On Source Code and the ethics of the modern technological era

[I am totally confused. I have not seen the movie Source Code, although it will be playing in Morris next week, yet I have now seen an explanation of the time-travel paradox in the movie by the physicist James Kakalios, and now here is an explanation by an English professor. You guys sort it out. I’m not going to try to read either of them carefully, until I see the movie. Which is already giving me a headache.–pzm]

“On Source Code and the ethics of the modern technological era”

By Brendan Riley

Spoiler Alert: this essay assumes you’ve seen Source Code or don’t mind having the plot revealed.

“Make Every Second Count.” “What Would You Do If You Knew You Only Had A Minute To Live?” These purport to be the dramatic underpinning of the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller, Source Code. But underneath the big-studio whiz-bang lies a story teasing out several ethical questions that haunt the technology we’re just now inventing. The film follows Colter Stevens, an Army pilot who finds himself on a doomed train in someone else’s body with only eight minutes to find and stop the mad bomber. After only a brief respite to speak with his superiors, he goes back and tries again, and again, and again. It’s 12 Monkeys and Quantum Leap meet Groundhog Day, without the piano lessons. Source Code uses a relatively familiar gimmick to tell an exciting story, but under the explosions and Gyllenhaalian studliness, it also prods us to think a bit more about how we should grapple with the new possibilities of the modern era.

The resolution of the film yields two really (to me) interesting questions. During his briefings between visits to the train, Stevens learns that he is mostly dead, alive only within a “quantum” simulation that allowed him to visit the memories of one passenger and report back with what he found. As the film ends, Stevens asks to be disconnected so that he can die in peace. Project Director Rutledge agrees, but secretly intends to betray our hero because the scientists can wipe his memory and use him to tackle the next catastrophe. Disobeying orders, Goodwin, the operator who works with Stevens, gives him one more trip into the event before disconnecting him. Leaving aside what happens to him after the disconnect, we should consider the ethics of Goodwin’s decision to disconnect Stevens.

On one hand, she did promise to disconnect him after his mission. On the other hand, as Rutledge says, Stevens is the only viable Source Code candidate they have; he could potentially save millions more lives. Also, they can apparently wipe his memory so he won’t remember their betrayal. That said, should Goodwin disconnect Stevens to keep her word, or should she follow Rutledge’s orders? Weighed from a rational perspective, it seems like Stevens’ potential value should outweigh his desire to die. But the movie validates Goodwin’s choice to disconnect him. Why?

1. At what point should the good of the many outweigh the desires of the few?

One answer that springs to mind is articulated nicely in the Peter Watts novel Maelstrom. At one point, Watts suggests that the human brain has evolved to understand problems on relatively small scales, and that thinking about larger groups of people or problems beyond the immediate scope of our understanding isn’t easy for us. Left to our own devices, we’re inclined to save the person next to us rather than a whole bunch of people somewhere else. (Consider our willingness to initiate a war that would kill tens of thousands of people in response to an act killing three thousand people.)

In some ways, Source Code is an extended version of the Trolley Problem (and the related Fat Man problem). The classic ethical dilemma asks whether one should in activate a railroad switch to save five people, even if doing so would guarantee killing one other person. In answering the Trolley problem, most people say they would divert the train to kill one instead of five. By contrast, when asked if they would push a fat man onto the tracks to stop the train, people balk. They’re willing to kill one person by pulling a switch, but not by shoving them directly.

Source Code gives its characters the same motivations. During the mission, Stevens is more concerned with the pretty woman sitting across from Sean Fentriss (the man whose body he’s inhabiting, Quantum Leap-style) than with the millions threatened by the impending dirty-bomb attack. He’s also more concerned with talking to his father (this is forgivable, certainly). At the end of the story, Goodwin shows the same lack of perspective, and the film rewards her for it. I suspect most of the audience agree with her that “he’s done enough.”

But the movie actually testifies to the short-sightedness of human beings. Being small-group social animals, we revert to small-group psychology, and so we value our word over larger concerns. We value our own comfort (I want to drive everywhere, now, by myself) more than the larger ramifications of those choices. Learning to do differently takes time and social pressure.

It also seems to me that the movie highlights a particularly American take on these relationships. In A Geography of Time, social psychologist Robert Levine suggests that many things we take for granted depend on the relationships governed by how our culture relates to time. Whereas some cultures see service to the greater good as inextricably connected with personal life, American ideals hold that the individual should be free to do what she will with her free time. I can’t help but think the individualist American philosophy has something to do with the film’s endorsement of its finale, in which Stevens’ desire to have one more chance to save the trainload of people trumps the world’s need for his work in Source Code.

2. What is our responsibility to simulated minds?

Source Code also prods us to consider what rights we must afford to artificial minds. Obviously, this question has been a core concern of science fiction as long as the genre has existed, from Frankenstein through 2001 to the present. In this film, Stevens has died, save a part of his brain that can be reactivated via simulation. There are no bones about whether he can live again — the reveal of his corpse at the end makes that clear. So I proceed from the assumption that his mind as it appears in Source Code is a simulated one.

To Dr. Rutledge, Stevens is a resource to be used. He can be lied to and manipulated, and his opinions and emotions matter only to the extent that they effect his ability to complete his mission. Since they can wipe his memory afterward, they do not need to keep their word to him–he won’t know anyhow. But Goodwin recognizes him as a person, someone with agency who should be respected and honored. The film makes it easy to empathize with this perspective, as we follow Stevens’ grueling journey to the train over and over; we agree when she says “he’s done enough.” We’re supposed to agree when she unplugs him.

But would we agree if the late part of the film revealed not a brain in a box, but just lines of computer code simulating his brain? People are willing to throw the switch in the Trolley problem, but not to push the Fat Man off the bridge in the related scenario. Similarly, I suspect people would feel more hesitation about Goodwin giving Stevens what he wants if his meat body were not still there, connected to life support.

While we’re not as close to viable simulations of the human brain as Ray Kurzweil would have us believe, it’s still worth considering what obligations we should have to simulated beings. The film implies that the undead Stevens should be given the right to un-life, if he wants it.

3. What happened to the history teacher?

Finally, it’s worth considering what happens to the history teacher, Sean Fenriss, in the last of the alternate universes. My read of the film is as follows: each time the scientists in the primary universe run the Source Code, Coulter Stevens’ mind enters an alternate universe in the body of Sean Fenriss who is, as far as the film tells us, erased from that body. The first several times Stevens does this, he fails to stop the bomb plot and Fenriss dies anyhow. The last time, though, he stops both bomb plots and survives in Fenriss’ body.

Which leads us to an interesting question: what happened to Fenriss in the last alternate universe? For atheists, it’s an easy answer — his mind has been remapped like a flash drive being reformatted. For theists, though, it prods sticky questions about souls and person-hood. I find it interesting that the film trades only in secular science and thus avoids any questions of ensoulment.

Of course, we needn’t feel too bad for the Fenriss in the last alternate universe, as he would have died had he not been taken over by Stevens. But at the same time, I can’t help wondering where the film will go from there. Stevens will have to adopt Fenriss’ life, presumably. He’ll become a history teacher, have to talk with family and friends, and so on. Perhaps he’ll fake a head injury and amnesia to explain his inevitable social awkwardness. Is the original Fenriss still there in the Fenriss/Stevens head, watching like a character in Being John Malkovich? Perhaps his long-term memories will start intruding on Stevens.

Brief bio:

Brendan Riley is an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches and writes about Writing, New Media, and Popular Culture. He keeps a blog at http://curragh-labs.org/blog