Thinking Unconstrained

Examining the world with a critical eye. Topics span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios.
Dracula! Frankenstein! Wolfman! Fictional monsters such as these used to be the sort that amused and scared the general public in the early 20th century. Variations existed but the general "monster" was a humanoid thing that would prey on the innocent or was an anthropomorphic embodiment of a cultural fear prevalent during the times of their creation. The Frankenstein monster being a product of a mad experiment reflecting the reserve that people had against medical advancements, or Dracula being the strange untrustworthy foreigner prowling the street of civilized society stalking his would-be victims to their horrific ends. Then the monsters changed, as supernatural curiosities gave way to science fiction and technological interests. We started seeing more monsters such as various alien invaders from outer space, which in hindsight may have resonated with the red scare of revolutionary communism. Nuclear power gave birth to a host of super heroes and mutated monsters. These embodied the hopes and fears of radiation amid an unnerving possibility of a world-wide nuclear annihilation that was the promise of the Soviet - American cold war. We also saw zombies take stage, and that can be interpreted as a social criticism of the mindless mass of people going through the motions, whether that meant consumerism or conformity. Such were the modern incarnations of our societal fears throughout the 20th century. But who and what are the monsters of the late 20th century leading to the early 21st? And who are the heroes that juxtapose them?

During the latter half of the 20th century, prominent movie monsters such as "Jason", "Freddy Krueger", "Mike Myers" et. al. filled the roles of our collective anxieties and fears of suburban USA. Movies such as "Alien" and "Terminator" not only gave a dimension of horror in science fiction but also played on the female fears with regard to childbirth and divorce. Whilst new characters emerged, oldies such as Dracula and Wolfman continued to provide their regular scares now and then. For sure, we've also reinvented and rebooted many of the old characters and applied them to the modern world. The host of DC and marvel superhero movies testify to this. Zombies were no longer the supernatural undead but a rabid host of regular people infected with an engineered virus. Vampires became moody high school children and aliens eventually all became short, grey, big black eyes with bulbous heads eager to sexually molest random populations primarily in the USA. These all represent something meaningful in our societal psyche and I don't deny their validity. However, surely there are new characters/ideas representing novel things that do not need to be shoe-horned into the old skins and narratives. These are the monsters and heroes that I would like to identify and discuss. But before we begin, there are a few guiding rules to state.

1. We must only accept characters and ideas that became prevalent in the public sphere after the cold war (i.e. 1990).
2. "Old idea - new skin" or conversely "New idea - old skin" are easy to spot but acceptable. However they should be limited as there are too many of these in the current culture of rehashes and reboots.

And so let us begin. The three biggest disruptive things that affected everyone in the world in the 1990's were the end of the cold war, the proliferation of personal computers and wide-spread internet access. Therefore it's reasonable to look for new characters from these disruptions affecting the cultural thought. The "Terminator", the machine horror at this point had become the "divorced dad hero" in the second movie of the franchise and it was no longer quite the right fit for the internet age. Thankfully before the decade was to end, the "Matrix" had filled this role and had seated itself as the source of mythos for the internet experience and also provided a continuation of the same kind of fear for artificial intelligence as was instilled by the original terminator. There were certainly other related cyberpunk-like storylines such as "Ghost in a shell", "Appleseed" and "Johnny Mnemonic" that helped create the world of the Matrix. However the horror element was not as extensive in these stories and perhaps the attraction of a super hero origin story was the missing ingredient. The character "Neo" was essentially a super hero when it came down to the basic shell of the story. He's a nobody at the start of the movie and by the end becomes "The One", the all powerful prophecised demi-god who leads the charge against the machines. In this sense, he's a superhero of the 21st century, created from our sense of wonder regarding the internet. An expressionless avatar in a virtualized world who battles the oppressive forces to free the minds of the imprisoned. The idea certainly struck a chord with many but it faded in popularity rather quickly as the internet itself morphed into a different experience with the arrival of social media and smart phones, and what came to be known as "Web 2.0". And what kinds of characters did we get through that transition (aside from the likelihood that Neo will resurrect as Neo 2.0 in the latest franchise, mirroring the "new" web)?
Web 2.0, which is basically an internet experience on handheld devices centered on social media platforms was something that was much more simplified and provided a less nerdy way for the average non-computer type to engage on the internet. The transition opened up a large user base and had tremendous knock-on effects. For instance, social media annihilated to a large extent the ability to filter bad data from the good, and led to the proliferation of all sorts of half-truths and what people claimed were "fake news". The entire internet experience was no longer just a means to share information, and a conduit for freedom of expression without borders. It had become something much more yet bastardized, consolidated and tamed, for the wildness was swept under the rug and beaten with a truncheon. The handful of centralized and monopolized platforms became the shackles of businesses and the only means of reaching out to their customers and audiences. In a very condensed time frame, it completely upended many facets of social behavior and expectations. The old web 1.0 was obsoleted in barely a decade and the internet itself became a new monster called the web 2.0; domineering and arithmetically debasing its users to a level of perpetually consuming automatons and ever-chasing dollar and endorphin hamsters.

This new world of tightly coupled and highly centralized interconnectedness was embraced widely and was hyped incessantly throughout the meteoric rise of the platform monopolists that exist today. Rather than recognizing the beast as the monster, the popular culture instead chose to demonize the people who used it to spread various forms of "misinformation" and attention seeking behavior. It deflected the ire and the frustration of the people back on themselves, to divide and conquer, to save their own skins, while feeding the narcissistic egos of their champions and sweetly rewarding them for being the obedient lapdogs of the beast. Since the media and the culture machine were themselves tightly coupled with these platforms and had a vested interest in staying in business, they did not recognize the monster for they were an integral part of it and they dared not bite the hand that fed them. Or should I more accurately say, the hand that continues to feed them.

But leading up to this point, the media did counter intuitively play on the fears of artificial intelligence and of robots taking over our lives. The general trend of increased automation and of human obsolescence was a common theme in many of these theatrical releases. The algorithms of course did take over rather quickly in real life, and today they exercise wide parametric controls in their vaunted aim of achieving "stability", which is to say, the desired and programmed outcomes of their chiefs. Those algorithms however are limited in their abilities and are nowhere near the level of the fictitious anthropomorphic horrors that we've become so accustomed to through the media. They are in essence only golems, and are closer to the theatrics of the Wizard of Oz rather than something akin to the man-hating skynet or murderous androids. Whether the media intended to or not, it introduced a dramatized new technology to the unwilling masses wary of new and controversial things. It showed them a monster with sharp teeth and insidious eyes to get acquainted, and later a cute mogwai/gremlin creature with a doting look was sold with much less resistance. But it appears that nobody heeded the ominous warning of the "Chinese boy" from the "Gremlins" that we must, "no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight"!
Movies in the 1990's started transitioning to incorporating more and more CGI, thanks to the rapidly rising capabilities of computing power. Jurassic Park was arguably one of those movies that really pioneered and showcased the potential for this type of film making. The monster in this instance was two-fold. On the one hand, the computer generated dinosaurs on the big screens meant that the days of animatronics and special effects were at an end, and the onslaught of digitization was on the horizon. Computers were going to be the future; you had to get on that train and learn to use those complex MS office applications to keep pace. Those silicon chips were going to be everywhere, in every appliance and rule every facet of our lives, and we dared to dream that they may even be inserted in our bodies and our heads. Fantasies of cyborgs and merging with machines didn't seem so far fetched then, and it was thought that it was only going to accelerate our inevitable doom at the hands of the deux-ex machina.

But the dino amusement park creatures meant something else too. The ability to genetically engineer, clone, and "play god" with DNA was a frighting prospect to many. The problem was not just the idea of bringing back magnificent creatures by hybridizing them with contemporary critters, but it was the shear thought that we could create life at will and manipulate the genetic code as we saw fit, which signaled an opening of the proverbial Pandora's box. Not soon after this mass box office shock, Dolly the cloned sheep drew another jolt of horror in this vein, and suddenly the idea of clones and genetically engineered creatures were in vogue. We were now in the combined onslaught of a gene-altering and computer centered future, and the world of "Blade Runner" was going to be a reality in our lifetime. Alas it was not meant to be, and as "Batty" aptly stated in his farewell monologue, "all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain"...

But genetic engineering and fears associated with this discipline did live on past the Y2K (despite the wide hysteria that the world was going to end due to the clocks reseting in the scary computer world), and went on to create many more GMOs and spark innovations in tracing DNA ancestry and the like. What genetic Frankensteins, chimeras and humanized animals were being created in the labs of Dr. Moreaus around the world? What kinds of clones and hybrid creatures were being produced to turn a buck into two? What were those shady government-connected-super-secret labs going to do with the trove of genetic samples at their disposal? What weaponized micro creatures could they unleash upon the world at will and then provide a convenient cure ready and packaged for immediate deployment at a ransom? Such fictions. Such strange fictions of villainy and terror!
In other words, the zombie apocalypse was upon us, and it was caused by our sin of playing god with nature! It was us and our ingenuity that would cause the virus, bacteria, or fungus outbreak and we would pay a hefty price for our transgression! But never fear, because we're so smart that despite truly cataclysmic collapse of society and key infrastructure, we would still manage to create a cure for a never before seen disease in record time! Trust the umbrella corporation and our forward thinking governments to save us from ourselves. If they can't then humanity has no chance of surviving... the problem... that these entities... created... in the first place... What's a hopeless post-apocalyptic survivor to do in a world beset by rabid neighbors and Machiavellian institutions!

Of course, the modern educated viewer of scientific leaning today is beyond the ridiculous and irrational notion of a supernatural cause for the dead to rise and haunt the living. The idea of rising from the dead is naturally a common theme among many cultures, as they must surely have witnessed the process of bodily decay and the strange movements and sounds emitted by rotting corpses, giving a semblance of life returned to dead flesh. In a Christian context (and other Abrahamic religions) however, rising from the dead has a different meaning and it most certainly does not mean a zombie apocalypse. But the interplay of these two ideas combine the fear of the end times and of death in its unrelenting pursuit of those trying to survive from its ravenous maw. This scenario however is too scary of a thought and intractable as a problem. A virus is curable, whereas God deciding to end the world is not. There's only one way out of that conundrum, and an atheist was never going to make the cut.

In a way, the zombies were always here amidst in our society. They're the mindless herd, going through the motions, capable of the most horrendous deeds and venomous slurs. They cannot be convinced to think differently or to go against the grain of any prevailing idea. The most scary aspect of this however is that they never think of themselves as zombies, as they vacuously live as empty shells of flesh, never questioning, and never truly engaging in any critical thought; An incapacitated mind unable to break itself away from its social conditioning and self-imprisonment. The zombie apocalypse hence has already happened many times throughout history. In all cases, humanity had to survive despite the brain-dead attempting to claw and bite the survivors; to ultimately turn every living human into one of them. "Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!", exclaimed Doctor Foster in the "Dawn of the Dead". You better be resourceful and be handy with improvised melee weapons if you're going to get out of this alive!
Looks like we have an independent thinker Among Us. You must be one of them terrorists bent on destruction of all that is good and true. Your only desire is to pop our precious bubble! Achtung, uphold the bubble! Destroy the bubble poppers before they come at us with their safety pins! Never underestimate the power of a mind to do all it can to avoid cognitive dissonance and societal exclusion. It's a disease of insanity at a collective level and we're all susceptible to its deadly infection. Take the word "terrorism", for example.

The term terrorist invokes images of crazed lunatics bent on maximum carnage of innocents, in almost all cases by bearded men screaming a religious Mohomedean battle cry, for whatever unfathomable afterlife reasons we care not for. This (un)popular image was instilled in the public mind primarily due the event of 9/11/2001. Before then, the Soviets and the Communists were the terrorists. These were insurgents and freedom fighters composed primarily of the peasantry, who coalesced to battle the oppressive forces and unethical governments to bring about a communist regime change. In the world of Hollywood, it is for this reason that "Dutch" and his freedom-loving band of macho men went into the jungles of an unspecified central American country in the movie, "Predator". The glistening biceps and the over-the-top violent spray of bullets are enough to easily defeat the cannon-fodder guerillas, but it is the hidden enemy, the alien hunting them from the tree tops that the boys have trouble defeating. But sure enough, that one ugly mutha thing called Communism does die at the end, thanks to the resourcefulness of Uncle Arnie, and his big sticks.

And although the invasion of the "red dawn" army and its wayward ways was a frightening prospect to the American public, with the Soviet Union gone and China becoming increasingly capitalistic, there was no more external enemy to focus the militaristic leanings of the nation. We may have imagined alien invaders daring to obliterate the White House as in the movie "Independence Day", or unleash mass ground assaults as in "Mars Attacks", but none of them were worthy adversaries (or even believable) to replace the good old commies of yore. It was as if Batman no longer had his Joker, Superman missed his Luthor, and Captain America sorely wanted his shield banged on by a burly mustachioed villain unleashing a good hammering and a reach around sickle for good measure. Then came the terror from the skies, and this alien thing called axis of evil and Islamic militants (even capable of defeating our old enemy, the Soviets!), took up the mantle as worthy successors to fill the void of our vacant war-torn hearts. The military world was revitalized and put back on the pedestal to go forth and defeat the threat of Jihadists on western soil. To those with itchy trigger fingers and blood-tinged glasses, it was as if their ~Habibi~ had finally emerged from the sands. The Uruk hai drums went pounding forth into the mountains of Helms Deep in Afghanistan and the overwhelming hoard of the west descended upon Gondor of Mesopotamia.

In many ways, the situation had all the right makings of an anti-soviet style military glorification. The idea of disparate shadow terror cells amidst western nations, the paranoia of anyone with a certain religious or ethnic look, and the mass distrust of those who did not accept or approve of the war effort. The phantom hunt throughout the entire middle-east in our pursuit of "radical Islamists" and our destabilization of the region was beyond reproach. No questions were allowed. It was all a matter of national security. "Support the troops", they said. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists", they said. And we looked up at the starry podiums with a sense of hopeful expectation and prayerful guidance for deliverance.

"C'mon y'all, say it with me now",
"Keep your change, we'll keep our gHAd, our gHUns, and our KKKHanstitution!",
Quoth the Palin, nevermore.
And her eyes had all the seeming of a demon’s that was dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er her streaming threw her shadow on the floor;
And our souls from out that shadow that lay floating on the floor
Stood up united and chose to keep the change instead. Say no more!