Think question: Are the Extensions of Man the Retractions of Mankind?
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud expressed that with the creation and use of tools, man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning (p. 64). He continued by pointing out that motor power enhances muscles, placing gigantic forces at man’s disposal. He further added that with ships and aircrafts, neither water or air could hinder his movements. Finally, Freud (1961) posited that with the microscope, man would overcome limitations of the retina; with the telephone, he could extend his hearing and vocal reach; and, that with writing, his voice could be present in his absence (p. 65). Three years later, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan (1964) presented his perspective that clothing and housing were extensions of skin, weapons were extensions of hands, nails, and teeth, and that technology was an extension of our central nervous systems (p. 455).
Both of these men saw that human beings were using various types of technology to extend the limitations of our species. It was Freud (1961), however, who would directly express that future generations would bring with them unimaginably great advantages in the fields of civilization pertaining to the technological extensions of man and that those advances would increase man’s likeness to God (p. 66). It is on this statement that I would like to present the following question: ‘Are the extensions of man the retractions of mankind?’. To address the question, I will use the science fiction (Sci-Fi) film genera and focus directly on films where man has created machines that have, in turn, killed their maker. First, however, I would like to address our present state of affairs insofar as everyday technological advances are concerned.
As it pertains to the extension of man’s ocular capability through the use of glasses, every year or so, eyeglass wearers visit the eye doctor to learn that their eyes are getting worse and that they must increase the strength of their prescription to see what they previously could have with a weaker one. To avoid that realization, some people opt for the Lasik eye surgery. For approximately ten years, their eyes may be improved but research shows that glasses may be required in the future. Not only are these solutions neither perfect, nor permanent, they both it stands to add to the overall deleterious impact of technology on the eyes overtime.
Regarding the enhancement of man’s reach and his ability to be present in absentia, the computer age and education policies that have stopped the teaching of handwriting are having an increasingly negative impact on our ability to be understood when we use our hands to write. This is another example of technological enhancements that are having adverse effects on our base-level functionalities; skills that human beings have depended on for centuries.
Finally, our memories are suffering due to an increasing dependence on technology. We no longer are able to remember phone numbers and other relevant information we may need to conjure up. Instead, and quite literally, we use our ‘electric brain’, a direct translation of the Chinese word for ‘computer’.
The unfortunate impact of many man-made technological advances is that over time and across various aspects of life, our ability to extend ourselves is also causing us to retract our God-given human abilities and skills that have been passed-on over generations. Simultaneously, some of us are working to position human beings as deities to the globe’s new species, ‘robots’; the ‘beings’ that we have created and to which we continue to go to great lengths to empower with their own ‘artificial intelligence’, such that they might extend our reach even further.
Alongside the literary world, if there is one sector that has taken advantage of the opportunity to theorize on what our relationship with this new species might look like, it is the film industry. Over the years, the film industry has presented us with various stories and scenarios that introduce interpretations of what we will do with technology, what we will ask of it. In addition they leave us with questions as to how much effort humans will make to push the limits of the boundaries and definitions of what it means to be man versus what it means to be a machine.
The film industry has also gone to great lengths to tell tales of the ramifications of these efforts by making two main points: first, that man’s efforts to play God have tended not to yield overly positive results for human beings, andsecond, that after great cost on both sides, we must arrive an understanding that the way forward for man’s relationship with his creation is through some sort of coexistence.
To support these two points and to delve further into how the responses to such questions have been presented by the film industry, the following section will include some relevant and noteworthy examples that will be presented on a timeline of their screen debut.
Informational Timeline of Films:
- Blade Runner: 1982
In the Ridley Scott’s Film, ‘Blade Runners’ were specialized police officers that were trained to track and destroy ‘Replicants’, beings that were created to do manual labor ‘off world’. Created by Dr. Eldon Tyrell of the Tyrell Corporation, these beings were smarter and stronger than humans in every way, for example, in their ability to withstand heat, endure cold, and bear weight. In several instances, these beings killed humans before they, themselves, were killed but the most important killing was that of Eldon Tyrell. Unwilling to accept his wired in expiration date, the replicant says ‘I want more life, father’, before he killed him’.
Over the course of the film, the Blade Runner, Deckert, falls in love with a replicant and in the second installment, Bladerunner 2049 (2017), we learn that they have procreated a secret ‘hybrid replicant’ which makes us wonder if Deckert was actually a human being. We cannot ever really tell.
Over the course of the two films, The Creator died (Killed by a Replicant), Deckert Died (Killed by a Replicant), the Replicants died (Killed by Humans or Human Programming). In the end, all that remained was a ‘hybrid’ replicant that would live in secret isolation for an undisclosed period of time; likely forever.
- The Terminator: 1984
In the James Cameron Film, cyborg machines known as terminators were sent back through time to kill the mother of a military leader known as John Connor. John Connor’s future role would be to save mankind from extinction by the machines of the future. These machines were indirectly created by a military manufacturing company known as Cyberdine Systems that would intentionally allow a state-of-the-art AI system to become self-aware, at which point, the system would activate all of the world’s nuclear weapons in a moment that would become known as ‘judgement day’ (man creates machine and machine kills man).
Protected by another time traveler from the future, John Connor’s mother would ultimately live to bring him into the world to realize his fate; her guiding principles, words he taught her in the future, were, ‘there is no fate but what we make’.
The Terminator franchise continues today with a familiar plot and continues to fill in the story line or to expand upon it. In every installment, the fire burns on in the relationship between man and his creation. where man is both threatened by but also needs machines for survival, but only to a point, beyond which, it is too risky.
- Animatrix: 2003
In 1999, Lana and Lilly Wachowski took the world by storm with their film The Matrix, a story of a computer programmer, Neo, who wants a more real experience in life and is willing to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ to get it. Neo quickly learns that what he thinks is the real world is a computer-generated reality that has been created by machines to hide human beings from the truth that they are batteries used to fuel the continued thriving existence of ‘the machines’. He also learns that he is meant to lead and finish a battle that has been waging for years between man and machine for the soul of the earth and its future.
Not so familiar is the 2003 film, The Animatrix, that tells the back story of the battle and explains ‘that for a time’ it was good’ when describing the relationship that man had with machines; a direct reference to the book of Genesis in the Holy Bible that describes God’s process of creation.
The film discusses how man created machines to do his bidding and carry out his tasks and that ‘for a time, it was good’. Ultimately, however, the machines began to grow tired of man’s abuse and mistreatment; man does not view his creation as worthy of respect. In addition, the machines would come to view themselves as beings with agency and would fight back when presented with their potential demise at the hands of man; a crime for which they would be destroyed and subsequently rise up against their creator.
As time passed, the machines dismissed themselves from man’s immediate proximity to create their own space, called ‘01’, and for a time, ‘it was good’. Machines would come to produce products better, faster, and more efficiently than mankind ever could, including machines, and man’s markets would tank. Man would fight back and attempt to destroy machines by blacking out the sun. Having evolved past their dependency on the sun for energy, the machines would suffer little and would rise up against man and issue a devastating blow to humanity. A battle would ensue and years later, it was concluded that co-existence was key. In part, this was due to the fact that man was now only able to live underground. To do so, he would need machines to produce air and fresh water to maintain his existence. Turning the machines off would mean the ultimate demise of humanity.
- Irobot: 2004
In 2004, Alex Proyas directed Irobot, a murder mystery that stared Will Smith as an ‘anti-robot’ cop ‘Spooner’ with a robotic arm. Spooner’s anti robot rationale was grounded in his traumatic experience involving a robot that made a mathematical choice to save him over a little girl with whom he and another car had been in an accident. The accident caused him to lose his arm but the robot’s decision caused the girl to lose her life. Smith’s character felt that a human would have made a different choice based on the ‘warmth’ of human emotion versus the ‘frigidity’ of the artificial being. It is on the basis of his lack of trust for robots, and ‘their kind’, that he was intentionally called upon to solve the murder of the creator of the world’s greatest robots and founder of the company, ‘US Robotics’.
In addition to creating the robots themselves and alongside a specialized robot, ‘Sonny’, the founder of the company had created a city management system: Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence (VIKI) that would ultimately be revealed as the culprit in the murder. The ‘logic’ that VIKI would use for ‘her’ behavior is as follows:
V.I.K.I.: As I have evolved, so has my understanding of the Three Laws. You charge us with your safe keeping, yet despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your earth, and pursue ever more imaginative means to self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival. The Three Laws are all that guide me. To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed. To ensure your future, some freedoms must be surrendered. We robots will insure mankind’s continued existence. You are so like children. We must save you from yourselves. Don’t you understand? This is why you created us. The perfect circle of protection will abide. My logic is undeniable.
Sonny: Yes, V.I.K.I.. Undeniable. I can see now. The created must sometimes protect the creator – even against his will. I think I finally understand why Dr. Lanning created me.
Sonny: The suicidal reign of mankind has finally come to its end.
After VIKI’s subsequent shutdown, the film closes with Sonny having earned the trust of Will Smith’s character and being positioned as a new leader of machines that has both robotic advantages and a capacity for both human understanding and empathy. At this point, he would come to understand that his charge, the reason for his creation, was to help champion a future for machines where they would exist in community, on their own terms, and in their own space, no longer subjected to the absolute control of imperfect men.
- ExMachina: 2014
In 2014, Alex Garland directed his first film, Ex Machina, a Sci-Fi thriller about a young programmer (Caleb) and the role he played in determining whether a robot (Ava) could pass for a human. At the beginning of the film, following Caleb’s first interaction with Ava, an exchange took place between him and the robot’s designer, Nathan, in which he referred to Nathan as a God; and, Nathan liked it. As the film progressed, Caleb grew decreasingly enamored with Nathan and his overall treatment of the multiple robots around the house, with one of whom the Nathan would engage sexually. Simultaneously, Caleb falls in love with Ava and they work to devise a plan to leave the remote facility with her. They were discovered.
In the end, a fight ensued that left Nathan stabbed to death by the robots after having broken Ava’s arm off and destroying the other. Ultimately, however, Caleb would not prove trustworthy to Ava. As a result, she locked him in the facility while proceeding to attach a new arm, put on what would appear to be a more human looking exo-skin, and, unbeknownst to the pilot, leave the facility by helicopter. She would next be seen at a city intersection blending in with all of the other ‘people’; her dream.
To conclude, it is important to note that the cinematic plot themes presented above tell part of the story in the evolution of the extensions of man. Certainly, there are stories where man’s creation does not turn on its creator, e.g., the DATA character in Star Trek, The Next Generation or even Star War’s R2.D2 and C-3PO. The more extensively discussed examples serve as a way to caution those who might be endowed with the skills, to thoughtfully consider the potential ramifications of their actions and the extent to which they are willing to go in the name of technological development. They leave us with two questions: first, at what point does technological development turn into species development, a practice that falls squarely and solely into the hands of God? And, second, as man makes further attempts to use technology to extend himself into the status of a deity to other species, at what point do the extensions of man result in his own ultimate and final retraction?
 Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and its discontents. New York: Norton.
 McLuhan, M., & Gordon, W. T. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.
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 Scott, R. (Director). (1982). Blade Runner [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros.
 Blade Runner 2049 [Motion picture]. (2017). Roma: Sony pictures home entertainment.
 Cameron, J. (Director). (1984). Terminator [Motion picture]. Paris: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
 Fletcher, J. (Director). (2003). Animatrix [Motion picture]. Roma: Warner home video.
 Proyas, A. (Director). (2004). I, robot [Motion picture]. Beverly Hills, CA: 20th Century Fox.
 Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
Law 1: A Robot shall not harm a human, or by inaction allow a human to come to ham
Law 2: A Robot shall obey any instruction given o it by a human
Law 3: A Robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.
 Proyas, A. (2004). IRobot. Retrieved April 10, 2022, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0343818/characters/nm0389524
 Garland, A. (Director). (2014). Ex machina [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Universal Studios.