In real 2001, Kubrick odyssey still resonates
LOS ANGELES — It was 1968, but the year - at least in film - was 2001.
Man wouldn't land on the moon for another year, and the advent of personal computers was even further in the future. But with "2001: A Space Odyssey," filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke brought to life a vision of the future so powerful that it etched a place in the nation's cultural consciousness - where it still resonates today, 33 years after its release.
The film's version of 2001 doesn't quite match up with reality: There are, for example, no manned missions to Jupiter on NASA's schedule. And while scientists have created a computer that can beat a chess champion, advances in artificial intelligence have yet to produce a lip-reading, feeling computer that matches the likes of the movie's HAL.
Still, the fundamental man-versus-machine issues raised by "2001" remain more relevant than ever in a world marked by ever-increasing rates of technological progress and discovery, according to interviews with sociologists, scientists, and artists.
"The question is whether our humanity will control technology, or the other way around," says Dr. Leon Lederman, former head of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. "That's the crucial issue."
And while the question remains the same, it's being asked in new ways, as the physics-based technological breakthroughs of the 20th century give way to 21st-century biotechnology developments that deal with the nature of life itself: cloning, the linking of machine intelligence to human thought ("downloading" consciousness into computers), and the humanization of robots, to name a few.
"The prospect of machines having a big influence on the human condition is quite large," says Dr. Gregory Benford, a professor of physics at University of California, Irvine. "This next century is the biological century. The essential issue a century from now will be the definition of what is human and of the integrity of the human species."
Today, everyone's an expert
It's a conversation that won't be limited to scientists, as the forums for debate about the pros and cons of technology continue to be more inclusive. In the past, notes Neil Postman of New York University, sociologists or anthropologists who wanted to critique its effects were told by scientists, "You really don't know about the technology."
But today, says Mr. Postman, the debate is far more open. Sociologists, ethicists, and theologians regularly comment on the potentially negative implications of technologies such as genetic engineering, he notes, and more people are likely to raise questions about whether gains outweigh possible dangers.
"There is a sense with cloning and biotechnology that we don't actually know what we're messing with," says Postman, who chairs NYU's department of culture and communication. "There's a consciousness of the Faustian bargain we're always making with technology. That is to say, it giveth and it taketh away. There are always conversations now about what it might be taking away."
Other fans of the film, however, say that the man-versus-machine issues aren't really the point that Mr. Clarke was trying to make. David Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is sponsoring an exhibit on art in technological times, argues that Clarke was raising issues about the limitations of science - and that those questions, too, are relevant today.
"What the film really was about is the paradigm shift from belief in a structure that was scientifically provable and reasonable, from questions that are posable and answerable, to a place where science leaves us off and some form of faith needs to take over," says Mr. Ross, who, when he opens his e-mail application, hears HAL intone, "What do you think you're doing, Dave?"
"It's not that technology doesn't serve us well enough," he says. "But [artists] recognize that the profound questions that wake you up in the night are not even posable in scientific terms. Questions like: Where are we going? The serious theme of Clarke is that need for some other level of connection."
But sorting out the right questions about technology and human fulfillment isn't always easy in a culture that's reaping the consumer fruits of scientific discovery.
But it's just so cute
Things like cellphones and the Internet just don't seem nearly as threatening as the ominously mellow voice of HAL.
"Technology charms us," says George Saunders, a futurist short-story writer. The movie "2001," "naively said that when technology comes to get you, it will look mean. But the way technology is actually happening to us is much more apparently benevolent. It's coming through the back door.
"But I think the sheen of our technology has distracted us from the most important issues, things like our spiritual lives and our relationships to other people," he says. "And we spend a lot of time, money, and energy being serviced by that sheen."
In fact, Mr. Saunders and other observers say, the gadgets and endless stream of user-friendly consumer goods may keep the average individual content with technology for some time.
But they warn that the increasingly rapid development of life-changing technologies, such as cloning, will ultimately demand their attention.
"We're right on the verge of really butting up against some of the most fundamental ethical, spiritual, and technological issues you could argue humanity has ever come up against," says Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. "The real story is not going to be one that comes from space, or from our computers, it's going to come from our own bodies and our ability to start messing around with them, remaking them.
"These are enormous questions," he says. "They make space-as-the-final-frontier questions seem almost childish in comparison."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society