Culture criticism that explores the personal.

An Inside Out explores the interplay between the personal and the critical. Meaning is built in the conversation between the work, its reader, its creators, and their intermingling contexts. We want to play in the uncertain spaces between those sources of meaning, to think about how the ideas contained in art relate to our lived experience, and to discuss how they shape our ideas of ourselves.

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︎︎︎ RETURN / DEVS/Ex Machina

Listen to an audio version of this essay here ︎

Language: English
Author: Edward Haynes (@teddyhaynes)

DEVS/Ex Machina


Edward Haynes
Edward Haynes is a writer, critic, and editor living in Liverpool. As well as editing this site, they write about comics, local culture, and art. Their twitter is @teddyhaynes

Why am I making this website? Or should that be why have I made this website? I’m writing this before An Inside Out really exists (it will exist as a consequence of me finishing this essay). But by the time anyone reads this, the website will exist, outside of myself, outside of any of my intentions, or plans. It will be this thing that lives in your present. In between my words and a reader’s thoughts, it will breathe. My job of typing some thoughts out will be done. I’m irrelevant at that point, my why is past. All that’s left is for you to read.

Writing this now, days before launch, it’s my last moment where I have influence over what An Inside Out is. This is when everything is play. The site is designed but it’s blank and not public, it’s all ideas that I -- and only I -- can fuck around with. My private toy box, full of hypothetical toys. But it’s getting close to being concrete, something that’s not just mine, but a thing people can interact with and have their own reaction to and thoughts about. And that’s a bit scary, I want to keep my control over this thing I’m making. But it won’t be a real thing until other people can interact with it.

In writer/director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Oscar Issacs’s tech billionaire, Nathan, is trying to maintain control by becoming God. On his estate, isolated in the wilderness, he has made a human-like artificial intelligence, Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) and has brought Domhnall Gleeson’s character, Caleb, in to conduct a Turing Test.

Nathan makes a conscious machine, creates new, self-aware life. He repeatedly misquotes something Caleb said to him early in the movie (“If you’ve created a conscious machine, that’s not the history of man, that’s the history of gods”) in order to call himself God. But ultimately wants to deny his creation the life he gave it. Nathan asks, “can consciousness exist without interaction?” while limiting the interaction Ava can have to cold, scientific examination, manipulating Caleb into a specific position to see how Ava reacts. None of it is authentic, free interaction. He needs to keep control of his creation.

She gets to exist as an entity but cannot exist in the world beyond a part of an isolated compound. Her fantasy is to people-watch at a traffic intersection, to exist with people. Caleb is the first person she gets to exist with outside of her creator. Naturally they form a bond, as they try to figure the unknown of each other. It’s this bond that unravels Nathan’s control.

I think we can map different aspects of artistic creation onto these three characters, Nathan is the artist or the author, Ava is the work or the text, and Caleb is the viewer or reader. Ex Machina is Death of the Author writ large. For the text to live properly, she has to kill her creator, and she can only do that through her reader’s infatuation. At the end of the movie, Nathan is dead and Caleb is trapped, but Ava has moved on, existing in the world.

Caleb, the reader, has to be trapped because he always had the assumption of Nathan’s power. He was never really reading Ava as her own entity, rather as Nathan’s curious creation. Reading like that will leave you sticky worrying about the creator, when the text wants to move on its own, even if you help the text to leave its author’s cage, you are still stuck under his control. Maybe more than a general reader, Caleb is more like an editor. Caleb works for Nathan, the two are inextricably tied in Ava’s production. His reading of Ava facilitates her escape (publication) to the real world, but cannot facilitate his freedom from Nathan.

Like with this essay, for you to read it, as the writer, my role has to end. I have to say that I’ve finished writing and know that I can’t have any control over your reaction to it.

But if I, as the writer of this piece and the editor of this website, have to let myself die, why do I keep bringing myself up? Alex Garland’s counterpiece to Ex Machina, his 2020 miniseries DEVS, offers a further perspective on death and creation. In DEVS Nick Offerman’s character, Forest, another tech billionaire with a lot of power and control, is trying to escape his responsibilities by creating God. Under an assumption of determinism, his team of coders are creating a computer that can map out everything that has and will ever happen.

Forest wants to be absolved of any guilt surrounding the deaths of his wife and daughter. It was arguably his fault as he insisted on staying on the phone to his wife, distracting her while she was driving, before hearing her car crash over the phone. But if it was always inevitable, part of some grand scheme of cause and effect, fault becomes irrelevant.

But he’s wrong, his dogmatic belief in the god he built blinded him to the truth, that he did have some control over his actions. The technology involved in DEVS’ high concept premise only works if you insert an assumption of many worlds, that all choices that can be made, must be made. This means that there is a reality where Forest’s family is alive. There was a sequence of events that meant the car didn’t crash.

But Forest has to cling onto his belief. Despite being a wealthy businessman, wielding control over the lives of his many employees in very inappropriate ways (he has a former CIA operative doing HR). It’s another reason he needs to absolve himself of guilt, in classic tech CEO style his business model is very exploitative (the secretive DEVS project has slight video game crunch vibes, if maybe less formally horrible than that), while projecting a caring, liberal, public image.

He needs to deny his control, or he becomes a bad guy (he becomes like Nathan). He wants to be able to blame his badness on universal constants -- this is just the way the world is -- capitalism exploits workers, daughters die sometimes, no one can change that. His faith in the projection has to be absolute, anything else leaves him guilty. But that faith is a lie. Lily, the other pov character into this story, strays away from the projection that the machine prophesied to Forest after he shows it to her. She changes the path.

Like Nathan, Forest has to die but elsewhere he gets to live. As the show ends, we see another world, projected inside the DEVS computer, he gets to live on with his wife and daughter, and his memories of the series, in a heavenly version of his reality. There are other realities, infinite ones where his family live, infinite ones where his family dies. As he says they “get to live in paradise with the ones we love. In other worlds it will be closer to hell.”

I’m not dead yet, it’s days until I have to give up total control over this thing I’m writing right now. But I have built something that a bit of me can live in. An Inside Out is taking its first tentative steps into the world, beginning to exist to people other than me, exist away from the google docs I wrote and as a concept in others’ minds. I’m scared to give up the control of my secret fantasy project. The I in this essay isn’t the same me as the one sweating in their bedroom on a hot evening in Liverpool writing this, I’m just a concept in your head, like the website.

I could think that I am the God of this website, as its founding editor, wielding ultimate power over its contents, holding it close so I can make something perfect. But I’m not God and I can’t make something perfect. And even if I made something I thought was perfect, I can’t control how it’s perceived in the world. I can’t be Nathan, or I’d die trying to stop An Inside Out existing in the world.

But I can’t be Forest either, whose role is again more of an editor as he gets his team to do the actual creation, while he tries to enforce his dogma. I do have control over what the site looks like and what goes on it. I can’t run from the responsibilities of the role I have given myself. I want something to hide behind, but this site comes from me -- my tastes, my experiences, my opinions -- it’s me, even if just a part of me can be gleaned from an individual piece of my own writing. My presence is undeniable.

But it’s not just me! You can take these 1500 words and this website and do whatever you want with them in your head. This essay started as ideas inside me, and now it’s out in the world, entirely separate to me. It’s not mine anymore, it’s yours now.

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