Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Please hang up, and try again!"

EDC MOOC asks:  This animated film tells the story of technological development in terms of ritual and worship - the characters in the film treat each new technology as god-like, appearing from the sky and causing the immediate substitution of the technology before it. What is this film suggesting are the ecological and social implications of an obsession or fixation on technology? Do the film’s characters have any choice in relation to their technologies? What are the characteristics of various technologies as portrayed in this film?

Bendito Machine III is a disturbing little reminder of who we are. It represents a history of humankind, our advances, our failures, our goodness and our evil. Bendito begins with the "small frail being" invoking the heavens by winding a music box, symbolic of our relentless hope for divine intervention in our worldly affairs, and our failure to see how ultimately we are solely responsible for our actions. We create and corrupt technology, and "in developing technologies, we shape ourselves." Technology doesn't fall from the sky. However, in Bendito, when technology does fall from the sky, delivered by a higher power, the filmmakers remind us how we don't hold ourselves accountable when we leverage technology's power for evil, or even when we pretend to be devout worshippers.  Instead of controlling our actions, we take on a helpless stance, praying to a deity to save us from ourselves. We have free will and reason to improve our human condition, but we prefer to invoke the heavens for help so we absolve ourselves from blame when we are complicit in the cycle of creation and destruction to repeat itself.  

At the beginning of the film, we see how we, represented by these frail beings, struggle to value life. When the sky opens, the being's higher power delivers a machine; the being takes it, but leaves behind the water container he had carried with him when he first climbed the mound to pray. It's interesting to note how he abandons an essential component for life, unable to bear the weight of both water and machine, (human life vs. technology). He chooses to carry the machine instead of what is a building block of life. In what ways do we, unwittingly or intentionally, use technology to undermine life? According to the biologist Rene Dubos, quoted in the one of our readings, states: "The mechanical definition of human life misses the point because what is human in man is precisely that which is not mechanical." How do we continue to miss the point that our goal should not be to create the machine in our likeness, but to use the machine to improve our own existing humanity? 

We, like the beings in the film, also live under the false impression that the machine helps us evolve. Technological determinism portends that, "Technological evolution has contributed more to our biological success than our biological evolution." At the end of the film, we see the new improved version of the machine collapse and destroy as much as its predecessor did, suggesting we never truly advance our knowledge about how to improve the human condition. The beings in the film, like us, are passive consumers of the propaganda the machine spews, and victims of its evil because they(we) allow themselves(ourselves) to be. The machine kills other beings while the leader and others stand idly by. We even see how the machine enables other machines, in this case a car, to drive over two people, yet there is no reaction to death. Only at the end of the film, when the new larger machine falls and crushes the people, do we hear cries of terror. In an earlier scene, when the machine kills a child, and he drops dead at the leader's feet, the leader turns to the machine to restart it. The leader is unmoved by the child's death and acts only to shut the machine back on again.  This scene raises the question how technology renders us indifferent to the suffering of our fellow humans. Like the leader who hits the machine with his staff to restart it, but is emotionless about the child's death, how do we remain indifferent about our own spiritual evolution? We see more of our stagnation and even regression to our primitive ways, when at the end, the being no longer has a music box to invoke the deity. He must return to nature and use a pebble to throw at the heavens and call for help. We see how he (we) miss the point again when he rides into the village on the new technology created in his likeness.  And, the cycle begins again, when out of the sky falls an even larger machine, resembling a satellite, uttering the words, "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up, and try again." Somehow, we remain disconnected.       

What exactly are the filmmakers trying to tell us about "hanging up and trying again" when it comes to the effects of technology, religion, and politics on the human condition? At the beginning, the being brings the machine to his people who are engaging in a ritual of idolizing a bull on a pedestal, symbolic of the "sin of the calf" when Moses went to Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments, and the people wanted an idol to worship. Upon seeing the new idol, the people quickly haul the calf away, discarding it over a cliff overlooking a wasteland of remnants of past idols. An oil rig tower, a wheel, and several skulls that rebound in the air when the calf is disposed of, are a few of many significant, easily identifiable images among the refuse, suggesting that these beings have idolized the "machine" and even other entities before. Replacing the calf with the machine for worship is nothing new. This metaphor works to remind us how throughout human history, we have discarded one belief for another, one technology for another when they no longer fulfill our needs. We are always in search of the next best technology, religion or even political ideology to improve the human condition; yet, technology, religion, or politics will not improve the human condition until we look to improve within ourselves. The wasteland of discarded idols is symbolic of our failing to see that we need to search no further than within ourselves. We are not at the mercy of an idol, as the beings are shown to be. We need not allow the machine to use us, since the machine is us. We invent the technology, the religion and the politics, but then we fall victim to it all. We need not become fanatics to beliefs if these do nothing to elevate the human condition for all, not just some.   

Throughout Bendito, it's always the machine's fault, and it is only when we reach our darkest hour, that we beg on our knees for absolution and rescue. We do not carry any blame. Whether a symbol for technology, religion, politics, or all three, when the machine restarts after it shuts itself off, the machine's face  changes, showing an ominous face superimposed on the seemingly positive images it continues to project. This may be symbolic of the undercurrents that often lie beneath our technology, religious or political systems. The images are almost subliminal, alternating between flashes of doll heads, group violence, ice cream, a boy holding a machine gun, dancing, exercise, a soccer game, and even the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz. An eerie 1950s soundtrack of commercial jingles plays in the background to underscore the consumerist attitude that followed the Great Depression era and WW II when Americans enjoyed a period of prosperity and technological opportunities they had never experienced before. However, along with an improvement in the quality of life, came its share of economic, ecological, and social problems. The painting American Gothic by Grant Wood, stands out among the images connoting both pre-industrial age values and the subversive message of xenophobia. All of the images, music and even the demonic laugh on the TV screen recapitulate that as technology enables us to progress, if we don't find ways to protect life and humanity, the tools we rely on for progress, may set us back spiritually, economically and environmentally. The sirens and gas masks ,especially, could also be symbols of our past world wars and a possible future where we struggle to breathe because of environmental pollutants or even chemical warfare.  

"A machine is like a clock, once initiated, is autonomous, can run independently of human intervention for long periods but it does not select its own goal." What are our future goals then for technology so the machine does not use and destroy us? What are the challenges we will face in the future with technology, religion and politics? These are the questions Bendito wants us to think about. Only we can save ourselves from ourselves. The answers do not lie in idolizing the machine, or the idols, because the machine nor the idols have control over our actions, only we can control our behavior for the betterment of humankind.  


  1. Ary, your post made me think of The Picture of Dorian Gray. His evil deeds and sins projected on his painting yet he lived a blameless, youthful life, until the end of course. Do you think the technology we develop somehow manifests our obsessions, vanity and greed and yet we end up blaming the technology and see ourselves as the victim to it? Just a thought..

    1. Hi Maddie,
      Thanks for reading. Yes, definitely think it's just human nature for us to pass the blame on to something or someone else instead of taking responsibility for our actions. I also think that we don't make full use of our technology to improve our circumstances as much as we could...thinking about it from an education perspective. The opportunities for education are endless yet somehow there will be ways we end up corrupting our experiences and creating unequal conditions. It's just the way we humans are, I guess, imperfect.

  2. Ary, this is a brilliant piece. I am going to tweet and facebook it. You have been so observant of the finest details, and very articulate in discussing them. I missed the leaving of the water, what a pivotal moment. I am not going to blog about this one. I'm going to link to here.

    When I watched it I was reminded of a story. A young boy goes with his father on a mission. The grandfather is old, and in the tradition of the tribe, he is wheeled in a barrow to be tipped off a cliff. When they get to the cliff, the father is about to toss the barrow and old man off and the young boy says,"Dad, don't toss the barrow!". The man asks why and the boy replies "Because when you get old, I'll be needing it for you".

    I think it relates in that the tool (the barrow) is considered more useful than a life and that we are quick to dispose of things when we feel they have outlived their use.