A Buddhist View of “Caprica”
A new science fiction series wrestles with issues that Buddhists have been discussing for centuries.
The premiere episode of the SyFy series “Caprica” puts us in a world quite similar our own. The characters live on planet Caprica, one of twelve planets named as cognates of zodiac signs. (For instance, the planets Tauron and Gemenon are mentioned often.) Their technology is a few steps beyond ours, but their society is parallel; though they can put a man on the moon, they still can’t or won’t eliminate poverty, prejudice, or injustice from their world.
And, as sci-fi fans know, their world is doomed. Caprica begins with the words on the screen, “58 years before the fall.” Caprica is a prequel to “Battlestar Galactica,” the SyFy series which ran from 2003-2009. BSG was based on a 1970s series, but took a radically different turn: While the 1970s Battlestar was mostly an escapist adventure story, the 2003 “re-imagining” used the space opera to comment on current events, such as terrorism, torture and political ethics. The series started with a nuclear holocaust that destroyed Caprica and the other eleven planets. Only a tiny fraction of the human race survived, pursued in starships through the galaxy by Cylons — intelligent robots who had been created as servants for the human race before revolting.
After BSG’s conclusion, the producers decided to explore the events leading to the fall. (At the time I write, only the two-hour pilot episode has been released. New episodes will air on Syfy in February.) The story begins with two grieving fathers, Daniel Graystone and Joseph Adama. They both have lost teenage daughters, and their attempts to deal with grief set into motion a chain of events that will cause the end of the world.
What is comforting in grief? This certainly isn’t a new question. Everybody dies. A story from the life of Buddha shows the Buddhist perspective on grief. Kisagotami was a woman whose young son had died. She asked Buddha for a medicine to bring back her child. Buddha asked her to bring a mustard seed — but the seed must come from a household that had never seen grieving. As Kisagotami searched, she saw many people willing to share, but none of them could say that they had not lost loved ones — sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, all passing away. This is how Kisagotami realized that grief is human, that human life is impermanent, that she could let go.
In “Caprica,” Daniel begins with healthy grieving. He regrets that his last words to his daughter were angry ones. Daniel is rich, primarily from inventing the “holoband” — a device that, when placed over the eyes and activated, virtually transports the user to a shared immersive environment. But his spacious beachfront house seems empty without Zoe.
Looking for consolation, he finds Zoe’s holoband. He decrypts her password and finds himself taken to a “V-Club” — a nightmarish vision of a discotheque where people indulge in sadistic or hedonistic pursuits. Across the room, he sees Zoe’s face. She’s still alive in the virtual world. Or at least her avatar is.
The word “avatar” comes from Hinduism, in which it means a divine being’s manifestation on Earth. Hindus believe that Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu, the same divine being that had come to our world as Rama and Krishna. Computer games use avatars as virtual representations of the player — just as a Hindu god projects himself or herself into the physical world, humans with computers project themselves into virtual world. These systems allow you to design your avatar to look like you, or to look like you wish you looked.
When we combine the two ideas of avatars, there seems to be an underlying sense that the “real world” is somewhere out there. Vishnu really lives in another plane of existence, and what was seen of him here was just a projection. It brings to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which the phenomenal world we perceive is shadows on a wall; we can’t see who we really are. Just as we relate the physical world to the virtual world, some may relate the spiritual world to a real world. When you’re playing World of Warcraft, the elves, trolls, knights and sorcerers you see running around your avatar all are controlled by physical people at their computers. The allegorical way of thinking implies that likewise, the men, women and children you see around you in the physical world are controlled by spiritual beings who exist on another level entirely.
From Zoe’s avatar in the V-Club, Daniel learns that his daughter possessed some of her father’s genius. Daniel had perfected an avatar of form: a world that transfers your body, your appearance, your mannerisms, to a virtual place. After he hunts down his daughter’s avatar, he finds that Zoe programmed her to automate the rest of Zoe-ness–the feelings, thoughts, impulses and consciousness. After Zoe’s death, the avatar lives on. “I’m not a person,” Zoe’s avatar says, “I know that. But I feel like one.”
Essentially, the show at this point raises a question: If you could automate a machine to make decisions exactly as you would, would that be you? In broader terms, is the sense of “you” more than your physical form and your behaviors?
These questions aren’t just the realm of computing and artificial intelligence concerns. In fact, the more I look at modern psychology, the more I see that humans — real, live, normal humans — will almost always follow their programming. We act the way our brain-computers have been conditioned to act. Buddha probably wouldn’t have called it “programming,” wouldn’t have thought with the computer metaphor, but this is essentially what led him to his quest for enlightenment. He saw that people all follow their programming, and even with all our programming, we’re still unsatisfied.
Zoe’s avatar explains to Daniel how Zoe created the program. The avatar explains, “The human brain contains roughly 300 megabytes of information. Not much, when you get right down to it. The question isn’t how to store it. It’s how to access it…. People leave more than footprints as they travel through life. Medical scans, D.N.A. profiles, psych evaluations, school records, e-mails, recording video/audio, C.A.T. scans, genetic typing, synaptic records, security cameras, test results, shopping records, talent shows, ball games, traffic tickets, restaurant bills, phone records, music lists, movie tickets, TV shows. Even prescriptions for birth control.”
This explanation has interesting implications for our world. I’m not sure if, on Earth today, a public record of these “footprints” would allow for such perfect profiling. But the footprints we leave are a tangible representation of our karma. To the record of history, it’s entirely possible that they are who we are–our consumer choices are the primary source of how we’ll be remembered. Engaged Buddhist teachers and organizations like the Interdependence Project encourage us to be more mindful in our consumption. We might think of it this way: if someone created an avatar that replicated our actions, would we find that most of our life is spent idly and wastefully? Would we be proud of the person we created?
As Buddhists, though, we have faith in our ability to go past the programming, or, at least, to rewrite the programming through meditation practice and examining our own minds. But that’s not Daniel’s goal. It’s fascinating, and perhaps quite Buddhist, that his desire to keep the programming alive leads him to create a machine that will inevitably backfire.
“Caprica” is about a personal battle, each individual’s struggle to be human. As such, it has the potential to become an even greater work than “Battlestar Galactica” before it.