S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 2 May 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 

Straight, Gay, or Binary?

 

[]

Now that our long national

nightmare is over - the

interminable hype for Ellen

DeGeneres's coming out, on

Ellen - it's time to turn our

attention to weightier matters:

Is he or isn't he? Since 2001's

HAL celebrated his birthday this

12 January, experts have weighed

in on the state of the art in

artificial intelligence, but

there's been a deafening silence

on the subject of the legendary

supercomputer's sexuality.

 

The question is less laughable

than it sounds: Alan Turing, the

British computer pioneer who is

HAL's spiritual father, believed

that a true thinking machine

would be a feeling machine as

well, capable of being

"influenced by sex appeal" - a

computer with a sex drive as

well as a hard drive.

 

[]

Intriguingly, Turing, whose 1936

vision of a "universal"

computing machine made the PC

possible, was gay. His suicide

in 1954 may have been prompted

by the growingly repressive

climate of Cold War England,

where "perverts" were purged

from sensitive research

positions in the name of

national security. According to

Andrew Hodges' biography, Alan

Turing: The Enigma, the coroner

ruled that Turing took his own

life "while the balance of his

mind was disturbed."

 

[]

HAL, like his metaphorical

father, is "disturbed," pushed

over the edge by what Arthur C.

Clarke calls "unconscious

feelings of guilt" and the

cognitive dissonance of "living

a lie" - pop-psych catchphrases

familiar from tabloid coverage

of the Love That Dare Not Speak

Its Name. The paradox that

ultimately short-circuits HAL -

"the conflict between truth, and

concealment of truth" - recalls

the dilemma faced by Turing,

whose single-minded scientist's

devotion to the Truth

complicated the sexual and

political "imitation game" (his

term for the famous Turing Test

for artificial intelligence) he

was forced to play.

 

Following the trail of clues,

from Clarke's unconscious use of

suggestive catchphrases to the

uncanny correlations between

Turing and his famous offspring,

brings us face to face with the

question that haunts 2001 like

some portentous monolith: Was

HAL gay? Clarke himself concedes

that HAL's voice betrays "a

certain ambiguity." Balanced on

the knife edge between snide and

anodyne, the computer's sibilant

tone and use of feline phrases

like "quite honestly, I wouldn't

worry myself about that" contain

more than a hint of the

stereotypically bitchy

homosexual.

 

Moreover, if the man's, man's,

man's world of 2001 is any

indication, HAL was presumably

raised by men and, like Turing,

schooled in an all-male

environment. That such

environments are hotbeds of

sublimated sexuality, haunted by

the threat of same-sex love, is

news to no one; English boarding

schools such as Turing's, where

"contact between the boys was

fraught with sexual potential"

(Hodges), have long been the

butt of locker-room one-liners.

 

Then, too, there's the starship

Discovery's two-year mission, in

2001, to explore strange new

worlds with an all-male crew. As

Clarke coyly notes, the ship's

pharmacopoeia includes

"adequate, though hardly

glamorous, substitutes" for sex -

Sleeper's Orgasmatron in pill

form, presumably. But what of

HAL's needs? As we've

speculated, he's almost

certainly capable of being

"influenced by sex appeal," and

his electronic eros probably

bears the stamp of a separatist

upbringing. How many months in

space with nothing to do but

stomp Frank Poole and David

Bowman at chess and fiddle with

the ship's radio dish before

even his fellow crewmen begin to

look desirable? In the film

critic Vivian Sobchack's

estimation, the astronauts'

"tight-assed competence

disallows any connection with

the sexual and the sensuous."

Then again, there's much to be

said for a tight ass, especially

when it's jogging around the

ship's centrifuge in a pair of

butt-hugging shorts.

 

Could HAL have gotten jealous of

what he imagined must go on

behind closed pod doors between

Poole and Bowman? When we first

meet Dave, he's literally the

apple of HAL's eye, reflected in

one of the computer's ubiquitous

red fisheye lenses. Is Frank's

murder the cold-blooded

elimination of a rival for

Dave's affections? When Dave

unplugs HAL's brain, the

computer's swan song, "Daisy

Bell (Bicycle Built for Two),"

sounds like a deathbed

confession of star-crossed love.

 

[]

But even if we "prove" that HAL

is gay, what's the significance

of outing a fictional

supercomputer, outside the

context of extreme sports for

semioticians? Most obviously,

gay machines such as HAL and his

descendants - among them KITT,

the campy RoboCar in Knight

Rider (of whom The Complete

Directory to Prime Time Network

TV Shows straightfacedly writes,

"It was love at first sight

between Michael [Knight] and

KITT," who was "peevish, a bit

haughty, but totally protective"

of his hunky rider) - prop up

the sagging machismo of male

heroes whose derring-do, in the

Computer Age, consists largely

of sitting in a chair, pushing

buttons. This is the glaring

irony that renders Star Trek's

Perma-Prest Captain Picard and

his beefy sidekick, Lieutenant

Riker - torchbearers for a

rock-ribbed masculinity -

unintentionally funny: In the

final analysis, they're

overgrown gameboys in pantsuits,

jabbing at touchscreens in an

earth-toned rec room. Prone to

hissy fits, sissified machines

such as C-3PO, Star Wars's

fussy, high-strung Felix to

R2-D2's Oscar (with the

femme-butch subtext that

implies), reaffirm the rugged

manliness of these armchair

adventurers, by contrast.

 

[]

At the same time, HAL's

homosexuality - specifically,

the high cost of its denial -

may be Clarke's way of reminding

us that the brightest minds and

the loftiest aspirations can be

brought down by bigotry. The

story of a closeted

supercomputer eaten away by

"unconscious feelings of guilt"

and unstrung by "the conflict

between truth, and concealment

of truth," can be easily read as

a homage to Turing.

 

Of course, we'll never really

know if HAL is gay, since even

his creator claims he doesn't

know for sure. When the cultural

critic Paula Treichler put the

question to Clarke, he quipped,

"I don't know; I never asked

him." Even so, in my mind, there

is no question about it, as HAL

would say. When the dying

computer serenades David Bowman,

I'll always hear a tearjerking

torch song that begins, "Davey,

Davey, Give me your answer, do /

I'm half crazy all for the love

of you...."



courtesy of Wayne Gale
 
 
 

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