Culture Magazine

Mind Hacks 3: 1956 – The Forbidden Planet Within [Media Notes 59]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

I’m bumping this post from 2010 to the top of the queue as it is relevant to my current thinking about silly, but alas widespread, fears of AI. Those fears are projective fantasy. Just as the Monster from Id in Forbidden Planet is a projection from the mind of a central character, Dr. Morbius. The mechanism is obvious in the movie. Morbius has been hooking himself up to advanced mind technology and it has, in turn, created the monster that stalks the planet.

Skynet in the Terminator films is thus a cultural descendent of that Monster from the Id. The same is true for all that crazy advanced technology that threatens the human race in so many science fiction films. But the same is true about those fears of out-of-control AI that real people have, real people who should know better. I’m thinking of people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Bill Joy, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Bostrom, and others. It’s a bit scary to realize that these businessmen and ‘thought leaders’ indulge, are allowed to and even encouraged to, indulge in projective fantasy so openly and transparently.

We are seeing that the development of ‘mind technology,’ that is, artificial intelligence, has this side effect, that the ‘dark side of the mind’ is being projected into policy discussions in the civic sphere.

This thought needs to be refined and developed. I note only, as I indicate in the post below, that Forbidden Planet is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Monster from the Id is the cultural descendent of Caliban. What is the mechanism through which these creatures of fantasy have been transmuted into real social mechanisms and forces?

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Mind Hacks 3: 1956 – The Forbidden Planet Within [Media Notes 59]
 Forbidden Planet, Robbie the Robot on the right.
Based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet takes us on a Freudian trip to another world where we meet Robbie the Robot, the progenitor of Steven Spielberg’s R2D2 and C3PO, and the Monster from the Id, the progenitor of those irrational computers that crop up in science fiction. This use of Shakespeare underscores the point that the imaginative devices used publicly to comprehend and present computers often have old cultural roots. Part of the world that Disney had carved out for an indeterminate audience is now being crafted to fit the needs of young adults through the guise of science fiction and the fantasy fiction of J. R. R. Tolkein. Disney’s abstract imagery becomes the stuff of special effects. Similar imagery would be reported by subjects of the LSD experiments that were conducted by the CIA – in search of truth drugs and agents for psychological warfare – and by various clinicians in the United States and Canada.
Mind Hacks 3: 1956 – The Forbidden Planet Within [Media Notes 59]
Forbidden Planet, the super-hot Monster from the Id melting the door at the left.
The term “artificial intelligence” was coined at a 1956 conference held at Dartmouth; the Russians launched Sputnik a year later. Noam Chomsky vanquished behaviorism and revolutionized linguistics by making the study of syntax into a technical discipline modeled on the notion of abstract computation. The human mind was declared to be fundamentally computational in nature.
In the literary world Aldous Huxley initiates modern writing on drug experiences with The Doors of Perception while Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs all published major drug-influenced works. At the same time banker R. Gordon Wasson reaches the general public with an ecstatic article in Life magazine about having discovered that the hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria, was the root of much religious experience throughout the world. Psychiatric experts were predicting great things of LSD-aided psychotherapy.
Mind Hacks 3: 1956 – The Forbidden Planet Within [Media Notes 59]
Forbidden Planet, Morbius (seated at the table) in using the mind-amplification technology of an advanced, but dead, civilization.
The Josiah Macy Foundation was funding conferences in both arenas, cybernetics and psychedelics. It seemed as though, at last, we were on the verge of discovering the material basis of the human mind and harnessing it to our will. Yet, however this played out in the press, the “real goods” were restricted to relatively small and elite groups of people. Computers were very large and expensive devices that had to be kept in environmentally controlled rooms; very few people saw or worked directly with them. Similarly, these wonderful psychedelic drugs were not readily available; one had to travel to Mexico, or one had to live in a big city and know the right psychiatrist.
People were wishing upon a distant star, imagining a future world over which they, in fact, had no control and for which they had little responsibility. That safe remoteness was about to change. In the 1960s psychedelics became freely available on many college campuses and in their surrounding neighborhoods while the 1970s would see the emergence of personal computers, computers small enough and cheap enough that individuals could own them.
Selected Milestones:
  • 1953: Watson and Crick publish the double helix structure of DNA and thus initiate the age of microbiology, initiating biology into the information paradigm.
  • 1954: J. R. R. Tolkein publishes The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers.
  • 1954: Thorazine, the first major tranquilizer, is marketed.
  • 1956: The Bathroom of Tomorrow attraction opens at Disneyland.
  • 1959: John McCarthy proposes time-sharing to MIT’s director of computing; time-sharing would make computers much more accessible.
  • 1960: Robert Heinlein publishes Stranger in a Strange Land, which would become a major point of literary reference in the drug and mystical counter-culture of the 1960s.

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