The voices in my head have put me on hold
I recently heard one of those ‘news’ stories about a plan to deploy remote-controlled ‘robo fish’ for marine scouting – something that’s no doubt more eco-friendly than an actual underseas expedition, though we can assume it might lead to some unexpected toothache in larger predators. What’s interesting is the question it begs: are we now witnessing the slow creep towards a natural world populated by machines? Towards an age of Adobe Photosynthesis? Is the age of the iTree finally upon us?
The last film to explore such a possibility was the clunking Terminator 4, a movie which actually featured its own kind of robo-fish in the form of a mechanised eel thrashing about on a vivisection plate. But that little slice of steampunk raised awkward questions. Why would machines bother to populate the planet with an eel? Even if it could be deployed as a slithery landmine, why wouldn’t they just produce three less eels and one more terminator? Or was Skynet simply attempting to add a bit of variety to life?
You see the nub of the problem. If we go with the idea that computers suddenly care about marine quotas, all sorts of unlikely implications follow. Cyborgs would, presumably, create the kind of world that cyborgs would enjoy living in. But what would that mean exactly? Are we to picture terminators enjoying a cappuccino? Or a kill-hungry replicant doing a bit of interior decorating, or hanging drapes in the living room? Would a T-800 bother to spraypaint its assault rifle?
This is where any attempt to imagine an automaton dystopia runs into trouble. It’s all very easy to represent war-torn Armageddon in cyborgia, but what about Sunday afternoons? Would androids spend them sweeping their driveway or installing a new patio barbecue? If you took a dip in the lake in robot world might you encounter a terminator towelling themselves off in the bushes? These might not seem like burning issues, but they question how far we should believe in a fictional world.
These issues were stirred up for me once more while watching the latest series of Peep Show, Channel 4’s sitcom about two men whose lives are soundtracked by their internal thoughts, a textbook example of paranoid schizophrenia played for laughs. What struck me was this: in the universe Mark and Jeremy inhabit, do the other characters walk around with a voiceover in their heads?
A strange question to worry about, you might think, but pondering it upturns a whole wheelie bin's worth of existential ramifications. Are we are fundamentally alone and trapped in an internal voice-over, while everybody around us is merely an elaborately-scripted work of fiction? Consider the minor characters in your own life: the ones who waved you through a gate, or fixed your boiler, or bought you a drink. Real person or just flimsily scripted plot device? Could you really credit a soul to them? And if Peep Show is right, does that mean the very essence of existence may boil down to the insecurities of a repressed sociophobe and a wannabe hipster?
Perhaps this is this what Sartre meant by his theory of authentic being. If you're lucky enough to have voices in your head, hang on to them. Without them you might be the existential equivalent of an uncredited cameo.