HUGO: Bioethics and Technology

Technology includes all applied knowledge, including science in the service of art. Film, has an impact on people and so other aspects of the biosphere. The first public screening of a film was in 1895, a century old it is a relatively new technology. Martin Scorsese's film, Hugo, eases the task of exploring historical relevance of screen grammar and technique. The story is adapted by screenwriter John Logan from Brian Selznick's fantasy novel. A children's film, it is all the better for this target audience. Adults are delicately guided to consider pitfalls of infatuation with applied science through a child’s innocent eyes. We are reminded that often scientists, physicians, engineers, film directors and others cursed with knowledge and creativity, are often found teetering between genius and ruin.

Hugo, also the name of the film’s main character, is trapped living between the walls of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris during the 1930s. He is surrounded by period appropriate icons of technology, clockworks and trains. The setting is not the Gare Montparnasse of today, rebuilt in the 1960s and where the TGV shoots off to Bordeaux. It is more the site of the 1895 spectacular train derailment, reported in all the world's newspapers and in Hugo's nightmares. The steam engine was the technological revolution of the 19th century, as the large screen and rocket were of the twentieth, and the small screen is of the twenty-first. A reclusive pre-teen orphan, Hugo maintains the train station's clock works, and studies mechanics. He spends his free time repairing an automaton; the broken mechanical robot left by his now dead father. In his pursuit of technological reward, Hugo is driven to immoral acts of lying, cheating and stealing.

People perceive the world first from real direct contact; primary socialization. Film works through depicted contact; secondary socialization. Film memory seems indistinguishable from dreams and primary memories in our brain’s catalog. The rub is, we are not sure what is learned primarily, secondarily or whether it matters. Audience capacity to host psyche altering screen depictions appears infinite. Predictable responses are invoked by repeated film viewings. 

Bioethics is branch of philosophy that explores what we ought to be doing with science and its applied technology. No longer is bioethics only applied to medical science but to all aspects of science and technology affecting the biological world. Scientist and technologist are increasingly charged with being moral custodians of beneficence. Beneficence is the bioethical principle supporting the obligation to rail against ignorance and simultaneously do good with what we know. Knowledge, like Eve's apple, causes conflicts particularly between beneficence, autonomy and justice. What new technology breeds down the time line is often difficult to anticipate. Who could have guessed the Lumiere Brothers home movies would yield Clockwork Orange or soldiers trained by video games? Uncertainty is rampant in the case of screen technology. Bioethics is a system of reasoning seeking to clarify ambiguity and facilitate action.

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, Dr. Frankenstein types on a computer while explaining to Igor, "I've given up trying to create life and instead create online personas." Frankenstein's Monster is an icon being replaced by screen technology. Distributive computing, reflected on beloved smart phone screens, singles out disease causing genes but also pinpoints a dissident for apprehension who is texting news of revolution. Hugo shows the challenges inherent in the evolution of screen technology while encouraging continued foray into the breech. Bioethics enhances moral reasoning regarding technology. Any technology created will be used; the bridle being considerate ethical analysis.

Hugo. (35mm) directed by Martin Scorcese. 2011. USA. Paramount Pictures. 128 mins.

Frankenstein. (35 mm) directed by James Whale. 1931. USA. Universal.

Clockwork Orange (35 mm) directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1971.  USA.Warner. 137 min.

Perils of Pauline (16mm) directed by Louis J. Gasnier Donald MacKenzie  1914.  USA. General Film Company & Eclectic Film Company. 

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (Trip To The Moon) (16mm) Georges Melies. 1902.  France. Gaston Melies Films.  14 min.

Metropolis. (16mm) directed by Fritz Lang. 1927.   Germany UFA. 153 mins (at 24 frames/min)

Safety at Last.  Fred C. Newmeyer and  Sam Taylor. 1923.  USA.  Hal Roach Studios.  73 min.

Williams, S.  Justice Autonomy and Transhumanism: YESTERDAY.  in The Picture of Health.:  eds. H. Colt, S. Quadrelli, L. Friedman   Oxford University Press . New York. 2010

see Inception: transhumanist dreams resolve grief ( 7/17/10 Bioethicsscreenreflections)


September Williams, MD-Writer said...

The purpose of this blog is to provide those who teach medical ethics and those who are interested in film with current films, not yet in text books which have bioethical significance