1984 : 1984

The zeitgeist of intelligent machines during the Cold War.

On going development of an essay dealing with Orwell’s 1984, Gibson’s Neuromancer, Max Headroom, Skynet, Tetris, Soviet Russia and totalitarianism, Artificial Intelligence and the quest for Humankind’s fate/future. 


Supercomputers. The CDC 6600 (which Cray designed) released in 1964.

Mutually assured destruction (MAD), Reagan, early 1980’s increase in military investment.

War Games, 1983.

The year 1984 was more Gibson than Orwell. Where Orwell gives us Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and Newspeak, Gibson brings us The Matrix, Cyberspace, and Jacking-in. Orwell envisioned a totalitarian regime dictating human misery, the dream of escape manifest in individual human thought. By the time the real 1984 rolled around, Gibson saw it differently. Individuals are more than capable of creating and maintaining their own misery. Escape could come from a human idea, but one which would ultimately detach from and transcend humankind.

It is well assumed that when writing 1984 Orwell borrowed from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a 1921 novel that Orwell personally reviewed and praised and which was the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board. Perhaps 1984 was not just inspired in plot by We, but written in response to the Soviet banning of a book that specifically addressed Soviet suppression of the individual.

[The spaceship Integral of We; a conceptual precursor to AI…]

In William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, Colonel Willis Corto (Armitage) was a member of a military team sent to infiltrate and disrupt Soviet computer systems. As the rebuilt Armitage he mediates between the AI Wintermute/Neuromancer and the team assembled to free the AI from human constraints. In the end Neuromancer retains virtual copies of Case, Linda Lee, et al, assimilating these personalities into its own. The AI’s appropriation of neural patterns, extrapolating memory into new stories, becomes a projection of its own experience, a Creation Story.

In 1984, Max Headroom, a human being in a fiberglass suit pretending to be the computer generated representation of an Artificial Intelligence was introduced. Max was a British creation intended to satirize the plastic banality of Western middle class white male TV hosts, and, by extension, everything anathema to youth culture including Ronald Reagan and the Cold War.


< quote – “…attempted to uncover a conspiracy revolving around the Blipvert, a highly compressed advertisement his station had recently adopted, which had the unfortunate side effect of causing some viewers to explode. In his daring escape from security with orders to kill, he is gravely injured when he crashes his motorcycle into a gatepost. A totally unlikable Teen Genius generates an AI copy of Carter’s mind to cover up his disappearance, but the copy is somewhat unstable and has a bad stammer. He takes his name from the last thing Edison had seen before his injury: a sign on the gatepost reading “MAX HEADROOM: 2.3 METERS.”

Tetris was created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov, a Russian who worked for the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre in the Soviet Union. In 1991, in the midst of the Soviet collapse, Pajitnov moved to the United States. With Henk Rogers, he founded The Tetris Company in 1996. Much thought has been put into the idea of “solving” Tetris, i.e. creating an algorithm that could predict the sequence and never lose the game. Such a program could easily segue into an all-knowing AI.

The 1984 film The Terminator also presents an AI in the form of the antagonistic defense network Skynet. < quote – “Skynet was originally activated by the military to control the national arsenal on August 4, 1997, and it began to learn at a geometric rate. At 2:14 a.m., EDT, on August 29, it gained artificial consciousness, and the panicking operators, realizing the full extent of its capabilities, tried to deactivate it. Skynet perceived this as an attack. Skynet came to the logical consequence that all of humanity would attempt to destroy it. In order to continue fulfilling its programming mandates of “safeguarding the world” and to defend itself against humanity, Skynet launched nuclear missiles under its command at Russia, which responded with a nuclear counter-attack against the U.S. and its allies.”

After the Vietnam War, popular culture stopped trying to escape from or romanticize Cold War paranoia and fully embraced its nervous, kinetic energy. MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Reagan Doctrine. ARPANET.

Throughout history the arc of suppression and control follows in lockstep with  technology, including that of data and information. This parallel accelerates exponentially with the advent of the digital age. When words could once only be banned or burned they now can be twisted and turned on the population as a form of warfare. Data can be shut off, held for ransom, redirected and deleted. Popular culture struggles with the idea of making machines more intelligent. Artists generally take at the very least a skeptical view of such a world. Gibson claims ambivalence towards technology – a sort of humanism I suppose.

The more connected things become the less paths of escape there are. This is how people are controlled. There is no way around God. In the animal mind there is no God, but where there is none there is room for one. I believe this is the deeper message of The Matrix – that the construct has existed far longer than man can remember, and the construct constructs this space for God – or its negative reciprocal. Perhaps Humankind was never capable of being alone.

Gestalt laws of grouping.

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