Searching for the Soul of R2-D2
My familiarity with Star Wars is largely confined to the first few releases of the franchise back in the late 1970s. In the initial Star Wars film, aside from the romantic weirdness of this “galaxy far, far away” and the David-and-Goliath quality of the battle of Good against Evil, several of the characters charmed and attracted fans. Yoda, of course, with his wrinkled wisdom and inverted English, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by the incomparable Alec Guinness. And also, R2-D2 and C-3PO—“who” (or which) exuded individualized human personality despite their electronic origins.
Anthropomorphizing machinery has a long and rich history. In our daily lives we name our cars and curse or coax our malfunctioning appliances, and in fiction, humans are threatened by malevolent machines in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Smart House, while their benevolent counterparts aid us in movies like WALL-E, and The Brave Little Toaster. (Meanwhile, what the heck was going on with the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz?).
The metaphysical confusion of those members of the Silicon Set that talk of preserving human minds indefinitely through downloading their contents onto computers, or alerting us to the dangers of computers taking control of the world, however, seems to occupy a higher (or lower) level. Perhaps these confusions of identity and category owe something to the muddleheaded materialism that reduces all things to physical causes—including mind and emotions. Another explanation may lie in our age-old desire to “be like gods”—certainly the hubris of human cloning and other exercises in genetic engineering, such as the “creation” of chimeras, demonstrate this. From this perspective, the problem with Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is that it was done poorly, and not that it was done at all.
But Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, chose to present a different lesson from her novel. To begin with, its full title, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, sends mixed signals. It harks back to Prometheus’ theft of fire from the Greek gods to benefit mankind, leading to his punishment by Zeus. As human benefactors of that theft (which among other things makes possible the fashioning of metals and other substances into ancient and modern forms of technology), we are surely meant to be grateful. Additionally, Mary Shelley was the lover and (later) wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who authored Prometheus Unbound. This poetic drama painted Prometheus (in good Romantic style) as a hero of human freedom, a rebel against the tyranny of the gods. Percy Shelley described Prometheus as “the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.” In the words of one of the poem’s characters, Prometheus, though a Titan, exemplifies mankind’s heroic duty “To defy Power, which seems omnipotent . . . . Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent.”
However, the actual plot of Frankenstein presents us with devastation, murder, and an ambiguous end that leaves open the possibility of more of the same. The author’s version of the Prometheus myth is consequently closer in tone and implication to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden than to, say, the French Revolution or the nineteenth-century movements for abolition or women’s rights.
Mary Shelley’s version also does not paint her Promethean figure, Dr. Frankenstein, in a very favorable light. His errors of technique in forming the monster might theoretically have been ameliorated if he had made future attempts, but his great error is attempting creation at all, when he does not—cannot—possess the capacity to predict and control what he sets in motion, or protect those endangered by his attempted trespasses into the Creator’s territory. Far from being a noble Titan, Dr. Frankenstein more closely resembles the Sorcerer’s Apprentice—but without the happy ending of the sorcerer’s return to the scene in time to prevent disaster.
What has all this got to do with the likes of cute little R2-D2? This robot and the rest of the robotic assembly line, though presenting engaging personalities and seeming loyalty to their owners, are in their “loyalties” and behaviors at the mercy of their programmers. They are whatever their programmers wish them to be—even their memories can be erased. So when they are lovable and endearing, and attempt to fulfill the (good) purposes of their (good) owners, they are reflecting the desires of those owners/programmers. On the other hand, like any tool, they could be used for evil. In either case, having been designed and programmed by human beings, they are not themselves the source of evil (or of good) in the Star Wars world.
There are other engaging robotic film characters, including the star of the 2008 animated film WALL-E (which also confronts us with mal-programmed and mutinous robots that frighteningly attempt to destroy the first seedling from a rejuvenating Planet Earth). In the film, WALL-E has inexplicably (to me at least) evolved into sentience over the centuries he has been at work clearing and compacting garbage on our now-deserted planet. Equally inexplicably, his love interest, a robot on the spacecraft investigating current conditions on Earth, manages to be infected by his capacity for feeling. How on earth (so to speak) WALL-E’s evolution would occur by mere length of time and proximity to human garbage is as difficult for me to understand as how Dr. Frankenstein could spark into life an assemblage of rotting body parts by force of lightning. (And both of these are only slightly more mysterious and improbable than the spontaneous development of life from the primordial “soup” of matter the secularists point to.) In short, WALL-E’s development of the capacity to love is the beneficent counterpart of the nightmares of machines seizing control over human beings—and equally unlikely if we are truly talking about machines rather than the people who design, construct, and program them.
In the end, all this talk of computers and machines and robots taking control is camouflage for certain people taking control of other people (or at most, for certain people setting in motion processes they have not properly thought out that turn out to be harmful and impede the freedom of other people).
Because we humans are ingenious, ambitious, imperfect, and unable to perceive all consequences of our actions, there is almost no end to the havoc we can wreak. However, when we do so, we do it as human beings affecting other human beings, whether or not we use technological intermediaries. And when human beings use human imaginations (and clever design) to invest inanimate objects of various kinds with personality and feeling, it is again human beings, not their cars or computers or film robots, that provided the personality and emotions. Reality is harder to truly augment than the tech companies seem to think.
So will some sort of Frankenstein’s monster—whether through genetic engineering or supercomputers or some perverse combination of the two—ever threaten life as we know it on our planet? Maybe, but if so, the responsible party or parties will not be a variation on HAL or WALL-E’s robotic opponents or Frankenstein’s monster or a human clone, but the human beings who, intentionally or unintentionally, with good or ill intentions, sow the wind, setting us up to reap the whirlwind.