Human Error: Writer’s Notes

June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

An edited version of these notes appears in the Human Error program, there are spoilers:

First of all, thank you for coming. Part of the impetus for the play was to start a conversation and explore a topic that doesn’t often make it onto our stages; so, if nothing else, I hope the production gets you talking, even if it’s just to debate what is possible, impossible or simply unimaginable.

Human Error is a peculiar little play. Peculiar because on one hand it’s really very straightforward and quite small—it’s three scenes, a prologue, and an epilogue—and on the other because it’s somewhat confusing and about capital ‘t’ Topics; like, the nature of love, the future, and the end of the world. Some of it is mundane and everyday, some of it is silly and fantastical, some of it is scary and uncanny — I’ll let you be the judge of what’s what and which parts are more successful than others. Hopefully you all love and hate different parts of it. What I love about science fiction though, is that at its heart there’s always a leap of faith, a what if.

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In addition to the what if, there’s also a grounding in fact, in the what is. And it’s the interplay between the two that fuels the engine of science fiction. Background research for this play was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. Those interested in reading more should check out ‘Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies’, by Nick Bostrom. I have no doubt I failed to capture everything in the science, I know I didn’t even fit in everything I wanted to in the play; I guess this story is only one eventuality. One possibility. One way it might happen. There are others. You can probably think of a baker’s dozen yourself. While trying to sleep one night, you should try it: how might the world end? What is it like now . . . and what if . . . ?

Although the narrative may seem confusing, the structure of the play is fairly basic: movement, a monologue, a duologue. The prologue and epilogue are a stage direction of barely a sentence each. These three moments are key events leading to how an artificial intelligence ends the world. And each one denies the audience certain qualities. First, language. Then, we have an inundation of language but we lack communication. Finally, two people talk, discuss, and quibble but never really do anything, we are left without action. The audience is always seeking something else; maybe something more, maybe something less, maybe an easier way in, or respite from the durational aspect of it. But it’s not that simple. You can’t change the channel, check a different browser tab, flick through your apps, refresh or escape. You’re here. It’s happening. It’s not going to stop.

First, the end of the world. It is unimaginable.

The play proper begins with a Frankenstein discovery of being alive. An unknown character, in an unknown (though domestic) space stares at a glass. The cyborg reboots. As it inspects its environment it goes through a range of human experiences, from the simple (a smile), to the more complex (the desire for food and sex). Always returning to the glass. Finally, it isolates its threat and takes it out. The apocalypse is imminent. But we’re left somewhat unsure of what we have seen, why, and how Candy Crush fits in with everything . . .

Time slips backwards. The event preceding. We’re in some kind of hospital room. The man is in a coma and a woman, only seen briefly in the first act, begins to talk — to us? To herself? To him? Her internal thoughts wind through concepts, ideas, a shared history, and the events leading up to this moment. It is relentless. She takes her time. The man is dying. We know she is going to do something, we’ve just seen the consequences; however, the real question is, why, and when? How long is it going to take? Finally, as expected, she does something, something we know ends the world. Did she make this choice willingly or was it inevitable?

Back again. This time the man, and the woman who owned the apartment in the first act, engage in small talk. They’re in an office break room, waiting for the woman who delivered the monologue to finish up — she is the man’s girlfriend, she is the woman’s boss. Facts about artificial intelligence, nanobots, and human nature start to fall into place. But it’s very subdued. We’ve wound our way backwards from the end of the world to a mundane conversation about hypotheticals. This is us, right now, talking, as though outside these walls the world isn’t changing rapidly in ways we can’t fully understand. We end with a wish—for the world to be “completely Candy Crush”—and a kiss.

Finally, the artificial intelligence responsible for our obsolesce wakes up for the first time. It is beautiful.

While other media have the benefit of certain technical advantages to depict science fiction, theatre has different techniques and it’s an exciting challenge to work out how to solve them — no doubt it’s been a difficult challenge for the director, designers and actors to realise the script. How do you represent something on stage that is virtual — without resorting to something like projection, audio conversation with the self, or trying to emulate film? How do you tell a story in which the main character is invisible, not only incorporeal but also literally working in the background, organising the chess pieces without their knowledge? This, for me, was to be a core aspect of the script. If and when some kind of artificial intelligence makes its move we will probably not see it coming. It’ll be confusing for us. It won’t be how we imagined it. The future is always slightly different to how we think it will be. One thing is certain: we’re going to have to put the pieces together afterwards. In retrospect it’ll all makes sense. At the time . . . not so much. So, what theatrical techniques are available to us to dramatize these questions?

Theatre doesn’t need to and shouldn’t bother competing with the likes of television. The real competition is a walk in the park, a coffee, staring out the window, or watching a fire burn. There’s a comfort in being given the space to just let thing happen. Television and film often have a comfortable entertainment quality to them, which is great, but theatre can offer us something else. While the screen can chop and change time and place, draw attention to specifics, or rearange the world however it likes, theatre must take place in ‘real’ time but not necessarily in the manner in which we are accustomed. It’s not about “chronos”—chronology, minutes and hours, quantified and set—it’s more akin to “kairos” — unfixed, indeterminant, full of potential.

As well as presenting an alternative experience of time, theatre also brings people together, and it can present topics (or Topics) with an immediacy and intimacy that other media can’t. The antithesis of technology, with its instant gratification, is being made to work, to listen, to have patience. There’s nothing “wrong” with technology, we just need to remember to talk, too.

Yes, there are other science fiction texts dealing with artificial intelligence. Yes, I am sure humanity has always worried about its future. You probably have any number of alternative suggestions. But as I write this, as you read this, and as you watch the show, somewhere in Melbourne someone is working on something that could change everything forever.

Okay, it might not be Melbourne, it might not be Candy Crush, it might not involve the absurdly fragile act of smashing glass, it might not even be today or tomorrow, but BOOM, something’s coming. We’re all in the room together, let’s talk about it.

Special thanks must go to Justin Nott for wrangling this beast and thinking of me in the first place. And to Keziah Warner for not thinking I’m beyond help. As well as to the cast for trusting the material. Finally, the crew and the Bakers who have helped realise what began as a conversation in a pub.

Human Error:

A new play by Angus Cameron
Directed by Justin Nott
Presented by Baker’s Dozen

With Ross Dwyer, Cait Spiker
and Yvette Turner

Dramaturg: Keziah Warner
Set Design: Robert Smith
Costume Design: Kim Ritchie
Sound Design: Tom Backhaus
Lighting Design: Siobhain Geaney
Stage Manager: Natasha Keehan
Image Design: Tom Dilly Littleson

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