Meanings: The Search for Meaning in 2001

Internet Revolution

During the early 1990s, personal home computers and the Internet rapidly became part of the reality of many American households.  Between January 1990 and January 1997, the number of people using the Internet jumped from 1.2 million to over 57 million.[88]  The coming of a new electronic culture drew some comparisons to 2001 from industry journals and magazines.  A 1992 article about the future of interconnected computer networking telephony argued that “HAL, the omniscient, monolithic and ultimately amoral computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey has yielded to the Borg, the interconnected, bioelectronic and ultimately amoral race from Star Trek: The Next Generation.”[89]  It is important to note that even at this late date, HAL was still seen as a fundamentally flawed device, just as it was to IBM back in the 1960s. Over the next five years, popular perceptions of HAL would shift dramatically.

The rapid spread of the Internet spawned dozens of World Wide Web fan sites devoted to 2001.  Although sites devoted to Star Wars and Star Trek appeared as early as 1993, it was not until 1996 that most 2001 fan pages burst onto the Web.  Initially drawing traffic as repositories of HAL 9000 sound files, which many people use to customize the system sounds on their personal computers, some fans began to use their Web sites as places to publicize essays they had written about the film’s meaning.  Most, not surprisingly, viewed the film in terms of technology, and nearly all expressed the view that HAL was not inherently flawed, that it was instead bad instructions from his human programmers that caused him to kill.  Most of these interpretations rely on Clarke’s books and the film 2010 to make their point.  Phil Vendy, who runs one of the leading 2001 fan sites, argues, “HAL is often cast as being the ‘Bad Guy’ or the ‘Villain’ of the film.  I don’t think that this is accurate.  HAL was simply trying to obey the instructions given to him and interpret them as best he could.  That those instructions were was not the fault of HAL.  Instead it was the fault of those who assumed that an artificial intelligence could lie in the name of security and national interest as easily as a human.”[90] Similarly, another essayist wrote, “we must understand that the malfunction was not brought by any imperfections in HAL himself, but were due to clandestine machinations by governmental forces.”[91]  Using this theory, which comes straight out of Clarke’s novel, HAL is in fact more “perfect” than human beings are, because he cannot lie or deceive.  Whereas Kubrick’s film suggests that HAL is flawed because he has so many human traits, in Clarke’s vision HAL is a technologically perfect victim of human greed.     

HAL’s “Birthday”

In January 1997, many fans celebrated the “birthday” of HAL 9000.  According to the film, 2001’s super-intelligent computer was first activated on January 12, 1992, although Arthur Clarke chose the year 1997 for his book.  Except for a small item that went out on the Associated Press newswire and an article in the New York Times, the 1992 date passed quietly.[92]  The Times article referred to 2001 as “Clarke’s film” and neglected to mention Stanley Kubrick even once, instead focusing almost entirely on efforts by computer scientists to make an intelligent computer like HAL.[93]  For the 1997 date, however, many diverse media sources did articles on HAL and how close modern science was to achieving the “vision” presented in the film.    

A book entitled HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality was published containing essays edited by MIT professor David Stork from experts in the field of computer science and technology on the practicality of different aspects of the computer’s design and features.  A fan of the film who has seen it at least 30 times, Stork presented two different theories for the discrepancy in the two dates for HAL’s inception.  In an early 1997 article, he contended that actor Douglas Rain “thought that 1997 was so ridiculously far into the future that he mistakenly read it as 1992.”[94]  In the introduction to his book, he suggests that Kubrick changed the year to 1992 to make HAL’s death “more poignant.”[95]  Stork explicitly states the question that runs throughout the book in the first chapter, “As we approach 2001, we might ask why we have not matched the dream of making a HAL.”[96]

Wired magazine ran a 13-page cover feature on HAL 9000 in January 1997.  Leaving behind all mention of the film’s spiritual or sociological interpretations, the article instead focused entirely on the “promise” presented by 2001’s vision of a technological future.  The article argues that the question audiences should ask is not how close 2001 came to predicting the technology of the future, but instead, “how close today’s computers are to realizing the promise of HAL.  When will 2001’s dream become reality?”[97]   

In March of 1997, film critic Roger Ebert presided over “Cyberfest ‘97”, a gala celebration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  In both the film and novel version of 2001 Urbana, Illinois is the location of the plant where HAL was activated.  The weeklong event featured lectures and talks on the history of computing, the making of 2001, demonstrations of cutting-edge research at the University of Illinois, and appearances by people such as 2001 design consultant Harry Lange.  During the event’s final evening, Arthur Clarke (who had just published 3001) even made an appearance via “cybercast” from his home in Sri Lanka, as part of a panel that included David Stork and 2001 actor Gary Lockwood.  Financed by corporate sponsors such as Apple, Microsoft, Ameritech, Oracle, and Lotus, the celebration also helped showcase the latest technological achievements of these companies.  When contacted by Roger Ebert and invited to the gathering, Stanley Kubrick’s only response reportedly was that “HAL was born in 1992, and if you didn’t have a birthday party then, it’s too late to have one now.”[98]

For most of the people celebrating HAL’s birthday, the computer represented the triumph of technology.  Believing in the vision of 2001’s technology, and regarding HAL as a “perfect” machine rather than Frankenstein’s monster, these people, like the film’s early critics, did not necessarily see the film in terms of its satirical undertones.  A perfect example of this reassessment is the changing attitude that IBM had toward HAL.  Having initially been upset by the use of their corporate logo in a film that featured a computer that killed several people, the company was further angered when they discovered that the letters H, A, and L are only one letter removed from I, B, and M in the alphabet.  Clarke, who said the letters stood for “Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer” spent many years attempting to dismiss the rumor that this had been done intentionally, claiming as early as 1972, “we were quite embarrassed by this, and would have changed the name had we spotted the coincidence.”[99] Despite having gone to the trouble of having Dr. Chandra deny the connection in 2010, by 1997, Clarke acknowledged that the original inspiration for the name had come from Kubrick.[100]  In the closing notes to 3001, he noted that, “far from being annoyed by the association, Big Blue is now quite proud of it.”[101]  After years of distancing themselves from 2001, IBM now embraced the “reformed” HAL.        

Commercial Co-Option

Mark Crispin Miller, has argued that is just this kind of corporate co-option of 2001 that has helped to conceal the satiric impact of the film.  In a 1994 article for Sight and Sound magazine he stated that “as such colossal advertisers have absorbed the culture since the early ‘70s, they have helped obscure 2001 by celebrating and encouraging the very drives Kubrick satirizes.”  Thus, the plethora of conscious references to 2001 and the glorification of HAL in the mass media gains an added dimension of irony.  In the 1996 hit film Independence Day Jeff Goldblum’s character uses a computer with HAL’s voice and image to save the Earth from alien destruction.  HAL had gone from representing the menace of technology to a symbol of how it can save the human race.  Miller argues that most audiences would not respond to 2001 if it were to be re-released in theaters today, because the film “would be diminished by the multiplex not just because of the smaller screen and poor acoustics, but because the very setting would implicitly subvert the film’s subversive vision.[102]  Warner Brothers, who now owns the distribution rights to 2001 as a result of their merger with Turner Entertainment, plans an international re-release of the film in the year 2001.  Although studio executive Barry Reardon wanted to add digital effects to the film, plus some of the footage cut out of the original release, this idea was rejected by Kubrick, who completed supervision of the film’s digital remastering before his death in March 1999.      

Next: AFI Brings it All Together, Conclusion

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