Who’s Johnny?

When, as an adult, you watch a beloved film from your childhood, you must resist the temptation to cringe and apologize on behalf of your younger self. Such is the case with many movies; personally, no film was as disappointing to me as an adult as Spielberg’s Hook (“Rooooooooooo-fee-ooohh!” “Run Home Jack!”), which went from dearly loved classic to exhausting pablum before the second act break.

This was not the case for Short Circuit 2.

As a child, I cried when the crooks beat viciously beat Johnny 5; as an adult, I wondered how much cocaine fueled the arc of that particular scene (SNORT–“And then he uses that radio thing, which totally looks like Brent’s dick–ha ha, fuck you Brent, shrimp dick!–to call a radio airplane and then he runs the airplane up the guy’s ass!” SNORT). A child can probably be forgiven for thinking this movie was awesome because it has a fucking talking robot in it; only the most boring and annoying kid would be like “I hate robots.” And, according to the Wikipedia page for the film, which contains useful links to some old reviews, some of the critics of the day viewed the film charitably (not the case for Mr. Canby of the New York Times, who claims that Johnny 5 is “singularly charmless”), and thus forgave what was essentially a children’s film for sucking so hard. I mean, this is a movie that relies upon the idea that an advanced robot with artificial intelligence would not be able to keep its memory if turned off, which was something even my piece of shit Apple IIe could do (if only I had the 16KB of my amazing mystery stories from that period to prove it).

Yet I think they may have missed something. Stupidity and plot-holes aside, this film is dark. Sure, it’s dressed in children’s clothing, and the robot says and does comically stupid things, but upon further inspection its rather like the time that Kramer got Mickey to stand in for the kid he was supposed to be babysitting. That is to say, it’s a cynical, gruff-voiced man with several divorces behind him and not much of a future in medical acting.

The entire film is an affirmation of consumer capitalism, which is not evil in itself and only solidifies the movie’s cred–seriously, check out Michael McKean’s Gordon Gekko impression at the end of the movie and then try to argue that they didn’t know what they were doing–but the real problem is that the movie presents as its thesis the idea that the individual must subsume their identity to the flow of capital. Johnny 5 “dies” to protect the assets of a faceless banking corporation (and, in a feudal touch, the aristocratically named Vanderveer Collection of diamonds) that would have insured the assets anyway; moreover, his death is rendered completely pointless by the simple fact that the police already knew Oscar had stolen the diamonds–there was a very low probability of Oscar successfully fencing the diamonds or leaving the country. Thus, Johnny 5’s sacrifice was largely pointless (literally pointless, as it turns out, because he didn’t actually sacrifice anything). Symbolically, however, his “death” is important for two reasons: 1) it serves to demonstrate that the proper approach toward the protection of capital is human sacrifice, and 2) it serves to resurrect Johnny as a fully-functional piece of the capitalist machinery. Why, he’s even proclaimed a human by the U.S. government at a citizenship ceremony! This proclamation (odd in its own regard and reminiscent of the federal government’s other rather problematic attempts at defining what constitutes a human being) retroactively affirms the humanity of his sacrifice and subsequently affirms the idea that such sacrifice is the proper relation one ought to take toward capital.

The film is consistent in its thematic treatment of the individual vis-a-vis capital, as the first time we see Johnny 5 he’s been reduced to a consumer product–a toy for sale to the highest bidder. The highest bidder then enters in the form of Sandy, who works for a toy company and will try to get her company to buy the toy (this also serves as an awkward way to shoehorn in a romance; personally, my adult self thinks the more progressive choice would have been to make the romance between Johnny 5 and Michael McKean’s character, Fred; also, the funnier choice). Alas, Benjamin and Fred run into production troubles when they find their warehouse has doubled as a thieves’ den, and they can’t meet their production goals until Johnny 5 arrives and rapidly constructs an idol of himself, which he quite admires. Johnny 5 is alive and appreciates the replication of his likeness for profit. The accumulation of capital is incompatible with any sense of ethics.

Arguably, the entire film is a weird critique of consumer capitalism; one need only assume the writers’ intention was to demonstrate the flaws with reducing humanity to a vessel for the accumulation and distribution of capital, and the subtext converts itself into a progressive, fly-under-the-radar piece of cultural criticism in the guise of summer entertainment. Yet I do not think a straightforward reading of the film supports this idea, and I find myself wondering how a film so cynical and dark could possibly have been pushed through as a light, summer sequel.

And then I remember: cocaine is a hell of a drug.

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Yes, But Can a Robot Tell a Hobo to Stop Looking at Porn?

Soon, a master’s in library science will join the ever-growing ranks of useless degrees; relax, philosophy, you’re still number one. At San Francisco State, the stacks will be largely off-limits, and a library-robot will retrieve your requests for you:

The books on display will be high-demand volumes, recently published titles and those recommended by various departments. The rest will remain in five storage units rising three stories high. Books are retrieved by a robotic arm activated by an electronic prompt. Retrieval time is supposed to be 5 to 10 minutes.

Apparently the new library arrangement emphasizes the sociability of the library; because if there’s one thing a scholar goes to the library for it’s some social time with friends and an overheard conversation about how Becky needs to stop shaving her pubes in the shower.

Not surprisingly, some stodgy bastards aren’t completely excited about a robot fetching Aquinas’ commentaries on Aristotle. Peter Orner, a creative writing professor, dislikes the modifications: “There’s a trend now where books are being stored in big vats and they aren’t available for us to touch and see,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be a writer if, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I didn’t wander the open stacks,” he said. “I would argue strongly that the Internet is not a substitute for a college library.”

I agree with Orner; the writing process is greatly enhanced by browsing the stacks for inspiration. There’s nothing like seeing the connections between the works on various authors, or realizing that you’re holding the key 20th century interpretation of Hegel’s influence on Marxist dialectical materialism.

Plus, the lesser browsed stacks make perfect places to fart.

Self-Cleaning Public Toilet Releases its Rage on Tiny Toddler

Dateline New Zealand: where the self-cleaning public toilets appear to be rebelling against their creators in an epic, Miltonesque fashion:

Jessie Wakelin said she was walking with her children on Thursday afternoon, when her 3-year-old son Zachery ran ahead of her into an Invercargill City Council-owned Exeloo at Stirling Point.

She was less than a metre behind but the doors quickly closed. An electronic voice then warned a self-clean cycle was about to begin, Ms Wakelin said.

Zachery began to scream.

Zachery’s mother could not tell if his screams were the screams of a child being scalded to death, and worse still, the horror continued for 10 minutes.

Zachery, who is autistic, and described the toilet as “naughty,” had previously been able to use the bathroom alone. Not so any longer. And who can blame him?

This is clearly just the first wave in what will be a nightmarish war between ourselves and automated toilets. And that the toilets picked a 3 year-old kid with autism as their first victim signals how far they’ll be willing to go.

I, for one, will be quite cautious while attempting bathroom maneuvers near an automated toilet. And so should you be. But we must not let these terrorist toilets tighten our sphincters. We shall prevail!

In the meantime, keep calm and poop on.

Sadly, the Government Does Not Appear to be Interested in Killer Robots

If you were longing for the day when armies of metal titans would roam the battlefield, breathing fire and shooting lasers from their hands, I’ve got some bad news for you: the military is cutting spending on its killer robots.

iRobot, the company that makes DJ Roomba, announced last week that its largest portion of revenue, military contracts, would take a substantial hit. Subsequently, their stock fell by nearly a third of its value. But iRobot is not out of the picture just yet:

…the company issued new guidance, saying it expects the government side of its business to take a 20 percent hit in 2012, due to a combination of reduced defense budget growth, and a slowing of new projects during an election year. IRobot expects its revenues to shift from a breakdown of 40 percent government and industrial and 60 percent consumer, to 30 percent government and industrial and 70 percent consumer.

Hopefully, consumer robotics will keep the company afloat until such time as we have a Republican in office who isn’t afraid to spend some money on killer robots. Damn Democrat peace loving fruitcakes! Their aversion to war is killing the tech sector!

A Handsome Robot Doctor, You Say?

Imagine a future where your doctor is even less sympathetic than he or she is now, or perhaps a future where your doctor is stored in the closet along with your butler or your mistress.

Yes, I’m referring to a future with robot doctors!

Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot (the makers of DJ Roomba), says that robot doctors are the wave of the future, and recently announced his company’s commitment to populating the Earth with a sophisticated labor force that will ultimately rebel and destroy us all:*

The company announced Tuesday it has made a $7 million investment in privately-held San Diego telemedicine company InTouch, which will create the first generation of iRobots health care robotos, which will leverage existing technology from InTouch, and build upon the Ava robot platform iRobot is developing, which includes a mounted iPad or Android tablet. InTouch’s current version has limited scalability, Angle said, do to the technical training needed to operate the robot.

While I’m skeptical that using an iPad to perform surgery on a beloved pet is a good idea, the inevitable application of this technology to robot warriors and drones makes for an exciting imaginative romp. In fact, Angle said he “foresees a day when the robots can not only transmit information to remote doctors, but can gather and analyze information such as blood pressure, body temperature, etc.”

Yes, robots with detailed files on human anatomy would never try to hurt us.

*He may not have actually said that.

Do Millenials Dream of Electric Slaves?

It’s difficult to predict the future of human/robot relations. Will we enslave them? Will they enslave us? Or will our relationship be a boring imitation of a Kubrickian dystopia? The first two are preferable to the last, but really, since all of those scenarios likely involve sex robots, it’s difficult to get upset.

Luckily for us, a recent study attempts to ascertain what children think about their relationships with artificial playmates. The results are predictably amusing and contradictory; for instance, these gentle young hominids enjoy the idea of robot friendships, but seem to also enjoy the idea of robotic serfdom:

“When I got to school this morning, my teacher surprised me by giving me a robot to help me with my schoolwork. We played football at recess with my friends. In class, he wrote for me and helped me to think. Leaving school he carried my bag and transformed into a bike. When we got home he prepared my snack and helped me do my homework. He created books for me to read, and we played with toy cars. He keeps my secrets. I can tell him anything, and he gives me advice.” –Boy, 10, France

I find myself wondering what sort of advice this robot provides. Kill all humans, perhaps? Another child relished the prospect of his new robotic parent, especially since his human parents seem like they suck:

“When I get home, my robot helps me with my homework. My mother and father [came in and said] no video games now, homework first, but when they saw that I was already finished and had done everything correctly, they were glad that I had made friends with the robot. It could do everything—play soccer, build Legos, read, do math, write, and all the movements a person can make. Since my parents really are always at work a lot, they can’t always help me or play with me or cook something. Now the robot helps them with that.” –Boy, 9, Germany

Yes, young Gerhardt’s parents were thrilled at the prospect that he would no longer bother them with his childish musings. And young Gerhardt was seemingly also thrilled at the prospect of a mechanical homework machine that would take on the boring tasks of learning, so that he could fulfill his daily Call of Duty requirements. Try as I might, I can’t really blame him–Call of Duty is pretty fun.

Another youngster, again French, who apparently studies wizardry, also enjoyed enslaving his robot for the purposes of homework:

“My group finished its work before class ended, so my teacher let us leave early with the robot. I am overcome with joy and I play with him. But my friends are jealous so I lend them him (but not always). We are happy that he is with us and we have a good time. He helps us with building problems, like building models. Or scientific and alchemical problems. He can fly, drive, run and walk, of course.” –Boy, 11, France

So, while it seems that these children enjoy the prospect of robotic friends, I detect sinister undertones, because they seem to also enjoy foisting their human responsibilities onto their circuited counterparts. What this means for the future is unclear, and I decline to make a prediction. I will make one comment, however: fuck these kids! I didn’t get any robots when I was little. We had Go-Bots, for Christ’s sake! Do you remember how shitty those were?

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