20 years ago, The Lawnmower Man presented a variety of moral conundrums and predictions about the use of technology. The question is, are those conundrums and predictions still relevant?
When The Lawnmower Man was first released in 1992, the idea of virtual reality was hitting a fever pitch. Graphics in the early 90’s were still relatively primitive, so VR provided a level of immersion that would have otherwise been impossible. Besides, it looked badass at the time: leather gloves, big sloping helmets, and wires everywhere. Using a VR setup back then made you actually feel like you were touching a part of the future, since it was so far beyond what anything else was capable of (at least, in terms of what the public had access to.)
Just like motion controls, touchscreens, and complex game AI provides today, VR was also considered for use as a therapy and/or teaching device. It enabled therapists and teachers to interact with their patients/students in a way previously not possible, potentially expanding the horizons of education and training. At least, that was the plan…as anyone that was old enough back then can tell you, VR was actually just a gimmick, despite its widespread appeal. Everyone knew this, but people loved it all the same. What can I say…it was fun!
As a film, The Lawnmower Man primarily focused on the potential therapeutic and learning uses of virtual reality. Sure, there are portions of the film where it was used to play games, but for the most part, it explored the educational and therapeutic possibilities more than anything else. To briefly summarize the plot, a researcher working in the world of virtual reality has found a way to stimulate certain areas of the brain. When combined with a drug he’s developed, VR therapy can be used to increase a person’s intelligence over time. Some shady things are done by the corporation he works for…a corporation that answers to “The Shop”, aka the Department of Defense. As a result of said shady things, his most promising test subject turns into a maniacal genius hellbent on taking over the world.
Worse, Job, the test subject and eponymous “lawnmower man” from the title, discovers that virtual reality is literally a reality, one which can be used to impact “real” reality. This sets him out on a quest to completely digitize himself in the virtual world, so that he can travel through every interconnected network on the planet (keep in mind, this movie was released just as the Internet as we know it was entering the public consciousness.) Job declares that his “birth cry will be the sound of every phone on the planet ringing in unison”, and the chase is on.
OK, so the plot is a little hokey…or is it? If you look at his actions symbolically, the Job character was a harbinger of things to come: look at how interconnected we all are now. Look at how “plugged in” we are. Although our bodies and the interconnected network we’ve built are separate, the time WILL come when we directly interact with each other, whether it’s through brain implants or other means. Really, the only difference between the average person now and the Job character is that he was able to access the “digital world” directly, whereas we still rely on devices to do it for us. Still, his having access to the entirety of human knowledge and being able to remotely control most objects is a solid (if goofy) representation of where we already are, and where we’re going.
As previously stated, this film doesn’t just offer up technological predictions, but also moral conundrums. In the beginning of the film, Job clearly has some form of mild autism or Aspergers, yet it is able to be “cured” by way of VR and drug therapy. The moral question here, of course, is should we be eradicating certain disabilities with technology, rather than merely treating the “bad” symptoms? Yes, Job became far more intelligent, but the “original” Job was lost, and in his place was a completely different person. I know the obvious answer seems like it would be “of course, you idiot! Why WOULDN’T we want to cure things like autism!”, but we have to realize that in doing so, we are completely changing the people afflicted with it. If you ask a parent of an autistic child, you’d be surprised how many of them wouldn’t want to completely eliminate the disease if it meant their child would no longer be themselves.
There are other moral issues addressed here as well. Even though Job provides his consent to begin the treatment, he lacks the cognitive ability to truly understand what he’s agreeing to. As far as he knows, he’s just playing games. Naturally, as he begins to shed whatever mental issue he had, he laps up the treatment like a thirsty dog…but would he have started it if he truly understood what he was doing? He’s told that the game could make him “smarter”, but “smarter” is a vague term, and he lacks the mental capacity to know that he should ask for more details. Would people with disabilities like autism actually want to be cured? Beyond that, can you even call something like autism or Aspergers a disability? In the context of day-to-day society, sure, of course you can…but what about in the context of that person’s inner-thoughts? What about in the context of THEIR day-to-day existence?
20 years after its release, The Lawnmower Man is still an entertaining, weird, and all around really fun movie. As for the questions it asks and the moral issues it raises, I think it’s only gotten more relevant as time goes on.