Warning: Today’s article contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049. If you would like to go into that movie completely clean, please stop reading now. If not, welcome to my nightmare.
I’m a technology nerd. Strike that, I’m a technology professional, and I know damn well that so goes tech, so goes my life. This was never “the plan”, but, somehow, my life and income are now inextricably tied to the whims of one particular industry. If I refuse to learn “the latest thing”, I’m going to be out on the street. Should an errant electromagnetic pulse wipe out all local machinery, I’m either going to have to move, or start scrubbing toilets for a living. And I hope that toilet scrubbing wage can support my reckless addiction to videogames! These “ironically purchased” Bubsy games ain’t gonna buy themselves!
So, naturally, I can now only view the world through the eyes of my profession. Are more people using ipads now? What’s with people still subscribing to AOL? Dude, how many times has Steve’s email been hacked? He’s sending me emails from Bulgaria again, and it’s getting really annoying. I could make it better! Just say something, Steve! And speaking of nightmarish hellscapes of the modern era, inevitably, when I see a movie, I overanalyze every bit of tech involved. Would those terminals in Avengers really be able to run Space Invaders? Is that spaceship GUI in Thor: Ragnorak at all practical for average superhero use? Do I watch any movies that aren’t based in the Marvel Universe? Of course I do, because I recently saw Blade Runner 2049. Obviously, that was going to grab my attention, the entire premise of the movie is predicated on decades of potential technological advancement, and the effect that would have on humans and generally human shaped beings. That’s so far up my alley, it’s weeping over Martha and her lost pearls.
And, spoilers, I liked Blade Runner 2049. I liked it a lot… But that was kind of inevitable. After all, I’ve been reading Gibson, Asimov, and Dick since I was twelve, and my favorite TRPG is Shadowrun by a pretty large margin. I’m a tech geek, and, shocker, I have always adored worlds where tech is king. And, even beyond my obvious technophilia, there’s always a certain amount of happiness to be found in the “jetpack future” of a lot of sci-fi. Sure, we’re busy mucking about in the mud now, but soon we’ll have flying cars, private drones, and a personalized holographic Elvis. The future is so bright, you’re gonna need shades, chummer.
Except, there’s one part of Blade Runner 2049 that scared the hell out of me. It’s a holographic woman named Joi.
For anyone that is foolishly reading this article with absolutely no prior Blade Runner knowledge, Joi is the holographic assistant of K, the obvious protagonist of the film. She is a mass-produced holographic buddy that appears to be part Google, part housewife, and part sex machine. Her introduction involves quite a bit of casual shape shifting between different personalities/fetishes (there’s a difference between the two, I’m sure), and her presence in the film itself is distinctly so that K has someone to bounce narration/feelings off from time to time. K takes enough boring car rides in this adventure, he really does need a buddy. Oh, and I guess she’s also there so we question the nature of “what’s real” and inspect the notion that this evolved Siri seems to have more personality than our kinda-human hero. In time, she has a sort of arc wherein she learns to love, and K loves her, and then she gets stomped out of existence by a different, evil sex bot. Have a nice day.
Now, a lot of people have debated the nature of how Joi is “alive”. She seems to have genuine affection for K, but K is also her customer, so is she really affectionate, or is it all an act for a “John”? Is she a lover or a prostitute? Is she really capable of love if her prime directive is to please her mark? She even presents a loving nickname for K… and it turns out to be no different than a player derivatively calling the protagonist of a JRPG “Cloud”. The joy of Joi is in questioning whether she is man or machine, which, again, is the whole damn point of the franchise. Does she dream of electric sheep? Holographic sheep? … Sheep Man?
But, since I’m a damn techno nerd, all I could think about was how Joi was programmed, and how she came to be so human. While sitting there in that darkened theatre, I overanalyzed the heck out of every bit of dialogue and action of Joi. I treated her like a walking if-then statement, and, while I can claim I was able to grasp the themes of the character easily enough, I focused on the machine behind the (wo)man.
And I didn’t like what I saw.
You could easily make the argument that every last thing Joi does is to further the interests of her parent company. The obvious examples start early: she does literally everything within her power to make K happy. But that’s a gimme, right? Every product is meant to either stimulate the pleasure parts of your brain meats, or at least graciously offer some happiness endorphins when you accomplish some random task. Whether you’re drinking a delicious Coke or scoring your 700th Power Moon, the simple act of enjoying yourself is the intention of the product. It’s what keeps you coming back. But what are some other Joiful experiences? Well, early on she receives a “gift” from K in the form of a mobile holo-emitter, and she is the happiest fake girl in the world to finally have the freedom to go anywhere. But… who do you think produced and sold that holo-emitter? The same company that made Joi, obviously. So, yes, Joi is programmed to be elated at receiving an officially sanctioned upgrade. Later, Joi has the very human impulse to rent a hooker and experience physical intimacy with her man… but what sells better than sex? What keeps a John on the hook more than the promise of another orgasm? But what of Joi’s big sacrifice, when she decided to forsake her parent company so K would not be tracked, and recklessly downloads her program to the emitter, an act that could potentially (and does) lead to her death? Obviously that is against her programming… except… well… Why would you ever need to buy another Joi if you’re already in love with your current model? That’s right: forced obsolescence. It’s a program that determines it has reached peak love, so it’s time for suicide. Whoops, looks like your Joi heroically died just so you could be happy, don’t you want to order a new one?
And the reason that scared me? I figure we’re about two years out from products manipulating our emotions like that roughly every other second.
Okay, in some ways, we’re already there. Facebook has been scientifically proven to be able to affect people’s moods for good and ill, and advertising going back to the 50’s is known to be able to influence the thinking of an individual. Ever wonder why you just casually drink Coke like it’s water, even though it’s about as natural as seeking refreshment from licking sugarcane? Obviously, we already live in a world where “megacorps” influence our day-to-day activities, and if you need another reminder of how, go ahead and delete your “free” email accounts. Oh, you can’t? Yeah, that’s right, bow before your digital god.
But it could be worse. Joi proves it could be so much worse.
I’m a computer guy, and I once had a client tell me that I treat my computers like children. I found it a little weird that such a thing was so obvious to someone that was dealing with me for like ten minutes, but, honestly? It’s true. I generally treat inanimate objects with care and affection, mostly because I can’t help but be sympathetic to the same technology that tangentially brought me Super Mario Bros. 3. But if tech could reciprocate? If technology could tell me that it appreciates my care, and would be sad if I were gone? I’m done. Look, I’d love to come out and watch a movie tonight, but I have to stay home, my PC has a virus and I’m just not comfortable leaving her alone right now. What’s that, computer? You think a RAM upgrade would make you feel better? That’s okay, let me just get my credit card. You don’t even need to give my computer a sexy, capable-of-every-male-fantasy-ever body, just trick me into thinking that beeping pile of plastic cares, and I’m done for.
(Oh, by the way, this is why I don’t play Animal Crossing.)
So it’s not a scary, dystopian future that keeps me awake at night. It’s not a world where resources are limited, and people are literally fleeing the planet for greener pastures. It’s not a Las Vegas that is populated exclusively by bees and Harrison Ford. No, what scares me is the inevitable future of computer “pets”. I’m worried that one day entering my home will lead to a bubbly greeting from a virtual voice that tells me everything is going to be okay and oh by the way it’s time to resubscribe to Game Informer for the low, low price of $34.95 a month. That’s the future that seems most likely, and it’s the future I would do anything to avoid.
I wouldn’t abandon my laptop like that. She would get mad at me.
It’s not quite an A.I. holo-buddy, but Candy Crush Saga and the hellspawn surrounding it have already been doing their damndest to manipulate people into bad spending practices like a sugary sweet Joe Camel.
Anyway, on the topic of A.I. and existentialism, have you played SOMA yet? I think you would really like it. The game’s on PS4 via PSN.