Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Creating Lives in "Black Mirror" and "Ex Machina"

Netflix has just announced that it will produce another dozen episodes of "Black Mirror," hallelujah. The brilliant series interrogates later-capitalist techno-modernity and the shifting boundaries between self and object--specifically, our personal computing devices. This broad topic--humanity's relationship to intelligent computers and robots--has been explored recently in the new tv show "Humans" on AMC and Alex Garland's Biblically inspired film, "Ex Machina." But "Black Mirror" tackles gender in ways that complicate and enrich the narratives of human-machine relations, and that are not replicated elsewhere.

Daniel Mendelsohn, in a superb essay out this summer in the NYRB, explored "Ex Machina," Spike Jonze's "Her," and the lineage of sentient machines in the western cultural imagination, arguing that the current crop of films and tv shows are less about machines that become like humans, and more about humans that become like soulless automatons. Mendelsohn used examples to describe both what he calls the "economic" kind of robots--machines that replace or augment human labor--and the "theological"--sentient objects made in their makers' images. Both groups of objects include those gendered as male (Talus, Frankenstein) and female (Haephestus' handmaidens, Ava). 

Many tales of the sentient machine have an erotic charge. Ava, the SAI droid in "Ex Machina," was made, like her "sisters," to fulfill her creator's sexual fantasies. Of course, this goes all the way back to Pygmalion's statue of Galatea, whom Pygmalion created, adored, and used sexually before she was "brought to life" by Aphrodite. In fact, in every example that I can think of, when this story--of the creator and his uncannily life-like creation--appears with erotic elements, the creator is male and the created object is female. 

Like "Ex Machina," "Be Right Back," the first episode of the second series of "Black Mirror" also takes up the limits of the human creator and the human-machine relationship. But unlike the other examples, the machine-being in "Be Right Back" is male, and the creator who calls him into being is female. Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson)* move to a new house; Ash, addicted to his smart phone and social media updates, dies in a car accident; Martha discovers she's pregnant. She pays a service that mines Ash's entire online presence to create a simulacrum of him, first as a disembodied AI program, and then fully embodied in a synthetic form that is almost identical to Ash. As Martha, pregnant with Ash's child (we see them having pretty banal, and--to Martha--unsatisfying sex earlier), prepares to create a new life, she practices by bringing an old life (Ash) back. The synthetic version of Ash is eerily servile and literal-minded, but he is also an improvement on the "real" Ash in some ways. For example, he is a much more satisfying and skilled lover, something that delights and also discomfits Martha. 

By making the creator figure a woman and the object a man, Charlie Brooker, the writer, highlights the importance of gender in creation stories in a way that is ultimately far more interesting than Garland's patriarchal "Ex Machina." Martha "creates" Ash just after she discovers that she is pregnant, and key moments of bonding with the synthetic Ash occur alongside hallmarks of her pregnancy, like when she shares the first sonogram image with the disembodied AI Ash. Brooker juxtaposes the narrative of natural creation (pregnancy, baby) with artificial creation (synthetic human replacement) and asks, how are we responsible for what we create? Martha grows to regret her synthetic creation, but she cannot destroy or abandon it. Part of the reason why is hinted in the poignant coda, which shows that the synthetic Ash is still "alive," but banished to the attic, where he is visited once a year by Martha's other creation, her daughter. This "father" is the only father her daughter will know. 

*Of course, Domhnall Gleeson is the sacrificial Caleb in "Ex Machina."