Marvin the Paranoid Android and Picking Your Programming

May 10th, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the series God: From Magic to Motivation

Marvin is an extremely bored and depressed android from the Douglas Adams classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Marvin is the one of most intelligent robots ever put together. He has a beautiful mind.

Marvin was programmed with Genuine People Personalities so that people could interact and strike up friendships with the poor guy. At one point he is put to work on a planet’s military strategy. While doing what is asked of him he also solves all mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, philosophical, etymological, meteorological and psychological problems of the universe.

He didn’t solve his own problems though.

At no point in the long, boring millennia of his existence (that I remember at least) does Marvin look into changing his own programming. (I’m reading the Guide once again to make sure, and to have some fun with reading once again.)

Douglas Adams may have never thought of the possibility for his character, but Marvin certainly should have. He had the time, the resources, the ability and the intellectual know-how.

I’m tempted to think that Marvin actually liked being depressed and bored. It was what he identified himself with.

I grew up in a small town in the 90s. In some ways, the place was economically and emotionally depressed. When two friends and I got talking about them old days, an idea hit me and I had to ask them:

“Did we pick the wrong attitude?”

One laughed, and knew exactly what I meant. One became very sober, and knew exactly what I meant.

My more sober friend and I are musicians – unambitious slugabeds, wandering souls. We felt powerless, in some ways at least, to change ourselves or change the world. We idolized Kurt Cobain and other pop stars, but in a sarcastic and self-mocking way. We grew up idolizing, but not actually trusting our heroes. When pop stars inevitably ‘pop’, it’s as much of a “Pfff!” as a “Poof!”

When word of Cobain’s death rolled through the media in April of 1994, the tragedy for me wasn’t about the end of truly inspired music, or anything like that. It was that his death was so predictable. The poor guy had a serious problem with drugs, he had a severe personality imbalance, and he was a part of an industry I don’t think he really believed in. And I’d bet he didn’t see any way out of it either.

Not everyone from my home town shared such a bad attitude. They weren’t real angsters. They still had hope or ambition or life goals, and they got on with being part of the world. And in appropriate fashion, they left what didn’t work for them and found other places, better attitudes.

I admit that maybe I’m not seeing it from a clear vantage point, but the following generations didn’t seem to have so much of this problem. There was mobility, and possibility.

Hotmail was launched in 1996. Microsoft owned it by 1997. Google was incorporated in 1998. The internet proved accessible, shared communication could be meaningful too. The Y2K scare (which might as well have been a radio show about the Martians landing on Earth) did little except get more people interested in information technology. Wikipedia began in January of 2001. Open-source projects started to look not only legitimate but quite fulfilling, worth being a part of. Younger people seemed to have lots of stuff to be optimistic about.

I was about one week into teaching my first Grade 6 class when two jetliners were flown into the World Trade Centre Towers. In 2008, my wife and I had just sold our house and then watched as the world media, members of global finance and politicians tried to convince us the end of the world would come because 50% of the 1% didn’t practice decent money management. A few bloated banks and ambitious companies could have brought about a world apocalypse should they cease to exist.

‘Pfff!’, I say.

The solution of throwing more future money (read: next generation’s debt) at the problem really put things into perspective for me. Not only is our reality constructed from fragile fictions, but the rules can be massaged at any point to make things fit afterward. If we buy into it. If we’re so invested. If we don’t mind sacrificing our children.

The traumatic events of the last ten years make the bad stuff of the 90s look like pretty sad jokes. People are playing some real high stakes-poker out there with reality.

I didn’t participate in OWS or its offspring, but I had some sympathy for what they were sort of kind of getting at trying to say. I know that angst, that disillusionment – that feeling you get when you just know something’s wrong, something has no basis in reality, something is so offensive you want to do something… but you don’t have the motivation, the power or the faintest clue how to change things.

What has really freaked me out has been the influence of the Spice Girls and Britney Spears. It only slowly dawned on me that every girl between 11 and 18 can’t be natural blonds. When the roots started to show I started to realize just how powerful Girl Power, and consumerism, can become. Entire populations of young girls had their heroes and they had attitude too – watch out world, these girls could (and would) change the world with all that motivation. They would own the stage, run the stage, and enjoy it all. It didn’t seem to matter that dirty men enjoyed how they were dressed up, when all their lives would become a stage.

The following generations had something else unprecedented to knot them together. The Harry Potter series might be the first story that a worldwide generation read together. You can now travel anywhere in the world and strike up a friendly conversation with anyone that age about that series of stories. (I’m exaggerating, admittedly, but…)

Imagine, the world sharing a story together, and it’s not a sacred, religious text.  It’s a fiction.

I’d like to think that Amy Tan and all the others were right to say, ”If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.” However, I fear the lesson of Marvin the Paranoid Android in all this. Even the smartest, most able mind in the universe didn’t get around to changing his own programming. He just carried on doing what he was given to do, bored and depressed. I guess he just put up with being himself.

Our environment tends to dictate a fair amount of our programming, whether that’s good or bad. I think today’s generations and future generations are going to be more and more mobile. It’s the fiction they will be living in. It won’t be so much about what you collect or control or own, but how many different environments you can productively function in. Having a collection of different programmings to pick from might be your best bet on getting somewhere.

That, and sharing a good story.

What do you think?

How much control do you think we have over our own programming, I mean, attitude?

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Three other influences that got this post going:

A Star is Born - a new movie might be coming out “based on” Kurt Cobain’s life, had he survived being himself.

Millenial Generation - Technology has convinced Millennials that a single voice can make a difference

Say No to Sarcasm - Sarcasm destroys predictability in meaning


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