Remembering the future

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Thursday, March 6, 2014


THE recent Spike Jonze film, Her, has troubled many. At its core, the film dissects the question of what it means to be human - a classic theme in the sci-fi genre. Here, the Siri-like character imbued with artificial intelligence personified an OS or a software operating system who later on became a surrogate for a real human relationship.

At first, the AI feature of the OS allowed it to learn the intricacies of human empathy just to later on discard their relationship with humans in exchange for a higher degree of connection with other far superior OSes. Poor humans and their emotional baggage, left behind by sentient software.

Many years ago, a film of the same sci-fi genre tackled the same issue. This time aliens have set up a city in space where they house the multitude of people that they have abducted. The advanced but dying race wants to figure out the same question – what is it that makes us human so that they can adapt our resilient ways for the survival of their species. Their method for answering this question was interesting. They injected individuals with new memories every night to distill the motives for human behavior. One time you are a taxi cab driver and then another you are the scion of a wealthy family. But what they failed to consider was the power of human connection. The narrative device was of course, love, which ultimately became the undoing of the alien race.

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Spike Jonze and the aliens in the film Dark City seem to be on to something. The message of the films provisionally answers the question that human empathy is what distinguishes us as a species.

The power of the connectedness we feel to each other or social empathy actually lies at the center of the evolution of human societies. When our species established tribes and with it family relations bounded by emphatic ties, it was an advancement in social organization which made it easier for our species to hunt and gather and later on, set the stage for domestication and agriculture.

We have survived as a species because of the principles of shared reliance in each other’s goodwill and labor for the most part of human history. But something happened along the way. With surplus in production came property relations and the ridiculous penchant to amass private wealth. Over time, we have evolved complex means of economic production to benefit the few who own property and resources with the labor of the many disenfranchised. And social empathy got lost in modes of living conditioned by domination and competition the base of which is private enrichment.

Just like the advanced civilization who have lost their emphatic capacities and sought it by experimenting on humans in the film Dark City, we have become alienated to that one true social resource that can actually save us from extinction, that of caring for each other or empathy.

My graduate students and I were discussing the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber just recently. He has this concept of verstehen that has come to signify an approach to the study of social phenomenon by "putting oneself in the shoes of the other." He makes a case for empathy to bridge the inadequacies of both macro and micro sociological analysis.

But more than being a epistemological approach or a methodological bias toward the micro, this concept of verstehen is also Weber’s ontological stance or his understanding of the nature of reality. People act in meaningful ways and these behaviors taken together is what makes possible the monolithic structures of society through people’s everyday actions. Verstehen, therefore, can be seen as a recognition of the cooperative nature of social life where social empathy as social glue is seen as both an ontological and epistemological reality.

Much of modern sociological thought is actually an appeal to remember the necessary ties that bind us together in society driven by crass individualism and social apathy. What Marxism offers, for instance, is a blueprint for overcoming this state of affairs by pointing out the dead-end of a social regime predicated on private property. He exhorts that we historicize the roots of this type of society and push the advancement of human civilization by engendering the social resource of human empathy towards a classless society.

What these films sci-fi films Her and Dark City manifest are warnings about our dystopic present and future if we don’t remember or historicize. To historicize is to remember what makes us human in the first place which are actually the ties of human empathy that once bound us together toward collective productive ends. To do so is to point toward the future.

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(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on March 07, 2014.

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