Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Heidegger Goes the the Movies

I think I can feel pretty confident in saying that I was the only one in the movie theater last weekend watching the new Transformers feature thinking "What would Heidegger make of this?" And since my U.C.I. colleague Paul Dourish is on sabbatical, I would guess this is an even safer bet. But there was a lot in the movie from which I couldn't help but think of the author of "The Question Concerning Technology" and the twentieth-century German theorist famed for his philosophy of fundamental ontology. Unlike Jaspers, Heidegger argued that tools were never neutral. He also cautioned against accepting what he characterized as an incomplete "propositional logic" based on the subject-object relation, which he believed was the intellectual legacy of the superficial Romans rather than the authentic philosophy of the Greeks.

What does this have to do with a summer studio film about plucky teens and secretive government organizations and big alien robots that unfold from human conveyances like cars, trucks, and airplanes into still bigger alien robots? A lot, actually, since "revealing" and "enframing" are key terms in Heidegger's essay. When our hero first sees his car transform in a junkyard into his true anthropomorphic shape, it is presented as a quasi-religious experience. For Heidegger, of course, this is largely the realm of poetry rather than technology, because industrial tools in the nuclear age "challenge" nature and treat it as "standing reserve." The Heideggerian warning that technology can "enframe" human beings is made manifest in Transformers when cell phones, Xboxes, and soft drink machines envelope their owners and keep them captive.

Yet because Heidegger characterizes technology as a profoundly human, I think he would have trouble with the movie's back story in which Herbert Hoover's administration reverse engineers a century of computerized progress by working backwards from an extraterrestrial automaton and its power source.

Of course, in many ways this is a movie about the relationship between science, technology, war, and security. The military's use of remote dehumanized technology like the predator aircraft and of disguised devices like the stealth bomber were depicted in the movie uncritically. It's interesting to note the similarities between the emotional dynamics of the teens with their androids and a recent article in The Washington Post, "Bots on the Ground," about the affection that develops between soldiers and their robots in the field. (Clive Thompson also has some thoughtful commentary about the WaPo article.) I also thought that the theft of top secret computer files from a government facility using a flash drive also suggested real-world correspondences that were not flattering to the government.

Given the terrible reviews for Transformers, I was surprised to find myself enjoying several sections of the movie that depicted common digital practices, particularly when the robots explain that they learned English from the World Wide Web or when one of the sidekicks confesses to his government interrogator that he downloaded songs off the Internet. However, I did find myself irritated by two aspects of the way that cultural difference was portrayed. First, I was bothered by the implicit double Eurocentrism of a scene in which a heroic band of U.S. soldiers in a welcoming village in Qatar is put on hold by a call center in India when they are under attack by the hostile aliens, even if there were other allusions to globalization from Finland to Japan that made me chuckle. Second, I'm getting tired of the stereotype about intelligent African-Americans who can only lead lives of significance through virtual means, so that they only can acquire social power or technological authority through videogames. (A group of urban teens playing Dance Dance Revolution suggests that such young people do everything virtually.) This has become such a cultural cliché that it even appeared in the parody movie Snakes on a Plane when a young, black man lands the jet based only on his knowledge of Playstation2.

It's also worth noting that I've seen my local landscape under alien attack many times, since Los Angeles is often a prime target for displays of urban mayhem, so it is hard to be impressed, even though it's my home turf. As I watched the movie, I wondered how many stunts were shot live on location and how many were done with digital effects and composited image information. Certainly, I thought about the potential intellectual property issues of the future, particularly now that Manchester Cathedral is claiming copyright authority over the architecture of its sacred spaces. Will the City of Los Angeles complain if some filmmaker of tomorrow destroys it without even paying a single permit fee?

On final observation about the movie's website: it's a classic example of what Henry Jenkins calls a "transmedia narrative" that expands cinema into the realm of online games because it encourages visitors to enter the site through one of two game-like portals "Protect" and "Destroy," even though -- unlike a videogame -- the movie never really encourages its audience to play from the opposite side.

Update: I also feel compelled to point out that Transformers also had its own area in Second Life. There isn't much to see now, other than a few figures on a bridge, but a review of the full build is here.

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Blogger Erika Jost said...

Hey, I'm writing a thesis paper on Heidegger's "Frage nach der Technik" and "Das Ding" and I found your comments really insightful. I recently watched the film "Koyaanisqatsi" with a Heideggerian outlook in mind (I recommend it if you get the chance), and now I think I'm going to give "Transformers" a try. So thanks!

9:46 AM  

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