Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sense8 and Technological Empathy

This show has a decidedly slow, somewhat uncertain first episode or two. But stick with it for gradually evermore rewarding viewing. Part of it's virtue is in not having to justify its creation with a pilot episode and not feeling the need to simplifying it's backstory into a 18 second opening montage (iZombie, for example). Here, the viewer is asked to absorb the rich background texture as the plot is resolved, rather than marching straight into a clockwork orrery of comic book waypoints.

The international settings initially brought to mind "H+: The Digital Series", an insanely ambitious YouTube serialised sci-fi from 2012, which I really liked. I was then briefly worried by a reference to a drug "DMT", since this was (ab)used as the axiom for "Lucy" (2014).
Screen capture montage from title sequence.
But Sense8 settles down comfortably into more of a Cloud Atlas feel, with unlinked or loosely linked character narrative sections spread spatially around the world, instead of echoing through time (as in the 2012 movie). This parallel should be immediately obvious given the shared production personnel (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski) and signature acting talent (South Korean, Bae Doona). I think this series far more successful than that film, avoiding any 'yellowface makeup' [1] awkwardness and utilising a host of beautiful real-world settings from the actual cities involved (probably awesome in 4k video).

Sense8 is far more critically worthy than the silly sci-fi-action romp Jupiter Ascending, from earlier this year. Although this series similarly 'deviates from typical gender dynamics' [2], it also escapes the prerequisite blockbuster explosion festival, stilted script and cardboard acting. It achieves a distinct, waltzing poetry with punctuated by serendipitous plot alignments.

There is a heavy emphasis on exploring emotion, cultural identities and sexualities, family, close friendships and even religion. Showing the overwhelming interpersonal similarities despite great diversity. If ever a piece of fictional work aspired to present contemporary global humanity in it's entirety, this would be it.

I hope this sci-fi-lite framework will appeal more to a universal audience (i.e. feminine positive). It's great that it manages to totally drop CGI reliance. It's inspired in comparison to current typical superhero movies/series, copy-pasted comic book stylings. Far from the old sci-fi standard, white American dystopia/space-opera.

So don't expect a Heroes (2006) all action plot. This is far more reflective, mostly good for chilling out. But the threads do dance together for a triumphant peak about 2/3rds the way through, the like of which I've not experienced from the Wachowski's since the culmination of the original Matrix (1999). It is certainly watchable and gets increasingly compelling, perfect to semi-binge over a several days.

Discussion and spoilers below...

The core theme is clearly empathy. An extremely timely subject, given the growing nationalistic divisions currently being fostered by recent macro-economic failures, atop the underlying firmament of the pervasive, self-first, contemporary philosophy that has increasingly isolated society from family and group living. A self-fulfilling fallacy of free market theory of greedy economic actors, so to speak.

Roman Krznaric (2013) - Empathy Revolution (YouTube).

Imagine if every person in the world were interlinked like the sensate (i.e. 'aware') in this series. For a start it would close the horrendous gap in information reaching us from outside our native language and country development levels, making it (even more) impossible to imagine international warfare, and making real humanitarian efforts a pressing certainty. On a personal level there'd be huge gains in functioning, just from the emotional support and abatement of isolation and ubiquitous loneliness. A good quote from the series is:
"It's not the drugs that make a drug addict, it's the need to escape reality.
Which is deeply insightful and scientifically proven. The 'Rat Park' study (from the 70s) showed that only rodents subjected to a stark living environments, equivalent to a solitary prison cell, chose to continue opiate self-administration. While rats in a stimulating environment, with company, quickly shunned the crack, even after long term administration. Recent history has shown 'war on drugs' is a nonsense. This is especially true against a backdrop of declining living standards, increasing inequality and austerity which degrades our social fabric, with people treated primarily as a labour commodity. As Johann Hari puts it in this FilmsForAction article: "...the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection."

The genetic-psychic techno-babble underlying Sense8's plot is merely expedient to craft a situation easily compatible for filming in the present day, adding a bonus sprinkle of plot drama. Of course, in reality we already have technological prosthesis that fulfil much of that magic: spontaneous conversations between strangers in different corners of the globe have been commonplace for decades. In fact, in countries like Kenya and (rural) India, the population has largely jumped straight onto mobile phones (and even smartphones), bypassing our legacy land-line infrastructure. According to pewGlobal (in 2014) 82% of Kenyans owned a cell phone (19% smart) and 68% of owners regularly used it to make/receive payments.
" can a TV be more important than a bed?
"That's simple. The bed keeps you in a slum. The flat screen takes you out."

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But virtual reality technologies, which seem poised to finally make their mainstream breakthrough, may connect us more emotionally than ever to distant strangers, with their emersion. Perhaps the simple interactivity of being able to look around will make even a recorded experience seem truly like walking a mile in others shoes, "creat[ing] empathy with just a silly headset" [fastcoexist].

Being able to directly control another's actions is the stuff of TED talk titles, but still horrendously clumsy in reality, even for the best artificial limbs. So gifting people unknown skills, is straight out of the Matrix and just as fanciful, given the likeliness of a snow-flake level of uniqueness in the organisation of each person's brain neurons, forming totally bespoke internal operating systems. AIs, and robots, on the other hand, stand better odds of being able to simply import subroutines straight into their 'brains', as and when needed. A type of horizontal capability transfer that base humans can only dream of (while ponderously learning behaviours through labouriously efficient sequential stimulus), and part-organic cyborgs are likely only to emulate, at best.

The most novel fictional aspect is unique the social structure of these sense8 'clusters'. A kind of family of mind, apparently there for each other in an entirely non-judgemental capacity. That kind of suspension of critique is very close to my understanding of 'love', as in to love oneself you have to accept who your are, or just not think about it, as we seldom tend to. This natural acceptance (transposition of self) is implicit in in the show. Inter-group romantic love remains an open question, but I would assume to certainly be no worse than (often maligned) solo masturbation.
The universality of carnality; serendipitously synchronous sex;
the ambitiously inclusive scene that pushed the British rating from 15 to 18.
(Since glimpses of a face being shot to pieces are apparently standard fare for teens.)
Physical love of individuals outside the group, in being necessarily accepted, requires total open mindedness as a prerequisite, or maybe a suspension of disbelief? It is either very convenient that all the individuals are enlightened and very well adjusted. Or the total lack of discord is caused by their melding. I guess they only tend to 'visit' when they happen to be attuned be similar states of mind or are generally feeling receptive.

However, Daniela as a third wheel adorning an otherwise standard gay relationship shows that there's no need for sci-fi mechanisms to entertain romantic polyamory. It all reminds me of the post-human extended family group mentioned in the backstory of Charles Stross's "Glass house" (2006), where they'd spliced genes from bonobo chimpanzees, the apes that famously create social cohesion through sex (as well as the usual grooming).

Setting the sex aside, this sense8 kind of augmented relationship sounds pretty appealing, in that a romantic pairing of two can be pretty lonely and more prone to a pathological accumulation of tension, irritation, boredom, etc. One house, one nuclear family is a pretty modern invention too, I expect, with group shared child rearing a past necessity. Caprica (2009) features such an extended/open family, although it is shown to be dysfunctional, exploited by a ruthless antagonistic member.
The most contentious behaviour within the group would be violence. Maliki, the cluster's spiritual father/mentor, condemns unlinked humans as less empathic, more able to murder each other. But then our protagonists proceed to wrack up a body count of a couple dozen deep, without apparent remorse or reprisals. Kala, probably the most pacifistic among them, seems to accept vengeful murder when viewed from Wolfgang's perspective and memories.
 Flinching at movie fights, but not their trail of dead goons. (3 shot montage)
But of course, violence makes attention grabbing TV, so has to be shoehorned into the recipe.  
In a way this is quite hopeful, perhaps part of the trend of shows that have the audience root for an obviously antagonistic main character (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, even more so); the implicit philosophy is that there are no 'evil' people, just natural variation and a jungle of diverse circumstances. It should help us understand, and better anticipate the risk of devastating authoritarianism, rather than just dismissing Hitler and fascism as demonic. Also in terms of crime and punishment - being tough on criminals makes little sense if anyone in their situation would have likely fallen into the same traps, even less sense if that punishment hardens them or just makes it harder to escape their bad situation.

I think this perspective points to a thought experiment occupied me in highschool daydreams: 'why am I am me, not anyone else?'. The obvious, incomprehensible, answer is that you are everyone; everyone is an 'I', just the same, in the absolute sense! There's obviously no direct memory transfer between brains (exempting memes...), so each unique person feels as if they are isolated and unitary. But the horrific truth is that you are everyone; your soul will be re-incarnated into every body, if you want to think about like that. Each 0.1%er, each wretch tortured in some hell hole, past, present and future. So bring on the compassion and cooperation already.

The weirdest part of sense8's axiom is that the linked souls are as diverse a possible: 50/50 male/female, all different orientations, every corner of the world (biased a little towards US, EU viewership), complementary personalities and skills. Perhaps a key feature of their purposeful inception was to have this roundedness. A maximal departure from our everyday social reality, where we are naturally embedded within a near monoculture. We tend to seek out interactions with like-minded others, too, with ever-present confirmation bias sculpting politically divided networking cliques.

Facebook even undertook research that's been used to defend its feed filtering algorithms. They pointing out that the vast majority of content bias a user is exposed to is down to their selection of contacts, and what they share. Apparently 'liberal' networks are even more like-minded/insular than 'conservatives' in the political bent of their shared content, greatly limiting individual's exposure to 'cross-cut' content, non aligned to their thinking. (Graph, right, from BBC article.)

It's one aspect of the filter bubble(s) in which we live, which might lead to convergent, dead end thinking, reinforce partisanship, unhealthy nationalism, solipsism. Most aren't lucky enough to have a smattering of international links from university, or suchlike. It would be a fantastic (future) school project, though, to create internet sense8s in the vein of good, old fashioned 'pen pals'. Don't just twin towns, twin individuals, or octuplet them! Especially viable once (real time) translation software is good enough to seamlessly bridge gaps in alphabet.

Of course, Sense8 isn't just a lightly disguised, dramatised contemplation of our near future, like any good sci-fi which will necessarily examine cultural change. The bleed-through of emotions in the group are a major feature of daily life too. Another, more cheeky, Facebook project, researches adjusted the mood of target user's posts by purposefully biasing their the positivity/negativity balance of their feed content, without prior consent! Experimental ethics aside, this is a monumental insight into the (heighten) strength of this 'contagion' and the possibility for powers to play with it. The influence on political expression is scary while financial and monetary markets are literally made out of net sentiment: no positivity = no borrowing = no money, economic collapse...

Anyhow, the linked protagonists have been increasingly cohesive so far, with even the most opposing views on murder causing no apparent rift. Might this hint at a corruption of the groups overall values, where a strong, unyielding individual mind might bend the rest increasingly to their own will, at the expense of the other's cherished values? Too great a cognitive dissonance should have broken the link, since visits are mostly triggered by flukes of matching moods and thoughts, later explicitly shared objectives. Might individuality collapse, creating a Borganism of mangled values?

Screenshot montage of main characters - Capheus 'Van Damme', Riley, Kala, Will, Sun, Nomi, Wolfgang, Lito.
In terms of other sci-fi, the Sense8 structure of consciousness seems most similar to Alastair Reynolds 'Conjoiners', as described in the later Revelation Space stories: "Individual identities are retained, but the group generally functions as a single unit working harmoniously toward its goals." In that each seems to retain autonomy and identity, it's somewhat like Hannu Rajaniemi's Zuko in the Jean le Flambeur series, who are obliged to optimise their overall utility via a quantum communications network interconnection.

They each remain fully self-conscious, unlike the half dozen dogs of a pack constituting a single 'tine' in Vernor Vinge's "A Fire On The Deep".  But who's to say that if they continue to share each other's thoughts for long enough, their identities may begin to blur, leaving an individual as confused and disoriented as an isolated Borg from Star Trek.

If an individual human mind is a society, as per Marvin Minsky (1986), comprising many sub-units, or 'agents', then a 'sense8' joining is a linear bolt-on of another society, but with a different collection of specialist agents. What we actually see today is more like a technological 'metacortex', with computers and internet technology augmenting the (highest level) outer parts of our brains with a fundamentally different form factor of intelligence. Motoko's private 'external memory' stash in Ghost in the Shell's, or Rajaniemi's 'exomemory'  which could be private or public.

The internet is a public, shared, memory, and Google is a shared form of thinking, while Reddit (perhaps more than any other site) is a kind of massively shared consciousness, in the way that content bubbles up to the fore like notions seem to spontaneously appear in one's own mind.There's dangers in group think, or biases at least. Broadcast media is more obviously prone to propagandising, but censorship can have wider reach and malicious tampering of our collective digital memories is something straight out of Masamune Shirow fiction that is becoming ever more relevant.

To throw in a few more references: the repeated visions of Angelica, the cluster mother, committing suicide seems like an example of Douglas Hofstader's 'Strange Loops' of a (deceased) self living on, fairly literally, in other people's minds, albeit as a fragment. More than just a meme, since the memories are imbued with identity, purpose and otherness.
"We're Working on an exit strategy."
Plot wise, I was kind of hoping this series would be a self-contained piece. I think it can be taken as such, but there are numerous loose ends. Firstly the entanglement between Will and the evil Whispers could have been resolved with a final showdown confrontation, but they opted to make a get-away and postpone the inevitable. Then there are details like the little dead girl (Sarah Patrell) who young Will sees and who exactly the paranoid, old Icelanding lady is...?

Of course there's much potential to flesh out the backstory of the previous clusters and shadowy organisation, but continuation may require greater emphasis on story arc, at the expense of cultural outrospection, which might get a little tired anyway. Exciting twists and turns aside, there might be more real truth uncovered in exploring the sense8 group dynamic. But they have this viewer on the hook now anyway, so if they make more I'll be there!  :o)

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