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In deciding how to treat machines, which are becoming so engrained in our identity as a society, one needs to consider the politics associated with the various systems of our material culture. These systems are judged for their ability to improve the quality of life for people, and they aren’t just considered for the way in which they affect our physical environment. These machines have a certain amount of power and authority that needs to be taken into consideration. In this essay, I will discuss the relationship between people and machines through the scope of two films and a book. In doing so, I will reference the film “Metropolis,” (1927) by Fritz Lang, the film “Robot and Frank,” (2012) by Jake Schreier, and the book “Sandman,” (1816) by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Through the scope of these films and reading, I will discuss the encounters, desires, expectations, fears and fantasies associated with the machines. These sources will help provide more background and opinion about politics are associated with objects. The most interesting aspect of the relation between people and machines is the way technology essentially builds who we are, and in an age where there is an ever-increasing dependence on machines.
Technology has advanced exponentially over the years, to the point where it is controlling much of our lives. “Metropolis” depicts a city, and this is representative of the machine. From the very start of the film, it shows the pistons hard at work in the massive city. The machine of the city is divided into the lower and upper segments, and then these are divided into the housing for the workers and the machine rooms. In these rooms, many workers are busy attending to the machines, which are completely dominating their attention, (Lumen, 2013). The assembly line is stressed in this scene, to show how the actions of people are being dictated by the machines themselves, and this type of activity is made clear to be an important factor in operating the city efficiently. This wouldn’t be possible without the machines. Essentially, the scene shows how dependent mankind is on machines to get through their daily lives. But that partnership that mankind has with machines is more indicative of a dependence on machines, and people have become slaves to the machines. Each one of their movements is a result of the machines and this essentially shows that people, in general, have no choice but to be dictated by the machines if they want to be able to survive on the planet.
The people in the film are very structured, much like machines. The way that they walk is comparable to how a robot would move – they walk with very heavy paces, and they look as if they are chained together. This represents the fact that their job has essentially formed who they are. The jobs have taken their individuality and have replaced it with a specific function that they have in how the world operates, much like how a machine is created for a very specific purpose. The elevators transport them all vertically, and this is depicted in such a way that they are all goods. Through the depiction, the director, Frinz Lang, shows how wrong it is to have people live their lives as if they are cogs in machines.
In the film, a robot also adopts human skin, and this is a representation of a reversed role in the film, between the machine and the human. This shows that a robot and a person were essentially interchangeable, because the nature of the work environment, which made people have essentially the same function as a robot. The robot’s adoption of the skin also shows that the machine had a desire to become more than just a machine; it wanted to have some kind of identity. This shows that the people had a desire to exist beyond their conditions of cogs in a big machine. The desire to have more humanity is also shown in the way that the city is so broad, and there is the concept of there being an interpenetration and interplay of the masses, movements, surfaces and the relationships. Everything looks to be a wash in the grand expanse of the metropolis.
Robot and Frank take a different look at the relationship between a robot and a person. The story revolves around the lead character Frank, who has dementia. He is a cat burglar and due to his mental disability, he is given a personal robot by his son, to assist him in his everyday life. Frank doesn’t like the idea of living with a robot, and he even talks about the robot killing him in his sleep, but as he gets to know the robot, the two form a friendship. They look to be friends, but the robot can’t feel. This is an example, of where a human and a robot interaction goes well. This is a very positive look at the ability to communicate well and fulfil the fantasies of having a strong relationships between mankind and robots, (Puppetry, 2013). At the very centre of the film is the challenge in finding a way to assist a parent who is aging. This film gives an account of the flaws that are contained in people, that aren’t also found in robots.
The movie shows that there are also limits to the abilities of the robots. While the robot is very good at cleaning and looking out for what Frank is eating, he isn’t able to understand many of the things that people are able to understand. For example, it is having difficulty with the concept of stealing. Once it is clear that the robot can’t comprehend stealing, Frank takes advantage of the situation. Frank spends much of his time training the robot to steal. So with this dynamic, it raises the question about the things that we gain, and those that we give up by having a robot do traditionally human tasks. This is an idea that Frank’s daughter raises when she is talking about the fact that people are making robots their slaves. Also, the person who Frank is in love with, Jennifer, has one of her own robot helpers, and this shows how common the use of robots is, and how useful they can be at various tasks that are normally performed by people. It also reveals that there can be a very good relationship formed out of the interactions between people and robots. However, as Frank’s daughter points out, there are also ethical consideration to factor in when using robots to perform our everyday tasks.
The movie doesn’t really take sides on the fact of whether it is the right thing to do by having robots take on many of the responsibilities that are typically associated with only being human. It is merely raised in passing, and the robot doesn’t object to being involved in situations that most people would not want to be a part of. For example, it would be far less likely for a human caretaker to get involved with criminal activity such as stealing. The film, merely sets up the issues that the audience then considers. In the end, it is the loving relationship between the robot and Frank that is the centrepiece of this movie.
In the end, Frank has to make the decision about whether he will wipe out the robot’s memory. This is a very important decision, because he needs to erase the memory in order to get away with crimes of thievery that he had committed with the robot. The relationship between the two certainly changed, and it went from Frank wondering why he was talking to an appliance, to Frank caring about the robot and considering him a friend. This lends itself to the idea about whether people can really have a relationship with machines. If we did, how would we communicate with them? Currently, people talk to machines, such as their appliances when they are angry at them. People also talk to their car if it won’t start, and they often swear at the machine. So even though appliances can’t think or feel, we already have a relationship with them, and as these appliances become more advanced, we will begin to see a change in the way that we communicate. The film, gives a glimpse possibly into the future, and lets us see how robots and people may communicate. While they have no feelings, appliances are a major part of our lives, as such was depicted in Metropolis. However, that relationship was depicted very negatively in Metropolis, while it was more of a positive thing in Robot and Frank. The film also makes us question the way that we communicate with machines now, and after watching the film, one might take a look at their appliances in a different way, and see that there is a dependence on them and that they are a major part of their lives.
In Sandman the story of the lead character, Nathaniel, is told through the voice of a narrator, who claims to have known Nathaniel. He goes mad after learning that one of his former professors, Spalanzani, is a robot. This implies that while the robots might be able to interact well with people, humans might not be able to accept them as regular members of society. Hoffman uses an eyes theme — which comes up at the beginning of the story when it is explained that the Sandman takes children’s eyes and feeds them to his children on the moon – to show fear of the robots. There is a certain amount of automation that is embedded into the robotic woman, Olympia in the story. Nathaniel eventually falls in love with Olympia, who he sees in an eyeglass. She is an automation. The eyes are eventually pulled out after Spalanzani, who is a double of Nathaniel’s father, and Coppola, who is the double of Coppelius, start fighting.
The automation plays a significant role in the short story and it shows that there is a certain amount of mistrust that is inherent in human/robot interaction. People were beginning to ask themselves if their spouses, too, were not human, but in fact automation. “Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling” (Hoffman, 1816). This showed the type of chaos that was caused by the fact that people and machines had become so similar, that people were wary about whether those that they cared for were actually machines, and not human at all. It was also interesting to note how affable some of the automations were. In fact, Olympia ended up being a favourite at tea parties, and people didn’t know that she was actually an automation, which is quite punishable if discovered.
The story reveals the dangers that could result from having relationships with machines. While the relationship in Robot and Frank was beautiful, the relationship between Nathaniel and Olympia was not good after Nathaniel discovered that she was automated after her eyes fell out. This is evid3enced by the fact that he lost his mind after he discovered that she was a machine. He even was even sent to a madhouse after trying to kill Spalanzani. He wasn’t happy with the fact that Spalanzani pretended that Olympia was a human, (Attachment, 2013). Spalanzani had introduced Olympia to people in the public as if she were a real person. Even though Nathaniel recovered from his insanity, it reappeared after climbing a tower with Clara, whom he loved. He looked down through a telescope and then thought that Clara was automated, after his madness returned.
All three of these stories show the various possible interactions between people and robots. In Metropolis, the use of machines in everyday life was creating a race of people that also acted similar to the machines. They were essentially becoming the machines and this was meant to depict the effects that machines are having on people’s lives. In Robot and Frank, the story told a very different story. This one showed how robots can be used to augment our lifestyles, and to help us, rather than to destroy our humanity. It also told a very positive tail of how robots and people can have a beautiful relationship. That was much unlike Sandman, where there was a tremendous amount of hostility created by the human interaction with the robots. This revealed how the robots can be a negative influence on people’s lives, and can even result in there being violence and death. The three works act beautifully to describe some of the possible interactions that people may have with robots, if they ever get to the stage where they can interact with us on a relatively human level, and Metropolis did a wonderful job showing how our current interactions with machines might affect who we are as the human race.
Hoffman, E.T.A. The Sandman. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Jake Schreier, Robot and Frank, Film, Frank Langella. (2012; Park Pictures, 2012.), Film.
Fritz Lang. Metropolis, Film, Alfred Abel. (1927; UFA, 2010.), Film
“Puppetry of the Mind,” last modified June 28, 2013.
“Attachment, identity and the uncanniness of things,” last modified June 28, 2013.
“Lumen Opacatum: Flesh in Fritz Lang’s,” last modified June 28, 2013.