Archive for April, 2010

Our study in “Writing the Future” revolved around Utopian and anti-Utopian science fiction from the second half of the twentieth century: Star Trek, The Dispossessed, Dollhouse, and Cory Doctorow’s 2003 novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Cory generously agreed to conduct an interview with the class on his book and his perspective on Utopia, which due to timezone pressures and volcanic eruptions was accomplished via a conversation he and I had over the telephone. With a couple of small exceptions, marked “GC” below, all of the questions were proposed and organized by the students in the course.

W20: What did this novel mean to you when you first wrote it, and how has the meaning changed in the seven years since? How might the novel be different if you wrote it today?

CD: That’s a really tough question to answer—not specifically because of the change in circumstances, but because of the change in the writer over time. The more time you spend writing, the more different your approach to the work is. That was the first novel I ever finished—it’s fundamentally different to write a book when you know you can finish a book than to write a book when you don’t know if you can a finish a book—and I actually think those differences would swamp any differences that arose from circumstances or politics or new wisdom or whatever. Just the idea of writing a book, when you know you can write a book, completely overpowers any of the other changes.

I don’t know if that makes sense. It probably doesn’t answer your question very well.

One of the things I realized in the course of writing the book, and that I think a lot of people miss when they read the book, is that Whuffie has one of the fundamental problems that accrues to money or property, which is that the more you have the easier it is to get more. That’s a pretty a pretty enormous gap in the Utopian character of Whuffie. A properly Utopian system is one in which you have something that’s a lot like merit, not like circumstance—where people are rewarded based on how great they are, not based how great they used to be. And I think Whuffie is primarily one of those systems that rewards you for having gotten lucky or doing something good some time ago, and then continues to reward you for that forever at the expense of other people.

I think Whuffie would follow a power-law distribution, just like in-bound links to blogs, for exactly the same reason.

W20: We talked a little bit about this, and it leads to the second question, whether or not large corporations are starting to create a system that’s sort of like Whuffie, but at the same time proprietary. We were thinking of Google, YouTube, Facebook especially, but even something like LinkedIn—isn’t this something like Whuffie that’s starting to materialize? Blog linkage would be the same sort of thing, facing the same sorts of problems you’ve just been talking about.

CD: I based Whuffie at the time more on Slashdot’s Karma, and I don’t know that Faceook has an exact analogue to it. I guess Facebook has this thing where you can see who has the most inbound links, who has the most friends, and you can “digg” up yourself by getting more of those.

I think that in general we have a pathological response to anything we measure. We tend not to measure the thing we care about; we tend to measure something that indicates its presence. It’s often very hard to measure the thing that you’re hoping for. You don’t actually care about how calories you eat; you care about how much weight you’re going to gain from the calories you eat. But as soon as we go, oh, well, calories are a pretty good proxy for weight gain, we start to come up with these foods that are incredibly unhealthy but nevertheless have very few calories in them. In the same way, Google doesn’t really care about inbound links because inbound links are good per se; Google cares about inbound links because inbound links are a good proxy for “someone likes this page; someone thinks this page is a useful place to be, is a good place to be.” But as soon as Google starts counting that, people start finding ways to make links that don’t actually serve as a proxy for that conclusion at all.

GDP is another good example. We don’t care about GDP because GDP itself is good; we care about GDP because the basket of indicators that we measure with GDP are a proxy for the overall health of the society—except as soon as you start measuring GDP, people figure out how to make the GDP go up by doing things like trading derivatives of derivates of subprime subderivates of derivatives, but which actually does the reverse of what we care about by undermining the quality of life and the stability of society.

So I think that one of the biggest problems that Google has, taking Google as probably the best example of someone trying to build a reputation currency, is that as soon as Google gives you any insight into how they are building their reputation system it ceases to be very good as a reputation system. As soon as Google stops measuring something you created by accident and starts measuring something you created on purpose, it stops being something that they want to measure. And this is joined by the twin problem that what Google fundamentally has is a security problem; they have hackers who are trying to undermine the integrity of the system. And the natural response to a problem that arises when attackers know how your system works is to try to keep the details of your system secret—but keeping the details of Google’s system secret is also not very good because it means that we don’t have any reason to trust it. All we know when we search Google is that we get a result that seems like a good result; but we don’t know that there isn’t a much better result that Google has either deliberately or accidentally excluded from its listings for reasons that are attributable to either malice or incompetence. So they’re really trapped between a rock and a hard place: if they publish how their system works, people will game their system; if they don’t publish how their system works it becomes less useful and trustworthy and good. It suffers from the problem of alchemy; if alchemists don’t tell people what they learned, then every alchemist needs to discover for themselves that drinking mercury is a bad idea, and alchemy stagnates. When you start to publishing, you get science—but Google can’t publish or they’ll also get more attacks.

So it’s a really thorny, thorny problem, and I elide that problem with Whuffie by imagining a completely undescribed science fictional system that can disambiguate every object in the universe so when you look at something and have a response to it the system knows that the response is being driven by the color of the car but not by the car, or the shirt but not the person wearing it, or the person wearing it and not the shirt, and also know how you feel about it. So it can know what you’re feeling and what you’re feeling it about. And I don’t actually think we have a computer that could that; I don’t think we have Supreme Court judges or Ph.D. philosophers that can do that.

GC: That’s sort of a fantastic self-criticism, actually—you’re exposing what’s so great about Whuffie and what’s so impossible about it all at once.

CD: Sure, and that’s why I think Whuffie feeds the fantasy of a meritocratic society. There’s something particularly self-serving about people who are doing very well imagining that society is meritocratic: it means that the reason you are doing so well is because you have merit, not because you were lucky or because you screwed someone else. So I’m always suspicious of people who are doing extremely well telling you how meritocratic society their society is. I’m also somewhat suspicious of people doing very poorly who tell you how meritocratic society is, because I think that’s often aspirational: they’ve basically bought the story that if only they work hard and are good and pure of heart they’ll catch up to the people who have been rich for a hundred generations. So I think the idea of meritocracy is a really tricky one because the embrace of meritocracy is seductive for reasons that transcend logic.

GC: I don’t know if I’ll include this in the interview, to embarrass my students or not, but this is something that actually comes up a lot in Duke classes. Duke students very much believe in meritocracy because they’re the winners of the system.

CD: Yeah, sure. I think we have a problem in that we end up with this tautological definition of merit in a meritocracy. How do we know what’s meritorious? It’s the thing that’s on top. You have this very Milton Friedman way of measuring accomplishment: you come up with some self-serving thing that makes you better, and declare whatever outcome you have as the best possible one. And I think that’s pretty nakedly not a great way of apportioning social resources or measuring the quality of life.

W20: Let me switch gears to the next question, which is kind of a shadow version of the last one. We talked a little bit about smartphones, and about closely they seem to match the things you describe in the book as the start of the Bitchun society, these little handheld devices. So on the one hand we have the question of whether or not it can still be Bitchun if it’s run by corporations, if they’re provided not by these collectives but by Apple. And then, as a secondary question, to what extent was this novel your personal prediction for society’s future, and what did you not predict that you wish you had?

I’ve never really done anything predictive in my life. I always say that I try to predict the present. Which is to say that you take those elements that seem futuristic that are kind of floating around in the present, but because they’ve snuck up on us so gradually, because we were boiled frog-style so gently in them that we end up not even noticing that they’re there.

My friend Jim Griffin always says that anything invented before you’re 20 was there forever; anything invented before you’re 30 is the coolest thing ever; and anything invented after that should be illegal. And I think one great way that a science fiction writer can help overcome that, or call attention to that, is to have a look at what’s around you and the stuff that feels futuristic and just write about it as if it hadn’t been invented yet, as if it were something you were making up for a science fiction story. And so everyone goes, “Wow, look at that, it’s this incredibly futuristic thing that we have right here about to happen”—and then they look around again and say “Oh my god, it’s happened!”, even though it was there before you started.

So I guess the best example of this was a presentation I once heard someone give on gold-farming at a games conference about five years ago. And then I wrote a short story “predicting” there would be gold-farming in the future. And people who discovered the story first and then read the article, or read more articles as the phenomenon increased—there’s now 400,000 people who earn their living goldfarming—assume that I predicted it. And really what I’d done is written about something in the present as though it were being invented in the future.

I didn’t answer the part about whether smart phones can be Bitchun. And no, I don’t think so—I think the problem with smartphones is not necessarily that they’re run by corporations but the specific corporations that run them. Phone companies are basically a regulatory monopoly wrapped around a soft chewy core of greed and venality. The phone companies have always disguised a complete aversion to change, progress, and democracy by wrapping it up in high-minded talk about how they’re guardians our natural infrastructure. There’s a famous case called Hush-a-Phone in which finally customers won the right to attach a Privacy Cone—like the cone you put around your dog’s head when it has stitches—to the receiver of your phone. Because up until then Bell argued that connecting anything to a phone endangered the network, including, you know, putting stickers on it. And you see this today. Why can’t you get an open phone that you could run any software on? Oh, you could crash the network.

So I think the specifically the fact that cells are run by phone companies and then also run by control-freak companies like Apple that have decided that you shouldn’t be allowed to decide what software you want to run. And Apple has made this unholy alliance with the music industry, who are also great believers that you shouldn’t be able to inspect the workings of your device, and that you shouldn’t be able to use protocols anonymously, and so on. That unholy trinity of the entertainment industry, Apple, and the phone companies means you’ll never get anything remotely great out of mobile phones until someone breaks the deadlock.

W20: What about that last part, what did you not predict that you wish you had? I guess this doesn’t make sense as a question because you don’t predict anything.

You know, in terms of staying power, there are a few things that I predicted would still be in Disney World that have just shut down. The Adventurer’s Club, which I still think is the best Disney has ever done, is now shut. But I guess I could say that in my future they’re reopened it; I could fix that by adding a sentence that says, “The first thing they did was reopen the Adventurer’s Club,” and we’d be back in business.

GC: We were surprised to check your archives and find out that you’d liked the Johnny Deppification of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Given your characters, we thought you might have wanted it to stay the same.

I really like that. In fact we rode it last week, as we’re stuck in L.A. The new Lincoln Bot is good too; The new Lincoln Bot is awesome, actually: he’s lip-synching, he’s gesturing. The last Lincoln Bot, he was really, um—what they did is go back and research all of his historical gestures, and they put every single into his 90-second speech. They’d made it look like he had Tourette’s.

W20: I’m going to skip a question because we’re now talking about Disney World. They were really interested in why it was you set the novel in Disney World, how it fed into the plot or the themes of the novel. They were wondering if Disney World came first, or did it fit into the idea you had for the story line?

CD: No, it was definitely that Disney came first. I’d always wanted to write a book about Disney World. It’s always inspired me, going to Disney World. I find it inspiring as a piece of art and a piece of social engineering. And inspiring not in the entirely good sense, but inspiring in the sense that every time I go there I have a bunch of thoughts. It really gets both my creative and critical juices flowing, to go to DIsney World. I’m not the only one; if you read Baudrillard, he spent all this time there too.

It definitely started with Disney, and to be totally frank one of the cool things about writing a book set in Disney World is that it makes your Disney trips tax-deductible. Which is sort of an interesting, science fictiony thing: anything you choose to write a book about becomes tax-deductible. There’s a reason why Iain Banks took a year off from writing thrillers to write a book about whiskey; his whiskey became tax deductible for a year!

Disney has always had a love-hate relationship, or at least an ambivalent relationship, with audience participation. And with remix, obviously, which is ironic given all the ways Disney has borrowed from the culture before it to make new and I think very good cultural artifacts, by and large.

The Mickey Mouse Club, in the early days, actually met and made Mickey stuff, and did their own Mickey activities. There’s always been this aspect of, you know, take Mickey and make him part of your world—make your Disney memories classic memories of your life that stick with you forever. All that stuff has always been part of Disney’s DNA. At the same time they’re very proprietary: that shalt not copy, we own all rights in all media now known and yet to be invented throughout the universe, and so own. There’s also some of that.

But when you go to Disney World, what you find is that Disney’s implicit and sometimes explicit social contract with its visitors is that you are a resident of Disney World while you’re here. This is your place too. I once did one of the Disney management courses at the Disney Institute, and one of the things they said is that after a couple of days in Disney World people who are staying there start picking up trash when they see it.

So they want to form a social contract with says that you and we are in this together—which I think is one of the reasons Disney doesn’t go after people who put entire ride-throughs of their rides on YouTube, or why by and large they don’t stop you from taking photos even of the photo ops where they sell you the photo. There’s never a time when they tell you to put away your camera because you’re “on stage”; you can always have your camera out, you can always be shooting. And that’s because it’s your place too; you’re supposed to be making memories and taking them home because that’s where they’re getting their value from.

And yet they’re not completely into this; there’s a place at which the social contract breaks down and becomes a commercial relationship again. And I think it’s pretty natural that fans of Disney World, who’ve been told for generations to form a social contract with Disney where they treat it as their own place, and also become not just guests but custodians of it, start to act like custodians of it.

There’s a great book by Greg Egan called Quarantine—it’s his first novel. In it, there’s a conspiracy of kind of bad guys, and one of the things they do to anyone who is on their trail is put a chip in their brain that makes them absolutely loyal to the conspiracy: they can’t betray the conspiracy, they’re neurologically incapable of betraying the conspiracy. And the way that they get out of it is really clever: what they do is have this mental game in which they say, “Only people who have this chip can be truly loyal to the conspiracy. Therefore the people who put the chips in our head aren’t members of the true conspiracy. They’re members of a false conspiracy because they can choose to betray the conspiracy and we can’t. Therefore it is our duty as members of the true conspiracy to betray the people who put the chip in our heads that make us loyal to them.”

I always thought that was a really interesting little bit here, to say: Who are you to say that you’re the true keeper of the flame? Maybe I’m the true keeper of the flame. You’re just a corporation who’s in it to make as much money as you can from these assets. And maybe that converges sometimes with being the best custodian, and maybe sometimes it doesn’t; maybe sometimes you’ll go off and chase the quarterly profits at the expense of long-term value. Meanwhile,I have no commercial interest in it – therefore I’m a better custodian than you, I should have more say in it that you do. And I think that relationship beats in the heart of big Disney fans, the people you see who know the park like the back of their hand.

W20: So then my follow-up question about whether Disney is a utopia or an anti-utopia has again already been answered in the sense that it’s both, right—that it has these utopian qualities and then these other kinds of countervailing qualities that push against it.

CD: Yeah, that’s right.

W20: So, then, two more questions. The first one—we’ve had a lot of talk about ecology and the environment in our course, and we got a little hung up on what you meant by Free Energy, whether this was something you were imagining seriously as a post-scarcity economics or if it was just something that was some magical thing.

CD: This is Free Energy in the kind of crank sense—zero point energy, cold fusion, perpetual motion machines. The perpetual motion machine has been a feature of Utopianism since Newton I guess. It’s science fiction shorthand, I think, for all of the above—an entropy reversing ray, another universe from which you can siphon off energy, whatever it is. You know, theoretically, fusion, if we ever get, fusion becomes more or less free energy. Not even cold fusion; moderate temperature fusion is more or less free energy forever, because it turns water into electricity.

W20: I think the feeling of the students who asked this question really had to do whether or not this was like the short-circuiting you were talking about with regard to Whuffie—that you kind of skip over the post-scarcity engine that makes this thing work, and that without something like Free Energy (which may or may not actually be possible, probably not) we could never actually get to the Bitchun Society because we’d constantly be falling back in to the scarcity wars, constantly falling back into exploitation.

CD: I don’t know that scarcity is necessarily what drives exploitation. I think abundance can drive exploitation too. The record industry certainly responded to a death of scarcity in its core product as a social evil. I don’t know that abundance is necessarily the necessary precondition.

But this is more like the physicist who sits down at the start of the Gedankenexperiment: let us assume a perfectly spherical cow of uniform density. Every Gedankenexperiment necessarily elides certain details, because that’s not what the experiment is about. The thought experiment is not about how we would get infinite energy, the thought experiment is about what we would do if scarcity vanished. There’s a different thought experiment about how we could get infinite energy; Damon Knight wrote a book called A for Anything that’s very good about that. A very cynical book, I think, but very good. And so there’s a lot of different variations on that theme.

W20. Last question and then I’ll let you go. Thanks for doing this. This was about whether you want to live in the Bitchun Society personally: Would you deadhead, erase memories, flashbake, use backups? What wouldn’t you do? Basically the question is: is the Bitchun Society Cory Doctorow’s Utopia?

I would definitely backup; I would probably flashbake; I don’t think I would deadhead though it’s hard to say what you’d do after 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years. Nobody really knows the answer to that question. And I think that by and large the Bitchun Society would be better than the one we have now; I don’t know that it’s Utopia. But one of the advantages of the Bitchun Society as opposed to other Utopias is that it doesn’t require a tabula rasa as an interim step.

I think Utopianism has genocide lurking in its bowels; I think a lot of Utopians are saying, “First we eradicate all the systems that are present. We settle all the grievances, we wipe the slate clean, we level the earth, we pave everything, and then we start from go.” The Bitchun Society doesn’t require that at all; it does have a lot of social upheaval in it, but it doesn’t begin “First what we do is kill anyone who has a beef with anyone else in the Middle East, and then we settle up with whoever is left.” That’s a bad solution.

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In this most recent episode of Dollhouse, we witnessed a future stricken by evil tech. This technology takes away every aspect of humanity in the brain and literally turns people into walking killers. These people kill anyone who isn’t programmed to kill. Personalities are completely altered. No one is themselves. The world has been turned upside down. Only Echo, along with others from the Dollhouse, and her split personalities, can save the world. Looking into the past though, personalities were put into Echo one by one. These personalities weren’t created to lead a revolution. How did Echo succeed?

Alpha was the one who put all of Echo’s past personalities into her head at once. Alpha couldn’t handle the stress of multiple personalities, but Echo could. She is strong and now is able to access each personality separately. Although not created to lead a rebellion, Echo is able to use all of her past memories and experiences to give her an advantage. Once there are two Echos, one real and one in the little girl’s body, we know that they will prevail.

The show seems to want to show how she grows as a character. Echo can’t grow though. At the end of every episode she is wiped clean, forgetting almost everything from her assignments. I actually enjoy this show. I think that imprinting is actually a really cool idea, granted the show takes it too far sometimes. They turn imprinting into a form of slavery. I watched the season finales from both Season 1 and 2 and they take place in the years 2019 and 2020. The imprinting technology has taken over almost everyone’s minds and it is making them kill everyone in sight. Echo, Ballard, Dewitt, Sierra, and Victor are some of the Dollhouse members who figure out how to stop it. The failures on the part of the Dollhouse end up coming back to bite them in the butt. They have ended the world, so to speak, because of their advancing technology created by Topher. Only at the end of the world did people realize that imprinting was wrong.

In “Epitaph Two,” Topher invents a way to fix what he created. A sort of undo button. Everyone hit by this new imprint will regain their old memories, but will forget everything after they were first affected by the bad imprint. Basically, millions of people wake up years in the future with no clue what is going on. More chaos is obviously going to ensue. The series ends leaving things “better”. The world is no longer killing each other, but I wish the show had addressed how they were going to fix the world. Entire cities were burned to the ground. Will the Dollhouses around the world be blamed for stealing people’s identities? Is imprinting wrong? Not allowing people to be themselves, but rather other people’s slaves, is wrong. In the future, Echo is able to remain Echo and also be the other personality that is imprinted into her mind. This is the kind of imprinting I think is acceptable; one that does not alter your own self first.

What do you think the future episodes would have told us about imprinting? Do you think it is wrong? The probono work Dr. Saunders works on is good for the community? Is imprinting wrong in this instance?

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Oh wait, wait, it’s almost midnight and I’m blogging about a canceled show on Fox?

Watching “Epitaph One,” I couldn’t help but be irritated at the proposed degeneration of the Dollhouse into an apocalyptic future. It seemed like the same old zombie plot all over again, and instead of a virus there’s just the Dollhouse mind magic.

And that’s why I want to gripe about the whole “tech” concept of the show. To me, the most far of fantastic science could produce the possibility of “imprinting” someone. It would require the complete knowledge of a brain’s material structure, and the ability to alter it on the mechanical level. This would require some very complex machines, ones that if they could alter the material structure of the brain, could also theoretically be capable to blueprinting just about anything. So, someone builds one and uses it to make a fancy brothel, and the machine uses “waves”, maybe ionizing radiation, the imprint people. Maybe years into the future this could be feasible. But no, all of a sudden all this high tech machinery gets transmitted into “phones and boom boxes”, and the powers that be somehow let it all slip into an apocalyptic nightmare. This is the shift from science fiction to zombie plot devices, and I think it reflects confusion into show message, which seemed to shift from a question of morality and ethics to a paranoid mind control delusion. And that’s why I think the show didn’t succeed. I don’t think it was too cerebral or too high on questioning society, as the fox-style cameras (everythings so new and shiny), the ripped male actors and the satin and high heels girl kicking asses suggests otherwise. It seems to me to be a hybrid of T.V. cliches to produce a marginal show, one that I considered watching extra but then decided it was too damn boring. Somehow Hugh Laurie makes me happier when I watch House.

Dollhouse is all about “society as a spectacle”. Is it just me or did the Romans have men fighting tigers in a giant coliseum? Man those T.V. shows are so poisonous. Turning all those people into mindless zombies that somehow live in a world remarkably less violent then the middle ages. Yeah, its all about spectacle…. But the innocent Dollhouse is just another one, and apparently a rather marginal one. So yeah lets all go buy the DVD to watch the zombieocalypse double secret season un-finale. Or I could do something that might make me happy, like taking a nap or eating a sandwich.

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As Dollhouse gets closer to the end of its second season, I’m left to ponder how exactly the world has brought itself to near self-annihilation as depicted in “Epitaph One.” This apocalyptic future where people are programmed to kill those who have not been imprinted by China’s phone call (and that, too, seems to be far-fetched—does that mean China becomes a bigger powerhouse than the USA or any other country?) appears to have little substance or realistic potential due to the lack of further elaboration that was provided by the episode. Though some things are explained through Topher’s mental breakdown and the Rossum executive who uses Victor’s body to inform Adelle that the dolls are now being used for body switch-ups, the transition is never fully shown—probably because I haven’t watched the episodes—and I’m a bit skeptical on how drastic the change in the Dollhouse’s purpose—from Brothel to personality/mind wipeout—was. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the idea behind identity, the significance of it, is threatened by the imprinting technology presented by Topher and subsequently corrupted by China.

Earlier we had discussed about Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’s body-enhancement methods and the morality of restoring from a backup; most of us said the benefits such as immortality and the unlimited time we would have to do all the things we’ve always wanted to do without the hindrance of death sounded dandy and all, but that life would lose significance and all together be meaningless. In this episode of Dollhouse, a group of revolutionaries who refuse to be programmed and search for a place referred to as “Safe Haven” are facing the same sort of conflict and tension in morality in a future humanity dealt with technology of a similar premise. Though, instead of using clones as suggested in Down and Out, the option to use bodies without developed personalities is presented and it doesn’t seem to be opened solely for the elite, as seen with the little girl Iris. The woman’s “personality” inhabiting the girl claims she had no knowledge of being put there, implying that her body switch was involuntary and arbitrary, as opposed to the Rossum executive using Victor’s and other doll’s bodies for his leisure. Is the technology no longer reserved only to the rich, as suggested in earlier episodes and like the distribution of technology in the Bitchun Society?

That said, the implication could be that identity is only transient and without it would render our bodies as mere shells. Is it callous to say that identity is nothing but an illusion? Dollhouse seems to depict—though, not celebrate—that very notion, what with the dolls’ behaviors and lack of awareness of their wellbeing. The dolls are docile in nature and do not retaliate when their bodies are used against their will (except in the case of Sierra, but she too did nothing other than scream when Victor touched her). How immoral is the body switching idea in Dollhouse? In the episode “Haunted” the possibility of immortality and rejuvenation of humanity was mentioned and was shown to have some good through the character Margaret, when she resolved conflicts surrounding her family and abrupt murder.

How far is too far? When people are subjugated to the whims of a higher authority like China or other political power, thus stripped of their free will—is that going too far? I also want to address how, suggested in the flashbacks throughout “Epitaph One,” Victor and Sierra developed personalities. They both show no sign of “hollowness” usually associated with a doll’s demeanor, so I’m a little confused on how they broke away from that; if I watched the previous episodes I would probably have this question answered.

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On imdb.com, “Epitaph One” is the highest-rated episode from all of Dollhouse. Why is this? It’s certainly a departure from the other episodes. One of  the plot keywords on imdb.com for Dollhouse is “moral ambiguity”. Certainly, throughout the series we ask ourselves a lot of questions about what in Dollhouse is ok, what is acceptable and what is reprehensible. I would argue that “Epitaph One” is popular because most of Dollhouse‘s audience watches the show and feels uncomfortable. They watch the show and feel that moral boundaries, such as whether or no dollsex counts as rape and the idea of selling one’s body have been breached. “Epitaph One” certainly asserts that this technology is not a good thing; the views of the audience are finally being confirmed. This is perhaps the most morally clear episode.

Unless, that is, you see the decimation of the human species as a good thing. At face value this seems like a ridiculous notion, but if it means the problem of overpopulation-which is ultimately responsible for most long-term global problems-is solved, is it justifiable? As the professor in “Man on the Street” says, “As a species, we would cease to matter. I don’t know, maybe we should.” If humanity has disregarded morality, perhaps we don’t deserve to exist anymore.

The reality isn’t quite like this, however. The people who invented and used the technology are the ones who have appropriated it and have presumably “survived” its misuse. The innocent, the people who didn’t even know it existed, are the ones who get it used against them. The Rossum executive in Victor’s body foreshadows this future, where a small minority of powerful individuals become immortal and can inhabit multiple bodies. This is a hugely exaggerated power imbalance. Taking this view, Dollhouse can be seen as a criticism of wealth imbalance, brought about largely by corporatisation. Do you think this view is one intended by Whedon?

To you, is “Epitaph One” more or less morally ambiguous than previous episodes?

It’s unclear (or at least I thought it was) whether or not Echo kills Adelle. Adelle seems to be the most morally ambiguous character. She controls the Dollhouse, but does not seek to abuse its power. This is arguably breached in “Haunted”, when she gives her friend life after death. When it gets personal, she seems less morally righteous. Adelle (and Topher) are partly responsible for the destructive technology, but they never intended for it to be used in such a way.

Do you think Adelle got killed by Echo? Do you think she deserved to be? What about Topher? Were his actions immoral if the consequences were unintended?

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We all know that Dollhouse is a work of fiction, but let’s assume for a moment that the technology to imprint memories exists today. A bit more difficult, but let’s also pretend for a moment that the episode “Epitaph One” makes any sense. China has found some kind of wave that can be used to imprint people both over the telephone lines and in a blanketed area. All of the necessary neurons in a person’s mind can be rearranged in an instant upon simply hearing this wave. If any of this could someday be technologically possible, what would it mean for humanity?

As long as man has existed, we have worried about our physical health. We can be injured, become sick, and exhaust ourselves. We die when our physical bodies fail to support themselves any longer. Just recently, though, we have begun to find that there are also threats to our mental health. There are constantly new studies that claim that television and video games have adverse effects on our minds, especially as impressionable children.

Dollhouse expands on these threats by suggesting the possibility that one day, as quickly as our physical bodies can be murdered, we will be able to lose our minds in an instant. The characters in “Epitaph One” are incredibly paranoid about any kind of technology, since in this new world any electronic device appears capable of broadcasting an imprint wave. People must fear for their lives not only because of violence, but also because of technology meant to work for us.

Not only can people lose their own minds, but a single person can exist in multiple bodies simultaneously. When we see Mr. Ambrose in Victor’s body tell Topher and DeWitt that the company has begun selling the actives’ bodies, he claims he is currently in ten other dolls talking to ten other Dollhouse administrators. At the end of the episode, Caroline hopes that she will find herself alive.

In this imagined world, identity as we know it ceases to exist. Much as in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the physical and mental parts of a person can easily be separated, and the spiritual part appears to be nonexistent. A person’s body can exist without their mind, and a person’s mind can live on in different bodies, even simultaneously. In the words of one interviewee in “Man on the Street,” if it is possible for this technology to be built, it will be used and abused, and humanity as we know it will be over.

Does anybody else see this kind of technology as the end of humanity as we know it, or could we find some new meaning of identity? Can the body and the mind be so easily separated, or is it impossible to so neatly separate the physical, mental, and spiritual? Obviously no one wants to have their mind permanently overwritten by someone else’s, but would anyone be okay with having their one mind in ten different bodies?

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In “Epitaph One” we see the world ten years in the future from the other episodes of season one of Dollhouse. We are shown through flashbacks a few of the events that led from the Dollhouse technology to an apocalyptic world in which people’s personalities are regularly wiped, body switching is common, and those who maintain their original personality are hunted down. The episode is deliberately vague because at the time of its production it was unclear whether Dollhouse would have another season, so some closure needed to be provided while still allowing room for possible future episodes. Despite knowing this, however, I thought the episode presented too many ideas without developing them sufficiently to serve as a proper conclusion. Even considering the subsequent episodes which contain references and will likely explain this one further, I still don’t feel like the episode was complete enough.

First, there is the idea of how the Dollhouse technology led to the current situation on Earth. Apparently, China is sending waves of signal which wipe people’s personalities and turn them into dolls like the father in “Epitaph One.” Second, there was apparently a phone call, also originating from China, which programmed those who picked up to go and kill anyone who was not programmed. While we learn that Tohper’s use of waves rather than analogue to program dolls is the origin of this technology, there is no explanation for how we moved from brothels to China destroying all human personalities. I think the episode is intended to show that this technology is ultimately evil and can only end in apocalypse, but while I can imagine some possible scenarios which lead from point A to point B, I feel like there are more specific events that could have altered this outcome significantly.

We are also shown a Rossum executive in Victor’s body informing Adelle that the dolls’ bodies are now being sold for 9 figures. This makes sense in the context of the previous episodes, particularly “Haunted,” as we saw the possibility for eternal youth and immortality through body switching. However, this episode confused me when the woman inhabitting the girl, Iris, said she had no idea how she ended up in that body. This didn’t seem to mesh with the idea that the technology was for the rich and privileged. If people are just being wiped or killed off, what purpose could it possibly serve to have this woman randomly placed in a girl who ended up with a bunch of revolutionaries? Maybe it was intended as a link between the idea of the apocalypse and the ideas of body switching already presented, but for me I think it just confused the issue and put out one too many ideas at once.

What do you think of the vision of the apocalyptic future? How would you imagine the world went from the Dollhouses to the way we see it presented in “Epitaph One?”

Did you think “Epitaph One” was enough of a conclusion for the series? Is there anything you wish had been clarified, or explored in more detail?

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This episode of Dollhouse is probably the episode the most directly related to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In the episode, certain special people (those who are fabulously wealthy with connections, like Margaret) can opt to back up their entire personalities using the Dollhouse technology and essentially have life after death. This concept is very similar to the immortality of the Bitchun Society, where everybody creates regular backups and live forever through the use of clones. Because this brings to light many of the same questions that we discussed in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I will refrain from focusing on this aspect of the story. Instead, I will take a look at Topher’s yearly “diagnostic test” and Margaret’s shock after attending her own funeral.

Topher is the show’s evil genius, the mastermind behind the technology. Whenever we see him, he is generally cheerful and a little mischievous, so we assume that he is actually fine. However, this episode, we see that he feels an overwhelming loneliness. His creation of the perfect best friend to hang out with for 24 hours makes me feel bad for him; he is so isolated that he must create a person to be his friend. This feeling is understandable, since Topher is isolated both because of his crazy intelligence and also because of where he lives, presumably in the Dollhouse. I think that Topher’s actions here are not necessarily completely morally wrong. I’m not saying that using dolls is an okay thing in any circumstance, but in this case I think Topher’s harmless day with Sierra doesn’t evoke evil so much as it indicates a sad kind of melancholy.

As we can see from Margaret’s realizations upon attending her own funeral, sometimes it is better to live (or die) in ignorant bliss. This principle of course only applies if you assume the existence of Dollhouse technology, and in this case I’m going to assume that you have to give up your “life after death” or else you would have to deal with the whole new issue of which personalities are worth saving and which should be wiped so that they can be used as bodies for the “worthy” personalities. As fascinating as it is to see your own funeral, I think this episode is pointing out that we’re really not meant to know what other people say about you after your death. Luckily for Margaret, the show was written so that she could wrap everything up and once again die in peace, but other people might not be so fortunate.

What about you? Do you think that Topher is less “evil” than some of the other Dollhouse clients? If given the choice, would you want to see your own funeral?

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“Man on the Street” is a fitting yet limiting title for this episode (I just found out that “man on the street interviews” actually refer to a real news term). I was just surprised that the title of this episode would focus on these interviews as opposed to the mass amount of action throughout the episode. I do not recall our exact discussion from class, but know that the original goals of the series differed from Fox’s plan (even down to the filming, I seem to recall that one of the parties wanted a continuous, flowing storyline, and the other desired a more episodic filming plan). Since this episode is filmed quite differently, apparently, I am just slightly confused why a different, more inclusive title would be chosen. Examining the themes and plot of the episode, perhaps too much occurred for one inclusive title to “sum up” the action. In this case, do you think there was a specific reason for including so much action and information? Is this the creator’s attempt to reclaim his own project as quickly as possible, or do you think the fast paced nature is necessary to keep today’s audience hooked?
In addition to my nitpicky addressing of the title, I am really bothered by Mellie’s character now that I have learned (through Laura’s blogging) that she used to be a doll. Once your brain has been usurped by the house, do they always maintain some hint of control? What was that strange “flowers in a vase…the third one is green” jargon. It seemed like some sort of code, which would make sense if that’s how they controlled the dolls, especially if Mellie was indeed a doll in a former portion of her life. What will Mellie’s role be, then? Why was she not completely killed off (did it not seem to everyone else that she had a sudden burst of energy and pushed the creep off)? Maybe she is still under control (or at least surveillance). What a complex plot line, and all this with only one episode!
1) Did you all find the dolls’ personalities, especially that of “Echo,” to be extremely discomforting? Had I not been provided with the background for the “dollhouse,” I probably would have flipped past the show on T.V. and equated the characterization of Echo, Sierra, and Victor to be the result of bad-acting, not the show’s plot-line. The subtle emotions and inability to express themselves at the dollhouse (and also muted personalities even while playing another role) bothered me and, while I may be thinking too much into the show, lead me to wonder why the dolls even existed at the “dollhouse” in a humanoid form. Even as “Rebecca,” Echo’s emotions seem dulled and rehearsed, is this just the result of the computer program? I would assume so, but why do the doll’s need a personality at all outside of the house. It was terrible to watch Echo paint and seem honestly dismayed that she had not finished the picture, and hard to watch Victor and Sierra both be frightened, regardless if they did not express their emotions as vehemently as one with a “real” human brain and conscious emotional state would.

2) Was anyone else surprised that Fox would show this rather racy program? I guess I am just used to their more conservative news and talks shows, and I understand that “sex sells,” but based on previous information, it seems like their focus on sex throughout the initial episodes does indeed go against the project and perhaps even doom the series.

3) Does anyone know what happens with the dollhouse at the end of the series? Do the good guys win? Is Caroline rescued, and restored? Does Ballard end up with Caroline or Mellie? Who is trying to contact him? Is it the programming assistant who refused to fetch the programmer a sandwich a feminist working within the organization to contact Ballard and bring down this SF form of pornography? I have a lot of questions after this episode, and I hope they are eventually resolved. Perhaps I will have to consult the wiki page to see what happens.

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Even though I personally haven’t seen any of the Dollhouse series, I think that this episode gave a pretty good representation of what a person should expect from this series. With a little bit of Gerry’s commentary, I was able to understand the concept of the Dollhouse (kind of), a little bit about some of the main characters, and even that the operation takes place on a global scale. That said, I too called the ethics behind the Dollhouse into question. Personally, I find it morally wrong to wipe people’s brains clean and reprogram them to be characters in other people’s lives. I’m sure most do. But the thing that surprised me the most came towards the end of the episode when Mellie was activated and killed handler that was having sex with Sierra. This incident revealed 2 things to us: 1) Mellie is actually a doll, and 2) the dolls can be programmed in such a way that they can be trained killers without knowing so themselves. This second fact seems very disturbing in this world, especially because by the end of the episode, we know that dollhouses exist in other parts of the world.

While this brainwashing seemed odd and disturbing initially, the more I thought about it, the more practical it appeared. No, not the reprogramming of the brains and the bizarre command phrases, but the idea of having complete control over another human being’s actions without their full understanding of your intentions. This kind of control reminded me of a cult following or a soldier’s unconditional acceptance of his commander’s directives. Just like Adelle, the leaders of both of these groups rely on their followers to simply act without thinking to accomplish any set goals. The followers in these groups have almost no say in any decisions being made, but they are expected to do exactly what they are told, just like the dolls. Also, just like Mellie, these followers are subject to doing things that most people would consider wrong based on public opinion, and this unfortunately can be seen with some cults throughout history.

Would I say that the Dollhouse has elements resembling those of a cult and operates in a manner similar to a stereotypical secret government agency? Sure. But wouldn’t you too? Do you think that the show’s writers were making a statement about the government’s occasional acceptance of less ideal means to accomplish goals? Did it strike you as odd that the FBI initially just closed the case on the Dollhouse?

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