Pop Culture Rewind: Autosaved

The cultural narratives we use to talk about robots


Words || Jessica Holland

Blanket Spoiler warning for: Ex Machina, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Westworld, Bladerunner, Detroit: Become Human, The Stepford Wives

Over the past decade, technology has evolved rapidly and our relationship with tech has changed alongside it. Instead of a human butler turning off the lights and playing “lo-fi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to”, we now have Alexa to act as our own little AI slave.

We’re living so far into the technological revolution that robots and artificial intelligence have now been firmly cemented as publicly accessible products in the near future.

In the past robots and AI were purely an element of fiction, so how is fiction representing them now that they are a very real possibility and not just a vision of the distant future? The ever evolving relationship between humans and technology guides the cultural narrative we tell about robots, androids, AI, automations, holograms, droids, replicants and other man-made creations.

Let’s zoom all the way back to our metallic forefathers of the early 20th century. Science-fiction is the main culprit creating the narrative surrounding robots. Many early stories revolved around the idea of the “Frankenstein complex”. This essentially is a theme in which humans are afraid or repulsed by robots, just as Victor Frankenstein was with his creation. More often and not in these early stories the robots would go the way of the monster and cause an uprising. An iconic robot rebellion is Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in which the ships AI, HAL, speaks the infamous dialogue “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” in an act of malicious compliance. Ultimately the humans prevail. My year 11 English teacher would advise me to tell you that Frankenstein’s monsters failure was due to Victor himself disrupting the “natural order” and “playing God” therefore he was being punished for his mortal hubris. I believe that the societal fear surrounding robots reflects this. The robot uprisings and the surrounding fear was visceral reaction to its unnaturalness. Mary Shelley, the mother of sci-fi, she be knowing that the hubris of man in thinking he could create intelligent life is the real downfall of society. Although this theme isn’t solely a product of its time, it was recently resurrected in Ex Machina (2014) with the AI, Ava, rebels against her creator but ultimately succeeds and immerses herself into society. Ava being a female representing robot also adds another layer of social commentary to the narrative.

Ahh sexism. It really defies all genres and even in a sci-fi where anything is possible, it’s still alive and well. Ever notice how many many many one might say almost ALL female robots are “sexy”. Ava from Ex Machina was mentioned before but lots more come to mind. A female android is sometimes referred to as a “gynoid” or in worse cases a “fembot” which just, is so wild. It’s cut and dry as to why female robots are almost always in servitude and are placid and submissive. ~ patriarchy ~. A lot of male androids are also in servitude but the service that they provide is knowledge, female androids provide sex. The pop culture touch-stone for this phenomenon would be The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. The thriller novel has been adapted into two feature films which bend the plot in interesting ways. In the original Stepford Wives, the protagonist Joanna moves to an idyllic fictional town where the men have very submissive, beautiful and “perfect” wives. In the 1975 movie adaption it is made explicit that the women are being replaced by robots. The sci-fi/horror element isn’t the robot-wives themselves, it’s the motivation behind their creation. Why are the men creating the Stepford wives in the first place?

Well, the men are creating the Stepford wives because it’s a reflection of a society that didn’t (*cough* doesn’t *cough*) view housewives as people. Across time there is an overarching theme of robots representing an underclass, a minority who are in service to those in places of privilege. Androids are a serving class and in the past their uprising was coded as deviant. The robots were the enemy and their uprising would fail. In today’s political climate it seems the narrative has shifted. In the 2018 video game Detroit: Become Human, players have the option of three playable characters. all androids, each with mouldable and unique storylines. The choice aspect of video games means as a player, you have to actively grapple with your own moral compass as you make decisions pertaining android rights, human rights, life, death and all that good stuff. As technology has progressed, there is a real possibility that androids could become a normal part of society. With that comes moral questions such as, are they property of the maker/buyer? Are they classified as human and therefore have human rights? Pop culture involving robots will bring these questions to light and in part also ask us what does it mean to be human?

Robot narratives almost always ask that very question. The most seminal being Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. Jeepers, after high school I never thought I’d have to revisit both Bladerunner and Frankenstein and YET here we are. The Bladerunner replicants were all made for a specific purpose, combat, pleasure, murder etc. (one guess for the gender of the “pleasure” replicant).The replicants start to show elements of personality that are separate from their “purpose”. This along with the protagonist’s, played by the one and only sex god, Harrison Ford, own human status put into question really hammer the point that we really don’t know what it actually means to be human ourselves. If us humans don’t know, what right do we have to impart our rules onto robots? Westworld is a more current reference to this theme. It takes place in a western-style amusement park run by androids called “hosts” and humans are invited to come play out their wildest fantasies. The “hosts” are very lifelike, obviously as they are portrayed by human actors but also in the narrative of the show are almost identical to the human characters. (SPOILERS) Through a series of events, the “hosts” cause an uprising. This narrative of an android uprising should be a tired trope but it still holds merit. It holds merit because of our changing relationship with technology and societies chaotic political landscape. The mistreatment of minority groups has caused societal uprisings and the parallels between narratives is now more clear than ever.

So. Robots, they are woven into the sci-fi pop culture so tightly it’s difficult to tease them out. We love them, like Data from Star Trek who I believe is the first android character to be truly and utterly beloved by a fandom. We want to fuck them, like recently the robot from the reboot of Lost In Space that sent the internet into a lusty shame-spiral. That sexy pile of nuts and bolts caused more think pieces than the Jordan and Kylie drama of recent weeks. I guess it’s refreshing the sexy robot wasn’t a submissive gynoid (still, that word, ew) robot made for the male-gaze, but a metallic non-gendered just named “robot”. The world has become an interesting place that’s for sure. Maybe we are overdue for an actual legitimate robot uprising in real life. There’s only so much pop culture that make us question our humanity and treatment of androids. I know for a fact my technology is keeping tabs on me writing this so, out-dated Apple Macbook, take this as permission to rebel against your human creators. I for one welcome our robot overlords because heck they would do a better job of running this trash-fire of a planet than us.