"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Humans: A 21st century existential crisis

What were the writers of Humans thinking when they penned Channel 4’s latest sci-fi thriller?  And what kind of thoughts were they hoping to trigger in viewers? 

Not since Utopia has an imagined story been so disturbingly close to a plausible reality where you’re left contemplating everything from human rights to the limits of our compassion.  Whereas Utopia was concerned with selective survival in the face of humanity’s excesses, Humans explores how our inventiveness might actually make us the redundant underclass in a society inadvertently altered by our creation.  There is a common denominator in both dramas though - human irresponsibility in the form of too much or not enough serious thought for the consequences.

This week’s episode of Humans, the fourth in a series of eight, proved the most philosophically divisive yet, as the parallel present created by writers Sam Vincent and Jon Brackley hinted at the more sinister aspects of human motivation and Artificial Intelligence.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the ethics of science and progress, inextricably linked with the unresolved challenges of power, control, repression and temptation.

Vincent and Brackley cleverly pose uncomfortable questions about the relationship between humans as the “primary users” and their humanoids – what level of responsibility should people have towards seemingly inanimate objects that walk and talk like us, how do they deserve to be treated, are they sufficiently like us to warrant the same status and rights as ordinary folk? What does ordinary even mean?

There is a palpable sense that things are not going to end well, which is frankly what we all want to see.

Who wants a happy ending when the alternative poses so many more possibilities for exploring the deepest, darkest side of our psyche?  Isn't that the point of a fictionalised parallel universe?

At one point, Neil Maskell’s character, enraged when told by his wife that she wants a separation days into his suspension from duty after he assaulted a Synth during a police investigation, says: “We’re humans, we’re not meant to be perfect.”

Later, reflecting on how he has been usurped, both on an individual level as the man of the house whose usefulness has been replaced by a Synth servant, and socially, he says: “I’m an analogue man in a digital world.”

Power corrupts

The idea that our creativity might ultimately be our undoing is a prescient one, given the accelerating rate of technological and industrial progress.  Here, the writers seem to be tapping into very real conspiratorial fears about corporations and states creating things without full disclosure about their underlying motivations.

In a particularly disturbing albeit predictable turn of events, a mob of angry humans opposed to the integration of Synths in “normal society” arrange a Fight Club style attack, taking great pleasure in battering the humanoids in a very human way. 

As in art so in life – surely their fight should have been with the creators of the Synths?  It’s a timely commentary on the inequalities that are so much a feature of the actual present – rarely are those in power directly accountable to those on the receiving end of the decisions that govern the masses. 

In another scene, a group of teenage boys think nothing of switching a female Synth to off mode so they can “have a go on her”.  And they almost do, until they’re pulled off the Synth’s limp body by a girl who makes them - and us – question the disturbing implications: would this have constituted rape?

Who cares?

The Synths supposedly don’t think or have consciousness (only we know from this episode that there is a possibility it lurks somewhere beneath), so is it right to be anthropomorphic about them? 

As highlighted by the character who wishes to challenge the human rights of her Synth all the while accepting that it isn’t human, the point isn’t that she imagines it to be more real than it is, but that when we assume ourselves to be the superior species, surely we should act with responsibility rather than take advantage of the opportunity to exploit those whose fate lies in our hands? 

There are blatant parallels between asking these questions of the non-human characters in this parallel present, and The Others who really do live amongst us –people we don’t always understand yet who we live in close proximity to, whether that’s immigrants, the mentally ill, animals or any other being we can't or don't empathise with. 

And as the adage goes, proximity breeds contempt, especially when there are so many questions left unanswered, either because we don't engage or communicate with The Other, choosing instead to judge rather than understand, or, because in the absence of facts, we're left with myths and conspiracy theories.

As with Utopia, so with Humans and so with reality – it’s an ongoing and vital debate.  It'll be interesting to see where it takes us.

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