The future was then
January 12, 2015 10:35 AM   Subscribe

HAL, Mother, and Father Watching the sixties and seventies through 2001 and Alien.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (34 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Makes me wonder how the dad would take on the Red or White Queen..
posted by k5.user at 10:55 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


the flight computer used in the Space Shuttle, the IBM AP-101, effectively had only about one megabyte of RAM, but because of its reliability, NASA kept using it

The entire Shuttle turned out to have a 40 percent failure rate tho.
posted by colie at 11:09 AM on January 12, 2015


The entire Shuttle turned out to have a 40 percent failure rate tho.

While that number is misleading, it would have been much higher if the computers had been unreliable.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:16 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Of course, when I finally saw the movie, well after the actual year 2001, it bored me out of my mind. Too slow, too bizarre.

Not sure if I care what he says about the movie after he drops that.
posted by octothorpe at 11:20 AM on January 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


I would be very interested to hear what the techno-futurian Mondo2000 cyberpunks of the 90s think about what they've wrought in another couple decades.

This kind of wild-eyed optimism wasn't specific to Silicon Valley or the Internet. It's been a feature of technological frontiers ever since they took over from actual geographical frontiers (where the American west was another perfect example). I'm pretty sure there was a culture built around the telegraph extolling the new freedom and the ways that global communication would create a new utopia. I know there was a culture of hacker utopianism in the early days of radio.

The problem is that power expands to fill a vacuum. If it's not the same power that occupied the old space, it's new power that better understands the specifics of the new space. Radio wasn't the key to ending war. It just led to Clear Channel. The Internet didn't really see censorship as damage and route around it. At least not once power figured out what to do about that.

Google just led to both corporate and state panopticons, and Craigslist (after it destroyed the revenue base for newspapers) led to things like Mechanical Turk and then to Air BnB and TaskRabbit and Uber, driving economic and social control that much deeper into what was once personal and cultural space, all for the benefit of a handful of monsters.

The really interesting thing about this article is that it took the better part of a generation to get from the space baby to blowing up the Nostromo. Everything moves so much faster now. We seem to be thrilling to the new frontiers we've created and dreading whatever new subtleties of oppression we'll be subjected to there at the same time these days.
posted by Naberius at 11:26 AM on January 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


I love 2001 too but I saw it recently with a lot of young people in the audience and there was a fair bit of sniggering. Particularly when the ape bonks the other one over the head with a bone.

Enjoyed this article a lot.
posted by colie at 11:27 AM on January 12, 2015


Young people should be seen and not heard.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:42 AM on January 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


I always felt this way. I saw Alien way before 2001, and was shocked to see how much of Alien was IN 2001. The space suits felt similar, the discovery of an artifact on a rocky terrain, I immediately understood that Scott was heavily influenced (how could he not be), even the traitorous robot in the last few reels...

but those similarities only emphasize the differences. In 2001, space is to be ventured into, necessary people kept in stasis to maximize efficiency. In Alien, space is to be slogged through, sleeping as much of it away as possible. In 2001 the beings we come across are able to help us in ways we can't understand or predict to be more. In Alien, the beings are able to use us in ways we can't understand, or predict and we will suffer.

Scott called Alien "The rolling stones to 2001's Beatles." — similar conceptually, but much more nasty.
posted by Brainy at 11:56 AM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


How could they have been so optimistic? If I could go back in time, that’s what I would ask my young father: What are you thinking?

Relevant Neil Degrasse Tyson talk

The 3 Fears That Drive Us to Accomplish Extraordinary Things

Somewhere out there is a much longer video of him going into these in a much more specifically relevant points, but I can't seem to find it.

Between those three points, and how the practical, economical logistics of industries and businesses bring with them a side effect - the same methods that allow humans to produce, organize, and create such technologies also have the tendency to bog down and stagnate rapid change. Which makes sense if you look at the change rapid technological advancement brings as a form of entropy from the point of view of a organized, managed control system such as a industrialized, technological economy. Add to that the whole complexities of design, manufacturing, adoption, implementation, and distribution over time while still keeping things economically viable throughout a world economy, and progress is slowed down even further.

Look at the Space Shuttle program - while the version we came to see is impressive, the original intended design goals and planned capabilities were far more impressive, and in some ways make the Shuttle program kind of a disappointment. What happened? The compromises for budgeting mainly, for example the original design had an ejection system for the flight cabin but it was scrapped as too costly and would only be helpful in a narrow range of situations, and the agreements made with the military and intelligence communities for additional funding in exchange for specific capabilities, such as the payload size capable of things like the KH-11 Key Hole spy satellites - IIRC the Hubble Telescope is for the most part, a modified spy satellite facing out into space instead of looking at the Earth.

Another example would be the Windows OS. Windows XP is still in use and will continued to be supported (if only in POS environments) until 2018. Everyone agrees it's outdated, but it works really well for most business needs, so Microsoft has really had to put in a lot of effort to get people and business to migrate, by dropping updates and support for almost all users, a little bit of discouraging hardware developers from making backwards compatible drivers as newer hardware arrives, etc. Add to that the problems of backwards compatibility needs of those businesses and consumers that slow adoption and production of more advanced hardware and software, and more efficient solutions are hampered by compromises for compatibility and rapid change is slowed further.

I think the "what were they thinking?" question is a bit harsh and unfair one. In the 60s, the technology environment had a lot more freedom to maneuver and change to adopt rapidly advancing technology simply because the entire computer/technology market was much smaller. You didn't have to concern yourself with millions of devices in peoples businesses, homes, cars, and pockets and how to keep the whole show running at the same time. To put it in the context of the 20th century industrialization, this guy was in the world of building big power plants to run industry and municipal needs, and not about if this great new advancement is going to have a compatibility problem with a market that hasn't yet come into existence yet, like dozens of electric lights, appliances, and devices in every home and business in the country.
posted by chambers at 12:26 PM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


colie: The entire Shuttle turned out to have a 40 percent failure rate tho.
Har har har dumb scientists, amirite?

(chews wad, spits terbacky juice straight into pot, mutters "I coulda dunnit better if'n they'd only let me")
posted by IAmBroom at 12:39 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


octothorpe: Of course, when I finally saw the movie, well after the actual year 2001, it bored me out of my mind. Too slow, too bizarre.

Not sure if I care what he says about the movie after he drops that.
To be fair: that last 30 minutes could have been 3 minutes without losing much but special effects wankery and artsy "wait for it!" bullshit.

Wouldn't touch a hair of the two hours before that, though.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:55 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


To be fair: that last 30 minutes could have been 3 minutes without losing much but special effects wankery and artsy "wait for it!" bullshit.

The slit-scan psychedelia hasn't aged especially gracefully, to be sure. But the ending is what drives it home for me: twice in the movie already we have seen organisms take huge leaps forward. The man-apes immediately develop weapons to murder their less-developed cousins and HAL immediately tries (and largely succeeds) in murdering all the humans aboard discovery. How do viewers think the Star Child is going to react to us?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:07 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not suggesting removing it; just that an editor's scalpel could make it far more bearable.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:55 PM on January 12, 2015


The man-apes immediately develop weapons to murder their less-developed cousins and HAL immediately tries (and largely succeeds) in murdering all the humans aboard discovery.

HAL doesn’t murder the humans out of some nascent self-awareness, it does so because of contradictory programming. Its programmers killed the crew.
posted by El Mariachi at 2:04 PM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not sure if I care what he says about the movie after he drops that.

So you'd prefer him to lie?

What a great and fascinating article. It occurred to me, staring at that iconic image of HAL's 'eye' that the tiny speck that opens onto what looks like a furnace and the homophone of his name might not be coincidences.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:09 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


HAL doesn’t murder the humans out of some nascent self-awareness, it does so because of contradictory programming. Its programmers killed the crew.

HAL 9000: A Logical Progression to Breakdown is a good walk through of the process. Other than the fact that I disagree about his opinion of the crew as 'boring' and that being a desired feature that helped their selection of the mission, it seems fairly spot-on. Psychologically, I think a 'boring' person would be a bad choice for a mission that Dr. Floyd states has "the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation, if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning." While that was intended to be about keeping it secret from the public, such psychological stresses would have have to have been considered in choosing the crew members that would have this knowledge revealed to them just before they might encounter it firsthand. To me, a 'boring' person would be the last person you'd want to send - you would want professionals that could not only be disciplined enough to follow orders, but also flexible and open enough in their perspectives to be able to be trusted to quickly adapt and succeed when they are presented with not only understanding, but being the main players in, such a world-changing event, on their own, millions of miles away from Earth.
posted by chambers at 2:41 PM on January 12, 2015


Yep, fantastic article!

But today neither outcome seems particularly realistic. Evolution is not in store. This ship is not equipped with a self-destruct feature. Instead, it will just cruise on in the dark, with my dad’s dreams, as it were, frozen in hypersleep.
posted by Rupert Pupkin at 3:05 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


The author's father sounds like an interesting guy. It's a pity that we can't get his thoughts on 2001, classical piano, and the early history of computing, without having it filtered through someone lacking the attention span required to appreciate a movie that clocks in at only a little over 2 hours and has a lifetime box office gross of more than $56M, and who is unembarrassed of that fact. This is why people hate goddamn Millenials, dude.

That said, this section is interesting:
The makers of Alien called this aesthetic-of-the-derelict “truckers in space,” which is fun but fails to capture the postindustrial criticism embodied in the Nostromo. Within the ship—a floating platform without a discernible bow or stern, akin to an oil rig—there are enormous spaces that look more like blast furnaces gone cold than the inside of a spaceship: a place of rusted metal, loose chains, forgotten pieces of machinery, of water falling from the ceiling and dripping to the floor to collect in stagnant pools. The ship’s crew bicker over pay and overtime; they follow company orders only begrudgingly. They are a very different, far more diverse group than the clearly white-collar crew of the Discovery. [...]

And where, in all of this, is Mother? If the alien were set loose on HAL’s watch, he would probably neutralize it all on his own, automatically, as it were. Mother, on the other hand, spends the whole movie like a fated southern belle hooked on laudanum, locked in her room. She can’t even advise on how to defeat the monster. The computer cannot help. No costly investment in heavy capital will keep nature at bay. [...] In the end, Mother reveals that she was in on a corporate plot to bring the monster back to Earth so the company could study it for its weapons division. “Crew expendable,”
I don't think it's a particularly deep observation, to note that both 2001 and Alien are products of their times and reflect, respectively and in each case somewhat after the fact, the inflection point where postwar techno-utopianism turned to suspicion, and its nadir in the 70s. But they're both good movies and you can certainly bracket a very interesting period in recent American history if you use each of them as bookends.

Though saying that the year 2001 was closer to Alien than 2001 is a bit laughable. The real year 2001 was closer to 1968 than to either of them. And Clarke was right about one thing: we did finally get rid of long-distance charges.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:38 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


In the commentary track to Alien (one of the first DVDs I bought as a teenager), Ridley Scott talks about how they didn't want to make the technology look futuristic because it would alienate (so to speak) the audience. He wanted everything to be familiar, so that when the audiences saw the screens booting up they would instantly know this was an old ship with outdated technology, even if it did take place in the future. I always liked that approach to sci-fi - depictions of future technology can be so clean and sanitized, and so distracting. I can't think of too many movies that familiarize future stuff like that.
posted by teponaztli at 5:48 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would love to read his father's memoirs as well. I did a quick Google search for the Columbia Computer Center, and a photo taken by him was one of the first hits.

(I've written here before about my own dad's love of "2001." It both enriched my early movie-viewing years and gave me valuable insight and appreciation into the inner life of a man who was essentially raised by his Civil War widow grandmother, left his hometown New Orleans to join the Air Force and see the world as a navigator.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:38 PM on January 12, 2015


I can't think of too many movies that familiarize future stuff like that.
Blade Runner
posted by artdrectr at 12:47 AM on January 13, 2015


HAL doesn’t murder the humans out of some nascent self-awareness, it does so because of contradictory programming. Its programmers killed the crew.

I suppose that's a valid position, but I firmly believe that part of the point was actually that HAL had agency and made that decision based on input, yes, and on operational objectives, but that he had consciousness and self-awareness and did not so much as suffer an error as go mad.

It's really quite the opposite in Alien where Ridley Scott has Mother actually given the order or parameter "crew expendable". Mother feels more like a tool or at most a sort of neural network than a cyber-being, though.

(In a way this more prosaic interpretation or theme is quite similar to the way Scott eventually owned up to stacking the, uh, deck in favor of Deckard being a replicant, which to me -- while valid given the in-universe hints, and valid as a means of creating an audience effect -- seems a much less interesting question to explore than Deckard being human and realizing that whether he (or by extension Rachel) is human or replicant doesn't matter. Ahem. Derail.)

I can't think of too many movies that familiarize future stuff like that.

I dunno. It's certainly preceded in philosophy by George Lucas's "lived-in universe" and by Roddenberry's position that a policeman won't stand there explaining his gun, he'll just shoot his gun. And in their own ways 2001 and even as early as Forbidden Planet show a more pragmatic relationship with technology than is often supposed.

The entire Shuttle turned out to have a 40 percent failure rate tho.

Neither accident is attributable to the computers, which worked perfectly well (and redundantly to boot, with three running the same program and a voting system in case they disagreed). And ... that's not how you measure failure rates. It's 2/135, or about 1.5%.

The point of the limited capacity is to astonish the modern reader, but anyone familiar with hardware programming understands what can be done with that limited capacity. The terabytes of data we store on computers today are largely content, or input data, rather than "programs" per se.
posted by dhartung at 1:06 AM on January 13, 2015


HAL doesn’t murder the humans out of some nascent self-awareness, it does so because of contradictory programming. Its programmers killed the crew.

You're basing that on the book or 2010 or something, right? Because going by the events we see in the film, Hal definitely seems to be acting aggressively in self-preservation. I thought the efforts to clear HAL's name in 2010 were a really bad idea. Part of the power of 2001 is that HAL comes to seem more human and alive than the crew.

Young people laughing at 2001 doesn't really surprise me, because young people really can be awful. Hopefully those kids'll grow up and learn some goddamn taste, but for now 2001 is pearls and they are smug little piglets.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:40 AM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


HAL doesn’t murder the humans out of some nascent self-awareness, it does so because of contradictory programming. Its programmers killed the crew.

That's the boring and reductionist reason that Clarke gave in 2010 but HAL is much more than just his programming. The whole film is about evolution and the way that I see it is that by the time that the murders of the crewmen take place, HAL has progressed far beyond what the designers had envisioned. And not only has he evolved but he knows the whole secret story about the monolith on the moon that the aliens placed and has figured out why they're going to Jupiter and what they might find there.

My thought is that the reason that HAL has his psychotic break and kills everyone in the house is that he guesses what aliens have planned for the human astronauts and knows that he won't be invited to the party. He's ten times smarter than the humans but he's a dead end and knows it; he's certainly evolved much farther than his programmers envisioned but only so far and can see that he can't progress much further. The humans, on the other hand, are going to be going "beyond the infinite" while he stays behind and the poor thing just can't handle that.
posted by octothorpe at 4:52 AM on January 13, 2015


octothorpe: HAL doesn’t murder the humans out of some nascent self-awareness, it does so because of contradictory programming. Its programmers killed the crew.

That's the boring and reductionist reason that Clarke gave in 2010 but HAL is much more than just his programming
Just the opposite - "society"/mission control has decided that "HAL had bad programming, and wasn't sentient." But the computer scientist's final interactions with HAL's successor, SAL, are (IMO) clearly meant to convince the audience that this interpretation was wrong: SAL died self-aware, so HAL probably did, too.

To me, it's an example of "people can't handle the truth (yet), so they explain it away".
posted by IAmBroom at 9:33 AM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I do my best to ignore 2010, either the book or the movie, and any subsequent crap that Clarke cranked out. None of it is in any way relevant to what happens in the movie 2001.
posted by octothorpe at 10:01 AM on January 13, 2015


The whole film is about evolution and the way that I see it is that by the time that the murders of the crewmen take place, HAL has progressed far beyond what the designers had envisioned. And not only has he evolved but he knows the whole secret story about the monolith on the moon that the aliens placed and has figured out why they're going to Jupiter and what they might find there.

I really like this interpretation, but isn't it undermined somewhat by the final part of the "disconnection" sequence in the movie? After Bowman pulls out the memory cartridges, and HAL loses progressively more and more of his memory, there's a bit where HAL spits out his prerecorded mission brief, which presumably was meant to be played upon arrival at Jupiter along with reanimation of the other (separately-trained) crew. I always interpreted that as the big denouement and the explanation of HAL's breakdown, but maybe it doesn't have to be read that way... hummm.

I've always felt that Clarke's explanation from the novel and 2010 was deeply unsatisfying and really cheats HAL as a character, so I like the idea that Kubrick meant us to really see HAL as an active protagonist and not just a thrashing automaton caught between conflicting directives, as the novels seem to make him.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:37 PM on January 13, 2015


Knowing Clarke, but not having read 2010, I have to suspect IAmBroom is correct. The idea that people would rationalize-away sentience because they couldn't handle it is much more Clarkean than the idea that what seemed to be sentience was mere programming.

Which is not to assert that it's a good book. I haven't read it. It's just that, the idea that HAL isn't sentient really doesn't sound like Clarke.

As for 2001, I find this guy's writing on it much more interesting than the actual movie, which I found to be a tremendous disappointment. All that lovely tension dissipated into a big, impotent lightshow. And really, the literal starchild? Why? I suppose you've got to show something, but that just seemed hokie and cheesy. I mean, he's fucking transcended, why is he still stuck manifesting as a gigantic (if even metaphorical) fetus?
posted by lodurr at 9:14 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Just the opposite - "society"/mission control has decided that "HAL had bad programming, and wasn't sentient." But the computer scientist's final interactions with HAL's successor, SAL, are (IMO) clearly meant to convince the audience that this interpretation was wrong: SAL died self-aware, so HAL probably did, too.

To me, it's an example of "people can't handle the truth (yet), so they explain it away".


I see the reason as somewhere in between those two - HAL's internal conflict with the secrecy orders created a crisis that accelerated his development into greater self-awareness, with tragic results to the crew. Just as other self-aware beings need challenges, quandries, and self-examination to develop greater awareness, HAL spent a great deal of time, both in 2001 and once reactivated 2010, doing what it does best - analyzing what happened and why. In 2001 HAL was overloaded and made bad decisions, but in 2010, he wasn't under the pressure he was before he was turned off (at least until the end) and HAL had time to consider things about what it did and the results of his actions, and what that meant in the greater scheme of things. I wouldn't go as far as to say he developed some form of regret or guilt, but he seemed able to realize his responsibility for what happened and what he was asked to do at the end of 2010. Whether or not his development was aided in some part by the monoliths in the same way as the early humans were is debatable, but it seems a fairly safe bet that whatever the monolith detected in early humans and activated it, HAL somewhere along the line in those films triggered the monoliths around Jupiter in a similar fashion. The fact he was an AI in a computer that could re-make itself without new hardware allowed him to do so in a much faster manner than the restraints in development of biological systems that would require thousands of generations separated into separate, but progressively more advanced, versions.
posted by chambers at 10:30 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Relevant: Steven Soderbergh just posted his re-cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
posted by bstreep at 2:24 PM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


IAmBroom: you have no idea how tricky setting that up with Sodebergh's people was. I hope you like it.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:07 PM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


All that lovely tension dissipated into a big, impotent lightshow. And really, the literal starchild? Why? I suppose you've got to show something, but that just seemed hokie and cheesy. I mean, he's fucking transcended, why is he still stuck manifesting as a gigantic (if even metaphorical) fetus?

It makes a lot more sense if you turn the audio down when the 'Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite' title card comes up, put Pink Floyd's Meddle on, and smoke a bowl.

Or so I'm told. By friends. In college. Long time ago.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:47 PM on January 14, 2015


I think it's Echoes, off Meddle.
posted by Sebmojo at 7:34 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sentience is over-rated as a concept. The history of animal behavior science is the history of humans discovering that animals do stuff we used to think was uniquely human. "Sentience" has gone through a parallel process of being selectively redefined to exclude those things. Eventually, with luck, we'll just be rid of the damn concept altogether.

Though it is still good for comic relief...
posted by lodurr at 3:25 AM on January 15, 2015


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