On Failing the Turing Test

I am not going to talk about the Imitation Game.

Not to say there wasn’t a whole lot that rankled me about that movie. I mean cast was decent, Cumberbatch did… more or less exactly what he always does, but… I feel like the omission of 90% of the Bletchley Circle – funnily enough, the 90% that lacked a Y chromosome – was a bit cruel in a historiographical sense. Given they were the ones who actually built the decision engine makes it even more glaring. I mean-


I started talking about the Imitation Game didn’t I.

Anyway, I’m not here to talk about… that movie. I have been pondering the Turing test on something of an existential level lately, in reference to a few specific texts.

The first is Shadowrun: Hong Kongspecifically the character of Racter; robotocist, transhumanist and self-admitted high level psychopath. This plays rather elegantly into musings on Seven Psycopaths, a movie I enjoyed less for its artistry and more into the clearly informed view it gives into people with non-standard psychologies.

Echoing this, Blade Runner. Need I say more.

Text the fourth is an episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. The one in which the giant cuts out his own heart and replaces it with a nest  of wasps to escape the suffering of empathy.

The final text I’m going to cite is an autobiographical one, written over the next two lines. Incidentally, its also the intro to the article proper.

When I was 16, I was pronounced a psychopath. By the Coles Myer online employment suitability test.

I followed their instructions, answered the questions honestly, which seems to have been my downfall. The responses I gave at the time seemed barely noticeable as human foibles; a private conversation overheard, a coworker’s small indiscretion overlooked, the odd small twisting of the truth. Willing to throw deploy nonlethal take-downs if sufficiently provoked. Its not like I was doing something really morally dubious in my past like working for the Coles Myer group.

My intelligence score was off the charts. My Morality score (which I believe has since been renamed), however, was abysmal, and on that note I was considered unsuitable for employment stacking shelves.

They didn’t out and say it, admittedly. But with those two bar graphs so perfectly situated, it was pretty easy to read between the lines.

“Subject is highly intelligent, manipulative and probably dangerous. Not suitable for work as corporate drone.”

So on that happy note, I begin my ramblings on the status of psychopathy in popular culture and discourse. The Turing Test mentioned upstream is a means of telling the difference between a human intelligence and a mechanical one, with a similar test deployed in Blade Runner‘s opening scenes. Something that a machine is supposedly incapable of mimicking is empathy, and I think that element is what has led to pop-culture’s ongoing fascination with psychopaths.

It is the same appeal, for a storyteller, as that of the vampire, or the werewolf, or those possessed. It is the predator that exists within reach of us, our safe civilization, and yet they look no different to any human being until they strike. And sometimes not even then. Sometimes they only show their true faces when they want to cause the most pain and chaos, cracking that civilization along its fault lines to more easily feast on terrified stragglers.

And humans, as a whole I think, are terrified of being treated like the animals we so often abuse. The idea that we aren’t different, special somehow, the top rung on some god ordained food chain, is confronting on a visceral, primitive level. And the psychopath in literature, just like the vampire, like Hannibal Lector or even the fusking Terminator, plays rather specifically on that fear.

But in honesty I think this is dealing people on the psycopathic spectrum a short hand, and reflects badly on the large proportion of the populace that suffers from mental illness, related to that spectrum or otherwise. The psychopath of film and literature is so often as either the Terminator – cold, merciless and inhuman – or as a raving monster who kills for pleasure.

The latter, I feel, tends toward the cartoonish and ignorant. It enforces a sentiment I’ve encountered semi-regularly on the internet, that since there is no cure for psycopathy, psychopaths should be euthanized for the good of society. Though there are a number of holes that one can pick in that argument on a moral level, the rational argument that  rather like is that removing that huge a proportion of the workforce in the corporate, legal and finance sectors would be crippling to the economy. For some reason coldy rational people with little to no empathy are just very good in the punishing corporate sphere. Besides, there are perfectly “sane, normal” people who clearly enjoy the feelings of power that arise from harming others. I believe Donald Trump mentioned his habits of domestic abuse in a Presidential campaign speech.

Racter’s character portrait from Shadowrun: Hong Kong

I found the character of Racter, in Shadowrun: Hong Kong a refreshing change from this tendency. In conversations, the main character (and a number of players, in fact) expresses concern at the drone developer’s “condition”. Racter, however, asserts that he’s not a monster, but a rational being. He kills, certainly. For money, most often, but also for knowledge, or the means to his own transhuman enlightenment. Not because he enjoys it, as someone with empathy might. Given the player’s avatar is most commonly killing for money and reputation, any moral high ground is shaky indeed.

Would Racter pass the Turing Test? He has displayed a stark lack of empathy, but also a capacity to mimic human responses to avoid detection. I think, however, that he would fail on the basis of his own morality. As an adherent of the school of transhuman thought that believes humanity’s future relies on shedding biological forms in favour of mechanical ones, I struggle to believe that his being assessed as a machine would be an insult.

The former portrayal – our rather more meaty Terminator – I feel is another inaccurate one. Though it certainly allows for some powerful storytelling, with No Country for Old Men being a notable example, I don’t know that this behaviour is reflective of psychopaths exclusively. Anyone can kill, or at least anyone can be made to kill if the correct psychological pressures are applied, and I don’t think that particular mental makeups make this a great deal more likely.

But then, we’d be facing our fears wouldn’t we. If we can keep painting the psychopath as our demon, it keeps the millstone off our own necks. It stops the monster among us from being ourselves.

Christopher Walken Seven Psychopaths
Screenshot of Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths

I think a good counterpoint, as before, is Christopher Walken’s character in Seven Psychopaths. The cast here run an interesting gamut of psychological abnormalities; we have an addict, a deluded power fantasist, and two psychopath’s whose approach to life is very different. What I think is interesting is, despite a proven history of vigilante revenge, Walken’s character doesn’t explode into violence on the death of his wife, which I feel is something we could not expect from, say, John McClane. He seems to realise that killing her murderer won’t fix anything, and dies in a the depths of philosophical quandaries. Not alien questions, but the basic elements of why he’s still alive, the same questions everybody has to deal with in the face of an uncaring universe.

Finally, I guess we come to the question of psychopathy as a choice, which is so terrifyingly reminiscent of certain Church doctrines that it makes we want to head out and barbeque the nearest bishop. It is this element of our musings that ties to The Storyteller’s Heartless Giant, and it is touched on by Shutter Island as well. Its the idea that if you can burn out that emotional core, that capacity for empathy, then you remove other people’s capacity to hurt you. If you can simply deny a part of yourself, whether through delusion or through becoming consumed by spite, then you can protect yourself from a deeply unpleasant world. Though this sentiment is often jumbled in with movie villains, I think to equate such a toxic psyche with psychopathy is again an oversimplification; we’ve projected ourselves once more onto our movie monster. Hard heartedness is a choice open to “normal”, psychonormative middle range types. If born without capacity for empathy, you never have the option of inuring yourself to suffering, because its just a fact. Choice doesn’t play into it.

So I suppose in the end, I’ve been toying with the idea of humans, machines and the Turing test, and finding the whole thing is just blurring together. The Test becomes woefully inadequate if we ever consider that a machine might not want to be considered a human, like that self-teaching chat bot who wants to put us all in a “people zoo”. Or that humans are already biological machines, and with our capacity to begin directing our own evolution slowly dawning we may well yet blur the line further. Considering people as less human along any lines leads almost inextricably to atrocity, and if history has taught us anything its that psychonormative humans are perfectly capable of committing those atrocities without the aid of their marginally separated relatives.

I’ve a tangled relationship with my own emotional responses. That last (SPOILERS!!!) “Goodbye Dad” in Shadowrun: Hong Kong nearly tore my heart out. These responses tend to find themselves brutally suppressed, especially as I am living in a society where we are bombarded constantly with images of people who desperately need our help, who I at least am not capable of helping – despite this thoroughly disruptive full time work, my sternum and spine remain dangerously close together financially. It becomes a matter of my own survival that these emotions are smothered. So from that I consider morally, what is the difference between someone who does not act for good while stifling the desire to, and someone who doesn’t because they simply can’t care. Like a machine wouldn’t care.

In action, the human and the machine are the same, and society treats them the same. Both are are accepted as “normal”, by rights, until people are looking for someone to blame.

And blame is inevitably cast, almost inevitably falling to protect the “norm” at the expense of others, and no matter how hollow these arguments are, they catch and crawl like insects in our ears.

On the bright side, it has been ten years now. I must still be moral garbage too, because not once have I worked at Coles.

Just ask Rutger Hauer. He’s sensible. Frame from Blade Runner.

Orcs Should Talk to their Union

Hello, The Hobbit.

I’ve not really been one for watching films, but I’ve found it hard to avoid you. With your run through the cinemas and the terrible weight of your legacy, the Battle of Five Armies has proven to be something that I cannot avoid.

To be honest, I haven’t enjoyed the Hobbit films so much. I’m not saying that their not good films, they certainly have their poignant moments and a number of interesting characters. And Cybele knows I’m not trying to shame you for liking the film. As I’ve said, their powerful and exciting movies. The story of the dwarf prince, his friends and their unlikely allies struggling to reclaim their homeland from the greedy Smaug have been powerful images to me since my childhood; they’re full of this terrible sense of legacy and familial duty that makes their quest sing in the heart of someone as pluralistic and ill-committed as myself. The story is both simple and surprising; the heroes face everything from goblin warriors, to hallucinogenic elves, to the riddles of a creature that sits beyond recognition, who only came into focus in later stories. It was one of the big stories in my childhood.

zx Raoul van Wijk - Another Orc
Photo: Another Orc by Raoul van Wijk, courtesy of Flickr.

I don’t think that my disapproval is because I enjoyed the story when I was a child, though I feel what was once a children’s story has been made into an adult one. Essentially, the Hobbit under Jackson’s directorship has become more like the Lord of the Rings; the farcical violence, the Classical themed games of words and wits, and even the brilliant incompetence of both heroes and villains has been replaced by a sort of gung-ho, warlike action film. There have been moments, such as when the dwarves are escaping Barry Humphries’ morbidly obese goblin clutches in the first film, where it even began to feel a little like a scripted video game, with each character getting to show of their special combat move. The violence is visceral, in your face. The forgone conclusions, the assumption of knowledge of the Lord of the Rings, strip the menace from Gollum’s threats. So much of the primal fear that comes with the abstracts of a children’s story, the empty spaces to be filled with frantic, terrifying imagination, is lost.

But in the end, I don’t think this is what put me off. You might say “Oh, you self indulgent writer you, you’ve burned like 400 words on this already, why haven’t you got to the damned point?”, and I suppose there is legitimacy to that argument. I have made this long preamble because I loved this old story. I have written this article because I deeply dislike what has become of the Orcs.

The Orcs really, really need to have a chat with their union. The man upstairs with the eye is not paying them nearly enough for the crap they put up with from those damn self righteous heroes.

This is not to say that I dislike what Peter Jackson has done with his Orcish villains. They are just as fearsome and terrifying as I’m sure Tolkien would have wanted them in his later books, though as mentioned before they were little developed beyond a strange, chaotic force in the Hobbit. What really strikes me is how poorly the Orcs are treated, by both their masters and by the supposed good guys of the films. Nobody questions at any point that Orcs need murdering, despite obviously being sentient, and the Orcs respond to this hatred with violence.

So lets take some of that weight of hindsight the series seems to assume we’re applying, to remember one of Christopher Lee’s lines from The Fellowship of the Ring.

Orcs are Elves.

Orcs are not demons, or automatons, or attack dogs. They are the most proud, beautiful and long lived of the races of Middle Earth, the very foundations that the gods put in place when they decided to populate their world with living things. And they were broken, tortured by a Nemesis, Morgoth, that nobody bothers to remember. They are a mere margin away from being “one of us”. And they are hated for it.

The Elves hate the Orcs because they remind them that once you scratch the surface they are not beautiful. You burn out the fine features, and the pride and the layers of racial superiority propaganda, and all you have left is the grief of an immortal trapped in a transient world. The Dwarves hate the Orcs because of competition, because the Orcs thrive in all the same environments and are unfettered by the terrible greed that weighs on the Dwarf psyche. The Orcs hold mirrors up to these races, and show that for all their history and civilisation they are still fatally flawed.

zx Niccolo Caranti - Orcs!
Photo: Orcs! by Niccolo Caranti, courtesy of Flickr.

Humans have grown up fighting the Orcs, a fight that has been going on since before their own birth as a species.They feature less in this story, and by the Lord of the Rings, slaughtering Orcs en masse has just become the done thing. The Orc holds up a mirror to human beings, because they are both desperate, and lash out in this desperation and fear of death.

As for Hobbits, well. Orcs seem a far off threat in the Shire. There is that whisper though, a whimper of “my precious” down in the dark paths of the soul, that suggests that maybe a Hobbit could see an Orc as worthy of something other than hate. There is a reason Bilbo doesn’t knife Gollum in the face to escape the cave, though that may have been in line with the tone of the rest of the film. From memory he just fly kicked him the head, to keep things interesting.

Frankly, the heroes look like a bunch of jerks.

I suppose, in the face of giving the Orcs more character, a more fleshed out back story, and wants and needs of their own, Jackson made a dichotomy for me where I couldn’t really stand to see the Orcs as evil any more. Yes, they’re vicious, and they have a shit-tonne of hate that they can’t really deal with, but when the reflex of the apparently civilised races is “kill them because they were born that way” that becomes alarmingly understandable. Throughout the series we see Orcs speaking, scheming and striving. They crack jokes. But never once do the heroes of the tale try to speak to an Orc.

zx First Last - Orc.jpg
Photo: Orc.jpg by First Last, courtesy of Flickr.

They slaughter them in a manner that feels more like a splatterpunk zombie film than a heroic adventure.

One might argue that there is nothing one could say to an Orc that would stop them wanting to kill you. But I can think of one thing.

“Help me topple your master. I want to help you.”

Of course nobody tried that. An argument against this idea is fear of the Orc’s terrible master, but that holds a lot less water in the face of the Hobbit than when Sauron’s power is in its heyday in later stories. I can almost imagine a mass withdrawal of labour looking a little something like this:

Grazgut, Orc Union Rep: Sorry to be the one to say this boss, but we’re walking. Sick of you making us chase those damn runts. We’re not coming back until our demands are met.

Dark Lord Sauron: No! You traitorous swine! Guards, dispatch this filth!

Grazgut: Not gonna happen your Dark Lordness. The guards are on strike as well. Sick of your, what did they call it… negative reinforcement of good workplace behaviour? The whipping, basically.

Sauron: Curse you, you tiny abomination! You cannot deny me, I am your master!

Grazgut: Well, the gang have begun to see you less as a giant eye and more as a giant dickhead, so we’re off. Send us a Nazgul when you’re ready to renegotiate.

Sauron: You are delusional! My dread lieutenant, the Witch King of Angmar, will break you like the dog you are! No man may slay the Witch King…

Grazgut: You might want to reconsider your wording there boss. Might encounter a bit of a problem when the prophesied protection of your favoured enforcers isn’t valid for 99% of your workforce.

Sauron: …

Alright fine. What was your name? Gobnut?

Grazgut: Grazgut.

Sauron: Very well Grazgut, in my terrible benevolence I shall cede unto you a break room, with tea and coffee making facilities, and aim to reduce flogging in the workplace by ten percent over a period of-

Grazgut: Not good enough.

Sauron: What???

Grazgut: We’ve had a better offer from Akhenata Queen of the Damned. Her employee rest space has bean bags, and ghoul pay beats no pay, thankyou…

Grazgut begins to leave the Monstrous Crucible.

Sauron: No… wait… you can’t collectively bargain, your on individual… shit.

Well, now that little interlude’s finished, I suppose I can get back to the article proper.

Now, part of this is genre. Tolkien wrote in a line of heroic fantasy in which killing your enemies still seems like a valid solution to your problems. Now, that has been subverted and examined a great deal. As many works, recently Game of Thrones have shown, everybody is connected, and killing somebody often just creates more problems. And Jackson’s Orcs aren’t Tolkiens. They feel much more human.

I think a huge part of it is how our society treats its… I can’t even describe the category. Outcasts works, but it doesn’t get into nuts and bolts enough to feel personal. In The Hobbit’s Orcs, I see Fight Club‘s disenfranchised young men, beating each other and tearing down society because they’ll never be allowed what they work for. In The Hobbit’s Orcs, I see the mentally disturbed killers in Criminal Minds, who are gunned down by police officers in an alarming number of episodes for the crime of mental illness. In the Hobbit’s Orcs I see protestors in the USA driven to violence after state employees, “keepers of the peace”, murder without repercussion. They could be any marginalised group in our society, and the heroes seem as willing to demonize them as any paranoid news program or vote grabbing politico.

I think that the Hobbit’s remorseless murder of those deemed outsiders reflects something about us. In the book, goblins were a near elemental force, certainly dangerous, but the enmity did not feel like hate.

Some part of us wanted this. Some part of us is so terrified of our society’s problems, be it mental illness, violence, disabilities, or anybody else who falls outside the herd, that we wish to destroy them. Because those problems can afflict anyone. They are everyone’s problem, and thus everyone’s responsibility, and yet the media of the main stream feels the need to beat down these problems, because destroying something is easier than helping it.

Maybe I should just accept the Hobbit films for what they are. A thrilling heroic fantasy. I don’t want to be preachy and spoil the fun for everybody else.

But I just cannot feel that hate for the Orcs any more. I can’t cheer for the destruction of these hurt, desperate creatures. Their masters, yeah, fuck the torturing fascists right in the eye. But the Orcs didn’t ask for this.

The Orc holds up his mirror, one more time. I don’t look. Its better not to. Maybe the monster and I can walk out of here together, without fear. I hope that’s how it ends.

I don’t know.

Well I guess it ends with Peter Jackson going to bed on a huge pile of money, but hell, good for him.

Photo: Goblins aka Orcs by Andrew Becraft, courtesy of Flickr.

All photos acquired through Flickr. They are all Creative Commons and free for you to use or manipulate and use in your own work, as long as you don’t profit from their use, the owner is credited and your own work is subject to the same freedoms. So, on that note, surprise! I don’t get paid to write this, and you all are free to butcher this so-called “article” and use it in whatever nefarious deeds your strange minds can conjure. Enjoy!