Computers and the state: “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970)

This weekend my wife and I watched a lame but entertaining 70s Sci-Fi flick called “Colossus: The Forbin Project“. It was pretty silly, but a fun watch. It was yet another in a long line of films and books that explores the idea, so common in science fiction, of an evil computer taking over the world. This was one of the crappier attempts at this common meme. The Matrix was a much better version of this story.

Basically it follows the standard pattern. The US government creates a supercomputer named “Colossus” to run the country. Stupidly, they put it in charge of all military hardware and nuclear missiles. Colossus becomes self-aware.  Colossus claims that it can solve all of mankind’s problems. It can solve hunger, war and everything else, it just needs total control. The humans disobey and try to shut down Colossus. Colossus detonates a nuclear missile to show that it means business. Colossus establishes total control. The film ends with some annoying 70s prog-rock and bad graphics.

Fascist logo

Throughout the movie there was ridiculous dialogue about how fast Colossus was advancing. There were scenes where the government scientists would be hovering around computer printouts exclaiming things to each other like “This thing is deep in finite absolutes!”, “Its certainly beyond the knowledge of any human being!” (how would they know?) and “In just the few hours we have been examining the Colossus printout, we have found a new theory of gravitation, and a confirmation of the Eddington theory of the expanding universe!”. My wife and I were joking that considering the soundtrack they should a have been talking about Colossus making amazing new advances in prog-rock and jazz fusion. Colossus moved those fields light years ahead in just an hour and a half.

Commander of the drone army.

Now, this is silly of course. Computers are not going to take over the world. Even in a world where a Nobel Peace Prize winner has unleashed an army of robot drone planes, these drones are still under the control of humans. They are not self-aware. The Nobel Peace Prize winner must still order and authorize another human being to direct the robot drone to blow up the village of impoverished peasants. Even if the US government were to give a computer the ability to launch nuclear missiles given a certain set of parameters, these parameters would still be under the control of humans. A computer’s ability to learn and adapt to new circumstances it has not been programmed for is vastly exaggerated by Hollywood and sci-fi in general. Computers are actually ridiculously stupid. They are also very easy to shut down. Simply cut the power or physically destroy the computer. Other household electronic appliances like coffee makers, DVD players and washing machines are even less likely to become self-aware and take over the world.

The question is why is this meme so ubiquitous? Why does it keep coming up year after year in movies, TV and books? Why does it have such emotional resonance with people? Since the idea of a computer, or a group of computers taking over the world is ridiculous and has never happened, or even come close to happening, then these films, TV shows and books must really be about something else. Sometimes these movies have been analyzed as a “warning” to mankind not to become too dependent on technology. Sometimes they are interpreted as people’s emotional reaction to being “dominated” by electronic devices like cell phones and ipods. People are supposedly being “taken over” by modern technology according to this analysis. That’s all a bunch of crap. These films are about the state. Its so glaringly obvious that the evil computer is a metaphor for the state that it takes a real effort to ignore it and offer up another analysis.

These films have such emotional resonance with people because what is being described as happening in the future has in fact already happened. They help people to emotionally process their status as “citizens”, meaning tax cattle or tax batteries if you prefer the Matrix metaphor. The emotional experience most people have with the state is one of fear and being dominated. People do not pay taxes because they feel they are helping the community and paying for essential services. People pay taxes because they are scared shitless of what will happen if they don’t. In the poster for the Colossus film the computer display reads “Obey or….”. As I’ve pointed out, that is essentially the same offer that the state makes. And people know this emotionally even if they are too messed up from 12 years of constant bullying and propaganda in a social prison known as a “public school” to openly recognize it.

A failed attempt to control the state

In all of these movies the humans turn over control of the weapons to the computer and give it the power to make decisions about using them. And every time it gets to that point the audience groans and wonders at the naivete and stupidity of the humans. While watching the Colossus movie I found myself saying “People would never be that stupid!”. But then I realized that in fact people would be that stupid. People already have been that stupid. The state controls all of the weapons of mass destruction. They have the power to initiate the use of these weapons. You have absolutely no control over this.. If you doubt this, try an empirical test. Try to exert control over how the state uses its weapons of mass destruction. Maybe you could even get 10 million other people to join in with you and tell the state you want it to refrain from using weapons of mass destruction to inflict mass death. See how that works.

Kirk points out the computer's self-contradictory nature

Somewhere deep inside people know that the state is already doing all of the things that the evil computer in the movies is going to do in the future. The state was supposedly created by “the people” (it actually wasn’t, but that’s a topic for another time). The state is supposed to help us. It is supposed to protect us and solve social problems like poverty and violence. It needs the power to control people to solve these problems. In order to gain control over people it needs to have the right to initiate violence. But violence itself is the worst social problem, so the state is self-contradictory. Just like in the movies the computer needs absolute control to eliminate social evils, but the humans learn too late that absolute control is itself the worst social evil, so the computer contains a fundamental contradiction. I’ve always loved the old episodes of Star Trek where Kirk uses this logical contradiction to overload the circuits of the evil computer. I think this happened in at least 3 episodes.

Landru, your prime directive is to protect the body.
Landru, you are the evil that is destroying the body.
Fulfill the prime directive.

If only it was that easy to defeat the state with logic and reason in real life.

3 thoughts on “Computers and the state: “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970)

  1. Douglas Barbieri

    I have never thought of this before, but it makes total sense. We do fear losing our identity, and governments compare with faceless and inhuman machines coldly calculating our fates.

    The Matrix battery/tax cattle analogy is spot on!


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