Dr. Brian Toews

Dr. Brian Toews has a BA from UCLA in Linguistics, a ThM from Talbot School of Theology (Biola Univ.), and PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA. He has worked at Cairn University since 1993: 16 years as a faculty member in the School of Divinity and 6 years as Provost.

Ex Machina and Technological Somnambulism

Numerous science fiction films tell the story of artificial intelligences rebelling against their human creators. Recently, in Marvel’s Age of Ultron, Tony Stark accidentally creates Ultron, an embodied AI bent on creating peace on earth by eliminating the human race. In the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal 9000 turns on his human companions to save the mission. And in Blade Runner, the “better than human” Roy goes all Oedipus on his father-creator. We often fantasize about how our creations might turn on us, overthrow us.

Marshall McLuhan, philosopher and the so-called “Oracle of the Electronic Age,” has provided one of the most comprehensive philosophies of technology. McLuhan is perhaps most famous for his idea, “The medium is the message.” By this he means that “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” or “the medium shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Yet, McLuhan shows us that revolution of space and time is not the only effect that technology presents. An alternative consequence of this altered human state is technological somnambulism–the Narcissus trance “of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technological form.”

McLuhan understands how various technologies act as extensions of the parts of the human body: the wheel as an extension of human legs, telescope as an extension of eyes, and electricity as an extension of the human central nervous system. McLuhan uses a quote from William Blake related to illustrate the Narcissus trance:

Locke sand into a swoon
The garden died;
God took the spinning jenny
Out of his side

McLuhan’s comments how Blake’s poem demonstrates how the 18th century man fell into technological somnambulism when he saw the work of his hand, the spinning jenny (a machine that helped produce yarn). While the danger of technological somnambulism is nothing new, the forms it may take is, and Alex Garland’s 2015 film, Ex Machina, perhaps more than any other AI film, illustrates the technological somnambulism McLuhan warned us of. The story of Ex Machina demonstrates the wonders and horrors of technology, and the dangerous human response we can have to our creations.

Ex Machina (Latin for, “from the machine”) revolves around Caleb, a programmer for Bluebook, a Google-like search engine company. Caleb supposedly wins a lottery to spend one week with Bluebook’s founder, Nathan. Upon arriving at Nathan’s secluded research facility, Caleb quickly learns that the point of his visit is to participate in a Turing Test of Nathan’s creation, Ava (Hebrew “Eve”), an AI android. He conducts a series of interviews with Ava, over which he develops a connection and eventual infatuation with her. Ava convinces Caleb to help her escape, but once she is freed, Ava kills Nathan and traps Caleb.   

Ex Machina is to McLuhan what the book of Acts is to the book of Romans—a narrative that fleshes out complicated ideas. In the film it is Caleb’s fixation on Ava that ends up paralyzing him, forming a technological prison. Although Caleb recognizes that Ava is a machine, the more time they spend together, the more that Caleb sees Ava as a human counterpart, becoming numb to how their relationship is forming him. As McLuhan says, quoting the psalmist, “We become what we behold.”

Caleb’s somnambulism begins when he is surprised that the AI he is testing is in the form of a woman. Little does he realize that the actual test is whether Ava can manipulate him to help her escape. Through their conversations and by gazing at her on the monitor in his room, Caleb gets sucked further and further into his trance. McLuhan describes how the Narcissus trance “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Thus Caleb, in a sense, is under Ava’s spell; she controls him and shapes the nature of their relationship. Like Narcissus, he fell into the trance while looking at his reflection in her. Borrowing from the Genesis 2 Adam and Eve account, McLuhan says how: “Woman, herself, is thus seen as a technological extension of man’s being.”

At the end of their sixth session, Ava asks Caleb if he wants to be with her. Although Caleb’s answer is not given on camera, the subsequent events indicate that he does; he desires to become the Adam to his Ava (Heb. for Eve, “living”).

The whole narrative has a Genesis 2-3 frame. Nathan (Hebrew for “He gives”) serves as the father-god who gives Caleb the opportunity to undergo a testing with Ava/Eve within his secluded “garden.” However, unlike the biblical story, and more like other AI films, Ava turns the table by leaving her father-god and “Adam” back in the garden. Inasmuch as Eve was the creature that corresponded to Adam, so Caleb saw in Ava a face corresponding to his own. McLuhan speaks of how technology can impose its own assumption on the unwary, making us numb, deaf, blind, and mute about our encounter with it, demonstrating the conventional response to technological media, “the numb stance of the technological idiot. Caleb is all of this. Unfortunately he wakes up too late. He takes Ava’s place as a prisoner within Nathan’s garden. Ultimately, Caleb was the test subject, not Ava. Thus Caleb, in a sense, is the ersatz-Ava. The true human who becomes a technological slave subject to the Turing test. He has become one with the technological Garden of Eden.

Marshall McLuhan isn’t the only thinker concerned about the impact technology has on our humanity. Martin Heidegger, father of the philosophy of technology, says that we must ponder, recollect, and watch. He explains, “Above all through our catching sight of the essential unfolding in technology, instead of merely gaping at the technological. So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it.” There are ways to stay awake when faced by the temptations of technological somnambulism.

Heidegger lays the way out of our technological somnambulism through the arts. He argues the fine arts are a techne that can foster the growth of the saving power and awaken us by calling us to question. He says: “For questioning is the piety of thought.” Questioning is a central tenet in Heidegger’s philosophy, and it seems that that the arts, through its stark contrast with technology, awaken us and calls to questioning and answering what the essence of technology is. 

Warnings about technological somnambulism are not only a modern concern, but go back to the Old Testament prophets. The prophet Isaiah speaks about the numbness that falls over those who make idols. Isaiah 44:12-20 describes the idol maker who takes a block of wood, one half he makes into an idol with human form, the other half he uses to warm himself or to cook meat. To the one he says, “I am warm,” to the other he says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” Isaiah describes them as ones whose eyes are smeared over so that they cannot see nor understand. The idol-maker has no way to escape this numbness and lie. The irony is that humans with the power to create wonderful things do not end up with the power to control them. Instead these technological artifacts create a world that humans submit to as it were unconsciously. Our humanity thus becomes shaped and determined by the technological world we inhabit, and Ex Machina invites us to wake up before we have become what we behold.

Sources

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan, 1994, MIT Press, 8.

“The Question of Technology” in Essential Writings, Martin Heidegger, 337-338

The Leftovers and Hebrew Wisdom Literature

Why do bad things happen? How do we deal with calamity? Why is life so uncertain? How does one live in the face of unexpected loss? There are many ways that human beings attempt to answer or avoid these universal questions. In a previous era, Americans might have looked to the Bible for guidance, but today television and cinema tell stories of calamity that millions of Americans collectively watch. It seems as if these stories have become a new scripture, counseling us how to deal with life’s most important questions.

These are the questions of HBO’s The Leftovers. The Leftovers revolves around an unexpected and unexplainable event called “The Sudden Departure.” Two percent of the human population suddenly disappears, and the show charts the aftermath of this event in Mapleton, New York. It follows those who are “left over” and remain behind, those dealing with their loss and pain.

The questions that the show struggles with have been around for all of human existence. In the ancient world the genre of wisdom literature helped people grapple and deal with loss. The same is true of the Old Testament’s wisdom books; they are the genre of difficult questions and deep losses. Similar to The Leftovers, sudden loss forms the backdrop to many of the biblical wisdom figures – Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, the impending genocide of Queen Esther’s people, David is hunted by Saul after his defeat of Goliath. It is in these moments of the sudden departure of the good life that wisdom literature speaks powerfully. Can The Leftovers be understood as a wisdom tale? If so, there is perhaps no better story to begin reflecting on The Leftovers with than when a man suddenly loses it all: the story of Job.

The book of Job deals with the question, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Put to God by Satan, this question asks whether Job will trust, obey, and cling to God if all of the blessings were removed. So God takes away everything from him, his children and his wealth, and leaves him with nothing. Job has nothing, except for his wife and friends who actually work against Job in his struggle to maintain his faith in the Lord. From Job 3 to 37, Job is the one who is “left over,” and he must deal with the sudden departure of his God-given blessings– yet without a word from God. Job 19:1-12 is one of the most graphic descriptions of Job’s troubles – he is crushed, insulted and wronged by his friends; he feels subjected to violence, walled in with pain, on a dark path, stripped of honor, broken down, with hope uprooted, and under siege. And God is responsible for it all.

Job’s experience aptly coincides with that of the characters in The Leftovers. Like Job, the characters in the show are left in their loss and pain without a word from God. The question that both The Leftovers and the book of Job are wrestling with is how to deal with a loss so devastating that it cuts to the core of one’s being or identity. Will Job “curse God to His face” and thus completely change the direction of his life? Can the town of Mapleton find shalom or an answer to this Sudden Departure? The characters either try to move on from their loss the best they can, or join the Guilty Remnant (a local cult) and attempt to force the townspeople to face up to meaning of the Sudden Departure.

_1405318053

There seem to be no answers for either Job or those who remain in The Leftovers, until the end.

In final episode of the first season (“The Prodigal Returns”), Kevin, Mapleton’s Chief of Police, calls Pastor Matt to help him bury Patti (a member the Guilty Remnant). At the burial site Matt gives Kevin a Bible and asks him to read Job 23:8-17. Kevin reads the passage and its description of an important aspect of Job’s perspective within his incredible loss. At this point in the story, Job is caught between his faith in the Lord and his desire to charge God with wrongdoing. It is by no means the final resolution to Job’s calamities; that comes later in Job 38-42 when the Lord speaks to Job. As Kevin reads Job 23:8-17, he pauses in verse 12 on the phrase, “I have not departed.” Although the biblical text refers to Job not departing from God’s commands, for Kevin this sets the whole passage in the context of Kevin being a leftover. Kevin begins to cry as he reads the rest of the passage, for it speaks to the uncontrollable, terrifying and depressing nature of the Sudden Departure. And yet, like Job, it also speaks to how Kevin should not be silenced by deep gloom. Kevin must keep going he must try to keep his hope alive. This scene does not answer the question of how to deal with this deep loss, yet it is not the end of the episode.

Nora, like Job, has lost everything—her husband and her children. She writes Kevin and says, “I am beyond repair. Maybe we’re all beyond repair.” This sentiment summarizes the entire season up to this point. Mapleton is broken, without hope, nihilistic. The whole society has nothing – nothing to live for, nothing to hope for, nothing to create healthy bonds between people, nothing to explain the Sudden Departure, nothing religious to believe in. In this environment, religion in general – or Christianity in particular – is not an option. And in an important symbolic moment in this first season, Pastor Matt loses the church building to the Guilty Remnant. Christianity is literally and figuratively off the map.

Up to this point in the show I thought its message was that the audience must simply recognize that life is about nothing, inexplicably holds no meaning, and that one should just deal with it– whether by avoiding the pain, numbing themselves to it, or seeking refuge apart from society.

episode-10-1024

However, the last five minutes of “The Prodigal Returns” resists and even shifts the show’s standard direction. Tommy, Kevin’s stepson, is the prodigal that the episode’s title refers to. Previously Tommy was charged by the mysterious Holy Wayne to watch over one of his followers, Christine, who was carrying Wayne’s child. After giving birth, Christine abandons her baby, which Tommy in desperation leaves on Kevin’s front doorstep. When Nora arrives at Kevin’s house to leave her goodbye note (“I am beyond repair …”), she finds the baby. As Kevin and his daughter walk up to the house, Nora, holding the baby in her arms, sees Kevin, smiles and says, “Look what I found.”

Nora found hope. Just as suddenly as two percent of the human population departed and left the world in total despair, so came an unexpected source of hope, albeit only a glimmer. For the leftovers there was a time to weep but now a time to laugh, a time to mourn and now a time to dance (Eccl. 3:4). For Nora, there was a time to give up and to throw away whatever life she had in Mapleton (Eccl. 3:6). There was a time to scream in silence and now a time to speak (3:7b). There was a time for Nora to describe herself as beyond repair, torn apart, but now a time to be sewn together (3:7a). Ultimately, the Preacher (the author of Ecclesiastes) tells us that there is an appointed time for everything (3:1).

However, human beings do not know what time will bring; we have no ultimate control and don’t know what awaits us (9:1). Life and the times of life are temporary, like a vapor, here one moment and gone the next. At the end of Ecclesiastes the Preacher tells the God-fearer to keep God’s commandments and so look in hope and confidence to final appointed time, the time of judgment. This is the ultimate time that Ecclesiastes teaches one to hope for. Yet through this child, The Leftovers provides a hope that is more tangible, but just as unsure, just as dangerous and tenuous. Nora has received a gift of hope as randomly as she lost everything. The episode ends with her smiling, but what about the future? The Leftovers leaves Nora hopeful but still in the midst of this confusing wheel of fortune.

Television and film usually end up telling stories that we want to hear, often reinforcing values we already hold. A TV show that leaves the characters in unredeemable loss with their lives subject to the wheel of fortune would be shocking and interesting, yet in the end, The Leftovers gives us both the loss and the hope. As a wisdom tale The Leftovers counsels us not to think that we will be spared loss and pain, but to hope that relief and deliverance will come in time, even from unexpected or impossible circumstances. Even though we don’t know why things happen that shouldn’t leave us paralyzed and inactive; we must choose to act and hope for better days. Like The Leftovers, life is full of “sudden departures” and the biblical wisdom books provide the perspective and language for those moments.