Was anyone else surprised by Sister Clarice’s description of heaven and apotheosis? Living avatars, she tells her hubbies, are “something glorious.” They are the continuation of souls into eternity, an afterlife we can see and touch.
But living avatars are made up of information bits. They are the accumulation of virtual flotsam and jetsam: medical records, test scores, cubit expenditures, holoband choices, and the Caprican equivalents of iTunes, YouTube, podcasts, and other downloads that, taken together, differentiate my taste from yours. Can Clarice really believe that the sum of this data equals a soul? And even if the code could become a “soul,” is it truly one with its flesh-and-blood progenitor? Or might it be or come to be something else altogether?
On the BSG episode “Flesh and Bone,” the Cylon model Leoben Conoy insists on his “humanity” despite Starbuck’s attempts to humiliate him. When Laura Roslin decides to throw Leoben out of the airlock, he tells Starbuck that he does not care about dying, but he fears his soul might not reach God. Starbuck feels for Leoben, but to Laura and the other Colonials, Cylons are “toasters,” signified as “it,” whether or not they have human forms. Thus, at the end of episode, when Starbuck asks her gods to safeguard Leoben’s soul, it is a pivotal BSG moment.
From the way things seem on Caprica, Starbuck’s hard-won insight may have been a bit more common before the first Cylon war—at least among religious fundamentalists. (The fundies seem to take a more capacious view of humanity than technogeeks like Daniel Graystone.) If Clarice believes that a living avatar embodies the soul, then the Zoebot is as human as the flesh and blood beings that daily poke and prod her. By extension, the Cylons who we came to know on BSG were as much people as their human nemeses, which was pretty much what the Galactica remnant believed by the series’ finale. Since the last science class I took was in tenth grade, I can’t comment on the biology much less the neuroscience that separates humanity from artificial or sentient intelligence. But if we’re talking about the soul, the divine spark within, I bet most Americans are not ready to chalk it up to a sophisticated system of consciousness-enabling electrical processes.
Caprica asks whether those processes could be akin to, or the same as, an animating spark of the divine. Clarice’s belief, and Zoe and Tamara’s virtual embodiment, suggests yes. (Compare Clarice’s appreciation for Zoe’s creation of a living avatar with Daniel’s desire to get his daughter back; Clarice sees apotheosis—a glorious future for humanity, while Daniel makes a selfish grab for his past.) Yet in Clarice’s view, the soul is static. (Another theological digression: does the soul evolve, or is its essence set?) But avatar Zoe is not quite the same as human Zoe, and avatar Tamara is definitely different from her human counterpart. Are these changes reflective of personhood or soul? But if the avatars are pure soul or pure code, can their natures evolve?
Battlestar Galactica began and ended with a not-so simple question: what makes us human? The answer was formulated obliquely; there was little time to debate and discuss the finer points of toaster-ness when most characters were fighting for their very survival. Caprica is a whole other story. Set at the beginning of the human-Cylon encounter, there is time—and reasons—to explore what it means to be a person made in the divine/s image. That exploration starts with the nature of divinity (at least for the Soldiers of the One), but the real flash point will be the question of what constitutes humanity.
Is the soul simply a cluster of information? I have felt all along that Caprica was edging towards some form of Extropianist philosophy and this question pushes us further along that path. I am far from expert on Extropianism so I turn to that fount of all wisdom, Wikipedia, which tells us:
Extropianism, also referred to as extropism or extropy, is an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition. Extropians believe that advances in science and technology will some day let people live indefinitely and that humans alive today have a good chance of seeing that day. An extropian may wish to contribute to this goal, e.g. by doing research and development or volunteering to test new technology… Extropians share an optimistic view of the future, expecting considerable advances in computational power, life extension, nanotechnology and the like. Many extropians foresee the eventual realization of unlimited maximum life spans, and the recovery, thanks to future advances in biomedical technology, of those whose bodies/brains have been preserved by means of cryonics.
Through my time at MIT, I met many Extropians, some of whom believed that their future lay in the capacity to download large chunks of human memory and consciousness into machines so that the best of human thought would live beyond the life span of their “meat” bodies and would be able to continue to function as a resource in the future. Of course, I rarely met an Extropian who did not think that they had the best of human brains, just as one rarely meets someone who claims to have a past life that was boring and uninteresting. It seems to me that we can see the Zoebot as a kind of Extropian fantasy—the idea that transmitting and coalescing all of our core data will allow us to preserve the essence of human identity beyond death. Of course, rationalism, as we see above, and not faith provides the core of the ways that the Extropians project their own self-image, yet, surely, there is a certain level of faith and as others have suggested, spirituality that surrounds their talk of the singularity, their idea of transcending human form. So, can we imagine Extropianism giving way to a kind of mysticism over time? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me. Of course, I have some doubt that the Extropians would be thrilled that someone might undergo the great change to transhumanism only to use their extended life span and consciousness in order to pick up cute boys in virtual bars, but then, that’s television. 🙂
In a conversation with a student this past week, I found myself thinking about Zoe in relation to Lawrence Lessig’s Law/Code distinction. Lessig uses the example of speeding. You can make it against the law to speed, and we have the free choice to violate the law and face the consequences. You can program the car so that it can not exceed the speed limit and you take away that free will, except for those who have the capacity to hack the code and reprogram the car. We normally think of robots as almost pure code, yet the scene last week when Graystone orders the Zoebot to rip off her arm raises some interesting stakes in this. It seems to me that people may be treating the Cylons differently depending on what mix of code and law they believe governs their behavior. And of course, those of you who study religion may have a good deal to say about the centrality of free will (i.e. law over code) in different religious traditions.
One thing that strikes me week by week is how much the show takes as given our understanding of the digital realm: our ability to think in terms of interfaces, memory, avatars, virtual world economies, and the like. I might contrast that with how fundamentally indecipherable a film like Tron was when it was released into a largely predigital culture or for that matter, the many years that Hollywood ran from terror away from cyberpunk science fiction, holding onto space opera for decades after it had lost much of its currency in the world of literary science fiction. If Battlestar Galactica was very much a space opera, Caprica has given itself over much more fully to the realm of cyberpunk; complete with the focus on corporate struggles in the high rises and hacker cowboys in the streets below.
I was also struck by how much this particular episode centered around a series of seductions (some successful, some only attempted)—Zoebot/Rachel and her pretty boy-toy geek, Clarice’s seduction of Amanda, Lacey’s attempt to seduce her way into the terrorist underground, the secretary’s flirtation with Adama, and of course, the courtship dance between the two business tycoons. I have to say that the request to look at Adama’s tats has to be the best pickup line of the night, followed only by Rachel’s falling flat in her high heel shoes and suggesting that she has chosen to look like Zoe in hopes of avoiding getting hit on, but Clarice’s resourceful appeal to ethnic heritage also has something to recommend it. And, given what Eve Sedgewick has told us about the construction of intense rivalries between men being a way of evoking homosocial/homoerotic desire, Vergis’ promise that he will buy everything Graystone likes and destroy it, represents a particularly complex interweaving of fear, greed, desire, and ambition. (And once again, we have a let me show you my tats moment! This does seem to be a major kink among Taurans.)
Blood is the theme that steps out of this week’s Caprica. Whether it is blood spilled to get ahead (the theft of the “metacognitive processor chip” or MCP), blood crying out to be spilled for retribution, or blood shed as discipline and punishment for the One True God, blood is the unifying theme for “Pyramid Scheme.”
Religion comes back into focus this week as The STO (Soldiers of the One) and their religious world is revealed a bit more. When we see Barnabas subjecting himself to the cilice on his right arm. This cilice is no regular cilice, worn on the thigh, but one that looks suspiciously like barbed wire or a crown of thorns wrapped around his right arm. Barnabas is one tough dude, into pain and faith—looks a lot like “Opus Dei” to me. He manipulates Keon, and crushes Lacy by telling her he won’t take her “cargo” to Gemenon, but then instructs Keon to find out what it is.
Meanwhile Sister Clarice puts on her holoband to have a chat with her confessor about the true meaning of apotheosis: it is not just a living avatar, but the continuation of the Soul into eternity. This idea of the soul having a body sounds a bit like Mormon theology to me, but it seems that there may be more to apotheosis for Sister Clarice than this simple statement. Perhaps I am too much of a geek, but I am hopeful that the pieces that form this alternative monotheistic religion from religious worlds that we already know gets a bit more interesting. It is rather frustrating to see all of these Catholic clichés being deployed to move the STO religion story along.
It is also important to note that the body—and not just Zoe’s body—is an important element of the plot of Caprica each week. This week, we begin to understand that for the Taurons, tattoos are not simply bodily modifications, but carriers of memory and family—if one knows how to read them. Both Joseph Adama and Vergis are “wearing their hearts on their sleeves.” By using tattoos on the body as a site for memory, the Tauron belief system, like the STO, is firmly rooted in ideas of embodiment, and what it means to be human. Joseph’s struggle to find his daughter’s avatar will test the strength of his religious faith and practice surrounding the body.
Sister Clarice, on the other hand—with her idea about both the soul and the body continuing on for eternity—focuses us squarely on the development of a “theology of the body,” as it were, centering around bodily modification, pain, transcendence. For everyone, it is the body, and what is done with it, that shows the relationship between that person, and their faith… or lack of it. Or maybe in Sisters Clarice’s case, she’s just a philosophical stoner at the end of the day, judging from the amount of smoke and drink she consumed this episode!
Meanwhile, we also have to contend with the fact that perhaps Daniel is a murderous geek, and not merely a rich geek. Vergis, a very, very rich Tauron, is after Daniel and “everything he loves” because he stole the MCP from him and killed two of his workers. Daniel in bloody flashbacks, is stabbing Vergis’ friends relentlessly, but Daniel is blaming Joseph Adama and his Tauron hit man brother Sam for the crime. (so did he really do it, or what?) Vergis, however, is not just a run of the mill revenge seeker, he is into brain-frakking Daniel relentlessly. Promising to “take away everything he loves” he wants to buy Daniel’s Pyramid team, and then destroy everything else. Sounds like old school villain to me. Most intriguing about this story, however, is that if Daniel really did kill to get the MCP, then the foundations of his company and where it would seem to be going fit perfectly together. Murderous creation, murderous actions. Frankenstein, anyone?
I was also amused, and liked the fact that Zoe has taken steps to meet Philemon, the geek who loves her robot self, in the virtual world. There is nothing more touching or poignant than two geeks going out on a date! By playing with her identity, Zoe is creating a space for herself outside of her Cylon-encased body. I did notice that Philemon is working on her arm, which she tore off at her father’s command last week. I wonder what other parts of herself she will have to tear off as Daniel her father gets closer to realizing the potential of what he has created.
Now that we are just about halfway through the season, it is worth noting that Ron Moore and company have taken a slow, steady arc to reveal what is in store. Unlike Battlestar Galactica which started furiously, fraught, and with a big bang, Caprica’s slow steady progress will hopefully give way to defining plot twists, turns, and a more coherent explication of just what is at stake in creating this hybrid robot, a Cylon.
Right now, one can only speculate, but the questions of the creation of life, eternity, and divinity are all wrapped up into a big 6-foot metal frame that is inhabited by a teenaged girl’s avatar. As with most teenagers, one step to the dark side could create havoc, and turn the teen into a dangerous adult—or not. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Caprica. Maybe the biggest story line is about growing up in a body you just can’t understand.
*For those of you who are trying to catch up, this Friday will be a recap of all the Caprica episodes, starting at 2pm, Eastern time. And for those of who like the Beastie Boys, and Battlestar Galactica, this fan-made video is for you. Kudos to katamaran78 on YouTube. You made my day with this gem.