One of my favorite technological myths is, like all the best stories, both ancient and urgent. It’s about usurpation and seduction. In Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his own supremely beautiful creation, Galatea. In Ovid’s telling, there’s a happy ending. The goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, takes pity on him and breathes life into the marble. The statue’s lips grow warm under his kiss; they fall in love, marry.
The tale has an unhappier classical cousin: that of Talos, the artificial man. Created by the divine smith, Hephaestus, Talos is often depicted as a bronze giant striding through the seas around Crete. Immensely strong, almost invulnerable, Talos renders all human might redundant.
Skip forward two thousand years and we find Galatea and Talos dovetailing into one of the 1990s’ most iconic science fiction films: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron’s masterpiece of action and exquisitely honed musculature. In the second half of the film, there’s a quiet moment where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s titular Terminator – an artificial killer reprogrammed to act as the perfect protector – is hanging out with his young protectee, John Connor.
John’s mother, Sarah, watches from a distance as the cyborg plays with the 10-year-old. Arnie has flipped from one polarity to the other: from perfect assassin to perfect playmate.
“It was suddenly so clear,” she says in voiceover. “The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine was the only one that measured up.”
Tireless, infinitely patient, endlessly consistent – our creations measure up in ways we can only dream of. Who wouldn’t want an immaculate machine companion, employee, parent, lover?
Quite a few people, as it turns out. Or at least, we don’t want to want these things. Our myths warn us about the weakness of human desire and judgment. To become entirely human, as in Pygmalion’s tale, is one thing. But to supplant the human is quite another. Arnie is there to help humans do human things: save the world, blow stuff up, chase around in trucks and on motorbikes. Then, conveniently enough, he terminates himself.
Myths themselves are seductive. They structure time and the world in ways we understand. They resonate. They are about human vulnerability and greatness; our fragility and hope. They are all about us – and, unfortunately, they have little to say about our current crop of technologies that isn’t misleading in one way or another.
I turn my laptop away from my husband, mute the volume, and let the horror make my head go dizzy and my stomach turn upside-down. Sometimes he catches me.
Last night he said, “What is wrong with your face? Why do you look like that?”
Journalist Brianna Snyder appeared on the podcast, speaking very frankly about how she used to be compelled to watch violent, extreme content on the internet after a crisis of her own mortality.
Personally I was very moved reading her article, as it’s a rare thing to have someone speak to honestly about viewing such material, and the psychological toll it can have on people who have seen it. It’s well worth a read, but be warned it does deal with very dark subject matter.
Researchers also found that fear of terrorism and having a history of violent victimization appear to draw individuals to this highly graphic coverage – and that watching such videos was associated with global distress and fear of the future about two years after they went viral. The report appears in American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.
“Our study is the first to identify the motivations behind viewing a beheading video and the long-term consequences of doing so,” said senior author Roxane Cohen Silver, UCI professor of psychological science. “Our findings suggest that when individuals are afraid of horrific acts of cruelty occurring in the world, they may be curious to seek out graphic coverage of these types of events. But this may only exacerbate their distress and anxiety over time, locking them into a spiral of fear.”
Violent content online has rightly been condemned. Yet while we criticise those facilitating the supply we rarely talk about the demand. In episode 5 of this series of Digital Human, Aleks Krotoski asks who views it and why.
In this clip Journalist Brianna Snyder recalls an occasion when her curiosity got the better of her, and lead to her being compelled to view extreme content online.
Writer and Lawyer Christie Tate suffered the wrath of the social media mob when her article was originally published. Sadly, most of the angry people missed the point behind the provocative headline – that in telling stories that include other people, you have to make and respect one another’s boundaries.
…my plan is to chart a middle course, where together we negotiate the boundaries of the stories I write and the images I include. This will entail hard conversations and compromises. But I prefer the hard work of charting the middle course to giving up altogether — an impulse that comes, in part, from the cultural pressure for mothers to be endlessly self-sacrificing on behalf of their children. As a mother, I’m not supposed to do anything that upsets my children or that makes them uncomfortable, certainly not for something as culturally devalued as my own creative labor.
Writer Christine Organ has described how “we seem to be creating this unrealistic image of the mother as all-giving, all-knowing, selfless, superhuman who will gladly give up the last piece of apple pie to please her lip-smacking, big-eyed child.” Surely, there’s a way to cut the pie so that I can write about motherhood in a way that takes into account my daughter’s feelings and respects her boundaries. But if I simply cordoned off motherhood as a forbidden subject for my writing, we would never know.
My daughter didn’t ask to have a writer for a mother, but that’s who I am. Amputating parts of my experience feels as abusive to our relationship as writing about her without any consideration for her feelings and privacy.
For now, we have agreed that I will not submit a picture for a publication without her permission and that she has absolute veto rights on any image of herself. As for content, I have agreed to describe to her what I’m writing about, in advance of publication, and to keep the facts that involve her to a minimum. I have not yet promised that she can edit my work, but we acknowledged that is a future possibility. She also requested that instead of using her name, I call her by her self-selected pseudonym, Roshelle…
We had Professor Sonia Livingstone on this weeks episode talking about where the right to tell your own story ends, and the privacy rights of others begin. But you should check out her article on Sharenting in full, it’s a fascinating read 🙂
This article asks whether “sharenting” (sharing representations of one’s parenting or
children online) is a form of digital self-representation. Drawing on interviews with 17
parent bloggers, we explore how parents define the borders of their digital selves and
justify what is their “story to tell.” We find that bloggers grapple with profound ethical
dilemmas, as representing their identities as parents inevitably makes public aspects of
their children’s lives, introducing risks that they are, paradoxically, responsible for
safeguarding against. Parents thus evaluate what to share by juggling multiple obligations
– to themselves, their children in the present and imagined into the future, and to their
physical and virtual communities. The digital practices of representing the relational self
are impeded more than eased by the individualistic notion of identity instantiated by
digital platforms, thereby intensifying the ambivalence of both parents and the wider
society in judging emerging genres of blogging the self.
A survey of Italian mothers who engage in ‘sharenting’ suggests they are motivated by both a desire for external validation, as well as more communitarian goals such as sharing moments with distant relatives and seeking support. But while many mothers see it as their right to engage in sharenting, what implications does this have for children’s rights and privacy?
Lunchtime listen for you guys, Dr Anna Derrig was on our show this week, but she goes in depth into the ethics of life writing in this episode of Four Thought. Well worth a listen if you’re going to write your life story.
What is truth is an oft asked question, especially online. This is a cool article digging into the plethora of made up stuff on Twitter, you should check it out 🙂
In his 1999 statement of principles known as the “Minnesota Declaration,” Werner Herzog gave an explanation of his theory of “ecstatic truth”. Cinema Verité, Herzog tells us, deals only with “superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” “One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. ‘For me,’ he says, ‘there should be only one single law: the bad guys should go to jail.’”
In this, Herzog says, such realism “confounds facts and truth”: “Facts create norms, and truth illumination.” But luckily, against the realists, “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” In his work (most notably, his documentaries), Herzog seeks this “ecstatic truth”: to reflect reality not how it is on the surface, but how it is on a deep level, beyond the façade of what we merely perceive.
Of course this is difficult, and can go wrong — it can stray into a sort of dishonesty that it is impossible to even contest by means of verification. But when it works, it can tell us something we are unable to reach by means of engagement with surface reality alone — the essential truth, for instance, of engaging with British politics being like a posh teenager disinterestedly daring you to drink a big bucket of vomit and piss.
“Life in the oceans must be sheer hell,” Herzog concludes. “A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species — including man — crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.”
This what bothers me about those fake viral Twitter stories. They lack anything like ecstatic truth; they don’t reflect or reveal any reality deeper than what they describe. In this, they have only facts — and of course, as it turns out, they don’t even have that. If the stories had never posed as true, they would not have gone viral in the slightest. Like A Million Little Pieces or the hoax misery memoirs of JT Leroy, these stories need — regardless of any other formal accomplishments — to pose as true in order to make an impact on their audience. (Once you realize it’s not true, the Morris thread is literally just a guy saying: “Oh, and then this happened! And then hero (who I’ve made up) outwitted the drug dealers — wow! And he got away with it! Juh? How cool!”). Likewise, the Didn’t Happen lads seem determined to reduce all truth to mere facts, completely blind to the possibility that there could be more to the world than that — they don’t care about ecstatic truth at all.
The internet is causing more and more fake things to leak into our consciousness every day. But this is only really a problem if the fakes don’t contribute anything to our understanding of the world. We need to stop asking: is this true? We must instead ask: supposing this is true… what is its truth worth?