Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cybermen, Daleks, Terminators and other upgrades

We've had a big dumping of snow down here in the deep south - though had to drive up a few suburbs to have a go on the sled as the snow didn't quite manage to stay around on the ground around us like it sometimes has in other years. (This trip proved that alas petrol is *still* not expensive enough - we were in fear of our lives walking anywhere near the road due to boy-racers hooning up and down using their cars like motorised snow-boards ! )

My six year old is keen on Dr Who so the circle is complete - I must have been 6-ish , or perhaps a bit earlier when I was hiding behind a piece of furniture, absolutely terrified of the grey-scale (no colour TV then) Doctor and whatever he was up against - I only recall the Daleks, the Cybermen came later. I think it was the original old white-haired guy, long before the modern, post-modern and whatever-period-we-are-in-now Doctors - not to mention, long before the celebrity side-kicks (though alas Billy Piper appears to have departed into a parallel universe this week.) (I don't think it would have been a couch I was hiding behind, I don't think we had them then - and if we did it would have been called a sofa ! Like showers - didn't have those either, even in a new house that we built, I think in the late sixties, on the back of the then (alas no longer quite so) prosperous business of growing wool, lamb and mutton (we were sheep farmers) - we only had baths.....which come to think of it seems odd, given that at the end of the day we were often pretty filthy, yet often had to re-use bath water because baths use water so inefficiently and we were on rain-water supply..... - my guess is that pump, pipe, nozzle and water-heater technology and bathroom materials were not quite up to squirting warm water out over people in a pleasing fashion while yet not flooding the bathroom. (In fact I think there is still some progress to be made in this whole area - particularly that not-flooding-the-bathroom bit). This might have even been before alkathene piping - maybe getting copper pipe up and around a few bends and over our heads would have been too much of a mission ! Yikes ! Note to self - check out chemistry and history of black alkathene I really that old !?)

While my 6 year old is himself a little insecure at times with the Doctor and does sometimes disappear out of the room or come and sit on my lap when scared, he is clearly not as terrified as I was in my day, and generally far more sophisticated in his world view. He is, for example, able to observe that the Daleks can't even go up stairs, which seems odd for a race with their fearsome reputation. Its not something that ever occurred to me - and I'm not 100% sure that this is an original observation of his either - he has older siblings and also just generally lives in a much richer more sophisticated cultural environment than I did out in the back blocks of Matira. But still - its a testament to the originality of the ideas of the show and that wonderful Dr Who theme music (which 6-year old and I often sing loudly together as a duet much to the annoyance and disgust of the rest of the family- he does the high spooky weeeee-woooo bit, I do that menacing thrumming rhythmic bit in the bass) - that this little show with budget special effects is able to clear the room of 6 year olds on occasions - something that not even any of the Terminator movies was ever able to do !

There's actually an interesting contrast between the Dr Who dystopians - OK, scary dudes - and more recent ones like the terminators - which is that, the ones on Dr Who tend to be meat wrapped in metal, whereas the modern ones - like the terminators - are metal wrapped in meat. I can still remember the shock when one of the previous Doctors somehow opened up a Dalek and we got to see the pathetic little mutant that lived inside it. And when you got to see the first tantalising (and I think at that point unexpected, though I forget now) bits of robot under Arnie's skin, and realised he was metal wrapped in meat, in the first terminator movie - it was a similar kind of mild shock.

Well firstly - I guess there is something about "peeling back the layers" , that is extremely suggestive and metaphorical and all that, and that really works well as a dramatic and storytelling device. Consider for example how bland , by comparison , were the metal-wrapped-in-metal robots in something like "I Robot" ,
or even "AI" - unless there are layers hinted at, there is little dramatic potential - in any drama, not just sci-fi and cyborgs and all that, you need characters that only reveal part of themselves to start with, but hint at (and deliver) more later, as layers are peeled down to. Though the completely meat-less robots in the "Aliens" series of movies are a slight counter-example - they were pretty cool ! - but once again, still worked by appearing to be one thing -then shocking you when you discover, is something else. And I think I'd class those as metal-wrapped-in-meat anyway - even though technically I guess they were plastic-and-white-goo-wrapped-in-latex ! Dramatically and conceptually, they were metal-wrapped-in-meat - robots that appear human and organic.

Its interesting to speculate about the inside-outness of the modern cyborgs as compared with the older ones - why it is that metal-wrapped-in-meat has taken over from meat-wrapped-in-metal. Maybe material for a future blog ! It may just be that our technology - both "meat related" (genetics , cell cultures - flesh-in-a-dish...) , and "metal related" (micro-devices, quite advanced embedded smarts - though we are still miles from anything approaching AI - at least, AFAIK !) - has advanced to the point where the metal-wrapped-in-meat is more conceivable and credible.

The other meat-in-metal cyborgs on Dr Who I am familiar with are the "cybermen" - though it is only in this latest series that I saw their genesis and process of manufacture - which is , that you take a stock-standard human and, in a lurid blood-spattering process called "upgrading" , extract his or her brain and stick inside a metal suit ! (I am sure that the pun on software "upgrades" , and the similar level of unpleasantness and buggering of one's brain when you do one of these as compared with being upgraded to being a cyberman , is deliberate !).

One last thing though is.....we are in fact being cyber-ishly upgraded even as we speak, but in a more subtle way. The English language is being "upgraded" at a rather frighteningly fast rate , by cell-phone technology. Consider this extract of written English from a young 20-something :

"Sup? im laxin chch for a bit b4 a little travel n amped for the snow. Listenin 2 da top40"

Which translates roughly as ....

"Hows it going - what are you up to ? I am relaxing for awhile before doing some travelling - keen to do some skiing when the snow arrives. Listening to the top 40 music show at the moment"

....and you get the feeling when you see the way groups of people are half in conversation with those present and half with other people via text - that there is maybe a change to a somewhat different, more collective consciousness going on , different to the isolated awareness we have known.....its possibly not too far from the truth to describe a gaggle of 14 y/o teenagers + cell phones as a single cybernetic organism !

....and of course the incredible access to knowledge that we now have - this futuristic network we take for granted that seems like it arrived out of nowhere, that we can address plain language queries to on almost any subject and get answers - this also is part of the "upgrade" each of us is receiving.

(....though the extent to which we were ever isolated awareness's, as opposed to brains always talking to other brains across time and space in a very complex and intrinsically social way, has I think been grossly over-stated - we got led astray by the French school (Descartes, JP Sartre) , not to mention a number of Germans, Dutch....actually it may be more of a historical time period, a fad we went through - though does seem to be a particularly continental Europe development. It was a possibly a very big, perhaps fatal mistake....more thought needed !)

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