The new Robocop remake, a tale of technology services

WARNING: Spoiler alert (although, to be honest, most of these spoilers are in the trailer anyway).

The old Robocop used to fret over whether he was man or machine; the new, not so much. Oh, there is a segment where he appears quite disturbed by his lack of a body, but you can tell it’s more of a “Dude, where’s my penis?” sort of disturbed than anything else. Then again, in this age when everybody is lining up for smartphones, drones, dietary supplements, and wearable body monitoring devices, it was always going to be a bit of a stretch convincing the modern audience that somebody wouldn’t be totally stoked to have all of the above in one sleek black package (with cool Batman motorbike included).

Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story to the new Robocop movie if it were all just Detective Alex Murphy being happy and content with his new robotic body, and training to compete against a newly upgraded Oscar Pistorious at the Summer Olympics.

The tension in this remake arises from the situation Detective Alex Murphy finds himself signed up to. With his body in a bad state, his wife signs a ridiculously all-encompassing consent form on his behalf to have his entire body replaced with robotic parts – thus saving his life. Having been ‘saved’, poor Alex Murphy then begins to find the conditions of his existence being changed on him without his consent. First his reflexes are too slow, so the company manipulates things so that his responses are automatic, whilst still providing him the illusion of choice (he thinks he is the one making all those automated decisions). Then the deluge of data – in the form of the various crime news feeds/databases he is required to have access to – prove too much for him, so they begin to alter his choices in relation to that as well. Bit by bit his choices are taken away from him without his knowledge, not necessarily always through direct manipulation, but through subtle changes in the way the system operates – and he is powerless to prevent any of it.

In short, Detective Alex Murphy has – unfortunately – found himself signed up to Facebook.

There was an excellent exhibit at Draw Inc in Hamilton that captured this conundrum perfectly. It consisted of a projector screen hooked up to a Microsoft Kinect (one of those interactive webcams that cause kids to jump around and pretend they’re cleaning windows at technology stores). The users were lead to believe that their actions in front of the camera would change the motion of particular dots on screen. The only thing is, they didn’t. All the elements on the screen were programmed to move randomly, so any movements you thought you caused were actually all just the result of a randomised computer algorithm.

A lot of technology services are currently operating on this principle. Once you sign up you sign on to having a certain set of choices, but these choices can then be changed on you at any time, regardless of what you do. And those choices that you do have, well you can be subtly manipulated into not having most of those too. Free-will, is just as much of an illusion to you as a consumer of these services, as it is to Alex Murphy.

On the one hand, you as a consumer have control, as you’re the one paying for the product and/or signing consent forms for it. On the other hand, there is no way for the consumer to actually do anything once they’ve handed over said control. Having had his entire body amputated, what is Alex Murphy supposed to do? Pick his head and two surviving lungs up out of his robotic body and bounce down the road to the nearest competing robot vendor? He could commit suicide I suppose, but turns out he doesn’t really have that option either (and neither does anybody on Facebook, just try deleting your account). What’s missing are consistent standards relating to the use of ones personal information, and the choices one should be allowed to have on these sites.

In an earlier era professional services (lawyers, doctors, etc) had to develop ethics and guidelines to protect consumers, largely because the consumers of professional services did not have the knowledge, expertise – or the ability – to monitor the provision of those services. A patient had few ways of telling if a Doctor was attending to him/her correctly, for example, likewise a client in relation to his or her lawyer. In fact – in the movie – it is the actions of a professional operating under these guidelines that eventually ends up ‘saving’ Detective Murphy. In the real world, it may be the type of thing that ends up preserving choice and saving the rest of us too.

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