Earth; here ooze begins to take on the qualities of thought itself.” ~ In The Dust Of This Planet
The Anthropocene is the idea that the planet we inhabit has been completely reshaped by the activities of human civilisation. That no part of our world has been left unchanged. Most obviously, this is climate change; but it's more than just a change in weather patterns. It's things like the concentration of CO2 in sea ice we've never set foot on and the addition of “plastiglomerate” to geology – rocks made from plastic melted in fires.
Awesome, right? We changed the world. Humans rule! But what if it went all horribly wrong and completely out of control? (You know, worse than climate chaos even.) Overt and undeniable.
That's the Gray Goo scenario – nanotechnology unleashed on the world, out-competing natural systems. Here's Bill Joy outlining it in his classic WIRED article "Why the future doesn't need us" (which could well be a foundational text for the whole film):
An immediate consequence of the Faustian bargain in obtaining the great power of nanotechnology is that we run a grave risk - the risk that we might destroy the biosphere on which all life depends.
As Drexler explained:
Plants" with "leaves" no more efficient than today's solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous "bacteria" could out-compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.
Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the "gray goo problem." Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term "gray goo" emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.
The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating assemblers.
Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident.
Another existential threat. Physical, not metaphysical this time. But where the Neanderthal Dilemma is a negative reaction, classic fear of the other, to a change in progress - the coming of a new race - this is the nightmare of an out-of-control technology. What's frightening isn't the destruction of Platonic ideals, but the radical transformation of the earthly plane. The Gray Goo is the sentient ooze of an unknowable posthuman world affecting its own agenda on the Earth.
And what they send Posthuman JD's wife in to prevent. Seeded with a nanotech virus in her blood that will crash the system and stop the possibility of a Gray Goo Mass Extinction Event in an instant. (This actually makes the least sense of anything in the whole film, but whatever...)
Did we mention that Artificial Johnny D is by this stage in the film, through the miracle of nanotechology, reincarnate, corporeal and once more out of the virtual and of-the-world. And damn if that doesn't completely freak out the humans too! Clearly he is a demon, or worse, because he actually occupies two realms simultaneously and is able to see through the eyes and speak through the mouths of his enhanced human comrades.
The vampire manifests itself in either human-animal metamorphoses (bats, rats, dogs), or in metamorphoses between the organic and inorganic (mists, smoke).” ~ In The Dust Of This Planet
Nanotech posthumans do make for quite the villain now, a science fictional update on the vampire, if you like.
How’d you do that?” she asked, because you couldn’t see that and not ask.
“Assemblers,” he said. “It’s what we do here. We’re protean.” He smiled.
“Without fixed form.” He waved his hand through the wall, a demonstration.
Such a radical merger of flesh and intelligent metal does seem like the realisation of some new nightmare to the fervent human purist. Frankenstein's new monster, the result of a new Promethean pact.
But here's the thing. About who the real villains are in Transcendence. After Nanotech Posthuman AI Borg Overlord Johnny Depp gives in to the power of love – choosing to save his wife over himself as his power supply dwindles for dramatic effect, and in doing so only further demonstrating that he never lost any of his precious humanity in his transition – after the gray goo dissipates, and the brief war for the future is over, the Neanderthal side triumphant... not a single baseline human has been harmed!
There has been no Terminator-style skull crushing. No attempts to immanentize an eschaton. But a new posthuman race has been erased, and all the transhumans reverted back to their baseline human forms; any illness and infirmity restored. Safely recategorised back into the margins of society. But better dead than red, right? Or dust than borg. Another genocide to add to humanity's collection.
It feels like in spite of its otherwise ham-fisted dialogue and clichéd portrayals (I will not be surprised if Transcendence becomes a cult bad-sf comedy to join ID4), the film has been very careful to depict this. That it's made a careful, conscious choice here in what's an otherwise violent and militarised film. It would've been so easy, and yet...
What are the Deppularity's final words to his wife as she briefly experiences transcendence and he expires?
Look at the sky. Clouds. We're healing the ecosystem, not harming it. Particles join the air currents, building themselves out of pollutants. Forests can be regrown. Water so pure you can drink out of any river. This is your dream...”
At the movie's conclusion Max looks down into a puddle of polluted water and sees it cleansed. By the nanotechnology that managed to escape into the world after all. The Earth is being healed, while human civilisation is in ruin. In killing the posthuman borg future they killed their own civilisation – almost like it was a natural progression they were stamping out. Despite the best efforts by members of humanity to prevent it, real, true progress is being made; only an inhuman scale, repairing the effects of their infestation, their occupation.
In the end the message of Transcendence seems very simple and clear: All fear of the future was unnecessary, all violence unneeded and abhorrent. All we have to loose is our old ways of doing things and old categories of thinking about things. Which is what makes this otherwise bland technothriller profound in its own way, and stand out.
This is a film about technological nightmares, and real monster is us. In the Anthropocene we are the thing to be overcome.
Post Script: A Few Words About The State of Science Fiction in Popular Culture
That this is a crypto anti-human film with a covertly delivered, positive message about technological progress and humanity's evolution speaks to a trend in speculative fiction and dramas at the moment. These are unquestionably turbulent times, and we are living within a spectacularly science-fictional condition of rapid change. The Singularity may be a modern myth, but that doesn't mean something new is approaching. That the near future will unrecognisable, whichever way it shakes out. You would think this would be a new golden age for science fiction, but instead we're witnessing the opposite, the rise of fantasy – the superhero film, the supernatural film. At best these have science-fictional trappings. More mythic films like Prometheus and Interstellar are the exception, and there's very little in the way of brain busting, mind twisting speculation beyond the occasional neat time travel flick. Where is the contemporary equivalent of the early twencen rocket stories to inspire a new generation?
On TV it's even worse. Where are the shows to rival The Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone? Almost no really overt science fiction to be found. Revolution is actually about a world transformed by a Gray Goo-like event, but this is very much the background to an otherwise standard fare post-apocalyptic drama. Like it's too embarrassed to show its true nature.
Person of Interest was until recently a popular crypto science-fictional police procedural TV drama, but once the war between the machine gods aspect of the plot was foregrounded this season ratings began to nosedive.
Falling Skies and Defiance are about the old trope of alien invasion and not much else... though both are laudable for featuring elements of cooperation amongst extraterrestrial civilisations, between humanity and alien races.
It's like our culture at large is in denial, or retreat, about the nature of change under way, and those of us most interested in what's actually happening are arguing in the very margins of history. Which is the role genre has always played, and why I am wont to make much of otherwise dismissed films like this. Even if they only serve as a vehicle to discuss these issues in public.
Next episode, Zombies! And more versions of the Vampyre.