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Of Men and Machines

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Last week, we discussed the very real (and very near) prospect of integrating “autonomous robots” into our human society and what sort of ethical questions this might raise. When technological advancement begins to infringe upon personal privacy and freedom, citizens at all levels of political persuasion begin to raise a fuss (just ask President Bush). For some reason, we have this selfish idea that our technological inventions should serve us and not the other way around. The 1986 movie, Maximum Overdrive, which was written and directed by Stephen King, takes this belief about technology and turns it on its head. Although the movie is campy and completely dated, it does raise several interesting points that play very closely into the ethics and technology debate.

The movie itself is pretty simple: a comet passes near the Earth and leaves a haze behind that affects the machines that we rely on every day. Soda machines become weapons, ATM machines become jerks, and vehicles become autonomous. King’s original short story is called Trucks, because the heavy machines of the highway become the prime antagonists of the story. In something of a technological mutiny, the machines of the world begin to exact their revenge on their human taskmasters, showing no remorse (they’re machines after all) as they systematically and methodically kill and maim everything and everyone in their path. In a moment’s time, the mysterious comet has turned the tables on the humans, making them the targets of these technological serial killers. 

Most reviewers of this film (then and now) either love it or hate it. Those who love it seem to focus on the goofiness of the film and its B-grade acting and direction; the action movie equivalent of a Monty Python or Mel Brooks movie. Those who hate it focus on these very same qualities and instead of finding humor in the film are appalled by its badness. They were apparently expecting a serious film about humanized machines on a killing spree and weren’t satisfied by King’s take on it. Unfortunately, both sides miss the real significance of what Maximum Overdrive is saying. Whether or not Stephen King realizes it—and in spite of his effectiveness as a director/writer—he has actually made a very profound statement with a profusely silly (and macabre) film. 

Both lovers and haters tend to agree that the very premise of the film is ridiculous. They want to know how an extraterrestrial cloud could animate and give consciousness to electronic devices and machines. The irony here is that these same reviewers don’t bother asking the same question of the evolutionary scientists and philosophers in our own day who propose the very same explanation for human life. Richard Dawkins (and many others) have retreated to this extraterrestrial silliness when pressed for a plausible account for human life without an “intelligent designer.” The end of the rope for the materialistic evolutionist is irrationalism. Listen to astronomer Robert Jastrow give his “explanation:”

Science has proven that the Universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks, What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the Universe? Was the Universe created out of nothing, or was it gathered together out of pre-existing materials? And science cannot answer these questions, because, according to the astronomers, in the first moments of its existence the Universe was compressed to an extraordinary degree, and consumed by the heat of a fire beyond human imagination. The shock of that instant must have destroyed every particle of evidence that could have yielded a clue to the cause of the great explosion. An entire world, rich in structure and history, may have existed before our Universe appeared; but if it did, science cannot tell what kind of world it was. A sound explanation may exist for the explosive birth of our Universe; but if it does, science cannot find out what the explanation is.[1]

Is this “scientific” explanation any more implausible than Stephen King’s comet cloud giving consciousness to machines? Notice how Jastrow capitalizes the word “Universe” to emphasize the transcendental (read religious) nature of his “intelligent designer.” He doesn’t call his deity “God” because “Universe” has a much more naturalistic ring to it. If Jastrow doesn’t have to explain how we got here because all the evidence was conveniently obliterated, then why should King have to provide an answer for how his comet cloud works?

Furthermore, as one who is never much bothered by the sight of blood, King makes his machines brutal beyond belief. Children are shown the same treatment as adults; the machines know nothing of compassion or mercy. In this regard, King is no different than the evolutionary world of “survival of the fittest.” If evolution teaches us anything it teaches us that survival is the key to progress. If in the same evolutionary world where humans rose to the top over millions of years by subjugating the rest of the creation to its beck and call, shouldn’t the machines show the same intolerance for weakness if given the opportunity? If what science tells us is correct and humans have evolved to the point where God is no longer necessary, why should it stretch our credulity for this to happen to our own creations? 

In the end though, the machines are not as autonomous as they believed. They are still dependent on the humans to “feed” them. Machines require fuel and man providentially left himself a loophole to mutinous machines. The creature can rage and put on a good show, but he is still beholden to his creator. Next week, we’ll take a look at another film that tells a story similar to Maximum Overdrive, but is more sophisticated in its approach.

Endnote:

[1] Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978), 114-115. (Emphasis added.)

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