Our class discussion today — in particular the implications of placing organic life and inorganic objects on the same plane of ethical consideration, the Internet of Things (and “smart houses”), and whether or not human-programmed artificially intelligent objects can have any kind of agency independent of human activity — made me think of the 1977 sci-fi horror film Demon Seed.
Next week Anthology Film Archives is presenting this film as part of a short series “of filmic and televisual terrors that surveys the way horror filmmakers and artists have exploited various media to mine the ruptures created by technological advances in production, transmission, reception, and communication through the media of film, television, video games, and the internet.”
I noticed that a rather pessimistic quotation from Alfred North Whitehead is included on the series webpage: “The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur” (epigraph to Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage). Demon Seed would certainly bear out that sentiment, but Whitehead’s less doom-laden thoughts about the world as “webs of interrelated processes” have heavily influenced Jane Bennett and Jennifer Gabrys (and most likely other folks we’ve read). In their writing, respectively, on interactive, “agentic” assemblages of organic and inorganic matter, and the way connectedness and environments might mutually constitute or “program” each other (and the ways all of these things “program” human experience of environments), they have explicitly drawn on Whitehead’s “approach to ‘experience’ as something that is embodied across human and more-than-human subjects” (Gabrys, “Sensing an Experimental Forest: Processing Environments and Distributing Relations,” Computational Culture. September 2012). As I understand it, this notion of embodiment — whether it operates at an atomic level; or as a network of electronic sensors; or in and through animal, vegetable, or mineral matter — is also the basis for their ecologies of connectivity.
If you haven’t seen the film and you need to blow off some mental steam before the election, I recommend Demon Seed, especially in light of what we’ve been reading in the past couple of weeks. Just keep in mind that as an audience member you will be compelled to reenact its 90+ minutes of creepily pan-optical, clinical surveillance of Julie Christie (i.e. voyeurism, with some unremarkable 1970s horror-flick misogyny thrown in for good measure). Good times!