Science fiction writers love to speculate about the abnormal psychology of robots. That's the pathos of the robot - designed to have the perfect mind, it nevertheless malfunctions and becomes a calm-voiced, sociopathic HAL, or a tragically doomed rebel like the replicants in "Blade Runner," or the feminist death-bot in "Eve of Destruction." When Isaac Asimov set out to write the first definitive work of robot S.F., "I, Robot" (1955), he did it by creating a character called a "robopsychologist" whose observations of abnormal robotic psychology formed the meat of the tale.
Researchers haven't yet invented a robot whose psychology is complicated enough to be equivalent to that of a "normal" person, let alone a neurotic one. It's safe to say that all these speculations about the insanity of machines are really meditations on our own mental failures and cognitive disasters. Even true tales about the behavior of actually existing robots -- like the small "evolving" robot in England named Gaak that managed to escape from its cage and zoom out the doors of a building and into the parking lot -- read like allegories of human life. Trapped in a lab, forced to fight for scant resources with its fellow lab-bots, Gaak said, "Fuck this," and ran away when it had the chance. Just like you would, right?
The point is, the mental breakdowns of robots are really our own mental breakdowns -- the problems we project onto our machines. It's as if we can't imagine creating a form of intelligence that isn't prone to madness. Which raises the question: what about abnormal human psychologies that develop in and through machines? Put another way, can computers drive people mad?
A new movie written and directed by Michael Wohl, a principal designer of Apple's Final Cut Pro film-editing software, offers one possible scenario in which they can. Soon to be screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival (and other fests near you), the movie is called Want, and it's one of the most horrific, sad, and true depictions of the dot-com boom I've seen yet. Sure, there are documentaries galore about start-ups and shutdowns and shitty Silicon Valley labor practices. Yet it takes a truly fictionalized account of the time to do justice to the psychology of the boom era.
Want's main character, Trey, is a programmer who inhabits a surreal world of psychotic branding, marketing droids, television addicts, and transgressive, Web-based sex. Moving in grainy fast-motion from computer screen to computer screen, Trey is unable to network with anyone except in the context of business relationships. Even when he jacks off with a woman in a chat room, his eyes wander up to watch the price index in the corner of the screen. As he orgasms, he sees only what the encounter is costing him. Meanwhile, he divides the rest of his lustful feelings up between his business plans for various weird dot-coms ("We could create a Web community for people stuck in traffic!" he enthuses), a new SUV, and a woman he sexually harasses at work. Naive and predatory, Trey is the consummate new-economy sociopath. And yet his nervous breakdown is heart-wrenching because he's clearly been destroyed by his culture, not some internal failure.
It isn't so much computers that have driven Trey insane as it is the way they are used. Community has become e-commerce; human relationships in the computer industry are cash exchanges. When Trey pitches his idea for a dot-com based on creating online meetings for recovery groups, his financial rep tells him he's hit on a fantastic way to market things like sex, cigarettes, and alcohol. After all, nobody wants to buy beer more than a member of AA! And sex addicts will all click through on the porn banner ads! Human contact, in Trey's world, is mediated by money.
As Want progresses to its disturbing climax, we realize that computer networks are the occasion for Trey's madness because they are a symbol of wealth. In one of the film's early sequences, Trey shivers and sweats and masturbates in front of his monitor, his face glowing with lines of code; gradually we realize that his madness is one with dot-com mania itself. High-tech capitalism has broken his brain. But computer networks made it easier to do. And harder to escape.
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd who has a taste for abnormal psychology that can only be found online. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.