2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY -- the coming story singularity?

2001 A Space Odyssey, one of the greatest movies of all time, came back up in conversation recently, and it's always the same question: what does it mean?  Well, how should I know?! Anyway, here's my take.

When I was a kid, seeing 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY was almost a rite of passage among film buffs. You were supposed to see it. And love it. Getting it, however, was not required. In fact 2001 was the movie you were not supposed to get. That was part of the mystique. Kubrick himself would decline to comment on what the movie was about.

Almost 50 years later, and armed with the now widely spread concept of “technological singularity”, we can easily look back and frame the film’s first 2 acts within that narrative: Man creates tool; tool becomes sentient, leaves man behind. Even the visual metaphors are pretty literal. In my view, the monolith is simply a metaphorical milestone. A cosmic milestone, marking the time span from one emerging form of consciousness to the next. Then the guy falls through a black hole--literally a singularity. Boom. Done. Case closed. A fun techno-thriller based on concepts well ahead of their time. But then there is that act 3.

In that narrative, Act 3 is as a representation of transhumanism. The post-human experience. The melding of man and machine. One with the information fabric of the universe.  Which turns quite contemplative. And okay, let's be honest, a little bit boring, and quite complacent.. Way too complacent for Kubrik in my book.  Unless… that was exactly his point.

What if the final act of 2001 ASO was not only an exploration of the future of the human story, but a meta fiction on the nature of Story itself?

A story-singularity, if you will, where all the rules of storytelling ultimately break down?

Think about all the set-ups planted in the film, for instance, the scientist being flown to the moon; the sort-of-flirty moment with the stewardess; the cover-up... all those classic  “act 1 set-ups” would normally develop into plots in a “traditional” story, but here, they never pay off. They disappear from the movie, gobbled up as the singularity approaches--a story-crushing singularity.

So maybe, in a meta-fictional way the movie is asking: Is there a point in human experience beyond which story--whose principles have never changed since the dawn of recorded history-- doesn’t work anymore? A point after which story disappears?

Staying with the cosmological metaphor, I will say that In my view, just like there is an electromagnetic field, or a gravity field, there is such a thing as a story field. What I mean is there is a continuum of shared common human experience that we all participate in. Like seeking your parents’ validation, trying to find your own purpose in life, brotherly love, romantic love, parental love, growing old, dying. And the reason we gather around the campfire to listen to stories, is because they engage those universal experiences. In other words, story works because it references life as we all know it. But what if...what if past a certain point, we no longer experience life in the same way?

Up to now, rich or poor, we all die, but scientists have identified genes responsible for aging. It is not inconceivable that within this century, people who can afford it might be able to postpone aging indefinitely. Most likely, not everybody would be able to afford it. Little by little, the universal fabric of human experience would begin to stretch, and eventually just tear apart.

And about the melding of man and machine? Well, who doesn’t have their iphone permanently grafted to their hand by now? What if in a near future, your internet was connected directly to your optic and auditory nerves, creating a brand new nonlinear cognitive experience. Moments from your own life--think your facebook timeline--could be re-lived and re-experienced ad-nauseam. We surely put enough photos and videos of ourselves online to pull that off. Data from a pregnant mother’s sonogram is probably stored in a computer somewhere. At a later date, one could probably look at themselves as a baby in-utero. Sounds familiar?

So ultimately, I choose to believe that that’s what that 3rd act is about. It’s Kubrick warning us of what’s on the other side of that singularity.  Seemingly endless narcissistic, contemplative loneliness. No drama. No stakes. No way to relate. Just a guy in a room, endlessly googling images from his past.

The end of Story.

Stephan Franck

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