Pre­pare to scare

Year Mil­lion peers into the fu­ture and finds it un­set­tling, writes while Stephen Col­bert cheer­fully in­forms us the present is al­ready ter­ri­fy­ing.

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Weekend Puzzles -

Few things make sat­is­fy­ingly es­capist telly bet­ter than killer ro­bots – that is, of course, un­less there’s a chance they could ac­tu­ally turn up on your doorstep.

Folk have al­ways slightly feared the march of tech­nol­ogy – from Lud­dites smash­ing au­to­mated looms in the early 1800s, to the death rays scorch­ing from HG Wells’ Mar­tian ma­chines in his 1897 novel War of the Worlds. Even when the word “ro­bot” was in­tro­duced by Czech play­wright Karel Capek for his 1920 play Ros­sum’s Uni­ver­sal Ro­bots, he took a Slavonic word for “forced labour” and wrote a tale of soul­less au­toma­tons con­quer­ing the world.

Just last week­end, the founder of Kiwi com­pany X-craft En­ter­prises, Philip So­laris, told Stuff he wanted the United Na­tions to ban ro­botic weapons that can kill with­out hu­man con­trol, say­ing they were al­ready a “spooky” re­al­ity.

So now’s a great time for Na­tional Ge­o­graphic’s lat­est high pro­duc­tion value six-part docu­d­rama Year Mil­lion. The chan­nel has set a high bar with big bud­get space ex­plo­ration mini-se­ries Mars and Ein­stein bio Ge­nius, so now it’s tack­ling a grander topic: the fu­ture of hu­man­ity.

The ti­tle doesn’t lit­er­ally mean 1 mil­lion AD, it’s more a fig­u­ra­tive age in the deep fu­ture when hu­mankind is “prac­ti­cally un­recog­nis­able” – and the se­ries’ shtick is to demon­strate how one fam­ily might reach that era “one in­ven­tion at a time”.

The show’s suc­cess is to colour in the “what-if” out­lines of topics such as longevity and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence with our fic­tional fam­ily, plenty of the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cists, in­ven­tors, pop sci­ence rent-a-brains and mind-blow­ing present-day ex­am­ples (Erica, the neu­ral net­work an­droid from episode one, re­veals her learn­ing ca­pac­ity by telling us she was cre­ated to demon­strate “what it’s truly like to be hu­man” and then of­fends a nerdy Cana­dian called Ig­na­tio by say­ing he doesn’t like “the finer things in life” like art).

But right from the start, Year Mil­lion strug­gles to com­bine the fu­tur­is­tic wow-fac­tor with our in­her­ent wor­ried whoa-there fac­tor. Nar­ra­tor Lau­rence Fish­burne – whose Ma­trix per­for­mance as Mor­pheus makes him ideal for this al­ready Emmy-nom­i­nated role – be­gins by de­scrib­ing how a cou­ple’s daugh­ter can be vir­tu­ally res­ur­rected af­ter a car crash but quickly moves on to a deep-fu­ture sce­nario when we’re “all com­puter, all the time”.

Year Mil­lion is the fu­ture, for good or bad – but the Star Wars clips, sound­bites from fa­tal­is­tic co­me­di­ans, the odd hu­mor­ous aside from Fish­burne and ter­ri­fy­ing, apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sions of the “sin­gu­lar­ity” when ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence out­paces hu­man­ity, sit a lit­tle strangely.

“Squirm­ing in your chair yet? You should be,” Fish­burne growls soul­fully.

Mind you, you don’t need a crys­tal ball to squirm th­ese days – there are plenty of quick-wit­ted satirists dis­sect­ing cur­rent af­fairs to show we’re all go­ing to hell in a hand­cart.

US late night talk shows have be­come the bedrock of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal com­edy – well, as long as you are part of the “lib­eral elite”, if you’re on the right or one of Trump’s de­spi­ca­bles, they’re some­thing between Stal­in­ist pro­pa­ganda and an out­break of Ebola – and the king of the times­lot is Stephen Col­bert.

It’s not just his caus­tic one-lin­ers, com­mit­ment to the daily news cy­cle and colour­ful mono­logues, but how he works his stage and cam­era that place him a few rungs above Jim­mys Fal­lon and Kim­mel, and saw him top 2016-17 rat­ings with 3.19 mil­lion nightly view­ers. And now Prime will be show­ing his Late Show with Stephen Col­bert just an hour or so af­ter it’s aired in the US, so you’ll be able to get your fix of Trumpian Amer­ica with­out bouncing between Fox News and CNN.

It’s just as scary as killer ro­bots, but with more laughs.

In the world of pol­i­tics, be­ing your “au­then­tic self” is hot right now. This feels new. Time was, politi­cians were sup­posed to look and sound like politi­cians. Mea­sured, but­toned-up, care­ful of their lan­guage.

In Amer­ica, pres­i­dents were sup­posed to look “pres­i­den­tial”. There’s a pop­u­lar the­ory that JFK won against Nixon in 1960, not be­cause of pol­icy, but be­cause of his tele­genic ap­peal. Mati­nee idol good looks ver­sus Nixon’s flop sweat. Later, a lit­eral mati­nee idol – Ron­ald Rea­gan – held the White House for two terms. Ev­ery­one talks about the un­mis­tak­able charisma of Bill Clin­ton. Men who be­came pres­i­dent, at least in part, be­cause they looked like pres­i­dents.

In New Zealand, we’ve liked our prime min­is­ters to look “prime min­is­te­rial”. Some­one whose face you could frame and hang above the man­tel­piece. The kind of per­son you’d be OK to have pre­sid­ing over fam­ily din­ners while the kids were in the room.

And then the Trump wind blew. For some, the wind has a smell of locker room to it, and not in a good way. But for others, dirty talk (or mean talk, or an­gry talk) sounds a lot like “straight talk”. Re­fresh­ing be­cause it’s dif­fer­ent. Un­en­cum­bered by good man­ners, lack­ing ob­vi­ous signs of be­ing scripted or mea­sured, it is a way of talk­ing that cuts through.

Like all fash­ions, it reaches around the world to us even­tu­ally. When Gareth Mor­gan used the phrase “lip­stick on a pig”, my mother was hor­ri­fied, but there were other ways to re­act. He wasas talk­ing like Gareth Mor­gan rather than like a politi­cian. None off that pan­der­ing to other peo­ple’s sen­si­tiv­i­ties. For some peo­ple,e, be­ing out­ra­geous looks very much like be­ing bold.

Win­ston Peters, an early adopter of be­ing your au­then­tic self,f, will no doubt be able to blus­ter and ob­fus­cate his way out of trou­ble for re­ceiv­ing a higher ben­e­fit that his liv­ing cir­cum­stancesces should have al­lowed – de­spite the fact that if NZ pol­i­tics was an n episode of Master­mind, su­per­an­nu­a­tion pay­ments would be hiss spe­cial­ist sub­ject. And his back-up sub­ject: the blus­ter and ob­fus­ca­tion the peo­ple who sup­port him love him for.

Au­then­tic­ity, though, doesn’t work for ev­ery­one. Just a few short weeks ago, an­other politi­cian, Me­tiria Turei, made a sim­i­la­rar con­fes­sion about re­ceiv­ing a higher ben­e­fit than her liv­ing cir­cum­stances should have al­lowed. Both blamed the sys­tem foror let­ting them down. Win­ston pointed to an in­di­vid­ual cler­i­cal er­ror­ror and in­sisted there was no in­tent to de­fraud; Me­tiria blamed thee whole sys­tem driv­ing her and women like her to do some­thing they weren’t proud of. Ul­ti­mately, they both made an hon­est con­fes­sion. But per­haps peo­ple find him eas­ier to for­give be­cause it’s Win­ston do­ing what Win­ston does. And there are all kinds of ways to be a man in pol­i­tics.

One mem­ber of this fam­ily in the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic docu-drama hu­man – it’s enough to make even the most hard­ened Ma­trix fan squirm. isn’t

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