The Corporate and the Posthuman: Natural Enemies

Matt Pillsbury

Many, many cyberpunk films and anime agressively foreground two themes. The first is the idea of the emergence of a new stage of human evolution, sometimes just ways of making people who are stronger, smarter and faster than the original version which has been muddling along for the past hundred thousand years, and sometimes a totally new type of existence, an artificial intelligence which is confined to the computer networks of the world and is which paradoxically liberated by that confinement.

The other theme that comes up with almost amazing regularity is a world dominated by huge, multinational corporations, which are, at best, amoral profiteering entities, and at worst are the villains, plotting the complete domination of the society around them. They frequently control the police and military, or even have private armed forces of their own.

When these two elements come into play, they set upon each other almost immediately. The Boomers of Bubble Gum Crisis battle to escape the clutches of the GENOM Corporation. Blade Runner's replicants are struggling with the Tyrel Corporation which created them. The eponymous process of Max Headroom broadcasts the truth to the masses, 20 minutes into the future, often undercutting Network 23's interests while he's at it.

In each case, the conflict being played out is one that has been with SF even before SF was an identifiable genre. The idea that creations turn on their creators dates back at least as far a Shelley's Frankenstein. In the Romantic period, the fundamentally evil act of creation was a direct result of the hubris of the Enlightenment, the scientific desire to probe every mystery. The motives behind the construction of Max, and the sexaroids, and Roy Baty are all somewhat more prosaic--they are going to make lots of money for their creators.

The change, of course, is partially due to the shift from science demolishing the human spirit to that of commerce eroding the individual. While big corporations have interfered have been trying to turn the machinations of government to their advantage since the days of the robber barons, it's a rather more recent development (at least in the cultural consciousness) that they are trying to convert us into nothing more than consumers and producers. With the constant propaganda of Madison Avenue and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, there is the sense that identities are being commodified. It's no wonder that Japan, where the corporate world has infiltrated the private sphere with impressive thoroughness, gives us BGC's GENOM, and becomes a symbol of the corporate future in Blade Runner.

And the corporate future in BGC and BR are distinctly dim. Both GENOM and the Tyrell Corporation turn individuals into commodities. The Nexus 6 replicants are built to labor on offworld colonied, or to aid in fighting wars--either as 'pleasure models' for the troops, like Pris (echoed by GENOM's 'sexaroids'), or as members of 'kickmurder squads' like Zhora. Replicants who have emotions are less pliable, so Tyrell takes a policy of planned obsolescence. They all die in four years. When that is not enough, they are outfitted with ersatz memories, so that they can be human enough to fool their owners, but not human enough to actually do anything unexpected. Network 23, from MH, is almost benign in comparison, even though it has turned much of the population into expendable couch potatoes.

Since the posthumans of Max Headroom, Blade Runner, and Bubble Gum Crisis are all extremely individualistic, it is in no way surprising to see them turn on their creators. In BGC, they aren't particularly successful--their flaws bringing them into confrontations with the elite vigilante Knight Sabers, but this is as much a concession to BGC's comic-book worldview as anything else. Yet in Max Headroom, Max, who is nothing but individuality and personality (and, ironically, was created as a spokespersonality for Coca-Cola before getting his short-lived TV show) thwarts Network 23's attempts to hold their audience captive. Roy Baty goes so far as to kill the CEO of the Tyrell Corporation and surely causes the company stock to drop a few points in the process. He is "more human than human", so like any human, he looks for more life, and more freedom.

Max and Roy are able to have the success they do because of their posthumanity. Roy evades, defeats and ultimately saves the Blade Runner Deckard (more an agent of Tyrell then a officer of the law) with his genetically engineered strength, reflexes, intelligence and, finally, empathy. Indeed, the empathy that was supposedly absent from his personality is greater than the ostensibly human Deckard's -- Deckard kills replicant after replicant without remorse as Baty mourns them. If you are charitable, you can believe these abilities allowed him to defeat the security that you think Tyrell would have to protect him. Of course, maybe the scriptwriter just forgot about it.

Similarly, Max uses his existence within, and control over, the Network 23 computers to battle and defeat them. He is able to broadcast the stories they spike (along with his grating wisecracks) by virtue of the power they gave him. And here, as in Blade Runner, you walk away with the impression that the world is a little better place for it. The BlipVerts aren't blowing people up anymore; Deckard and Rachel fly off in their spinner.

[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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