2009: Our Odyssey, Eight Years On

2001: A Space Odyssey—a masterpiece, a chaos, a visual symphony, an incomprehensible mess. Call it what you may, but it remains one of the most impressive and enduring films of all time. It has been forty years since its direction and eight years since the events in the movie but how far have we traveled toward the self-fulfilling man-child prophecy?

2201243768_c93d313aaaAfter reading an obituary for the writer Arthur C. Clarke, I re-watched the movie 2001: The Space Odyssey last week. It has been exactly forty years since Stanley Kubrick directed it—visually mesmerizing and deafeningly silent epic, a film ahead of its time, an IMAX experience before IMAXs are even conceptualized.

But how ahead of time is the technology in 2001? There are those who lament that we haven’t reach that stage of space travel portrayed in the movie. True, we don’t have Lunar Hiltons, manned missions to Jupiter. The commercial space travel is also non-existent—despite Sir Richard Branson’s projects and a couple of trips the Russians offered to celebrities and tycoons for millions of dollars. We don’t have faux gravity or grip shoes. Not that we need them anyway.

However, on another level—that of computers—we have relocated HAL into dustbin of history. In the movie, it is said that HAL was built in 1992, and it was still being used in 2001—something utterly unimaginable in an age where even laptops are updated at least biannually. Speech recognition and motion tracking—the features that once made HAL9000 a dangerous foe—now assist the disabled, and assume their place at bathroom taps and urinals.

halNonetheless, HAL’s influence on popular culture is more indelible. Four decades after its ‘mind’ was gone, HAL is still alive and kicking, as evidenced in Pixar’s modern space opera WALL-E. When they unveiled a gizmo with an all-purpose circular dial, Apple invoked the line, “Open the pod bay doors.” HAL’s omnipresent eye—the symbol of a technological Big Brother—has appropriately came to represent Web 2.0, the epoch in which everyone is watching and everyone is being watched.

The age of Web 2.0 rendered Clarkian realm somewhat obsolete. Skype (and other innumerable services) now provide a better communication network than those Dave Bowman had in 2001. Phones and other gadgets have become smaller. Internet may now provide Dave with a quicker online shopping  and better tracking system.

But one question still casts a big shadow: have we outgrown our world? That seems to be the question Kubrick asked and we mused at the end of 2001. With unplugging of HAL, Dave Bowman broke human dependence on machines—a dependence that began with the arrival of the monolith at the dawn—and he therefore transcended limitations, expectations, dimensions and even rationality and order. It was a pivotal moment; like its namesake myth of Odysseus, the movie ends ambiguously: is it the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

My answer to “Have we outgrown our world?” is no. We haven’t—we shrank it with mercantilism, imperialism, capitalism and globalization, we withered it with radicalism, bigotry, war and pollution, but we haven’t outgrown it. We won’t be able to until we throw off the yoke weighed down on our shoulders by our establishments—centuries of religion, culture, tradition, faith and even nature.

In Homer’s epic, Odysseus longed to return to Ithaca, and return he did—only to learn that he must leave Ithaca again to one final greatest adventure. For millennia, we paid too close an attention to our egocentric Ithacas—our lifestyles, our one-way cultures, our values, our prejudices and our blind faith—to embark on that final great adventure. It is now time to do so. HAL, open the pod bay doors.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: