Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The View from the Dollhouse

[NOTE: From time to time we will invite guests to contribute to Futurisms. Our first guest post, below, comes from Brian J. Boyd, a graduate student at Oxford and a former New Atlantis intern.]

Fox has done the world two great injustices in canceling first Joss Whedon’s sublime series Firefly and now his intriguing show Dollhouse. Since the final few episodes of Dollhouse are now airing, this seems the right time to reconsider the show and what it suggests about human nature and the technologies of tomorrow.

This time around, Whedon takes us a handful of years into the future, to an America where things look familiar on the surface, but more and more of the people one meets are actually “dolls” — persons whose memories have been erased and identities overwritten by an organization that hires them out to very rich clients to be used as anything from sexual playthings to foster mothers. After each “engagement” the doll returns to be wiped clean and imprinted (that is, reprogrammed) for the next encounter. While the show does tacitly condemn this new form of slavery, Whedon is sensitive to the potential appeal of the imagined technology. In a piece about Dollhouse in the transhumanist magazine H+ a couple of months ago, Erik Davis noted that

The show’s ambivalence about such “posthuman” technologies is captured by the character who does all the wiping and remixing: a smug, immature, and charmingly nerdish wetware genius named Topher Brink [pictured at right above], whose simultaneously dopey and snarky incarnation by the actor Fran Kranz reflects the weird mix of arrogance and creative exuberance that inform so much manipulative neuroscience.

Despite the technology’s potential appeal, Dollhouse has also from the beginning emphasized the potential for abuse of the “doll” technology. In the third episode, Paul Ballard (our hero FBI agent), predicted disaster: “We split the atom; we make a bomb. We come up with anything new, the first thing we do is — destroy, manipulate, control. It’s human nature.” And the Season One finale gives us a glimpse of how things will turn out in Whedon’s fictional world: the episode shows a flashforward to 2019, when Los Angeles is in flames and a ragged band of survivors recoils in horror from any “tech” they find that might house a computer chip.

As the series progresses, the original “bad guys” of the L.A. dollhouse, whom we have been brought to see as complicated human beings with mostly good intentions, have been increasingly pitted against their superiors in the aptly-named Rossum Corporation whose intoxication with the power of their technology has become total. Whedon strongly implies a slippery slope here: At first, dolls were coerced but still nominally volunteers for a period of indentured servitude; in time, their masters grow reluctant to uphold their end of the bargain, unwilling to relinquish power.

Whereas Whedon’s Firefly, with its horses and handguns, turned to romanticism in its effort to reach an accord between modernity and tradition, Dollhouse explores the dangers of new technology without (so far) offering a way out. After all, “it’s human nature” that is the problem here; the technology is merely an expression and culmination of our natural desire to control. In his H+ piece, Davis says that “all of us are dolls sometimes, and dollhouse engineers other times” — in other words, manipulation, whether accomplished through political, theological, or emotional means, is part and parcel of the human experience. Davis has a point. But rather than suggesting that flawed human nature need be remade from scratch, Dollhouse compellingly depicts how the desire to remake our selves and our world can lead to a dismal deal with the devil: Topher sacrifices all the comforts of a normal life for the opportunity to pursue his research and refine his skills on live subjects. But when he comes to see his subjects not as toys but as people, his conscience leads him to join with those who are attempting to put the genie back into the bottle and contain the technology he helped create, vainly striving to undo the harm that has been done. “You’re human,” Topher says to one of his creations in an attempt to comfort her when she cannot cope with the discovery that she is a doll. Her rebuke also serves as a warning to those who think they can improve upon humanity: “Don’t flatter yourself.”
– Brian J. Boyd


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