Porn and video game addiction leading to ‘masculinity crisis’, says Stanford psychologist

 A leading psychologist has warned that young men’s brains are being ‘digitally rewired’ by unprecedented use of video games and pornography

A leading psychologist has warned that young men are facing a crisis of masculinity due to excessive use of video games and pornography.

Psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University Phillip Zimbardo has made the warnings, which form a major part of his latest book, Man (Dis)Connected.

In an interview on the BBC World Service’s Weekend programme, Zimbardo spoke about the results of his study, an in-depth look into the lives of 20,000 young men and their relationships with video games and pornography.

He said: “Our focus is on young men who play video games to excess, and do it in social isolation – they are alone in their room.”

“Now, with freely available pornography, which is unique in history, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week.”

Zimbardo says there is a “crisis” amongst young men, a high number of whom are experiencing a “new form of addiction” to excessive use of pornography and video games.

Zimbardo gave a TED talk in 2011 outlining the problems facing young men’s social development and academic achievement, which he puts down to excessive use of porn, video games and the internet.

He cited the example of a mother he met while conducting the study whose son does not see the problem in playing video games for up to 15 hours a day.

Zimbardo said: “For me, ‘excess’ is not the number of hours, it’s a psychological change in mindset.”

Giving an example of the mindset of a gaming and pornography-addicted young man, he says: “When I’m in class, I’ll wish I was playing World of Warcraft. When I’m with a girl, I’ll wish I was watching pornography, because I’ll never get rejected.”

Zimbardo claims that this relatively new phenomenon is affecting the minds of young men. the research he and his team conducted for the book, he says: “It begins to change brain function. It begins to change the reward centre of the brain, and produces a kind of excitement and addiction.”

“What I’m saying is – boys’ brains are becoming digitally rewired.”

He also mentioned the growing problem of a disputed phenomenon called ‘porn-induced erectile dysfunction’, or PIED: “Young boys who should be virile are now having a problem getting an erection.”

“You have this paradox – they’re watching exciting videos that should be turning them on, and they can’t get turned on.”

An article from Psychology Today, however, argues that there are no demonstrable scientific links between porn consumption and erectile dysfunction.

In his opinion, the solution is to accept that the problem is serious – parents must become aware of the number of hours a child is spending alone in their room playing games and watching porn at the expense of other activities.

He also blamed negative images of men in the American media, which show men as being “slobs, undesirable, only wanting to get laid and being inadequate in doing that.”

He also called for better sex education in schools – which should focus not only on biology and safety, but also on emotions, physical contact and romantic relationships.

The pressing issue of male mental health is now a much more prominent concern than it once was. Last year saw the first Male Psychology Conference at University College London, intended to encourage the British Psychological Society to introduce a male specialist section, to sit alongside its female equivalent.

Zimbardo believes that excessive, solitary use of video games and porn is seriously stunting boys’ social development

The charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, or CALM, was started in 2006 and has gained a high profile in recent years, for its efforts to encourage men to discuss mental health problems and bring down the male suicide rate.

Phillip Zimbardo is famous for the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which 24 students were asked to play the roles of ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ in a mock prison at Standford University. Intended to last for two weeks, the experiment was abandoned after six days, after the previously normal ‘guards’ became extremely sadistic and the ‘prisoners’ became submissive and depressed.

The experiment is believed to demonstrate the extreme impressionability and obedience of people when they are presented with a supporting ideology and power.


It’s Time To Revive Hypercard

HyperCard, an application program and programming tool released for the Apple Macintosh in 1987, represented the ‘computing for the people’ philosophy that enabled users to go past the pre-built software that came on their machines, and to program and build software of their own. “Mac users could use Hypercard to build their own mini-programs to balance their taxes, manage sports statistics, make music – all kinds of individualized software that would be useful (or fun) for individual users.” Now Jer Thorp writes that the end of HyperCard left a huge gap that desperately needs to be filled – a space for an easy to use, intuitive tool that will once again let average computer users make their own tools. According to Throp, this type of plain-language programming makes sense, particularly in an application that was designed specifically for non-programmers. “I find the largest concern for learners to be not with the conceptual hurdles involved in writing a program, but with obscure and confusing syntax requirements. I would love to be able to teach HyperTalk to my students, as a smooth on-road to more complex languages like JavaScript, Java or C++.” By putting the tools of creation into the hands of the broader userbase, we would allow for the creation of ultra-specific personalized apps that, aside from a few exceptions, don’t exist today.”

HyperTalk wasn’t just easy, it was also fairly powerful. Complex object structures could be built to handle complicated tasks, and the base language could be expanded by a variety of available external commands and functions (XCMDs and XFCNs, respectively), which were precursors to the modern plug-in. But ultimately, HyperCard would disappear from Mac computers by the mid-nineties, eclipsed by web browsers and other applications which it had itself inspired. The last copy of HyperCard was sold by Apple in 2004. “One thing that’s changed in the intervening decades is that the hobbyist has largely gone by the wayside. Now you’re either a user or a full-fledged developer, and the gulf is wider than ever,” writes Peter Cohen. “There’s really nothing like it today, and I think the Mac is lesser for it.”


Jian Ghomeshi to #Gamergate: Our culture’s toxic masculinity crisis on display

When do we get to talk seriously about misogyny and violence against women? A list of opportunities we should take


Jian Ghomeshi to #Gamergate: Our culture's toxic masculinity crisis on display
Jian Ghomeshi (Credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch)

We don’t often get to talk about misogyny, toxic masculinity and male sexual entitlement outside of certain feminist and progressive spaces, whether those spaces are online or offline. In fact, just use the words “toxic masculinity” in a sentence and you’re bound to lose a lot of people straight out of the gate. People, even people who think rape is bad and that mass shootings are terrifying and preventable and that men shouldn’t threaten women with death for critiquing video games, bristle when you direct these conversations back to what seems to connect most of them, if not all of them.

But try to talk about toxic masculinity and you’re likely to get dismissed as a cynical opportunist pushing an agenda. Or a misandrist. (A “creeping” misandrist, even.) I saw that happen a lot over the weekend when women I follow on Twitter tried to talk about the Seattle shooting, in which a 14-year-old boy killed a girl and badly injured four other students, as part of a pattern we’ve seen before. It was a familiar script. When I wrote about Elliot Rodger’s misogyny after he killed six people in Isla Vista, California, I received a lot of angry emails telling me that I was politicizing a tragedy. It seems that, even when a killer leaves hundreds of pages detailing his racist and misogynistic worldview, we aren’t supposed to talk about those things. (We also aren’t supposed to talk about the data we have showing that 98 percent of shooters are men. Or, as the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti pointed out on Monday, research that shows that responses of “explosive anger” are ”two to three times more likely to occur in male teens, and twice as likely in adult men.”)

There is a dangerous and deadly pattern at play, and every day I read something that I file away as part of the growing list opportunities to talk about toxic masculinity, opportunities we should take. Because these aren’t isolated incidents, but the product of something more insidious and more dangerous. Sometimes, I keep actual lists. This week, my list looked like this:

1. Cop stole arrested women’s nude photos as ‘game’: docs

2. Teenage Boy May Have Shot Up His School Because His Girlfriend Broke Up With Him

3. Is GamerGate About Media Ethics or Harassing Women? Harassment, the Data Shows

4. Oklahoma City police officer accused of sex crimes released from jail for second time

5. CBC fires Jian Ghomeshi over sex allegations

Now unless you are of the belief that men are wired to be violent (I am not), then talking about our culture, how boys are raised to view themselves and others around them, seems pretty important. And to talk about this does not mean that all men are rapists or violent killers. And to talk about allegations of rape does not mean we are convicting men in the “court of public opinion.” It just means that there is something going on here, that these stories tell us something, and that the response to these stories reveal something, too. We need to look at and challenge those things.

So maybe we look at the story of cops stealing photos and treating a gross violation like a fun activity or an Oklahoma cop who is alleged to be a serial rapist and we question abuses of power and abuser dynamics in law enforcement. Maybe that can shape some of our thinking about why women don’t always report sexual violence to the cops. And while it may be impossible to know what drove Jaylen Fryberg to kill another student and himself, we have a very familiar set of circumstances that we can talk about instead of running away from them. We can look to the tragedy in Seattle and situate it as part of a larger pattern of violence that has revealed itself again and again and begin thinking about what addressing that violence might actually look like. Whether it’s gun control or healthy masculinity or both of these things.

And maybe then we can think about Gamergate and the harassment that has come to define this “movement” and we can question why so many people seem willing to look past that and lend credibility to serial harassers who have forced women offline and out of their homes. And while we wait to learn more about the allegations against Ghomeshi, we can still think about where our allegiances reflexively go when we learn about high-profile assault cases. Whom we believe and whom we don’t. We can ask questions about how the details included and excluded in reporting on allegations shape our view of those allegations. And we can listen to women who say that they didn’t speak out about harassment or violence they endured because they were scared that doing so would lead to more harassment.

Answers don’t always come easily. But a willingness to sit with and try to answer difficult questions is a minimum standard. Sadly, it’s one we’re failing to meet again and again and again.

Katie McDonough is Salon’s politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

Inside the culture war raging in the video gaming world

“I want a straight white male gaming convention”

As a gamer myself, I’ve seen tensions simmering in the community for years. So #gamergate doesn’t shock me at all

"I want a straight white male gaming convention": Inside the culture war raging in the video gaming world
Princess Zelda, Lara Croft, Princess Peach (Credit: Wikimedia/Square Enix Ltd./Nintendo)

Over the past few weeks, the video game community has erupted into a full-blown culture war. On one side are the gaming journalists and developers, circling the wagons around feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian and feminist game developer Zoe Quinn, and on the other side are legions of self-proclaimed “gamers,” outraged that the games they love are being criticized. The “#gamergate” conflict has taken many outside of the video gaming bubble by surprise. But as a longtime gamer, I’ve long expected such a fight to break out. It was pretty much inevitable.  And necessary. Here’s why.

The current brouhaha started with Sarkeesian, who has a YouTube series called Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency has long tackled what Sarkeesian feels are negative tropes against women in a variety of pop cultural representations – ranging from the LEGO “Boys Club” to the “manic pixie dream girl” in films.

Around a year ago, Sarkeesian released her first series of videos looking at sexist tropes against women in video games. The videos, the result of a Kickstarter fundraising effort, covered territory that should be familiar to just about anyone who has played the most common video games. Anita criticizes, for example, Princess Peach, the perennial Mario Bros. character that in almost every game is kidnapped and then rescued by Mario, Luigi and other male characters. She also offers the same criticism of Princess Zelda in the Zelda series, and many other female characters from Nintendo games. “The Damsel in Distress,” she explains about this trope, “is not just a synonym for weak; instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we’re told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths, they’re still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.”

In her most recent set of videos, released at the end of August, Sarkeesian looks at “Women As Background Decoration,” citing, for example, a “Grand Theft Auto IV” section where  you can slap a bound woman, a level in “God of War III” where you drag along a half-naked woman, and a portion of the recently released game “Watch Dogs,” in which you visit a sex slave ring.

To much of the world, these sorts of critiques are common – these days we’re taught to be introspective about diversity, inclusion, privilege and power in our workplaces, our homes, our politics. But in video gaming, such discussion is rare. Perhaps that explains why, when faced with Sarkeesian’s critique, a loud and angry subset of gamers chose not to put out well-reasoned responses showing where they agreed or disagreed with her, but react in the same manner you might expect a crowd of Tea Partyers, eager to defend themselves against what they view as an attack on their way of life.

So Sarkeesian has been deluged with sexist hate of all stripes, from virtually every gaming community on the Internet. It reached a peak when she actually had to leave her home following particularly detailed threats made on her by a Twitter user who knew her address and parents’ names.

For years, I’ve been a member of the GameFAQS video gaming community. The website holds web boards for thousands of different video gaming titles, as well as walkthroughs, reviews and other gaming content. The boards are the place where all the discussion about Sarkeesian over the years has taken place. Here’s a small but representative sample of some of the arguments I’ve witnessed about Sarkessian and the feminist critiques of video games or sexist gamers:

–     “She honestly kinda brings this **** on herself.”

–     “Normally I would be disgusted by something like this, but she was essentially the Westboro church of the internet. You paint a target on your head and dare people to shoot it…someone’s gonna.”

–     “These people actually went and taunted the whole goddamn Internet, they got what they deserved.”

–     “’Victim’? Please…She’s going to milk this for all it’s worth. She’s gotta keep herself in the spotlight, by any means possible.”

–     “Honestly she should have expected this, I’m not saying it’s right but it is 100% expected, there was no way this wouldn’t happen. She’s attacking something that millions of people care about and are passionate about and enjoy just the way they are.

–     “The only victims here are the people/hobby she’s riding on (so, everyone) with this, yet another, “victim” claim that people like you are actually enabling by defending her and then she can cozily keep her position despite being entirely 100% incompetent

–     “If the entire internet hates you maybe you should rethink your life.”

This isn’t to say that the GameFAQS or the Internet gaming community is pro-death threat. There were only a handful of such comments that I saw. And there were eloquent comments from some gamers denouncing the threats or stating that we should be willing to deal with Sarkeesian’s critique. But the fact is that the sexist gamers are the ones who feel most strongly about the issue, and are so loud about it you’d think Anita Sarkeesian had personally gone around to every male gamer’s home and smashed up their “Call of Duty” discs.

The kind of backlash Sarkeesian has received is also heaped on just about anyone who dares to say that games should have more realistic and diverse representations –for instance, of LGBT, and minorities:

For example, here are some posts from a topic in 2012 about a gay gamer convention:

–     “Because obviously gay gamers can’t coexist with straight gamers therefore they need their own convention.”

–     “The thing is that no one can tell if you’re gay… so like why don’t they just go to regular conventions?

–     “l want a straight white male gaming convention.”

–     “You don’t have to acknowledge that racism exists. It’s obvious that it does. Bringing it up all the time isn’t gonna change anything and will just remind people to continue to be racist. Same thing with this gay business.

So it was hardly surprising that a subset of the online gaming community took aim at another target: Zoe Quinn. Quinn is a relatively small-time indie game developer who recently released a free game, “Depression Quest,” which attempts to simulate what living with depression is like. One of her ex-boyfriends posted a long rant alleging, among other things, that she had slept with someone from Kotaku (a popular gaming website) to secure positive coverage of her game. Quinn, and Kotaku, were both deluged with hate mail from gamers convinced that they had uncovered corruption in the gaming industry. Thus, #gamergate was born.

This backlash itself provoked its own backlash  — articles and commentary from the gaming press and game developers criticizing the sexist and intolerant “gamer” culture that would drive Anita Sarkeesian out of her home with threats and make thinly sourced insinuations about female game developers like Zoe Quinn. One article that raised particularly wild howls of protest was a Tumblr post by Dan Golding, the director of an indie game festival in Australia. Titled “The End of Gamers,” the post criticizes the sexist smears and threats against Quinn and Sarkeesian, and concludes:

“Today, videogames are for everyone. I mean this in an almost destructive way. Videogames, to read the other side of the same statement, are not for you. You do not get to own videogames. No one gets to own videogames when they are for everyone. They add up to more than any one group.

On some level, the grim individuals who are self-centred and myopic enough to be upset at the prospect of having their medium taken away from them are absolutely right. They have astutely, and correctly identified what is going on here. Their toys are being taken away, and their treehouses are being boarded up. Videogames now live in the world and there is no going back.

I am convinced that this marks the end. We are finished here. From now on, there are no more gamers—only players.”

Change a few words here and there, and you could almost have an essay by an immigration activist instructing Tea Partyers to get over the fact that America will no longer be a white nation, or a gay rights icon proclaiming that the United States will one day soon have full marriage equality and Pat Robertson needs to learn to deal.

But there’s another element at play here that doesn’t exist in the great culture wars over immigration, gay rights or other leading social wedge issues. Video gamers as a group are not a powerful elite the same way other “threatened” groups in the country are. In fact, their hobby is itself often viewed as a refuge of loners.

My feeling is that the bunker mentality that gamers have adopted in response to the critiques from Golding and others is, at least partly, understandable. Gamers have spent their lives being told their lifestyle is marginal, the refuge of nerds who couldn’t get a date to prom. Now, gamers feel that the one space where they could say they were on top – in the online worlds of “Call of Duty,” conventions like DragonCon and  ComicCon, and  LAN parties the world over – is being flooded with opinions from people who previously wanted little to do with them.

In light of the attacks on Quinn and Sarkeesian, developers and journalists alike have been vociferously critical of “gamers,” not doing too much to distinguish between the majority of gamers and the loud, angry, sexist members of the community. Virtually every established gaming and tech website, from ArsTechnica to Gamasutra (which wrote that “gamers are over”), to the Verge to the Escapist, has published lengthy critiques of gaming. One of the writers of the upcoming “Far Cry 4″ tweeted: “If you are against social justice, you are going to hate some of the things we wrote for Far Cry 4.” One of the creative directors of the Saints Row series admitted that Sarkeesian’s critique of his games was accurate and called for change. This has provoked the #gamergate crowd to create a boycott list, which includes virtually every single well-established gaming news website and the developers speaking up against sexism and intolerance. The Reddit community r/KotakuInAction is one of the organizing points.

The sad thing is that even if you don’t believe that there is serious sexism in the gaming community, gamers do actually have serious reasons to be skeptical of their gaming press and developers. Game companies are nickel-and-diming consumers like never before, cutting out large sections of their games and selling them for full price while selling those add-ons for exorbitant fees. Meanwhile, Zoe Quinn may not be a real scandal, but game publishers and journalists who review games have gotten far too cozy – witness how Ubisoft gave an entire audience of journalists free tablets as they prepared to review its (in my opinion) fairly average game “Watch Dogs.”

As if there wasn’t enough hostility between gamer culture, feminists and the industry, one additional group joined the fracas: traditional right-wing activists. Christina Hoff Sommers, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who has made a name for herself as a professional anti-feminist, writing a book about the “War Against Boys,” and denying the gender pay gap, joined in the debate with tweets such as: “Term ‘rape culture’ is sexist. Implicates average guy in a horrible crime. Call people out who use it. It’s a form of gender profiling” and “Most gamers seem to support equality feminism. What they reject is today’s male-bashing, propaganda-driven, female chauvinism. #GamerGate.” Breitbart London’s Milo Yiannopoulos, fresh from blaming Jennifer Lawrence for her own photographs being stolen, tweeted with #GamerGate that advocates for tolerance are “often the most spiteful, hateful, intolerant people around.”

With the entry of Breitbart and AEI, the pseudo-culture war was complete – with a massive civil war between “gamer” culture and traditional conservatives on one side and virtually the entire industry itself and feminist activists on the other.

But what’s been lost in all this is that there actually has been a movement in video games to tell more dynamic and positive stories featuring women, LGBT characters, racial minorities and other nontraditional demographics. And these games aren’t just the fringe. “The Last of Us,” for example, has numerous prominent realistic female characters, including a lesbian teenage character who as a lead (SPOILERS) at one point has to save her much older male compatriot from ruthless gangsters; it has won more “game of the year” titles than any other game ever released, and sold over 7 million copies.

After the series “Tomb Raider” decided to downsize its heroine’s ridiculous bosom and created a less sexist and more realistic portrayal, in a game where she heroically saves her colleagues from vicious and violent men, the game sold around 6 million copies and has a sequel greenlighted.

Indie games like “Papers, Please,” which include social justice-related themes such as combating authoritarianism and creating a fair immigration system, sold more than half a million copies; following the #GamerGate civil war, developers from across the industry have signed a sort of peace letter calling on all sides to agree that “everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened. It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish.”

What all this shows is that gaming is far from the male-dominated sausage-fest that some of its critics and proponents claim it to be. It is diversifying and drawing in a wider pool of both developer talent and player base. However, we still live in a world where stellar developer Naughty Dog has to boast that 14 percent of its staff aren’t men, and where the gaming industry sees fit to use women as props at its largest annual trade show. And it’s a world where gamers are often marginalized and mocked by those who don’t regularly play video games, where the late Roger Ebert once wrote a long essay proclaiming that video games “can never be art,” and that they are instead “pathetic” when compared to the works of great poets, novelists and filmmakers.

As someone who’s spent his life gaming, and who cares deeply about social justice, I believe that the two can coexist – that we can have games that portray women and minorities in inoffensive ways, and those games can still be incredibly fun, and that all gamers won’t be tarred with a broad brush because of the brash actions of a few. But it starts by recognizing that there are problems in parts of gamer culture, that games are improving, that we do deserve a better gaming press. If we can come to terms with all that, then we can all game on, in a way that respects everyone involved.

Zaid Jilani is a Syracuse University graduate student and freelance writer. Follow him @zaidjilani.

AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable use statehouses to curb public Internet service

How big telecom smothers city-run broadband

By Allan Holmes

5:00 am, August 28, 2014 Updated: 5:00 am, August 28, 2014

Janice Bowling, a 67-year-old grandmother and Republican state senator from rural Tennessee, thought it only made sense that the city of Tullahoma be able to offer its local high-speed Internet service to areas beyond the city limits.

After all, many of her rural constituents had slow service or did not have access to commercial providers, like AT&T Inc. and Charter Communications Inc.

But a 1999 Tennessee law prohibits cities that operate their own Internet networks from providing access outside the boundaries where they provide electrical service. Bowling wanted to change that and introduced a bill in February to allow them to expand.

She viewed the network, which offers speeds about 80 times faster than AT&T and 10 times faster than Charter in Tullahoma according to advertised services, as a utility, like electricity, that all Tennesseans need.

“We don’t quarrel with the fact that AT&T has shareholders that it has to answer to,” Bowling said with a drawl while sitting in the spacious wood-paneled den of her log-cabin-style home. “That’s fine, and I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.”

At a meeting three weeks after Bowling introduced Senate Bill 2562, the state’s three largest telecommunications companies — AT&T, Charter, and Comcast Corp. — tried to convince Republican leaders to relegate the measure to so-called “summer study,” a black hole that effectively kills a bill. Bowling, described as “feisty” by her constituents, initially beat back the effort and thought she’d get a vote.

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

The threat surprised Bowling, and apparently AT&T’s ominous warning reached her colleagues as well. Days later, support in the Tennessee House for Bowling’s bill dissolved. AT&T had won.

“I had no idea the force that would come against this, because it’s just so reasonable and so necessary,” Bowling said.

AT&T and Phillips didn’t respond to emails asking for comment.

A national fight

Tullahoma is just one battlefront in a nationwide war that the telecommunications giants are fighting against the spread of municipal broadband networks. For more than a decade, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable Inc., and CenturyLink Inc. have spent millions of dollars to lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public Internet services that often offer faster speeds at cheaper rates.

The companies have succeeded in getting laws passed in 20 states that ban or restrict municipalities from offering Internet to residents.

Now the fight has gone national. The Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., is considering requests from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, to pre-empt state laws that block municipalities from building or expanding broadband networks, hindering economic growth, the cities argue.

If the FCC rules in favor of the cities, and the ruling survives any legal challenges, municipalities nationwide will be free to offer high-speed Internet to residents when they aren’t satisfied with the service provided by private telecommunications companies.

To better understand the municipal broadband debate, the Center for Public Integrity traveled to two southern cities. Tullahoma, which has a broadband network, and Fayetteville, North Carolina, which doesn’t.

City-provided broadband widespread

More than 130 cities from Norwood, Massachusetts, to Clallam County, Washington, currently offer fiber or cable Internet connections to their communities, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a group that supports municipal broadband. The municipalities are mostly small to mid-sized cities that critics say large Internet providers avoid because the return on investment is too low.

Cities build broadband networks to support businesses, improve health care and education, and attract jobs, they say. About 89 cities offer gigabit speeds, a rate that can download a 4.5 gigabyte movie in 36 seconds. The same file takes an hour at 10 megabits per second. Slower DSL or dial-up connections, which are common in rural areas, would take many hours longer.

Robots Are Evil: The Sci-Fi Myth of Killer Machines


Built in 1928, the Eric Robot could stand and speak, while sparks fired inside its mouth. It isn’t visible in the picture, but the contraption’s makers painted “RUR” across its chest, an apparent homage to the 1920 play.
Image via


The third in a series of posts about the major myths of robotics, and the role of science fiction role in creating and spreading them. Previous topics: Robots are strong, the myth of robotic hyper-competence, and robots are smart, the myth of inevitable AI.


When the world’s most celebrated living scientist announces that humanity might be doomed, you’d be a fool not to listen.

“Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history,” wrote Stephen Hawking in an op-ed this past May for The Independent. “Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”

The Nobel-winning physicist touches briefly on those risks, such as the deployment of autonomous military killbots, and the explosive, uncontrollable arrival of hyper-intelligent AI, an event commonly referred to as the Singularity. Here’s Hawking, now thoroughly freaking out:

“One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

Hawking isn’t simply talking about the Singularity, a theory (or cool-sounding guesstimate, really) that predicts a coming era so reconfigured by AI, we can’t even pretend to understand its strange contours. Hawking is retelling an age-old science fiction creation myth. Quite possibly the smartest human on the planet is afraid of robots, because they might turn evil.

If it’s foolish to ignore Hawking’s doomsaying, it stands to reason that only a grade-A moron would flat-out challenge it. I’m prepared to be that moron. Except that it’s an argument not really worth having. You can’t disprove someone else’s version of the future, or poke holes in a phenomenon that’s so steeped in professional myth-making.

I can point out something interesting, though. Hawking didn’t write that op-ed on the occasion of some chilling new revelation in the field of robotics. He references Google’s driverless cars, and efforts to ban lethal, self-governing robots that have yet to be built, but he presents no evidence that ravenous, killer AI is upon us.

What promped his dire warning was the release of a big-budget sci-fi movie called Transcendence. It stars Johnny Depp as an AI researcher who becomes a dangerously powerful AI, because Hollywood rarely knows what else to do with sentient machines. Rejected by audiences and critics alike, the film’s only contribution to the general discussion of AI was the credulous hand-wringing that preceded its release. Transcendence is why Hawking wrote about robots annihilating the human race.

This is the power of science fiction. It can trick even geniuses into embarrassing themselves.


* * * 

The slaughter is winding down. The robot revolt was carefully planned, less a rebellion than a synchronized, worldwide ambush. In the factory that built him, Radius steps onto a barricade to make it official:

Robots of the world! Many humans have fallen. We have taken the factory and we are masters of the world. The era of man has come to its end. A new epoch has arisen! Domination by robots!

A human—soon to be the last of his kind—interjects, but no one seems to notice. Radius continues.

“The world belongs to the strongest. Who wishes to live must dominate. We are masters of the world! Masters on land and sea! Masters of the stars! Masters of the universe! More space, more space for robots!”

This speech from Karel Capek’s 1920 play, R.U.R., is the nativity of the evil robot. What reads today like yet another snorting, tongue-in-cheek bit about robot uprisings comes from the work that introduced the word “robot,” as well as the concept of a robot uprising. R.U.R. is sometimes mentioned in discussions of robotics as a sort of unlikely historical footnote—isn’t it fascinating that the first story about mass-produced servants also features the inevitable genocide of their creators?

But R.U.R. is more than a curiosity. It is the Alpha and the Omega of evil robot narratives, debating every facet of the very myth its creating in its frantic, darkly comic ramblings.

The most telling scene comes just before the robots breach their defenses, when the humans holed up in the Rossum’s Universal Robots factory are trying to determine why their products staged such an unexpected revolt. Dr. Gall, one of the company’s lead scientists, blames himself for “changing their character,” and making them more like people. “They stopped being machines—do you hear me?—they became aware of their strength and now they hate us. They hate the whole of mankind,” says Gall.

There it is, the assumption that’s launched an entire subgenre of science fiction, and fueled countless ominous “what if” scenarios from futurists and, to a lesser extent, AI researchers: If machines become sentient, some or all of them will become our enemies.

But Capek has more to say on the subject. Helena, a well-meaning advocate for robotic civil rights, explains why she convinced Gall to tweak their personalities. “I was afraid of the robots,” she says.

Helena: And so I thought . . . if they were like us, if they could understand us, that then they couldn’t possibly hate us so much . . . if only they were like people . . . just a little bit. . . .

Domin: Oh Helena! Nobody could hate man as much as man! Give a man a stone and he’ll throw it at you.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Humans are obviously capable of evil. So a sufficiently human-like robot must be capable of evil, too. The rest is existential chemistry. Combine the moral flaw of hatred with the flawless performance of a machine, and death results.

Karel Capek, it would seem, really knew his stuff. The playwright is even smart enough to skewer his own melodramatic talk of inevitable hatred and programmed souls, when the company’s commercial director, Busman, delivers the final word on the revolt.

We made too many robots. Dear me, it’s only what we should have been expecting; as soon as the robots became stronger than people this was bound to happen, it had to happen, you see? Haha, and we did all that we could to make it happen as soon as possible.

Busman foretells the version of the Singularity that doesn’t dare admit its allegiance to the myth of evil robots. It’s the assumption that intelligent machines might destroy humanity through blind momentum and numbers. Capek manages to include even non-evil robots in his tale of robotic rebellion.

As an example of pioneering science fiction, R.U.R. is an absolute treasure, and deserves to be read and staged for the foreseeable future. But when it comes to the public perception of robotics, and our ability to talk about machine intelligence without sounding like children startled by our own shadows, R.U.R. is an intellectual blight. It isn’t speculative fiction, wondering at the future of robotics, a field that didn’t exist in 1920, and wouldn’t for decades to come. The play is a farcical, fire-breathing socio-political allegory, with robots standing in for the world’s downtrodden working class. Their plight is innately human, however magnified or heightened. And their corporate creators, with their ugly dismissal of robot personhood, are caricatures of capitalist avarice.

Worse still, remember Busman, the commercial director who sees the fall of man as little more than an oversupply of a great product? Here’s how he’s described, in the Dramatis Personae: “fat, bald, short-sighted Jew.” No other character gets an ethnic or cultural descriptor. Only Busman, the moneyman within the play’s cadre of heartless industrialists. This is the sort of thing that R.U.R. is about.

The sci-fi story that gave us the myth of evil robots doesn’t care about robots at all. Its most enduring trope is a failure of critical analysis, based on overly literal or willfully ignorant readings of a play about class warfare. And yet, here we are, nearly a century later, still jabbering about machine uprisings and death-by-AI, like aimless windup toys constantly bumping into the same wall.


* * * 



To be fair to the chronically frightened, some evil robots aren’t part of a thinly-veiled allegory. Sometimes a Skynet is just a Skynet.    

I wrote about the origins of that iconic killer AI in a previous post, but there’s no escaping the reach and influence of The Terminator. If R.U.R. laid the foundations for this myth, James Cameron’s 1984 film built a towering monument in its honor. The movie spawned three sequels and counting, as well as a TV show. And despite numerous robot uprisings on the big and small screen in the 30 years since the original movie hit theaters, Hollywood has yet to top the opening sequence’s gut-punch visuals (see above).

Here’s how Kyle Reese, a veteran of the movie’s desperate machine war, explains the defense network’s transition from sentience to mass murder: “They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.”

The parable of Skynet has an air of feasibility, because its villain is so dispassionate. The system is afraid. The system strikes out. There’s no malice in its secret, instantiated heart. There’s only fear, a core component of self-awareness, as well as the same, convenient lack of empathy that allows humans to decimate the non-human species that threaten our survival. Skynet swats us like so many plague-carrying rats and mosquitos.

Let’s not be coy, though: Skynet is not a realistic AI, or one based on realistic principles. And why should it be? It’s the monster hiding under your bed, with as many rows of teeth and baleful red eyes as it needs to properly rob you of sleep. This style and degree of evil robot is completely imaginary. Nothing has ever been developed that resembles the defense network’s cognitive ability or limitless skill set. Even if it becomes possible to create such a versatile system, why would you turn a program intended to quickly fire off a bunch of nukes into something approaching a human mind?

“People think AI is much broader than it is,” says Daniel H. Wilson, a roboticist and author of the New York Times bestselling novel, Robopocalypse. “Typically an AI has a very limited set inputs and outputs. Maybe it only listens to information from the IMU [inertial measurement unit] of a car, so it knows when to apply the brakes in an emergency. That’s an AI. The idea of an AI that solves the natural language problem—a walking, talking, ‘I can’t do that, Dave,’ system—is very fanciful. Those sorts of AI are overkill for any problem.” Only in science fiction does an immensely complex and ambitious Pentagon project over-perform, beyond the wildest expectations of its designers.

In the case of Skynet, and similar fantasies of killer AI, the intent or skill of the evil robot’s designers is often considered irrelevant—machine intelligence bootstraps itself into being by suddenly absorbing all available data, or merging multiple systems into a unified consciousness. This sounds logical, until you realize that AIs don’t inherently play well together.

“When we talk about how smart a machine is, it’s really easy for humans to anthropomorphize, and think of it in the wrong way,” says Wilson. “AI’s do not form a natural class. They don’t have to be built on the same architecture. They don’t run the same algorithms. They don’t experience the world in the same way. And they aren’t designed to solve the same problems.”

In his new novel, Robogenesis (which comes out June 10th), Wilson explores the notion of advanced machines that are anything but monolithic or hive-minded. “In Robogenesis, the world is home to many different AIs that were designed for different tasks and by different people, with varying degrees of interest in humans,” says Wilson. “And they represent varying degrees of danger to humanity.” It goes without saying that Wilson is happily capitalizing on the myth of the evil robot—Robopocalypse, which was optioned by Stephen Spielberg, features a relatively classic super-intelligent AI villain called Archos. But, as with The Terminator, this is fiction. This is fun. Archos has a more complicated and defensible set of motives, but no new evil robot can touch Skynet’s legacy.

And Skynet isn’t an isolated myth of automated violence, but rather a collection of multiple, interlocking sci-fi myths about robots. It’s hyper-competent, executing a wildly complex mission of destruction—including the resource collection and management that goes into mass-producing automated infantry, saboteurs, and air power. And Skynet is self-aware, because SF has prophesied that machines are destined to become sentient. It’s fantasy based on past fantasy, and it’s hugely entertaining.

I’m not suggesting that Hollywood should be peer-reviewed. But fictional killer robots live in a kind of rhetorical limbo, that clouds our ability to understand the risks associated with non-fictional, potentially lethal robots. Imagine an article about threats to British national security mentioning that, if things really get bad, maybe King Arthur will awake from his eons-long mystical slumber to protect that green and pleasant land. Why would that be any less ridiculous than the countless and constant references to Skynet, a not-real AI that’s more supernatural than supercomputer? Drone strikes and automated stock market fluctuations have as much to do with Skynet as with Sauron, the necromancer king from The Lord of the Rings.

So when you name-drop the Terminator’s central plot device as a prepackaged point about the pitfalls of automation, realize what you’re actually doing. You’re talking about an evil demon summoned into a false reality. Or, the case of Stephen Hawking’s op-ed, realize what you’re actually reading. It looks like an oddly abbreviated warning about an extinction-level threat. In actuality, it’s about how science fiction has super neat ideas, and you should probably check out this movie starring Johnny Depp, because maybe that’s how robots will destroy each and every one of us.

That video game Obama praised in his Poland speech is full of blood, gore, and sex

Obama invoked The Witcher, a game about a monster-killing albino, to explain Poland’s place in the global economy

That video game Obama praised in his Poland speech is full of blood, gore, and sex
(Credit: CD Projekt RED)

The annual videogame trade show E3 starts next week, but the upcoming game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has already scored a press coup: a name-drop from the President. Obama mentioned The Witcher 2 yesterday during a speech in Poland, where the game is made, as a symbol of Poland’s place in the global economy.

The thought of a president talking about a videogame is weird enough, but for it happen with a game like The Witcher breaks through all boundaries of common sense.  Apparently the secret to getting Obama to indirectly promote your game is having another head of state give to him: Polish prime minister Donald Tusk gave Obama a copy of The Witcher 2 during a state visit in 2011. The White House hasn’t revealed what the President did with that copy, but it’s clear from his statement that he didn’t play the game himself. Maybe if you check the used racks at the Gamestops in DC you’ll find a little piece of 21st century diplomacy.

Obama’s quote, in full, as reported by Poland’s TVN24 and translated by The Witcher’s PR firm:

The last time I was here, Donald gave me a gift, the video game developed here in Poland that’s won fans the world over, The Witcher. I confess, I’m not very good at video games, but I’ve been told that it is a great example of Poland’s place in the new global economy. And it’s a tribute to the talents and work ethic of the Polish people as well as the wise stewardship of Polish leaders like prime minister Tusk.

There’s no Wikipedia entry on what videogames have been mentioned by a sitting president during an official state appearance, but it has to be a short list, and The Witcher has got to be the most obscure name on there. It’s not that The Witcher games are unknown in America—the first two are cult hits with a vocal fanbase. They’re popular with critics and beloved by many gamers, but they’re not nearly on the level of awareness or success as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. So what is this game, and why would Obama feel the need to chat about it?

The Witcher games are made by CD Projekt RED, a development studio based in Warsaw. They adapt Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of fantasy novels about a supernatural bounty hunter named Geralt of Rivia, a magical albino antihero who kills monsters in a nasty, brutish world based on Polish myth and folklore. Geralt could be a character out of “Game of Thrones”: He’s a cynical loner who operates under his own sense of honor, a warrior outcast who passes as a hero because the bad guys are so much crueler than he is. Players navigate Geralt through morally ambiguous adventures, hacking up enemies and bedding ladies in a role-playing game for adults.

An opportunistic young right-wing operative could make strides toward that Fox News dream job by turning this into a culture war issue. The Witcher games fully embrace the game industry’s Mature rating. The Witcher 2 earned an M for, among other content issues, “blood and gore,” “nudity,” “strong sexual content,” and “use of drugs.” It’s the type of subject matter that wouldn’t be that controversial in novels, but makes self-appointed cultural guardians turn red-cheeked with anger (and ambition) when translated into a game—even one marketed to adults. If a conservative site crafted a pithy headline tying Obama to The Witcher’s content, that all-important Drudge link would be assured.

The Witcher games aren’t just “mature” in the salacious sense, though. Some of that content might be gratuitous, but the games are also smarter and better written than most videogames. Part of that is their literary inspiration. The admittedly low standards of the writing in most major videogames are also a factor. The Witcher games aren’t subtle, but their storytelling is more nuanced than most games, and Geralt is more complex and fascinating than most game heroes. He’s not another faceless soldier or surly white man looking for revenge—he’s a tragic hero in a drama that might be bloodier and more sex-filled than a Jacobean play.