Us

 

Jordan Peele’s Us opens for the Easter holidays on numerous screens, as suits a film that is at the same time a genre horror with nods to Don Siegel, Steven King and Wes Craven and a powerful metaphor of the age of Trump and Brexit.  In 1986, young Adelaide King (Lupita Nyong’o) watches a TV commercial for the charity event ‘Hands Across America’, which enlisted 6.5 million people to form a coast-to-coast human chain to oppose poverty.  She visits a boardwalk funfair with her parents and is traumatised by meeting a mirror-image self in a deserted fun house.  Returning thirty years later to the area with her husband Gabe and children Zora and Jason, she and her family are attacked in their guesthouse by four uncanny doppelgängers in red jumpsuits, armed with giant scissors. These are ‘the Tethered’, an underclass condemned, like the Morlocks in H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine (filmed in 1960 by George Pal), to live underground deprived of the life chances of their surface-world contemporaries. These, however, are not so much ‘other’ as the same.  During a night of threat and violent conflict, a terrified Adelaide asks her alter-ego Red who the Tethered are. Red answers, ‘We’re Americans.’ And, in a poignant twist, it is finally revealed that Adelaide is in fact Red, who took her place that night in the funhouse. As the family drive away, the Tethered spread across the country in an an echo of ‘Hands Across America’.

The film has moments of unexpected humour.  During the fight, someone screams at Ophelia, an artificial intelligence like Apple’s Alexa, to call the police: she responds by playing the track  ‘Fuck the Police’.  In a brief break from conflict, Gabe references Home Alone; the children have never heard of the film, and Adelaide tells her husband that conveniently placed electronic toys won’t stop the doppelgängers.  More portentous is a resonant reference to Jeremiah 11:11 (‘I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them’).  As no-one has hearkened to them, the Tethered have risen against structural deprivation.

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Doing a Turing test

Turing-HarrisonFord

Recently I initiated an online chat with Apple support because I had a problem with my iPhone. The agent, Jayson, told me to turn the device off and on, but this didn’t fix the issue. Jayson then suggested I have the phone serviced by Apple, and arranged an appointment with the ‘technicians and geniuses’ in a local store. I thanked him and this exchange ensued:

Jayson
You’re most welcome! Thank you for your kindness, understanding & patience. Much appreciated John! Was I able to help you today?

Jayson
By the way ~ May you have a prosperous 2019!

John
Thanks for your help.  Bye now.

Jayson
I really appreciate you John, Don’t forget to eat your breakfast, lunch & dinner okay,? Its been my pleasure assisting you today, again my name is Jayson. Have a great day and take care always~

Jayson
All is well! You deserve the best in life and Cheers for a great 2019!

TuringTestRunning a very elementary Turing test on this dialogue reveals that Jayson is an artificial rather than human intelligence.  He (it) says things that no adult human agent would say in this situation. Yet Jayson’s mistakes are almost human, like those of a toddler learning to use language. He writes his own name phonically rather than conventionally. He can’t deal with my question – beyond the standard remedy of turning the device off and on – and so passes me on to the adult Apple technicians and geniuses. Unlike a traditional machine, he expresses affection and care: he wishes me a prosperous 2019 (in March) and reminds me to eat regularly, as his parents might have told him. No human programmer would make these mistakes; Jayson’s algorithm needs the capacity to adjust its warm, supportive language according to the season and the relationship.

Within a few years, it will become much more difficult to know whether one is ‘chatting’ to a human or machine agent (although we shall probably assume the latter). And this of course raises the question of the nature of knowledge: given appropriate technology, could a machine learn so adequately that the distinction between human learning – a activity of the embodied mind – and machine learning is elided? In Bladerunner 2049, there is no evident difference between the humans and the replicants. In Cultural Literacy (1988), E D Hirsch states that researchers in artificial intelligence have concluded that knowledge is the key component of all cognitive skills: ‘Once the relevant knowledge has been acquired, the skill follows’. Machine learning, according to this view, is not a mere simulacrum of human learning, but its paradigm.

This view clearly has very profound implications for educational policy, and aligns with current influential views on the teaching of language.

To be continued …

The medium and the (overheard) message

medium_message

I’m sitting in a waiting room on a modern British railway station on a November evening.   The station has been assembled from pre-fabricated units, and the waiting room is a large metal shell with perfect acoustics for articulating the voices of the occupants.  About twenty people, in coats and scarves, are waiting for their train, most peering silently at their digital devices.  In a corner there is a young woman of about 20 wearing blue headphones connected to her large screen phone, which she twists in her hands as she speaks.   She can hear the voice of her friend, but we can only hear her side of the conversation.  We hear it perfectly. She is talking to her friend in a slightly plangent, self-justifying manner, in a mild Welsh accent.  She uses the syntactic filler ‘like’ frequently.    She seems unaware that her private conversation has become a public event, overheard by everyone else in the room despite our hunched performance of private preoccupation.

“Well she’s complaining, like, she’s complaining that people keep letting her down, like, but that’s because we’ve got work to do and she hasn’t, you see … she wants to go out every night and we can’t do it …. she must be doing the easiest course in the world, like one lecture a week and writing one essay between three people … the easiest course ever …”

As an occasional lecturer at the local university, I wonder what course she is describing with its exaggerated lack of requirements.  It sounds like a drama module where some of the assessment will be by performance rather than by written examination.  However that may be, the conversation moves from university life to going home for Christmas:

“I’ve got all this to do, like I’ve got to walk the dog and buy presents … and I’ve got to go to the gym because I’m putting on so much weight.   I saw my grandmother, she said ‘You’re looking fuller!’  That’s the way my grandmother speaks, she doesn’t want to say I’m putting on weight, like, but I don’t want to be called ‘fuller’ …”

At this, the young man opposite me in the waiting room begins to squirm with suppressed laughter.  I catch his eye and we both convulse silently.  Others in the waiting room shift imperceptibly.  The young woman carries on with her apparent monologue about family life in the approach to Christmas.  It’s not Dylan Thomas, but the artless articulation of a private conversation to a captive audience of railway travellers has a certain fascination.

So far as I know, Marshall McLuhan didn’t predict this specific effect of new communications media – but this unwitting publication of the private is certainly a product of mobile phone technology.

Google glass

There’s been a lot of worried comment about Google glass(es), such as the creative good blog http://creativegood.com/blog/the-google-glass-feature-no-one-is-talking-about/, and some good video parodies http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KmFSmkDyr8.  I think that what we are witnessing is the beginning of a change in consciousness that will transform human life. A thousand years ago, people knew only their immediate surroundings. Very few travelled, and those who did lost daily contact with home. Now we have the potential that everyone can be constantly in touch with other people and places anywhere in the world. What will life be like in another thousand or even 100 years’ time? The glasses are a clumsy prosthesis, but we can already imagine ways in which future consciousness will be transformed. And hopefully communication and mutual understanding will help put an end to tribal divisions.

Anyway, Google’s own demo of young men and one young woman parachuting on to the  Google building, all keeping in touch with each other and with the audience in the auditorium, is impressive in a geeky-athletic way.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP1gvGcXcLk&feature=youtube_gdata_player