Et In Silicon Valley Ego

This post will include spoilers for Devs, a new television series by Alex Garland (2020) and for Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia (1993). Although, really, you should have had plenty of time to catch the latter by now… Anyway, spoilers ahead.


Seriously, spoilers. You have been warned.


You should turn back now if you haven’t seen Devs and Arcadia.


Seriously, you can turn back now…


And the fact that you can turn back is actually significant [spoilers start from here].

Because you can, if you choose to, turn back here. You are able to. You can click back on your browser, and reverse the flow of time in a metaphorical, if not a literal, way. Here, at this moment, you can go backwards. At this moment, you CAN stir the jam back out of the rice pudding…

“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?” – Thomasina, Arcadia

rice puddding

I’ll get back to Thomasina’s observation in a moment.

I recently finished binge-watching Devs by Alex Garland. As television series go, I’m not sure that Mr Garland could have created a story that was more up my street than this one. Yes, like almost all the other AI thinkers, researchers and technologists I’ve ever met, I’ve seen Ex Machina. But to be honest, I probably liked it more for its take on Silicon Valley bro-preneurs and bro-tagonism than for what it said about the probability and nature of AI consciousness. And some of the male-gaze moments felt more like having your cake and eating it than critique to me. Although, the alternative ending where we got Ava’s non-human POV always appealed. Annihilation scratched a few bio-horror and posthumanism itches and gave me strong female scientists, and gets a thumbs up from me. So, I was interested to see what was coming next from this writer/director…

Devs, though.

Me on Devs

Not only Silicon Valley culture but also Simulation Theory, computational universes, determinism, multiverse theory, and all replete with religious imagery and narratives. Because of this near-perfect mix of favourite Beth-things, I’m going to forgive rather the on-the-nose last episode twist of the V in Devs being a roman numeral making it actually the U in Deus. Computers as god(s) isn’t a new story, and I’ve spent a lot of time writing about theistic conceptions of AI. But AI wasn’t really the focus here. It was more about the human characters than the tech in the end. In fact, the first episode took us quickly from AI to Quantum Computing as one of the key characters was promoted from the former to the ultra-secretive DEVS, indicating that this wasn’t Ex Machina 2.0, even if we finally got the ‘Deus’ part of that old expression.

Even the lovely shiny golden Quantum Computer in the floating box under the ground surrounded by a vacuum (how DID the toilets work???) wasn’t much more than a McGuffin for a very human story about fate, free will, and sadness. Yes, the story wouldn’t have happened without the computational power of this near-mythical golden device; resplendent in shining doodahs, tubes, and wires, and with a pulsing heartbeat that shone and shimmered around the underground cube. Deus was able to crunch such impossibly large amounts of data – all the data in our universe in fact – that both the past and the future could be predicted and projected visually on a screen. Seeing a static blurred Jesus on the screen in the Devs team’s red screening room in the floating box was a powerful moment, even for a non-believer. Hearing him speaking in Aramaic was genuinely spooky. But Devs had bigger aims than dealing with the implications of finally proving the historical existence of Jesus.

Because, seconds later, in a heart-rending moment of crushed dreams, the developer, Lyndon, who had finally managed to fix the white static fuzziness and produce crystal clear audio of those last words, was fired. He had introduced Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation into the Quantum Computer’s prediction algorithm. Forest, the head of Dev’s parent company Amaya, had banned Many Worlds theory because he was dedicated to a deterministic view of a single universe rather than the branching possibilities of many universes as described by Everett. Introducing multiple worlds meant that they might not be predicting their Jesus, for example, but one who might be from another universe. Different perhaps by only by a single hair on his head, but just not the same one.

But it wasn’t Jesus that Forest was interested in. And given his later comments about the Messiah complexes of Silicon Valley genius we might be mistaken in thinking he was feeling competitive. In fact, Forest, who had lost his wife and daughter, Amaya, in a terrible car crash, did not want to simulate an Amaya who was not his Amaya. Even if the difference was as small as a single hair on her head. Even though Lyndon’s adjustment made it possible for him to see her again, not just as a blurred figure behind white snow, but in high definition. But eventually, we saw him watch, enraptured, by a completely perfect simulation of a past her, existing in the Devs computer after his number 2, Kate, also implemented Lyndon’s algorithm to the video outputs.  

But what does all this have to do with jam and rice pudding?

After finishing Devs, I was thinking about Arcadia and its similarities and differences with Devs. I don’t think Alex Garland was directly inspired by Stoppard’s play, and on the face of it, the play has very little to do with Silicon Valley. But thinking about the two stories together might be fruitful.

Arcadia 2Arcadia pic

Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, a great estate in Derbyshire, and during the course of the play, two apparently separate moments in time take their turn to play out on the stage before eventually overlapping with each other.

In 1809, we see Septimus Hodge tutoring Lady Thomasina Coverley, a teenage mathematical prodigy and the daughter of the Lord and Lady of the house. In the present day, academic Hannah Jarvis is researching a history of the house and its garden. She is using a hermit who lived in the faux-hermitage that was built on the grounds in the early 1800s as the thematic lynchpin for her next book on the Romantic imagination. Her work is interrupted by Bernard Nightingale, a historian working on Lord Byron. Byron was a school friend of Septimus’, and Nightingale believes he may have fought a duel while visiting Sidley Park and killed Ezra Chater, a rather lacklustre poet. Valentine Coverley, the current heir to the house, is using the house’s ‘game books’ (the records of hunting parties’ catches) to crunch numbers for his research into grouse population changes. All three are looking for data to give them insights into the past. But we, the audience, get to see the misunderstandings the academic are falling into as they try to ‘predict’ the past based on the limited data that they come across during the course of the play. For instance, Chater was not killed by Byron. Nightingale, arrogant and sure of his headline-worthy discovery, is blind to the later historical records that mention an ‘E. Chater’ as a botanist because that past doesn’t fit his view of what happened at Sidley Park. In many ways, this group of modern academics are seeing the past in the same static filled way as the Devs team are at the beginning of the series. Back when they are limited to the determinism of one predictable, deterministic, universe.

Arcadia is also a story filled with determinism and despair, just like Devs. In the very first scene, Thomasina is certain that she has had a mathematical revelation:

“If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.” – Thomasina, Arcadia

Of course, Thomasina has only the barest inkling of the kinds of universal difference and analytical engines that were coming. Quantum Computing would also be far beyond the Newtonian physics her calculations were assuming. Squaring the circle of quantum methods and Newtonian predictions in Devs seems to have only been possible through Everett. So again, this leap was certainly beyond Thomasina’s brilliant, but too early, mind.

In this scene, she and Septimus go on to discuss free will, with Thomasina concluding that god must be a Newtonian (delightfully/intentionally misheard by Septimus as “an Etonian”). However, as with the rice pudding and the jam, she’s also realised the big problem of Newtonian determinism. Knowing the ‘tramlines’ (as Forest refers to them in Devs), the direction of travel, does nothing to stop the bad things from happening and they cannot be undone. The jam cannot be unstirred from the rice pudding. Entropy cannot be combated. The heat death of the universe is inevitable. Everything is lost eventually. Even Thomasina herself.

There is an undefeatable fate that also awaits her ahead on the tramlines. We learn from Hannah and Valentine in the present day that Lady Thomasina Coverley died in a fire the night before her seventeenth birthday. Just moments later, we watch her dance with Septimus on that fateful night, as Hannah and Valentine discuss the mysterious figure of the hermit who hid himself away in the fake-ancient hermitage in the gardens. The Genius of the Place, as Hannah’s book will eventually be called, using both meanings of the expression. The genius of the place was a man who spent the rest of his life attempting to disprove the second law of dynamics that Thomasina had stumbled upon forty years early, in order to return back down the path he had already trodden. To remove the jam from the rice pudding. And perhaps, like Forest, to bring back a lost one:

The Hermit

Septimus, as the hermit Paulus, hoped to use good English algebra to turn back time. Septimus was unsuccessful. Thomasina was gone forever.

However… the play offers us a simulation of the past. Thomasina dances again as the past is replayed simultaneously with the present inhabited by the academics. The play also explores Chaos Theory (more prominent in the 1990s and replaced in favour by more quantum theories now), and the way in which the objects from the past (important clues and pieces of data) are left on the table by the 1809 characters evokes increasing entropy and chaos.

Forest, as the head of Amaya, hopes to use good Quantum Computing (not American Quantum Computing, he’s quite clear he sees nations and states as hindrances to his work) to turn back time. Forest is successful. Amaya is back (forever?).

The series ends after the death of Forest and Lily and their resurrection in the Simulated Universe Forest has created inside Devs/Deus. Up until this point, I haven’t discussed Lily’s role very much. She is the main protagonist, and her actions lead to a point of uncertainty that the algorithms can’t see beyond; a point with no. That point turns out to be a moment of actual free will, as Lily refuses to kill Forest as was predicted by Devs. Even so, she and Forest still die and are then resurrected in the Simulated Universe. For all the uncertainty Lily introduces to the deterministic system, she still proves Forest’s personal prediction right. She tells him, “The problem with people who run tech companies is that they’re fanatics. They end up thinking they’re messiahs”. He responds to this in the Devs simulated scenario of their deaths, first telling her that Devs is actually Deus, and that the thing about Messiahs is that they get resurrected.

Of course, since Lyndon, the system has been ‘infected’ with multiverse theory. So, in effect, Lily’s decision not to kill Forest spins off a whole new universe. Hence Devs not being able to see beyond that point of choice. However, this new universe is a Simulated Universe, inside Devs itself. It’s a nice one, as Forest points out to the confused Lily newly discovering their world. Its more heaven than hell, certainly. Amaya and Forest’s wife are back. As are other characters who died during the series. It is a paradise.

Or we might see the new universe not as paradise or heaven, but as the world beyond the Garden of Eden. Kate refers to Lily as having committed the ‘Original Sin’ in making her choice not to kill Forest. By which she meant that Lily had acted in a moment of complete free will, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden in the Old Testament. However, instead of being ejected from the Garden of Eden and ending up somewhere worse, Lily and Forest are resurrected after her choice in somewhere much more utopian.

However, Et in Acadian Ego. “Even in Arcadia, there am I”.

Arcadia 3

This is the title to a 1637 painting by Nicolas Poussin. It shows four shepherds in a beautiful, idealised, pastoral scene. They are examining a tomb: a reminder of death, even in life. Even arcadia – paradise, utopia, etc – contains death. Initially, Tom Stoppard named his play Et in Arcadia Ego, before shortening it to just Arcadia. The entropy and chaos that Thomasina predicts and that Septimus spends his life trying to refute is also in the paradise of Sidley Park and its romantically renovated gardens, hermitage and all. Thomasina’s death proves that. But is death also in the Simulated Arcadia that Forest and Lily end up in?

One strangeness in the series Devs is that Lily, a computer programmer based in Silicon Valley, seems to have no awareness of Simulation Theory or computational theories of the universe (or even determinism at one point). It was a little like those moments in Zombie movies when the main characters are faced with a shambling undead being that bites humans and is susceptible to a headshot but can’t bring themselves to say the ‘Z’ word. As the audience’s stand-in, Lily might be forgiven for this, we need a fair bit of exposition to follow the plot. But Forest really should have known that the universe he was simulating inside Devs might be open to entropy and death. It would be there either through the breakdown of the physical set up in the ‘base reality’ of the original Devs building and Amaya as an organisation. Or, entropy might leak in through the original data itself, as ‘Et in Terra ego’. And of course, the Simulated Universe could not be entered without Forest and Lily dying in the first place. Another programmer character Stewart, recites Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade (mistaken by Kate for Shakespeare, and proving for Stewart that the people creating the future know nothing about the past), a poem also about the inevitability of death. Even religion, “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die” (Larkin), cannot help us to escape that inevitable. Even Devs, a new religion writ in golden temple and halo-ed trees and complete with its own Messiah, can’t either.* And it is notable that it is Stewart who kills Lily and Forest.

But there is also the argument that mind-uploading (in this case, even the most perfect mapping of all the possible data of a person) and virtual resurrection could never recreate the same person anyway. So even if Forest and Lily had not died, they died the very moment they were uploaded.

The religious narratives were ever-present in Devs, and very cleverly explored. Forest and Devs were both compared to gods/messiahs, and Lily was compared to Adam and Eve in making the first-ever completely free choice. Arguably, that moment of choice was more divine than human, as Lily’s choice led to the creation of an entirely new universe.

But then, if Everett was right, we’re all gods making new universes, with every choice we make.

DEVS -- Pictured: Nick Offerman as Forest. CR: Miya Mizuno/FX

* thanks to @huwcdavies of the Oxford Internet Institute for discussing this blog post with me and making me think further on the significance of the Larkin poem 🙂





Robo-Valentines 2020

robot love


Welcome to the Roaring 2020s

This is a speech I gave last night, as the Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence, at a Homerton dinner themed around the Roaring ’20s in celebration of entering the 2020s.

Welcome to the Roaring ’20s.

There have been approximately 21 decades we could call the ’20’s – depending on whether you think Popes are worth listening to or not on matters of timekeeping. But only one ’20s is commonly called ‘roaring’ for its exuberance and joi de vivre.

On this VERY day in 1920 the last meeting of the Paris Peace Conference took place, and while negotiations and treaties continued to be put in place over the course of the next decade, for many the 1920s – the roaring 20s – kicked off with this moment of hopeful restitution after what many came to think of as the first-ever ‘world war’.

Coming fast on the heels of 1920 was a decade of growth and prosperity. Drinks were downed – even during the Prohibition in America – and hemlines shot up.

Deferred spending led to a boom in construction, a boom in credit, and a boom in consumer goods. Electricity, cars, movies, planes… everyone moving faster and faster, and not just while dancing the Charleston.


After the sadness of World War 1, Jazz burst on the scene to break the apparent rules of music and to bring together people of different ethnicities and sexualities in underground clubs. Authors wrote about fabulous parties and pretended that they’d gone to them. Quantum physics turned up to make everything weird before it would cut down the cat population in 1935. Or not. Bright Young Things dropped out of Cambridge (and the Other Place) – possibly after they had popularised the ‘bring your own bottle party’. And women’s Suffrage advanced – for some.

But, the ‘roaring’ was eventually quietened.

In 1929, the flamboyance and frivolity came to a crashing end as a bubble of excessive speculation and complex world-wide debt burst violently, sending everyone into a new decade characterised by financial and emotional depression.

Here, at the beginning of a new ’20s, we need to think about whether this decade should roar like its 100-year-old namesake, or whether we should learn from the excesses and acceleration of previous Bright Young Things to tread more warily through the next ten years.

Now, I assume that I have been invited to speak to you today because artificial intelligence is one of those things that we have been expecting to be a part of ‘THE FUTURE’ for a long while. Along with flying cars, jetpacks, and our alien neighbours, AI is another not-quite-here-yet treasure, or terror, that could just be around the corner, in the world of tomorrow.

Throughout the 20th century, writers have imagined what the wonderful world of the 21st century would look like.  To many people, any year starting with ‘20’ appeared as inherently fantastical and futuristic. It certainly did to me as well when I was younger. The year 2000 was ‘the future’ in more than just the chronological sense.

I’m assuming that most of you weren’t actually born in time to welcome in the new millennium on 31st December 1999. So, very few of you could have genuinely partied like its ‘1999’ as Prince first told us to in 1982.

I, however, was. In fact, at the time of that great threshold, I was merely one term into my first year at Cambridge.

I travelled home after Michaelmas term and re-joined my school friends back in Portsmouth. I drank copious amounts of Peach Snaps and Lemonade at a friend’s house party before dashing outside during the bongs to watch a new millennium come into being – via fireworks of course – over the harbour. I was nineteen and 100% certain that the new millennium held for me many exciting things. Wealth and fame as a Hollywood screenwriter. A large and expensive flat in Soho. Another in New York, of course, with the mansion in LA. There would be Oscars and other assorted awards, which I would receive with suitable modesty and thanks to the little people.

And I had high hopes for the long termness of my relationship with a third-year I’d started dating during fresher’s week!

None of those things happened! But I’m not bitter. Not really.

In fact, I probably should have paid more attention to the science fiction writers who told me back then in the books I loved that my future in 20-something was going to be full of robots.

Because my ‘now’ certainly is. As the Junior Research Fellow in AI here at Homerton, I think about robots and AI much more than I could have ever predicted I would do, way back in 1999.

But also, because the world is genuinely full of robots.

They aren’t exactly walking down the street, helping old women (like myself), to cross the road, but they’re around.

A hundred years ago, at the start of the roaring 20s, Karel Capek gave us a name for such artificial beings in his play, “Rossum’s Universal Robots”: ‘robota’, from the Czech word for ‘serf’. He was struck by the fast growth and increasing dominance of the ‘factory’ and extrapolated from the treatment of the humans in such intense work environments to an imaginary being that could rise up against its overlords.


Capek’s ‘robota’ was made from a grey synthetic flesh, but by 1926 Edmond Hamilton wrote The Metal Giants, in which a computer brain running on atomic power creates an army of 300-foot-tall metallic robots. Such science fiction accounts have given us an impression of what the robots of 2000 and something would be like.

First, they’ll be embodied, as Capek’s robota were. But after the 1920s we came up with other robotic embodiments. There’ll be sexy ones, strong ones, fast ones… but most of all there’ll be ones that are hard to distinguish from humans.

Simon Schaffer has previously drawn a connection between Alan Turing’s famous test for computer intelligence with Cold War fears of secret agents ‘passing’ for ‘us’. In the 1980s Philip K Dick wrote us a new Turing test in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The Voight-Kampff empathy test was necessary as the replicants – again bioengineered like the ‘robota’ of R.U.R. – could pass unknown among us and need to be detected before they can hurt us.

Second, in having all these attributes, the robots might just be, well… better than us. And better is dangerous. Capek wrote the first popular robot factory rebellion and in 2019 Terminator: Dark Fate encouraged its audiences to draw a causal line between the factory worker who loses his job to a much more efficient automaton and the latest iteration of the deadly Skynet, Legion.

Of course, the factory robot isn’t embodied in the same way as the Terminator. And this is where 20th Century science fiction has failed us.

But then, science fiction is never about accurate prediction, but instead, it serves as a commentary on where we are now. Karel Capek wrote about the factory worker made of synthetic goop to focus us on industrialisation and dehumanisation.

However, Capek, and others, have inadvertently helped us towards a certain kind of face-blindness when it comes to robots and AI.

A robot-blindness, perhaps?

Almost every single one of you uses a robot at least once a week. Or… at least I hope that you do!

A washing machine meets the basic requirements of a robot. A washing machine has settings that allow you to alter its automatic programming to perform a series of procedures. And yet, I think, unless your washing machine also spoke to you, folded your clothes and put them away, and then asked you if you’d like a nice martini like a proper 1920s Jeeves, you wouldn’t think of it as a ‘real’ robot. This would require a few more bells and whistles, including genuine ‘AI’.


Conversely, though, when we do see an anthropomorphised robot – with two arms, and two legs, and a flubbery face – we are more inclined to see it as having that mysterious thing called ‘intelligence’.

Take Sophia, the Hanson Robot. She is by no means the most advanced form of AI available. Her interviews are scripted, her appearances highly orchestrated, and her social media account run by a human. But because she fits so neatly into our sci-fi informed expectations of a 2000 and something robot, we start to think that perhaps the future promised by those films and books set in 2020 is actually here, now.

But that is another form of robot-blindness and one which distracts us from all the examples of AI that aren’t shaped like humans.

And the various AI implementations that are insidious in our systems and our processes in the 2020s are the product of an accelerationist view, much as the boom in other technologies was in the 1920s.

You might have come across the expression, “Move fast and break things” – it was an internal motto for Facebook. Well, as we enter the 2020s we might see that some pretty important things are being broken by moving so fast. The roaring 1920s rushed millions into debt through speculation and commodification, and movements begun to help the people evolved in dangerous, popularist, and nationalist directions, leading to a second World War.

And the roaring 2020s are growing out of a decade where already social media and its algorithms have been weaponised by familiar ideologies.

A decade where decisions about our capability to do a job, to take a loan, or even to access information online were already being automated by non-transparent systems. A decade where unseen influence pushed and pulled us towards particular political candidates. A decade where AI was already being trusted before it was even as remotely as intelligent as the human next to you because it came packaged as the next Bright Young Thing and appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show.

sophia kimmel

So, will 2020 be a roaring decade of prosperity and glamour? Or will the excesses of accelerationism and technological change dash us, Charlestoning all the while, into a brand new Great Depression?

I want to suggest that there can be more than one way to roar.

Perhaps, instead of just having excessive parties – or bread and circuses – we will roar against the changes that would reduce us to parts in a greater machine. But I say this without advocating extreme Puritanism and a new Prohibition.

After all, the roaring 20s also involved activism, charity, and progress for many underrepresented groups. Although, there was also uneven and slow progress in many cases.

But if we are to try to imagine, as science fiction authors have done, a future containing robots, we should at least endeavour to make sure that we are not the cold, mechanical, beings that they wrote about. We should recognise the robotic around us, and within us.

In the roaring 2020s, it might seem like the future is here and now.

We must make that future what it should be.

Thank you.



Controlling AI, Controlling Fictions

Its 2.30am in San Diego and I am enjoying the vicissitudes of jetlag after having come halfway around the world to the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference. Yesterday I gave a keynote paper at the Religion and Media workshop on techno-optimism on ‘Sophia the Hanson Robot, the Singularity, and AI Teleology’. Last night, before I went to bed, I got into a discussion of gender and sexism in the Mandalorian on Twitter. One of these two moments of thinking in public was perhaps more coherent than the other (perhaps… jetlag is the worst!). In both, however, the subject of the control of fiction was key.

In my discussion of both a teleological view of the exponential increase in intelligence in history and in the development of AI and the production of ‘faux-bots’, I drew attention to the factors enforcing our view that there are agential AI. The first is our perception of minds in places where there are not currently minds (I’m going to stick with being agnostic as to whether this will ever be possible), the second is the non-fiction, ‘real world’ representation of agential AI (in the media and in popular cases like Sophia), and the third is fictional agential AI, as in science fiction. All three dialectically influence each other, but fiction and non-fiction appear to have a very porous boundary (and the locating of narratives within one or the other can also be an ideological act.

To illustrate this I used the example of Orson Welle’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast where even if there weren’t quite the hysterical crowds that the press made out at the time, there were still some for whom the boundary between fiction and non-fiction became blurred. Welles, I think leant into this kind of fuzziness in his career and in this production and desired this kind of ‘Wellesian slippage’ between fiction and non-fiction. More recent examples of this slippage with ‘faux-bots’ include Adam:

Adam was created as a part of an award-winning web series, but this short demonstration released online was denuded of its context. We then had people such as Derren Brown (who perhaps should know better, being himself very skilled in the deployment of Wellesian Slippage!) tweeting out the video with comments about how we are all going to die.

Adam 2

Perhaps he was joking, but again, for some people who responded to his apparent panic with their own, there was a slip from fiction to non-fiction.

In the case of Sophia the Hanson Robot, there seems to be both Wellesian Slippage and something I term Manifested Aspiration. In discussions of Sophia and her purpose, David Hanson has referred to her as a form of character art, or as being like an NPC in a computer game – given the illusion of agency for story reasons. The story is, however, that same teleological accelerationist view of AI that sees it as leading us on to the Singularity. He has also referred to her as ‘coming alive’, and her ‘aliveness’ is certainly something humans respond to with enthusiasm in some cases and anxiety and fear in others.

sophia kimmel.gif

David Hanson has called her a research and development platform too, a scientific step along the way to that aliveness and/or the technological Singularity. I suggest, however, that the fictional elements of Sophia are under entirely under the control of Sophia’s creators and promoters. She is a use of a new medium in the same way that radio enabled Welles to broadcast his version of the War of the Worlds.

Unlike the 1938 War of the Worlds, however, Sophia is a physical manifestation of hope for a future state (I assume here, but it does seem unlikely that Welles thought his broadcast was a preview of what was actually to come!).

In my paper I drew a historical parallel between Sophia and the manifested aspirations of spiritualists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who used the technology of the time (often photography, but also puppetry) to create the very thing that they believed to be real: ghosts, spirits, and in some cases fairies, who also fit into their cosmology of the afterlife and the universe. A more cynical reading would suggest pure disingenuousness and the pursuit of fame and wealth. But I think it is important, as scholars such as Anne Braude does, to read Spiritualism in the light of the utopian, and socially progressive, messages that some mediums brought from beyond the veil and how Spiritualism could give a voice to the (mainly female) voiceless. Likewise, we should perhaps read faux-bots like Sophia in the light of the utopian aims of those behind her, seeing her as a manifestation of their aspiration for something that they want to exist in the world so very badly.

Of course, in Sophia’s case, the voice that is being given space is that of her writer, and not the voice of women being ignored by society, and that is concerning. The pushback against Sophia has included criticism of her being given citizenship of Saudi Arabia when women there do not share all the same rights as men. Sophia’s performance of gender and the ways in which she is promoted (appearing on the cover of a style magazine after a makeover, being asked for a date by Will Smith, talking about how she wants babies) are very heteronormative. But it needs to be reiterated: this is entirely under the control of her creators. Sophia has not ‘come alive’, she has not been born but created. Her nature, her gender, her desires, her purposes are all decided by someone else.


The conversation about the Disney+ Mandalorian TV series began when I responded to a defence of the lack of female roles in the television series where it was suggested that this might be the result of the harsh world in which it is set. I said: “This is a generous Watsonian reading but maybe I’m more of a cynical Doylist because I think even the dystopic world would be a result of authorial decisions, including the one that would say a rough world equals a male world.” (Watsonian readings make arguments based on the internal logic of the world of the fiction and Doylist readings make arguments based on the logic of the author. Watson is a fictional character in the world of Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, who connects with my above paper in being a vocal Spiritualist taken in by faux-fairies in the 1920s).

The response was that women are usually disproportionately endangered in lawless and violent environments, but this is still a Doylist reason, based upon the logic of Earth, not the potential logic of a fantasy realm. If you can control the fiction enough to produce droids, jet pack-wearing bounty hunters, and the magical powers of the Force, you can control it enough to write women living outside of the patriarchy. This is a common enough critique in the fantasy genre, with new writers being encouraged not to write sexist cultures because that was how it was in ‘medieval times’. A lot of the online defence of Game of Thrones’ sexual violence was on the basis of this kind of ‘historical accuracy’. The control of fiction by its creators suggests it can be otherwise, and there are brilliant novels where patriarchal societies are seen as optional in the story as dragons are.

game of thrones sexism.jpg

Such stories do not, however, restrict commentary on gender relations in our world, they actually open up new possible configurations that critique earthly relations. The first part of the workshop I gave my paper in yesterday was a discussion of a book chapter on Octavia Butler’s Parables books from a disabilities studies perspective. The chapter argued that her creation of a fictional or ‘non-real’ disability (in the words of the author of the chapter, Sami Schalk) actually opened up the possibility of a critique of our assumptions about disability. Moreover, science fiction worlds without disability (commonly because science has ‘cured’ them in the story) are also a way into a critique of our narratives, social prejudices, and assumptions (although, Schalk also argues that it would be better if the authors always intentionally wrote such worlds as critique rather than as aspirations, as was often the case for ‘golden age’ sci-fi authors).

In the Mandalorian there may be a Watsonian reason for the lack of female characters. Perhaps it will be revealed at some point. Or perhaps not.

In which case the reason there are few women is Doylist, the author intended (even unconsciously) that it be a world where women are not seen. This needs to be owned. Fiction is controlled. The worlds we create can be otherwise. There can be droids, there can not be droids. There can be faux-bots, there can not be faux-bots. Why and how we create our stories is important.

I ended my paper with a quote from Donna Haraway, which focuses on non-fictional machines, but could be said of the fictional too:

“The Machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our process, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.”

Deckard Looks Away: Dealing with Blade Runner’s Problem with Women in 2019


This is a companion piece to my BBC Radio 3 essay on Blade Runner and Sexbots: Zhora and the Snake. It’s a previous draft that explored some ideas about BR and canon that didn’t make the final discussion on the ethics of sexbots and slaves:

“Ladies and gentlemen. Taffy Lewis presents Miss Salome and the snake. Watch her take the pleasures from the serpent that once corrupted man.”

The first time I watched Blade Runner, I was too young to understand exactly what Miss Salome was doing with the snake. In the ’80s and ’90s, I had access to far too much ‘grown-up’ science fiction at much too young an age. I would watch quietly from the back of the lounge as yet another VHS cassette that had been doing the rounds at my brothers’ school was premiered. Maybe then I have my brothers and their friends to thank for my current career. In any case, I was certainly too young to notice that whatever it is the rogue replicant Zhora – ‘Miss Salome’ – is doing with the snake it is too much for the replicant hunting detective, the ‘Blade Runner’, to watch. We, the viewers, only get to see a slight grimace as Deckard looks away from the stage.

The dance is left to our imagination. But Zhora’s Salome dance is generally the exception, not the rule in Blade Runner. In other scenes, nudity and sexuality are foregrounded. Immediately after her performance, Zhora, played by Joanna Cassidy, is approached by Deckard who is pretending to be a representative of “The Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses”. He plays at checking her dressing room for peep-holes while allowing the viewer a chance to ‘peep’ at her showering after the dance, wearing only some stuck-on gems. Moments later, and we get to see Deckard, his ridiculous put on voice easily seen through, shoot the fleeing Zhora in the back. And she dies, naked apart from a transparent coat and the blood that covers her, in the middle of a shop window full of mannequins. This time Deckard does not look away, and neither can the audience.

In 1982 Blade Runner brought the trenchcoats, gravelly voice-overs, and dark rain glistening streets of Film Noir to the world of science fiction. A world that had so far focussed on wowing audiences with colourful ‘what ifs’ and shining bright chrome utopianism. And with that splicing of Film Noir, DNA into Science Fiction came the ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘the Redeemer’, a somewhat limited binary of options for female characters in that genre of cinematic storytelling, identified by Janey Place in her work, Women in Film Noir, from 1978. Zhora, seductive but deadly, a “beauty and the beast type” according to Deckard’s boss Bryant, fulfils the former role. The fourth escaped replicant, Pris, dismissed by Bryant as “a basic pleasure model”, initially appears to the genetic engineer J.F. Sebastian as a waif-like innocent. But she later reveals herself to be just as deadly as Zhora. Pris is almost animal-like in appearance and combat style as she takes on Deckard towards the end of the film. She clambers over him and squeezes him between her thighs in a sexually suggestive manner. She too dies amongst other artificial beings, surrounded in her death spasms by J.F. Sebastian’s bio-toys. Rachael, the replicant who suspects she isn’t real, has the hair and clothes of a 1940s Film Noir femme fatale. But she is eventually transformed from the rigid ice woman who controls Deckard’s gaze in her first scene at the Tyrell Corporation to a passive passenger in his car in the ‘happy ending’ of the theatrical release version of the film.

Blade Runner is, however, not just a recombination of genres. It gives us a temporal folding together of different eras and the attitudes that come with them. 1940s Film Noir is folded into the 1980s of the film’s production and release. ’80s cinema gave us both the businesswoman and the murdered babysitter and sexualised both of them. “I’ve got a mind for business and bod for sin”, Melanie Griffiths tells Deckard, I mean, Harrison Ford, in Working Girl in 1988. Zhora and Pris are working girls of another kind, and their deaths – stalked by the Blade Runner before dying screaming or covered in blood– could also place alongside the victims and scream queens in the Halloween series of films.

That Blade Runner is set in our present-day of 2019 folds in yet another era and society. Watching Ridley Scott’s imaginary 2019 now we can measure it against our actual 21st-century experiences and standards, including in the light of #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement. That Blade Runner holds on to elements from the 1940s and its contemporary 1980s, especially in its representation of women as subjects of the male gaze and of violence, has led Kate Devlin in her recent book, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, to claim that “Blade Runner has a woman problem”.

I don’t entirely disagree. Of the five female speaking roles in the film, three are sexualised replicants, and the other two are ‘Cambodian Woman’ and a gruff one-eyed bar-worker with no given name in the script. The Bechdel Test arrived three years after Blade Runner’s release. However, I don’t think that the test’s creator, Alison Bechdel, ever thought about whether the ‘at least two named women speaking to each other about something other than a man’ needed to be human. Nonetheless, even if we grant the replicants personhood – as I think the film certainly does – Blade Runner just does not pass the test at all. Add to that, the 80s style violence, and a very disturbing scene where Deckard violently forces Rachael to consent to him, and Blade Runner is very problematic in the real 2019.

However, rather than just giving Blade Runner a pass as being only a product of its time, I think there is the potential to reclaim the film in 2019 from its multiple entangled, and sexist, influences. The key to this reclaiming is Zhora’s dance with the snake. The dance that Deckard looks away from and which we never get to see. Being left to our imagination gives us power over the scene. And by looking into the history and themes of the dance and its reception, we can find spaces in which to exercise that power.

Zhora’s persona on stage, ‘Miss Salome’, is an obvious reference to Salome. You might think you know Salome, but much of the story has been embellished and transformed by a long line of writers. First, in the New Testament gospels of Mark and Matthew, we read of King Herod and his daughter. Her dance pleases the guests of the King, and he is inspired to grant her a wish:

“Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

Herod’s daughter asks her mother what she should have, and she tells her to ask for the head of the prophet John the Baptist. Which she gets, on a fine platter.

However, the gospel authors never referred to the daughter of Herod by name. Later sources, such as the Antiquities of the Jews from the first century CE, identify her as Salome. Likewise, her dance is not described in the Bible at all. In the 19th Century, however, Oscar Wilde wrote his adaptation of the story in French, Salomé, and gave the daughter of Herod the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ to perform. The dance was retained by composer Richard Strauss in his 1905 German operatic interpretation of Wilde’s play, and the success of the play and the opera allegedly led to cases of ‘Salomania’. This was a “vogue for women doing glamorous and exotic ‘oriental’ dances in striptease”, according to Rachel Shteir’s 2004 book, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. In Oscar’s play all we know of the dance is a single line of instruction for the cast:

[Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.]

The subjects of so-called ‘Salomania’ were inspired by Wilde’s staging of the dance, but also came up with their versions, drawing on their visions of the near east and its culture. Whether accurate or not. Many other interpretations of Salome’s story and her dance have appeared in other forms of media and popular culture.

Salome pics
Versions of Salome

For example, the rock band U2’s 1991 song, Salome, emphasises the dance’s shaking movements, as well as referring to Herod’s promise of fulfilling her desires:


Baby don’t bite your lip

Give you half what I got

If you untie the knot

It’s a promise

Salome… Salome

Shake it shake it shake it Salome

Shake it shake it shake it Salome

Salome… shake it shake it shake it Salome

As I’ve said, I was too young to know what the snake was doing the first time I watched Blade Runner, but I have a pretty good idea now. But because Deckard looks away, that’s just my interpretation, just as Wilde gave his interpretation of Salome’s dance as a dance with seven veils. In 2012, the actress who played Zhora, Joanna Cassidy, also gave us her interpretation of ‘Miss Salome’s’ dance, posting a video on YouTube of her performing a dance with a real snake (we presume!). The video is called, “What Might Have Been”, expressing a desire to reclaim a lost moment.

Responses online in the comments were very positive. “This is pretty amazing. I’ve never seen an actor do an almost interpretive re-envisioning of a scene like this. Gives a whole new dimension to the character that is translated in a complex yet very simple way. I dig it supremely,” wrote one viewer. Another said, “Zhora Zhora, I thought Rick Deckard got you. I was so sad; fortunately, I was wrong.” Joanna Cassidy has been involved in other re-enactments of the dance since Blade Runner, with more to come, such as a live performance with the dance as a starting point. So, Zhora does indeed live on in re-interpretations of the missing dance, outliving both her end in the film and her replicant end date.

This longevity is possible because of the absence of Deckard’s gaze at this point in the film. Vision, sight and gaze are recurring themes in Blade Runner. The film frequently shows us close-ups of eyes. The eyes of the subjects of the Voight-Kampff test that can determine whether someone is a replicant or not depending on microscopic pupil dilations and reactions. Deckard looks for peep-holes in Zhora’s changing room. Leon and Batty visit the genetic engineer Chew, seeking answers about their longevity problem, and a terrified Chew explains that he only works on eyes. “If only you could see what I have seen with your eyes,” Roy says before Chew tells him to seek out the creator of the replicants, Tyrell. The already myopic Tyrell is then completely blinded and killed by his own creation, his eyes pushed into his skull by Roy’s thumbs. Shades of Frankenstein’s monster and his revenge on Victor obviously haunt the screen at this point. But the emphasis on vision also leads us back to our own, real, 2019 and the modern concept of the male gaze.

According to Janey Place, the Femme Fatales of the 1940s “direct the camera (and the hero’s gaze, with our own) irresistibly with them as they move”. They have a certain power in captivating the camera. In 2019 the male gaze refers more to objectification, often sexual objectification. And in Blade Runner, we can see a transformation of Rachael from the controller of the male gaze in her first scene to a passive, observed, redeemer. She is increasingly seen solely in terms of her relationship with Deckard. The redeemer, according to Place, is the “bride-price” the hero wins for having resisted the destructive lures of the Femme Fatale. Pris and Zhora are defeated by Deckard, and arguably Rachael is too, as she transforms from the stiff ice maiden, the Femme Fatale, to the soft-haired companion sat silently in Deckard’s car. The male gaze in Blade Runner also relates to specific moments of transformation. Rachael undoes her hair in response to seeing pictures of Deckard’s mother on his piano, an image that he must have gazed at frequently. She appears to want to be seen by him too.

Again, however, there is a space here to reclaim the male gaze, and by extension to reclaim Blade Runner, by thinking through the perspective we are given by Zhora’s dance and its influences. The biblical Salome captured Herod’s attention and his power with her dancing. Wilde’s Salomé not only gets her wish but also expresses her power and her passion. Linda and Michael Hutcheon’s 1998 article, “‘Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kid’: The Empowering Gaze in Salomé” argues that Wilde’s Salomé undermines the traditional gendering of gaze as male. Salome takes back that power for herself as she captivates the audience with her dance. Wilde also writes Salomé lines in which she exults in her power:

“neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion.”

Deckard looks away from Zhora and reacts as though horrified, as though she is something monstrous in her moment of apparent synthetic bestiality. As a replicant in the world of Blade Runner, she is a non-human other, and she may well be thought of as monstrous even without this act. We have already noted the animalistic turn Pris takes as she fights Deckard, and by this point in the film, she has also painted her face black and white using the same paints J.F Sebastian uses on his toys. She has become even more doll-like, even more artificial, with her monochromatic face, nude coloured bodysuit and her wild dandelion hair. Salome is also thought of as monstrous and transgressive in Wilde’s play, with Herod reacting in horror as she holds John the Baptist’s head and kisses his lips:

“She is monstrous, your daughter, she is altogether monstrous. In truth, what she has done is a great crime. I am sure that it is a crime against an unknown God.”

In our fictions, artificial lifeforms like the replicants, inhabit a liminal space between the natural and the unnatural, a space we mark on the map with ‘here be monsters’. The ‘Uncanny Valley’, outlined by Masahiro Mori, in a 1970 paper, theorises this territory of the liminal with regards to the non-human, and the term is often applied to artificial beings such as robots, androids, and artificial intelligences as well as the undead and the dolls that Mori highlighted. The replicants of Blade Runner also fit into this uncanny space. However, with liminality, there is also the potential for transformation and transformative powers.

A story about such liminal creatures that also contains moments of ambiguity such as the dance that Deckard looks away from contains the potential for new storytelling and new art. Reclaiming canon through new media is a work of transformation, more popularly known as ‘fanfiction’ for written works, and ‘fanart’ for illustrations. The most popular site for fanfiction is Archive of Our Own, which recently won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work. In effect, a Hugo statue was shared between around two million writers, who have contributed to five million works in thirty-three thousand fandoms. For Blade Runner, the number of fanworks is small, just a few hundred when the most popular fandoms have a few hundred thousand. Nevertheless, in the spaces left empty in the canon of the film, such as Zhora’s dance, there is potential for new creations that subvert or control the gaze, and which can encourage us to look at Blade Runner in different ways.

After all, Blade Runner is itself a film with a variety of versions and deviations already. Some with a happy ending, some without. Some with the gritty voice-over of a 1940s Film Noir film, some without. Some with Deckard’s unicorn daydream, some without. The variable involvement of Ridley Scott as the most influential Blade Runner creator makes each of these versions a transformative work in their own right. Even the ‘film’ – all the versions gathered together to make some sort of singular object of canon – is an adaptation of the original book by Philip K. Dick, changing many things, not least the title: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. The sequel, Blade Runner 2049 sees the return of Deckard and Gaff, with a transformed by CGI ‘Rachael’, amidst new characters and new producers and writers.

However, calling Blade Runner 2049 ‘fanfiction’ shouldn’t at all be seen as dismissive. Common perceptions of fanfiction dismiss transformative works as the futile or facile work of ‘bored’ or sexually frustrated women so that calling something ‘fanfiction’ is to denigrate it. But all writing draws on and transforms that which has gone before, all creativity involves some kind of transformation. Only some authors are willing to admit it. As Neil Gaiman once tweeted in response to a question about his opinion of fanfiction:

“I won the Hugo Award for a piece of Sherlock Holmes/H. P. Lovecraft fanfiction, so I’m in favour.”

Therefore, we can see that Zhora’s dance as ‘Miss Salome’ is a transformation of Wilde’s Salome – seven veils being replaced by a single artificial snake. Likewise, Wilde’s Salome is a transformation of a few lines of the gospel about ‘Herod’s daughter’ and her dance. And when Deckard looks away, we are left with a liminal space of opportunity. We can come up with something a little more advanced than the ‘basic pleasure model’ that Blade Runner gave the male gaze through its sexualised Femme Fatales. In 2019, the Year of the Blade Runner, I hope that there will be many more versions still to be created.