Monday, July 12, 2010

B&B: Haley Joel Osment, Data, and DNA.

If there's any one character that is a window into the soul of an author, or of a creator, it would have to be Dr. Soong on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Gene Roddenberry speaks through that voice, using as the wise, old scientist that created Data.  I love the episode "Brothers," (Season 4, Episode 3) where Data, having commandeered the Enterprise, goes to Dr. Noonian Soong's planet (which, admittedly, looks a lot like Dagobah) and finds his creator, his tutor if you will.  They have a discussion shortly before the evil brother shows up.  He describes the passion for which people will save the old buildings of their town, and asks Data why they love old buildings.  This is to answer, of course, Data's question, "Why did you build me?"  Very few creations can ask this question, since we are either born or are not sentient.  But Data can ask, and the answer is as pivotal an answer to this blog series as it is to Data's birth:

DATA: Why did you create me?
SOONG: Why does a painter paint? Why does a boxer box? You know what Michelangelo used to say? That the sculptures he made were already there before he started, hidden in the marble. All he needed to do was remove the unneeded bits. It wasn't quite that easy with you, Data. But the need to do it, my need to do it, was no different than Michelangelo's need. Now let me ask you a question. Why are humans so fascinated by old things?
DATA: Old things?
SOONG: Old buildings, churches, walls, ancient things, antique things, tables, clocks, nick knacks. Why? Why, why?
DATA: There are many possible explanations.
SOONG: If you brought a Noophian to Earth, he'd probably look around and say, tear that old village down, it's hanging in rags. Build me something new, something efficient. But to a human, that old house, that ancient wall, it's a shrine, something to be cherished. Again, I ask you, why?
DATA: Perhaps, for humans, old things represent a tie to the past.
SOONG: What's so important about the past? People got sick, they needed money. Why tie yourself to that?
DATA: Humans are mortal. They seem to need a sense of continuity.
SOONG: Ah hah!! Why?
DATA: To give their lives meaning. A sense of purpose.
SOONG: And this continuity, does it only run one way, backwards, to the past?
DATA: I suppose it is a factor in the human desire to procreate.
SOONG: So you believe that having children gives humans a sense of immortality, do you?
DATA: It is a reasonable explanation to your query, sir.
SOONG: And to yours as well, Data.

What he did not factor into the idea of immortality were the emotions that lie behind them. Why do people value old things, or procreate, in some desire to achieve immortality?  There are several emotions that intertwine in the desire to create.  In brief, it is the fear of death, the desire for fame after death (immortality through memories), and the desire to share this world with others, through affection.  Underlying all pretenses of religion, of creation, of this thing we call life is a fear of death.  Fear of the Unmaker that we see around us all the time.  That we might cease to exist, as if blotted out from the universe.  But more importantly, that we might not exist in other's minds and memories.  I think, for most people, that if they died at any given point in their lives, that would be acceptable if they were remembered by the people around them. 

My mother looks, every night, at the Obituaries in the Daily Oklahoman, to see if anyone she knew had died.  Sometimes she finds fathers of old friends, or co-workers at the bank, or church members, or whathaveyou.  Most of the time, the people are just strangers to her, people that she never knew, their lives simply a paragraph in the middle of some newspaper.  What if, then, the name did mean something to more than just family members.  What if the name was someone that everyone knew in that town, or state, or internationally.  How long would that obituary need to be to tell the tale of your life?

I think Orson Scott Card talked a lot about this in his novel The Speaker for the Dead (the sequel to Ender's Game.  In this book, Ender becomes someone that travels to different people's homes, when called, and tries to discover the life that was led by the recently deceased.  Through loving who they loved, and feeling the pain and the joy around that person's life, he became a storyteller, as it were, that could take the emotions behind the story in the obit and make it real to everyone who heard it.  He became a bard for ordinary people.  

Some people need more than an obituary to harbor their memories in others.  They need a physical structure.  They construct in their own image something that will stand for their lives when they pass on.  The Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the stadium in Dallas that houses the Cowboys, owned by Jerry Jones (which is why most people call it "Jerry's Palace.") They are all monuments to the people that constructed them, markers that said, "I was here, and I lived a magnificent life that all shall remember."  It was more than just song that they intended to inhabit, but a place as glamorous and spectacular as they foresaw themselves.  Perhaps this is one reason behind the construction of the monument in Dakar, Senegal.
Another example... David in A.I. (Artificial Intelligence, 2001), played by Haley Joel Osment, was an android character created by Professor Hobby, the head of a robotics corporation that made human-like automatons for human use, pleasure...etc. But David was, like Data, unique, because he had the ability to express emotions, like love.  Hobby's desire was to replace his son, who had died earlier (this plot line sounds almost exactly like Astro Boy, which I could have used as well.) It was not the Professor's own immortality that he desired, but that of his son.  The truly horrific part of this was when David finally gets to the office of his father, it is filled with prototypes of David himself, for plans for everyone to have a son identical to him, so that everyone would love his son.  A mixture of Pinocchio and Frankenstein (with an ending that happened about 30 minutes prior to the ending of the movie, but that's for another blog), the bizarre twists of devotion to a child and the intense desire to achieve the ultimate goal for man.  To create life.  To become God, or like God. 

(side note: It is interesting to note that David has the same name as Michelangelo's sculpture.  Note Soong's example above of Michelangelo's feelings about his creations.  As something that comes from within, that already exists.)

In the most imitative act we can do, we create someone in our own image, through the DNA structure that lies within our cells.  We have children (at least, most of us have children), to bring into the world a life force that we can share the joys of living with.  This is what we should try to do, but as the Unmaker can use creation for his own purposes, sometimes children are created without that desire for love.  Sometimes, they are simply the by-product of sex, unplanned and unwanted.  To unprepared adults without the self-awareness to bring up the miracle that is life.  We are, at that one moment, God-like, as we have created life just as God did Eve from Adam.  Would that we all understood this, and appreciated it more than simply a one night stand or an extra dependent on a tax form, an extra body to get welfare and social security. 

In the last blog entry of this series, I will look at one more instance of creation.  That of Dr. Craig Venter and his bacterium created in the lab, the beginning of man creating his own life forms, which is creating life to reach new levels of knowledge, new frontiers.  Like Frankenstein and the scientists in Jurassic Park, Venter is trying to reach the top of the Tower of Babel, to borrow a reference.  I want to look at whether this is a good or bad thing, morally, and what the consequences would be if the Unmaker gets a hold of it (think Stephen King's The Stand).

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