In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. … Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack culture. They bid to become culture.
Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender to Technology (1992)
I recently found myself watching the box-set of Battlestar Galactica (2004-present) and I was struck by the cultural relevance and indeed prophetic qualities of this re-envisioning of the iconic 1970s series, in particular in view of recent events in the Middle East and the attacks on Gaza. Depicting the battle between two "homeless" races – humans and Cylons – and their quest to find a new homeland and, in turn, re-conceptualize the global order, Galactica offers an intriguing comment on a range of political, military, cultural and religious issues that unsettle the contemporary world. Heavily informed by the events of 9/11, the series can be understood in the context of the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001 and the subsequent war on Iraq: following the Cylons’ ambush on the "Twelve Colonies" – representative of the modern West – humanity finds itself under military rule with only one, seemingly defunct battleship left to protect a small fugitive fleet of survivors. With its antiquated machinery and phones with cords, Galactica is about to be decommissioned when the Cylons strike and interestingly, it is this low-tech equipment that protects it from the superior technological might of the Cylon aggressors and propels the ship’s Commander (later Admiral) William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and his crew to the forefront of the conflict. Faced with the extinction of his race, Adama takes up a central position in the new regime in which the military is at the heart of government, highlighting in this way the intimacy of law and war and its technological horizon.
The series provides an engaging critique of the relationship between technology and the War on Terror. Galactica explores the tension between technophobia and technophilia, as the allure of Cylon technology and its reconfiguration of humanity and life itself poses a threat to these very categories. From Baltar’s seduction by Caprica Six and the technological betrayal of humanity to the destruction of the human colonies, technology is often Janus faced. While the series is marketed as "the groundbreaking story of man versus machine", Galactica offers a conflicted vision of technology as the Cylon aggressors have evolved beyond the depersonalized machines of the 1970s series and now have a human form and are able to walk among humankind undetected. In effect, one particularly gripping aspect of the series is its continuous play with who is human and/or Cylon. Over the course of seasons 1-3, viewers and the characters themselves learn that the Cylons are not humanity’s "Other" – a point already underlined by the fact that the original attack on the colonies was launched with the help of scientific genius Gaius Baltar who continues to have a (possibly hallucinatory) link with the über-feminine and hypersexualized Cylon Caprica Six, herself a re-visioning or "technological version of film noir’s femme fatale" (George 166) – but they have infiltrated human society and in effect think of themselves as human. At the end of the third season, we find out that among the twelve Cylon models are key members of Galactica’s crew including Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), themselves unaware of their mechanical origin and hence at war with their own selves. Repeatedly, the characters comment that the Cylons have a way of "fraking with your head" as they seem to be able to access the unconscious feelings and desires of their human counterparts. The lines between humans and Cylons become increasingly blurred as we witness the "toasters" develop a sense of individuality and morality while humans seemingly lose those qualities in their desperate struggle for survival. If as Donna Haraway claims "we are all cyborgs", then Galatica provides a pertinent image of a techno-humanity that signals an uncertain, potentially posthuman future which leaves us at a moral, political, biological and technological crossroad (50).
Re-imagining Haraway’s cyborg, Galactica’s Cylons are at once cybernetic Others who threaten humanity with extinction, "improved" humans whose ability to resurrect fulfils the Christian promise of a life after death and – underlining the series’ political and cultural context post-9/11 and the war on Iraq – terrorists whose capacity to infiltrate and pass in human society lead to its virtual annihilation and whose unfailing belief in the power of "God" resonates with contemporary political fears about religious fundamentalism.
I await with anticipation the final instalment of the series released later this month which will disclose the identity of the final Cylon and end both races’ quest for "Earth" which in light of recent political developments can surely only reveal that there is no mythical homeland.
George, Susan A. "Fraking Machines: Desire, Gender, and the (Post)Human Condition in Battlestar Galactica." The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader. Ed. J. P. Telotte. University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 159-75.
Haraway, Donna J. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." The Gendered Cyborg: a Reader. Ed. G. Kirkup et.al. New York: Routledge, 2000. 50-57.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1992.
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