Thursday, August 05, 2004


I, Corporation

On Monday, we went to see I, Robot. What follows are some rambling thoughts about it.

Most of the reviews I read about the movie complained that it does not do justice to Isaac Asimov, whose science-fiction stories about robots "suggested" the storyline, according to the credits. Asimov apparently had a somewhat triumphalist view about the ability of artificial intelligence to solve social ills. As a thoroughgoing rationalist, he believed that robots, with their superior logic, would ultimately be able to make more rational (and thus more ethical and beneficial) choices than humans. The movie, as reviewers have pointed out, nearly turns this triumphalist vision on its head. It undercuts the idea that foolproof logic is necessarily a sure guide in morals. If in Asimov's stories, the head wins out over the heart, the movie's message seems to be that the heart, not the head, is what makes us truly human.

Will Smith's robot-hating character mistrusts robots because they seem cold, soulless, slaves to logic. Smith has learned the hard way that robots cannot feel; they are simply walking calculators, always crunching numbers, always figuring percentages: all Q.E.D. and no T.L.C. The exception is a highly advanced robot named Sonny, who has been equipped not only with a positronic brain, but an artificial "heart." (The movie makes me wonder, not for the first time, about the nearly universal cultural idea that the "heart," which is just a muscle for pumping blood, is actually the seat of our emotions. Sonny's positronic brain is in his "head," but where do you think his "heart" is? You guessed it--smack dab in the middle of his chest.) In the end, Sonny saves the day because he is able to resist what seems to be irresistible logic. Contra Bonnie Tyler, Sonny has a total eclipse of the head.

Not having read Asimov, I'm in no position to judge how dramatically the movie departs from his intentions. But the complaint seems to me beside the point. So what if a movie engages with its source material in a dialectic way, even drawing different conclusions from the same basic premises? That's interesting in and of itself. But the other reason I think the pro-Asimov naysayers miss the point is because the movie is not only about technology.

In fact, I thought the movie was most interesting as an allegory about corporations. Sometimes the allegory is a little transparent, but most of the time the movie successfully uses the complex science-fiction questions that Asimov raised as a way to look at powerful corporations and our fear of them.

Others have noticed that I, Robot is one of a recent rash of anti-corporate films. In the movie, U.S. Robotics, which is about to achieve its goal of placing one of its robots in every home, has become a virtually omnipotent private entity. Throughout the movie the viewer gets sweeping shots of USR's headquarters, a huge skyscraper that hyperbolically towers over the Chicago skyline. The CEO, we find out, is the richest man in the world. (See if you can count the number of veiled Microsoft references in the film.) Throughout the movie, we get the sense that this corporation is covering something up (think Big Tobacco), that the CEO is probably crooked (think Martha Stewart and Ken Lay), and that USR has become a de facto government just by virtue of its technological innovation. At a key moment in the film, for instance, when it seems like the Marines ought to be showing up in droves, we learn that USR owns all of the Defense Department's contracts (think Halliburton).

The movie, then, is less a parable about technology and more a meditation on the interface between technology and corporate power. This makes for some rich ironies, like the fact that there are product placements scattered throughout the flim--for Converse, for FedEx, for JVC, etc. (Mel talks about this over at In Favor of Thinking. And by the way, remember ten years ago when it was actually a big deal that a character in Sleepless in Seattle was shown drinking Snapple? Remember when that was news? Now products get thirty-second close-up shots and gratuitous scenes just to fit them in. Some of the shots in this film are so lingering that you can't help but wonder whether the filmmakers are trying to comment on this.) It is also possible to view Sonny and his "Father" as whistleblowers of a sort, and to read the film as a reflection on the complex emotional dynamics of "outing" company wrongs.

The movie even subtly suggests that corporations are like robots, which means that all of the themes having to do with head versus heart, logic versus emotion, are meant to make us think about how corporations work as much as about how robots work. I was more convinced of this interpretation when it turned out that USR really was being run by a kind of highly evolved mainframe computer, VIKI, a big-brother supermachine with a truly frightening degree of "total information awareness." VIKI, even more than the individual robots in the film, is logic incarnate. But she also represents the idea that corporations develop a mind of their own. Corporations have a kind of collective artificial intelligence, a logic based on the bottom line. And once this logic kicks in, even individual members of the corporation lose their agency, their ability to override the cold decision-making process of the corporation with emotional or ethical objections. The truly horrifying thing about the movie is that the CEO, in the end, is not responsible for the corporation's crimes. Even he is eventually at the mercy of VIKI's logic.

I think the film does some interesting things with these questions--it's dealing with some of the same issues as the recent film The Corporation, reviewed here by The Chutry Experiment. It's not just about the "personhood" of robots; it's about the "personhood" of corporations and the insidious form that personality can take. So if the movie departs from Asimov's blithe hope in artificial intelligence, it does so not because it wants to monger fear about technology. Rather, the film departs from Asimov in understanding technology as inextricably tied up with the corporate logic of markets and profits. Technological innovation can no longer be isolated from the machinery of corporate capitalism; those who now talk about technology as a panacea are usually those who also see a fortune to be made.

And I guess, in reality, it's always been this way. We tend to forget that the Luddites did not destroy machines because of a hatred of technology, but because the machines represented a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. If this film is "Luddite" or anti-Asimov, its critique of robotics is more complex than a mere valorization of emotion over reason. The big question of the movie is not whether robots are "human," but whether corporations are.

Collective Improvisation:
Wow, you've succeeded in making me curious to see "I, Robot," no small task. It sounds like "I, Robot" picks up on some themes very similar to those of Proyas's previous film, "Dark City," in which the soulless aliens are dying because they have no heart.

BTW, I came across your blog via Techonrati.


Posted by Blogger chutry on 8/07/2004 04:44:00 PM : Permalink  

Glad you found the post interesting, but of course I disclaim all responsibility if you find that I've made the movie sound "deeper" than it actually is. I tend to overread these things. Such is the curse of the graduate student, I guess.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 8/08/2004 04:09:00 PM : Permalink  

Don't worry, I'm a post-doc. I know where you're coming from in terms of that kind of close reading....

I probably won't see "I, Robot" until it comes out on DVD, but the "corporate" angle sounds promising, moreso than the "heart/min binary that Proyas seems to insist on revisiting.

Posted by Blogger chutry on 8/08/2004 04:32:00 PM : Permalink  

That should be "heart/mind," just to be clear.

Posted by Blogger chutry on 8/08/2004 04:32:00 PM : Permalink  

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