Who is HAL? He was the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was HAL’s job to protect the crew of the spaceship Discovery during a long trip into outer-space. Because of conflicting programming, HAL’s character morphed from benevolent to malevolent and created havoc in the lives of those it was designed to protect. The fascinating thing about this film is that Kubrick was creating, probably without being aware of it, an archetypal experience even much more profound than the hero’s journey found in the Greek myth, The Odyssey.
What mythology reveals to us is that every human being is involved in the hero’s journey with “helpers” and many challenges to overcome and problems and “riddles” to solve. If successful, the hero returns with a “boon” or gift to give to the human community. It turns out that the crew of the Discovery has many problems and HAL is supposed to be their “helper.” A classic “Greek” myth. If successful, they will return with knowledge that the human community can use.
Let’s now make the analogy between the Discovery crew and every human being engaged in the journey we call life. We all begin life with a “program” sometimes called the psychological model. It is critical for the success of our journey and in fact we could not survive without it. Because of this the program is sometimes called our “survival strategy,” it is our “helper,” it is our HAL.
You can see by now that both psychology and mythology are informing our “Odyssey.” Psychologists identify three components or “needs” or “energy centers” of our survival strategy. We all need security (food, clothing and shelter, for example, to feel safe); power (the need to have control over our environment and others, for example, to know that if we scream, mom will come running with milk); and sensations (the need for affection, esteem and other “pleasures”). This last energy center contains our propensity for addictive behaviors which can be divided into substance addictions like alcoholism or process addictions like gambling. So, we begin our journey with our survival strategy, our “HAL” operating as it should and we are looking to complete a successful “flight.” And then something goes wrong—HAL turns hostile.
If we are lucky, we begin to realize that something is unsatisfactory on the spaceship Discovery. Our survival strategy was meant to “launch” our journey successfully but apparently, we are supposed to jettison that program and switch to another in mid-flight. If we continue to try to operate with HAL we are going to come to an unhappy ending. We need to upgrade to a new computer, switch to a new program and we will be O.K. This change we will call “the shift.” What is this shift? Well that is the subject of another essay. Remember those “serials” in the movies on Saturday that always ended with a “cliffhanger.” No? Well it’s probably too early in your journey to consider the shift anyway. Come back when HAL’s menacing voice sends chills down your spine. In the meantime, “HAL continues to execute its instructions, as any good automaton should.”
Is this film script too fanciful? Is there really such a threat? Fast forward eleven years to 2016 to gain more perspective. “Ultimately, what the tech industry really cares about is ushering in the future, but it conflates technological progress with societal progress. And perhaps all of us have come to rely too deeply on machinery and software to be our allies without wondering the cost, the way technology doesn’t fix problems without creating new ones.”
Jenna Wortham, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine continues with our conclusion. “In a way, this confusion reminds me of an Isaac Asimov short story—a popular one in the valley—called ‘The Last Question.’ In it, there exists a powerful computer that evolves until it is so omnipotent, and so invisible, that ‘the question of its size and Nature no longer had meaning to any terms that Man could comprehend.’ Initially it feels utopian: The computer figures out energy efficiency and deep-space travel. It even conquers death. But laced within the story’s humor is the hint of something lost: Humans became so dependent on technology that they forfeited all agency to its whims.”
The parallel between hostile technology and the false self robbing us of our agency is too stunning to ignore.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.