In “HAL, Mother, and Father,” an essay in the Paris Review, Jason Resnikoff remembers how his father, a computer scientist, reacted to the visions of the future presented in science fiction movies of the Sixties and Seventies. First came 2001:
My father was so buried in computers that when he saw 2001 he very much liked HAL, the spaceship Discovery’s villainous central computer. To this day, he enjoys quoting the part of the movie where HAL tries to explain away his own mistake — the supposed fault in the AE35 unit — by saying, “This kind of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error,” an excuse that more or less sums up my father’s considerably erudite understanding of computers. According to my father’s interpretation of the film, HAL wanted to become something more than he was. Becoming, always and ever becoming, is in my father’s eyes a worthy, nay, a noble way to go through life, always trying finally to be yourself, that most elusive of goals. The mission to Jupiter was a mission to take the next step in evolution, and HAL wanted to be the one to evolve. My father made this sound like a very reasonable desire, one that makes HAL the hero of the movie.
Put on the film now and you see the physical metaphor of evolution as Kubrick and Clarke imagined it: a perfectly symmetrical monolith, its facets immaculately smooth, the most ordered object imaginable. And there I see how my father was in the thick of it. He thought his work with computers was in a small way helping to liberate humanity, to allow people to think beyond what had until then been the limits of cognition. When those right angles appeared in the shape of a monolith, my father saw freedom, but I doubt he saw what else they stood for: that they were the same right angles of urban renewal displacing working-class neighborhoods and erecting in their ruins other kinds of monoliths, housing projects like prisons, expressways that gutted street life. Or the monolith of an office building somewhere in Thailand, where as a part of Operation Igloo White all the might of the United States military was mobilized in a truly insane attempt to automate “strategic” bombing in Vietnam via a dense network of computers, but only managed to drop bombs on random people. I very much doubt he realized how his work, the very systems of command and control he was helping to develop, would in the hands of the greedy and inhuman come to destroy the world he thought was on the verge of being born.
Image: Patrick Feller.