More than Meets the Eye

Megan Fox and Shia LeBoeuf running from an explosion in Transformers 2

Did you leave the webcam on?

by Lauren Pabst, Contextual Healing

Many of this Summer’s blockbuster fantasy movies pit humans against machines, even as Americans find our government on the robotic side of the real thing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Part I

i, Autobot

“I got you a webcam so we can chat 24/7” says a college-bound Shia LaBeouf, ever so cooly, to love interest Megan Fox via cell phone early on in the trailer for Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, which opens today in theaters nationwide.

“Sounds cute, I can’t wait,” Fox replies cutely, flatly.

This little digital commercial is slipped prominently into the promo, just before clips of car chases and robot behemoths firebombing aircraft carriers, walking all over famous landmarks (Brooklyn Bridge! Pyramids of Giza!), busting up freeways and placing our visually pleasing heroes into jeopardy.

The flirty little exchange fits perfectly with the overall tone of Transformers, a fantasy action adventure based on the animated series from the 1980s, in which two squads of alien robots – one good, one evil – duke it out on battlefield Earth.

Though LeBoeuf and company will spend most of the movie along with the good Autobots fighting the evil Deceptecons, this little suggestive exchange aimed at the teenaged, digital device-consuming, YouTubing generation puts all of that robot-blasting in context. Technology (of the type that rumbles out of a tractor-trailer disguise to snatch your car off the highway) can be the enemy… but (in real life, now) before anything else, it is our trusted sidekick – our little digital friend. It’s what allows us to keep in touch with our sexy girl/boyfriends.

Since many of the summer blockbusters deal with the fantasy theme of man versus machine, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at our everyday relationship to robots. While Terminator: Salvation imagines malevolent killer robots programmed by an evil, autonomous, human-hunting computer program the Transformers series offers two sides of the coin – there are evil Deceptecons, but there are also helpful, righteous Autobots. And through our shared righteousness, humanity is on the side of the Autobots.

The friendship of Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky and Optimus Prime in Transformers is one more entry in the lovable-robot canon of American cinema. As evidenced by last summer’s WALL-E, as well as R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars, Haley Joel Osment in A.I., Johnny 5 and the little guy from Batteries Not Included, the friendly robot is well established in our pop-culture consciousness. And let’s face it, friendly robots populate our life – from our trusty cell phone to our colorful, cute iPod, our indispensable laptop computer, our efficient microwave oven, and yes the webcam that allows us to chat with our significant other “24/7.”  Robots today provide unparalleled amounts of stimulation – mentally and in some cases even physically.

But in the Summer of 2009, the theme of man vs. machine is too significant and evocative for us to ignore. Certain other real-life battles are playing out right now, around the world. And like the heroic Autobots, we owe it to ourselves to transform a bit – our point of view, that is. There is definitely more than meets the eye.

Part II

“I’ll Be Back”

The Terminator was the 1984 action movie hit, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a humanoid killer robot from the year 2029, sent back in time to the Reagan era to kill the mother of the as-yet unborn John Connor. Connor would grow up to lead a rebellion against the evil machines that would take over Earth – an Air Force computer program called Skynet had become self-aware somewhere around the turn of the 21st Century, and was now bent on destroying the human race.

In Terminator 2 (1991), Schwarzenegger was back, this time as a benevolent bodyguard-bot, reprogrammed by the future John Connor and sent back to 1995 to protect his mom and his young self.

Now, twenty-five years after the original, there is a new Terminator movie, the actor who embodied the original killing machine has been “reprogrammed” yet again as the Governor of California, and Terminator-like killer robots zoom around blowing up people. But just like Arnold, these robots work for us.

I felt a bit of cognitive dissonance watching the new Terminator: Salvation in a half-full darkened, cold theater on a hot June afternoon. The scenes of the nightmarish Terminator robots hunting the brave humans of the Resistance were for us images to eat popcorn to, while the real thing is taking place half a world away.

The machines formerly known as Predator Drones are unmanned flying vehicles capable of bombing targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq with Hellfire missiles as they are operated remotely by pilots in an air-conditioned room on an Army base in places like Nevada. The U.S. Defense Department first admitted to arming these unmanned drones on October 25, 2002; they previously had been known to be used only for surveillance purposes.

The first intended targets of these Predator Drones were suspected al-Qaeda members. The drones have since been used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. From just a handful seven years ago, the U.S. now has over 5,300 drones in operation – some as small as insects. Aerial drones also patrol the U.S.-Mexico border in the name of surveillance – these are currently unarmed.

In the words of one senior Bush administration official, as quoted by P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, “The unmanning of war plays to our strength. The thing that scares people is our technology.”

Leaving aside the question of fear, the use of killer drone technology in the nebulous, seemingly unending “War on Terror” has many furious.

There has been an outcry by civilians in Pakistan, where over 250 people have been killed by the drones over the past year. A popular hit song in Pakistan last summer, as Singer explained on the TV and radio program Democracy Now! had lyrics charging that Americans look at them as insects. There are outspoken critics of the drones within the U.S. Defense establishment like David Kilcullen, an architect of General Petreus’ Iraq war surge, who claims that the unmanned robot killers are serving to further infuriate and radicalize the population of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq creating new enemies of the U.S. with each strike.

Some decry the attacks as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, and point to their illegitimacy, due to the fact that the U.S. has not declared war on Pakistan. But the U.S.’ position is that the authorization of the use of force grated after the attacks of September 11, 2001 applies to all nations, if there are any suspected anti-American militants within their borders. But the use of the unmanned drones has provided the U.S. with a way to launch attacks, while avoiding an overt on-the-ground invasion of Pakistan. Recently, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, the motive waters have been muddied, as the drone attacks in Pakistan have not focused on al Qaeda operatives, but members of the network led by Baitullah Mehsud – opponents of the Zardari government with an alleged role in the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

All those who wondered if the drone attacks would end with the changing of the administrations didn’t have to wait long for their answer. In the early hours of January 23th 2009, three days after President Obama took office, a drone struck two targets in Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region. Fifteen people suspected of being supporters of the Taliban and their families were killed, including three children.

In the tribal regions of Pakistan can be found people living a rural, non-urbanized or globalized, traditional lifestyle. Three days earlier, in his inaugural speech, President Obama had referred to tribes:

“…because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

Do the “lines of tribe” have to dissolve for people to live in peace? That is a loaded statement to make when we consider the context of American treatment of the indigenous tribes of our own country. In fact, the U.S. government carried out one of the first instances of “ethnic cleansing” of an area with the Cherokee Removal Act of 1838, which culminated with a forced march of civilians known now as the Trail of Tears. In fact, Adolf Hitler studied the U.S. treatment of Native Americans (which reads more like a dark library than a “dark chapter”- see the recent PBS series “We Shall Remain”) and admired it as a model of genocide.

Whatever Obama meant by that, the drone attacks have had a major affect on the tribal areas: The Sunday Times of the UK reported in April that up to 1 million civilians have fled the tribal regions of Pakistan to try to avoid these drone attacks, as well bombings by the Pakistani army.

What are the advantages of deploying advanced technology against people? Steven Cohen of the Foreign Policy study program at the Brookings Institute defends the drones on the basis of their being a surgical-like warfare application. “What they do is allow any country that possesses them to pinpoint without much collateral damage,” Cohen says. “The drone, in essence, while it conjures up images of a mechanical monster is in fact far more effective and more humane than dropping tons of bombs on an area.”

How accurate the drones are, however, has been called into serious question. According to the Times of Pakistan, there have been 60 drone attacks by the United States on the tribal regions of Pakistan between January 14th, 2006 and April 8th, 2009. Horrifyingly, the Times reports, of these 60 attacks, only ten hit their intended targets, killing 14 alleged al-Qaeda leaders. An estimated 687 Pakistani civilians were killed in the drone attacks; unintended casualties, the aforementioned “collateral damage” (incidentally, also the title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from 2002).

However, most of the people who will sit in multiplexes this summer watching Christian Bale’s John Connor fight the evil Skynet computer system and its robotic minions, or Shia LaBeouf and the gallant Autobots battle the evil alien robotic Decepticons, blissfully unaware or only muddily informed of the real-world drone attacks, will find themselves cheering on American humans as they face malevolent robots. In the blockbuster movies, like Terminator and Transformers, our (American) heroes are tasked with the burden of being the representatives of humanity that fight against the cold, brutality of an unfeeling robot programmed to murder cooly, indiscriminately.

The irony is so blatant that it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Some are very aware of what the drones are doing, namely, their operators – many of them 18 and 19 year-olds literally assigned to this post because of their Playstation skills. As with their colleagues deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the drone pilots –working on Army bases in the U.S. – though they may never physically experience the battlefield, have been known to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the jarring nature of their work. According to an August, 2008 story by the Associated Press, “Remote control warriors suffer war stress,” the pilots must guide the drones back to the attack site after the damage has been done, using the drones’ built-in surveillance equipment to gather high-resolution imagery of the casualties. Unlike Air Force pilots who can drop tons of bombs and never face the consequences of their work, the drone pilots cannot avoid seeing the dead bodies their mission has resulted in. A mission that resembles nothing so much as a live video game – with deadly real results.

Like a lot of action movies these days, Terminator: Salvation plays just a bit like a recruiting film for the Army. Set in a nightmare scape of 2018 (whoa! not much time, gang), it’s a watery by-the-numbers adventure where the carbon-based good guys scamper around the Western deserts (hmm) of a post-Apocalyptic United States wearing the official Resistance long olive trench coats oddly reminiscent of another time.

From a character’s pointed obsession with earning the right to wear the natty coats of the Resistance and an uncomfortable parable of redemption and self-sacrifice, Terminator Salvation is a embarrassingly earnest, bleak blow-up affair. Christian Bale’s John Connor (the fully grown charismatic alterna-leader within the corrupt bureaucracy of the Resistance) is brooding and glum. There’s little of the fantasy-rebel glee that characterized the earlier entries in the series, or the first Star Wars movies.

Then there’s the journey of Marcus Wright (Australian actor Sam Worthington), which makes up most of the film, a death row inmate from 2003 (he has committed some vague murders, never really explained) who, after having donated his body to science, emerges fully alive in the sand shitstorm of ’18 as a robot-human hybrid. Connor and company must decide whether the G.I. Joe-looking Wright can be trusted. For his part, Wright proves his loyalty to the human side via heroic self-sacrifice (a theme of the Terminator movies, to be sure, but one made more queasy given Worthington’s striking resemblance to an uber-soldier from one of those Army of One commercials).

In the midst of it all, the movie also offers a small vignette of resistance that could have been written by Sophocles; a bit of American Empire Greek Tragedy-style catharsis:

Connor refuses to follow the orders of the Rebellion’s leaders when they tell him to blow up Skynet’s command central, where thousands of human prisoners are kept. In the movie, it is the fact that he is unwilling to destroy innocent people (AKA collateral damage) that makes Connor a great leader. But what happens next is remarkable. The soldiers of the Resistance, inspired by Connor, actually refuses to follow the orders to bomb Skynet. Not so far-fetched, according to the conclusions of the 2005 documentary Sir No Sir, which retraces a large-scale resistance and its spread throughout the entire armed forces, during the Vietnam war. Connor is then able to save the human hostages, by engaging in the heroic hand-to-hand (or in this case, hand to bot) personal combat most highly prized by action movies.

In Terminator: Salvation, it almost seems like the plot has been designed as a rebellion lightning rod for an impressionable audience. Rebellion is painted in fantastical terms, awesome and escapist within the Hollywood-devised movie scenario. For much of the audience, the movie may be more relevant than the goings-on in the War on Terror. the real robot war being waged in our name, instead of merely identifying with fake cinematic versions.

Do our Summer blockbusters decontextualize current events, further desensitizing us to the effects of the real robot wars being being waged in our name? That all depends if these images of shadow cinematic rebellion remain entirely divorced from substance.

“If you are listening to this – you are the Resistance” John Connor intones breathily over pirate radio waves.

Ditto that.

Tactile Media Lament Part One: I, Pod

Where did you go? The iPod Shuffle

Doing the iPod Shuffle

This week, I went out to buy a CD. I wanted the little booklet, the brittle plastic case and the experience of skinning it from its thin cellophane wrapper. In short – I wanted a tactile media experience. I wanted to go into a store, look around at my fellow shoppers, get to meet – briefly – some people from around who were working there, and see what else is out there on the shelves in the way of music.

I quickly realized that the CD store (the highlight of my high school Saturdays, where during college I stood in line at midnight on Tuesday mornings to be among the first to buy a newly released album) like the video store (where I had worked during high school and college, decked out in khaki and royal blue, “Denzel Washington on a sub? You’re looking for Crimson Tide…”) was teetering on the verge of being bitch-slapped out of existence by something as undignified as a hundred million chewy white plastic cords or a shower of red and white envelopes.

What about people without computers who never stopped buying CDs?

I myself had all but forsaken it in recent years in favor of downloading. I was a senior when Napster hit; on the computers at my high school we downloaded jam after jam, experiencing unheard-of instant gratification. We would graduate that year, 2001, into a brave new world, and our “let-me-get-that-one-song” habit grew. With access to high speed internet at college, we soon got them all. Every ditty in our head. We could get Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day” without dropping $15 on his self-titled debut album. Or something.

Since 2007, New York City has seen the demise of the Kim’s Video (113th Street location), Harlem institution the Record Shack, all branches of Tower Records and recently all of the Circuit Cities. The massive, contradictory Virgin sign still slinks redly on and off over the spreading neon stain of Times Square, but the store underneath is a dark, empty shell. The Virgin Megastore in Union Square has announced that it will shutter May 31st.

I visited the now unplugged Circuit City on 80th & Broadway when it was in the process of being picked over of its merchandise by shrewd bargain hunters, like apparently myself. The shelves were for sale too, and hanging off the walls in some places. Merchandise was herded into small sections of the showroom. I picked up $4 CDs by the stack and felt a weird guilt. There were some I wanted, and would have paid full price for at one time. It was a whole record – like about 15 songs – by musicians I really liked. Their precious little plastic packages full of grooves and heart were being liquidated.

Though national chains like Circuit City are owned by mil- and billionaires, the closure of their outlets has still meant the loss of many local jobs.

But the loss of the Record Shack, forced out of business by the cutthroat gentrification of 125th Street is perhaps the saddest story of the download revolution. Sikulu Shange came from South Africa in the 1960s and opened up the Record Shack to serve the music needs of the Harlem community. This winter, after more than 30 years, Mr. Shange lost his lease in the storefront across from the Apollo Theater. He was not only evicted but saw his entire inventory confiscated by the landlord.

In the case of the Record Shack and Mr. Shange, multiple forces of the current market acted against them. But the winds of change are blowing: the CD store is practically over.

In the past 25 years, we have cycled through four fully distinct dominant music media platforms. There was first the record album, the cassette, the CD and now the ghostly MP3. Music went from analog to digital, then finally non-tactile. Record albums of a size that did justice to the works of art that graced the cover gave way to less dignified playing card-sized plastic cartridges. A generation simply squinted and moved on.

Along with these delivery format changes, the way we listen to music has trended towards the personal. With the popularization of the Sony Walkman in the early 1980s, music began its transition into an individual experience, as opposed to mainly a shared one.

Are those white slippery headphones sucking in more than they’re giving?

Let me offer a rough but probably fairly accurate observation. Thirty years ago, the music people heard over the course of the day was mostly in the presence of other people. Today, the music people hear over the course of the day is mostly heard by them alone, through headphones or in a car. The iPod and other MP3 players have not only made music more individualistic, they have made it more accessible and prevalent. We’re musically saturated.

Before downloading became dominant, I used to scramble to tape record songs off the radio. Hearing a favorite song was – in that case – thrilling and special; my chance. The technology of cassette tapes made possible this serendipitous music trapping; as free as downloading, but more exciting. When I was lucky enough to capture a song from the beginning to the end, it felt like a sign that the forces of the universe were aligning in my favor.

Do you have an MP3 player? Do you sometimes experience premature song fatigue? With thousands of songs at our fingertips, we sometimes become bored and restless halfway through even a favorite song and itch to see what is next. This is not to say that MP3-ers do not love music – indeed, it is the ardent music lovers that have cleaved most readily to the Pod and similar devices. “My own soundtrack? To this crazy life? I think so.”

But are those white slippery headphones sucking out more than they’re giving?

Apple’s advertising campaign around the iPod (launched in October of 2001) was jazzily original… and cryptic. The ads depicted a colorful background with a black silhouette of a slim, hip person, grooving to a gummy white iPod lodged around their ear area. Ostensibly going for funky, distinctive and accessible, this image of a blacked out (missing?) person plugged into a sharply visible iPod – came to haunt every bus shelter and magazine page over the past decade. This hip person is plugged into the iPod. But they’re GONE. Where did they go?

I got to thinking about pods. Two peas in a pod, pod people… Why were these things called iPods, anyway? What if, like the Isaac Asimov book and later the Will Smith/Steven Spielberg movie I, Robot, the “I” in iPod didn’t stand for internet (or whatever), but meant actually “I, Pod.” Interestingly, you could get a glimpse into a person’s life by shuffling through their iPod – so the colorful little robots could actually be seen as a repositories of a person’s musical and cultural tastes. And who’s to say how much other information they can store (at the risk of sounding paranoid, they could even undertake mini surveillance missions). After all, they can now squeeze 1,000 songs – (that’s the 12 tracks of Jon Secada 83 times over) into something the size of a Starburst.

But as a consumer society, the United States has pretty much made the switch to non-tactile music media. But this just means a critical mass of people have done so – not everybody. What about those people who never stopped buying CDs? The people without access to computers or the internet? They are being rapidly left behind as their tactile daily newspapers struggle to keep their non-digital presses rolling, as their neighborhood video rental stores peter out of existence. They’re like rabbit ear TV watchers, cajoled by friendly but forceful commercials announcing the switch to DTV in June. After all, we already slowed up their plans – the original switch was in February – because not enough of us got the converter boxes.

Maybe it’s just me, but I detect a hint of exasperation on the part of the local TV elite embedded in the helpful announcements they’ve been commissioned for:

Bubbly local TV personality: “Digital TV is coming June 12th! If you have cable or satellite, you’re ALL SET.

BUT: If you watch TV using rabbit ears, you’ll need a Digital Converter Box. Otherwise, your TV will go BLACK on the afternoon of June 12th.”

Under her breath: “Get it together, morons.”

We’ll see if the luddite lethargy of analog TV watchers will again cause this grand transition to stick in the mud, hampering the condensation of the TV signal and eventual sale of the saved airwave space to the private wireless companies.

In the meantime, I suggest you investigate for yourself how far the CD store meltdown has progressed in your area. Go out and buy a CD, preferably from a local store. Understand what we will soon be missing for the siren song of the download. Feel the woosh of the door, as you enter a space dedicated to the distribution of music. Make conversation – or at least eye contact – with your fellow shoppers, and the folks behind the counter. Buy a whole CD – risk the presence of dud tracks. They’re probably having a sale, anyway.

What’s Your Coltan Footprint?

We hear all about our “Carbon Footprint” – a person’s total greenhouse gas emissions, determined by things like the amount of petroleum we use through car and airplane trips, and the distance our food travels to arrive on our supermarket shelves. But there’s another footprint that we in the Global North would do well to examine: our Coltan Footprint.

Coltan is the colloquial name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore found in deposits all over the world. Twenty-five percent of the world’s coltan supply is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From coltan is extracted the elements niobium and tantalum. Tantalum is a major component used to create consumer electronic devices, such as cell phones, computers and DVD players.

Profits from coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been one major funding source of the ongoing armed conflicts in the region, according to the Danish organization DanChurchAid, in their report “Is There Blood on Your Mobile Phone?”:

Much of coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is done by children, and by hand, under extremely dangerous conditions, as this video from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting shows.

As the number and type of consumer electronics grow exponentially, there is a direct impact on the situation on the ground. For example, as documented by the website Toward Freedom, the year 2000 saw the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 2, as well as increased sales of cell phones, DVD players and other portable electronic devices. The increased demand for tantalum caused the price to jump from $49/pound to $275/pound and this led to a rapid acceleration of mining in the coltan-rich regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That this boom coincided with the Second Congo War (1998 – 2003) in which over 5 million civilians were killed indicates the extent to which armed conflicts in the African continent are fueled by the desire for control of resources.

To find your coltan footprint, add up:

1) The number of cell phones, laptop computers, gaming systems, DVD players you have owned in the past 10 years.

Mine is about 8.

If yours is above 0, you are part of creating demand for this mineral and should think about your responsibility for the nature of the resource wars still tearing apart the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So, dang. What to do?

The point is that it’s not just carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses that we have to reconsider, but all of our globalized consumption habits.

Consider this scene:

An H.G. Wells-style time traveler from 1850 visits a busy 2009 street corner the middle of New York City at 5:45pm on a Thursday. What the traveler will no doubt notice is streams of people walking down the street, chattering happily into small plastic devices. As one woman passes the traveler, a snippet of her conversation is heard:

“I love you” she tells the plastic device.

The time traveler may conclude that in this future, it is small, shiny, plastic robots that are the object of a good deal of our emotional attention.

When our jobs and personal lives in the U.S. are more and more knitted to electronic devices and equipment, can we imagine breaking free? Sidling up to that grungy phone booth with a roll of quarters in the pocket in our handbag designed for a mobile phone? Banging out letters to our friends on a typewriter, as opposed to clicking up an instant message?

Can we go back and create a different future?