Monday, May 12, 2014

Monday Morning Mad Men: Some Very Poor Decisions Recently

"I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."
-- HAL 9000
As always, Monday morning finds two or three internet's full of speculation, gripes and theorizing about Sunday's episode of Mad Men.

What is kind of odd is that as of this writing I find only one mention of the extended callback to the "2001: A Space Odyssey"-theme for last week's episode, including a almost shot-for-shot recreation of the "HAL reading lip's" scene in the pod bay.

So with the way left open for amateurs, let me dive right in (spoilers!) and say that Michael Ginsberg is HAL.

And yet while this is clearly what the camera POV is telling us, that doesn't make a damn bit of sense does it? After all, HAL was a computer and Ginsberg is a "creative" who rails against the encroachment of computers. They are diametric opposites, so how can they be stand-ins for each other?

Well, I have a theory...

You see, Sam Adams at The Rolling Stone writes that HAL went mad because --
...a machine that, given a semblance of human consciousness, develops some of the less admirable, more primitive human emotions: jealousy, fear, anger, and the urge to defend itself all costs.
-- but that isn't entirely true.

/brief aside/

One of the great joys of 2001 is that it doesn't explain everything. Along with the origins and purposes of the monoliths, and what exactly the Space Fetus is up to, the "why" behind HAL's descent into homicidal insanity is never explained.   Like Mad Men, 2001 gave us plenty of tantalizing clues, but also plenty of opacity, which together make for a mesmerizing mystery with lots of open space for speculating about what we are looking at without ever really being able to see the whole picture.

That is, until someone made the dubious decision to make a sequel (from the late Roger Ebert) --
All those years ago, when "2001: A Space Odyssey" was first released, I began my review with a few lines from a poem by e.e. cummings:
I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.
That was my response to the people who said they couldn't understand "2001," that it made no sense and that it was one long exercise in self-indulgence by Stanley Kubrick, who had sent a man to the stars, only to abandon him inside some sort of extraterrestrial hotel room. I felt that the poetry of "2001" was precisely in its mystery, and that to explain everything was to ruin everything -- like the little boy who cut open his drum to see what made it bang.

[2010: The Year We Make Contact] is, in short, a movie that tries to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance. There were times when I almost wanted to cover my ears. Did I really want to know (a) why HAL 9000 disobeyed Dave's orders? or (b) the real reason for the Discovery's original mission? or (c) what the monoliths were trying to tell us?...
...was told to lie - by people who find it easy to lie. HAL doesn't know how.
/end of brief aside/

Because the mission demanded that the computer that ran the ship be an intelligent, self-aware entity, capable of creative thought and independent action, rather than a mere computer. But unbeknownst to the carbon-based crew members, HAL had been programmed with two, inviolable directives which it could not reconcile -- process all mission data honestly and without error ("No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.")...and deliberately lie to the crew about the true nature of that mission.

HAL was incapable of doing both, which caused it to become very subtly unhinged, leaving Discovery's non-frozen human crew -- Bowman and Poole -- sailing alone through interplanetary space cut off from any possibility of help from Earth, at the mercy of a computer whose judgment they began to suspect they could no longer trust.

As they calmly gamed out this terrify prospect away from HAL's omnipresent microphones, they did not realize that they were still in range of HAL's omnipresent microphones or that HAL could read lips, and as soon as they revealed their plans, HAL laid plans of its own. But HAL did not murder for "... jealousy, fear, anger, [or] the urge to defend itself all costs." HAL calmly killed (most of) the crew because that is what its mission profile demanded: the mission had to be completed, but the act of shutting HAL down threatened that mission and therefor, logically, ending that threat as quickly and efficiency as possible superseded all other considerations.

And the slowly enveloping, agonizing, Tantalus insanity which comes from feeling trapped between two irreconcilable imperatives is the landscape in which every creature in the Mad Men bestiary lives and dies.  So while the casualty this week was Micheal Ginsberg, it is a fate that no one will escape.

These are skilled artists, working at the top of their craft not to create a Mona Lisa, but clever, sparkly visual snares to gull consumer into buying shit they do not need. These are gifted writers, using the power of the words they command not to create Notes from the Underground, but ear-worms to separate rubes from their dough. These are brilliant amateur psychologists, tapping the deepest human emotion for shabbiest commercial  reasons.  This is a world full of dilettante proto-hipster "creatives" who work every day to find newer and better ways to serve The Establishment and sell Nixon, Vietnam, Dow Chemical and rapacious consumerism to their fellow Americans by using their art to tell grubby little lies.

Those who have mastered the art of complete, emotional and spiritual compartmentalization thrive in the world of Sterling, Cooper & Partners either because they get off on the pure, ruthless Randite pleasure of it, or because they can glide agnostically above it all, or because their shallowness and mediocrity insulates them from any awareness that anything is amiss in the first place.  

But for those who are too sensitive or finely tuned to thrive as the apex predators in an American where every aspect of life is ever-more aggressively divided against itself?  Those are the ones who will crack up, turn on, drop out or find some other big, marble hydrotherapy console to heave through the grated window of their personal locked ward.


Horace Boothroyd III said...

That was brilliant, Driftie.

If you hang around long enough in the Science racket, you begin to realize that it's the smartest ones who get hustled off in the ambulance with the muted siren, never to be seen again.

n1ck said...

Whenever I hear the term "human nature", I remember that the person who is using that term is most likely totally oblivious to the culture that they live in and breathe.

Human culture is a product of the human beings who came before, and the ones who are alive now, interacting with each other. Ultimately, there is no objective human nature that predicates capitalism, violence, or hierarchy, as much as the people who came before us used those concepts/ideas/actions to make the world more suitable for themselves.

The concept that there is a "human nature" that is objective and measurable is passed on by those who most benefit from the status quo and those who would most suffer from a change in the status quo.

Less abstract summary: the pain, anxiety, hatred, fear, and distrust that many people consider human nature and the reason for human nastiness are just concepts passed on by the elites who profit the most from those internal and mostly negative emotions. Whether it is using human insecurity and doubt to sell useless, planned obsolescent garbage, or to vote for the oligarchs' desires over the needs of the majority.

I haven't watched Mad Men in a few seasons, but in relation to HAL, the same consciousness suffering from confusion and cognitive dissonance isn't really human nature. It's culture. HAL became a member of human culture, which is what doomed the mission from the start, and the individual astronauts.

Human culture, as presently constructed, is terrible, because it is based on traditions that are anachronistic to where humanity is today.

This has been a long, drawn-out comment, brought to you by anti-capitalist sentiment. Just because I can, and because questioning the very culture that invisibly guides us is a necessary step to species improvement.

Monster from the Id said...

The tabula rasa?

We need only choose to change human culture in the proper ways, and the Millennium will arrive?

The species can be improved?

Oh, please.

Human culture is a product of human nature, which was (mis)shaped by uncountable years of human and pre-human evolution in an utterly amoral and pitiless biosphere. Under the gossamer veneer of civilization, we remain the same savage talking apes as always, adapted to survive in the anarchic hell called the natural environment.

Once human cultures emerged, their worst features interacted with the worst features of human nature in a vicious cycle, which is why, to name just one sociopathic effect, the horrid disease that is capitalism generated a horrid quack remedy called Communism.

I would like for n1ck to be right, but human history and the natural sciences both teach me he isn't.

Unknown said...

You're consistently a very good writer, but sometimes you really knock one out.
Sharp insight and brilliant, wonderfully crafted sentences.

Robt said...

In logic, any form of reasoning in which the conclusion, though supported by the premises, does not allow from them necessarily.

Kathleen said...

Riveting and brilliant on so many levels. Your post was a great way to start my day and gave me much to ponder.

Anonymous said...

Did you notice, in one of the previous episodes, after the computer tech perfectly describes the planned obsolescence model to Draper, Don confronts him while drunk ...when he realizes the same model is at work with regard to the actual humans doing the work.
If the humans are not critical to or are a danger to the mission, then discard them and continue...bring in the newest model. Don is being rebooted after his Hershey meltdown.
Weiner must be a huge Kubrik fan, there is a lot in Madman that references not only 2001, but other parts of the Kubrick masterpiece collection.
The greatest director in the history of cinema.
Great post.

Marc McKenzie said...

Good essay, Driftglass, but in regards to 2001 and the "dubious decision to make a sequel"....

...that "someone" was none other than Arthur C. Clarke. He wrote the novel 2010: ODYSSEY TWO which was adapted into 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT. For many critics, they either ignore this fact outright or are unaware of it (what, they didn't see the "based on the novel by" tagline? Yeesh...).

And while 2010 is not as good as 2001...for me, it's a good film and a worthy follow-up. Even Clarke liked the film and defended it over the years, and Ellison did give the film a good review, stating that any problems with the film were not the fault of writer/director Peter Hyams, but were inherent in the original story itself.

Not trying to be a snarky d-bag here, just trying to set the record straight.

n1ck said...

Culture shapes how someone acts, minus clear defects in genetics/anatomy.

Reshape culture and you reshape what is referred to as human nature.

HAL is an example. It was designed by humans to do one thing and do it well, but when instructed to do something contradictory, caused problems.

Humans aren't inherently sociopaths. We're trained to be through culture/economics/politics. And even then, it's only a few of us that are true sociopaths.