Friday, January 7, 2011

On the Nature of Evil, Technology, Corporations, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Apropos Ryan's post on military tech: in an article by Steve Lohr in the New York Times, we are introduced to some neat pieces of technology whose applications are, how do you say, terrifying.  Apparently there is a new generation of tech that can see, called "computer vision systems".  How would this tech be used?

Perched above the prison yard, five cameras tracked the play-acting prisoners, and artificial-intelligence software analyzed the images to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. When two groups of inmates moved toward each other, the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.
In prisons. 

A few months ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s research arm, awarded the first round of grants in a five-year research program called the Mind’s Eye. Its goal is to develop machines that can recognize, analyze and communicate what they see. Mounted on small robots or drones, these smart machines could replace human scouts. “These things, in a sense, could be team members,” said James Donlon, the program’s manager.

In war.

A nurse walks into a hospital room while scanning a clipboard. She greets the patient and washes her hands. She checks and records his heart rate and blood pressure, adjusts the intravenous drip, turns him over to look for bed sores, then heads for the door but does not wash her hands again, as protocol requires. “Pardon the interruption,” declares a recorded women’s voice, with a slight British accent. “Please wash your hands.”
For health care.

The facial-analysis software, Mr. Ross said, could be used in store kiosks or with Webcams. Shopper Sciences, he said, is testing Affectiva’s software with a major retailer and an online dating service, neither of which he would name. The dating service, he said, was analyzing users’ expressions in search of “trigger words” in personal profiles that people found appealing or off-putting.
For sex. 

The quadrumvirate of American life circa 2011: prison, war, health care, and sex (ok, maybe not so much the latter).  At the risk of turning the Bee Hive into a niche blog, this article got me thinking about the nature of supply and demand, Evil Corporations, and technology.  

As we devote more and more resources to health care, incarceration, and war, we see more and more tech chasing these booming industries.  The logic behind it is perverse, but sound.  Demand, supply.  Yes, the results are kind of evil (unnecessary procedures, overflowing prisons, war in Central Asia), but there's nothing particularly nefarious about the corporations themselves.  

Ok, so that's fairly intuitive; where am I going with this?  Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, naturally.  

For those who haven't seen the show (and seriously, it's a great show), we follow a near-futuristic brothel in Los Angelas which provides Dolls (near-futuristic prostitutes) who have their brains re-wired to satisfy the fantasies of near-futuristic "johns", or to work as spies, hostage negotiators, jewel thieves, etc. for other companies or groups.  

There are many such brothels (Dollhouses) all over the world, all of which are subsidiaires of the Rossum Corporation.  In the second and final season of the series we begin to uncover the apocalyptic machinations of the leader of Rossum (there's a big twist, btw), who--surprise, surprise--is not interested in money!  

Mystery Leader's plan is dastardly to the extreme: his company will robo-call every single phone number in a city!  It gets worse. Everyone who answer's the call will have their brain/personality erased by the same technology that allows Rossum to program and de-program the Dolls.  They will then be re-programmed as Rossum Soliders to destroy all the people who didn't answer the phone.  

Naturally, this begs the question: why would a corporation want to do such a thing?  Where is the money in enslaving the world?  Mystery Leader's motivations are clear: the technology already exists, so either Rossum deploys the tech-weapons first, or they wait around for another company or terrorist group to do the same.    

Here we are faced with an issue that plagued Whedon's most popular show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as the slightly less popular (but still excellent!) spin-off, Angel.  In Buffy, the vampires and demons--when they are not sucking the blood or impaling the poor residents of Sunnydale--are always searching for new ways to End The World.  One particular vampire objects, asking why vamps would want to destroy all those little Happy Meals walking on legs.  

In Angel, we have a more direct example of corporate evil.  The Big Bad in this series is the law firm Wolfram & Hart, which is, as we later discover, the physical manifestation of Hell on Earth.  The firm is pure evil and, of course, bent on world domination.   

As much as I hate to admit it, Joss Whedon's best work (I'm sorry, Firefly just wasn't that good) is riddled with lazy depictions of the intersection of corporations and technology.  Perhaps it's just me, but I find the reality of skyrocketing medical costs, the surveillance state, and counterinsurgency operations far more frightening than world-ending robo-calls. 


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