And it wasn’t Stan Lee.
This person, who passed on 11th November, played the central role in a film that routinely appears at the top of those lists of most important\groundbreaking\influential movies of all time, and yet, if you passed him in the street, you almost certainly wouldn’t recognise him. That is, unless you stopped to say hello. You see, his unique and distinctive, quiet, measured, and somehow emotionless voice would raise the hairs on the back of your neck and send chills down your spine: For Douglas Rain was the unmistakable voice of HAL 9000.
It’s a voice that defined the barely suppressed fear we have of computers, a voice that summed up that stock meme of the sci-fi genre, and forever cemented our fears and paved the way for so many movies that were to follow… The lurking computer consciousness, ruthlessly pursuing its own secret mission and refusing to let mere human life stand in its way. It’s a fear, deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness, that computers have the upper hand and we are just an inconvenience to be dealt with, and I’d venture to suggest that it crystalises a principle that has shaped how we feel about and interact with technology in general ever since.
When things go wrong with computers, we take it as a personal affront – an attack against which we are powerless to defend ourselves, causing rationality to go out of the window and paranoia to set in. As we grow ever more frustrated with the error messages popping up on the screen in front of us, starting to panic over the missing files, broken links and crashing applications, we start to lose the ability to think clearly… Each typo is the keyboard conspiring against us, as we mash the keys ever more frantically, every beep and protestation from the implacable machine causes exasperated growls to issue from deep within our soul, until – driven to our wit’s end – we throw the mouse across the room, screaming: “This thing hates me!”
When it comes to computers, most of us fall into two distinct brackets – those who profess to be tech savvy, and those who swear that they are ‘hopeless with technology’, the reality however, when it comes down to our personal interaction with anything of this nature, is that we are actually all a bit rubbish when it comes to understanding the way things really are. When something as insanely complex as sim surroundings take a few seconds longer to load that we’d like, or a sim crossing sees us rubberband for a moment before continuing, or we try – and fail – to login, time and time again; a Marketplace purchase never turns up… Or anything of that nature happens, we curse and swear and spout invective in the Lab’s general direction, or blame the uselessness of SL.
Yet, how often do we walk into the bank to make a deposit, only for the cashier to roll her eyes and complain that “the system is slow today”; how frequently do we phone our energy supplier and the agent on the other end apologises because the database has just gone down… “bear with me while I restart”; and on how many occasions does our own PC, laptop, tablet or phone misbehave, break or simply refuse to do what it’s supposed to?
And yet, we’re surprised, irritated and enraged when SL does what technology pretty much anywhere else, in any walk of life, routinely does; and that’s exactly what we expect technology to do! Do we honestly think that SL uses some sort of magic tech that will always work perfectly? That the billions of calculations per second that produce a picture of us dancing on the screen are beyond the reach of glitches, failures and faults? Obviously that’s not the case, and it’s probably a good thing. Can you imagine if SL was all-powerful and far more advanced than anything comparable? Would we trust it? Probably not.
Can you imagine putting your virtual life into the custody of a, hopefully benign, supercomputer that could at any moment go all HAL 9000 at us, kick us into the icy offworld wastes, and refuse to open the virtual pod bay doors and let us back in? It’s a rather terrifying prospect, and personally I’d rather put up with an imperfect virtual world than one hellbent on my destruction!
R.I.P. Douglas Rain.
Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer do!
I’m half crazy, All for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.
Daisy Bell – HAL 9000