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  • Writer's pictureKory James

Oppenheimer: Technological Determinism & The (Nuclear) Power of Symbols

The Urn of Invention:

Imagine, if you will, a faded urn of substantial size containing within it marble spheres of varying color, each representing a possible invention humanity may one day uncover. The white spheres are technologies that net-benefit humanity or are relatively harmless from any angle you look, think the Polio vaccine. The greys are more complicated, bringing some good and some bad, like social media connecting us with distant relatives but also making us despise their political views deeply.

Then there’s the black spheres…inventions with potential to spell doom for the world as we know it.

Now, each time an Einstein or a wide-eyed Stanford new grad with an entrepreneurship minor noggins up a novel idea, a hand is thrust into this Urn of Invention. Mostly they pull whites or greys, for they are the majority of the urn’s contents, and the inventor goes his merry way with lined pockets and a world left (mostly) unscathed. But so long as the greedy hand of humanity continues its thrusts into the urn, the chances for revealing that dreaded black sphere increase.

In July of 1945, Robert J. Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project fulfilled this prophecy and, coincidentally, the spherical object at their invention’s core even resembled the metaphor.

From then on, the world would never be the same.

American Prometheus:

At several points throughout Christopher Nolan’s biopic, Oppenheimer, the titular character is compared to Prometheus of Greek mythology, the titan who defies Zeus to bestow the gift of fire to a nascent, struggling humanity and is chained to a mountain for eternity as punishment.

Prometheus is an oft used symbol for Technological Determinism, or the theory that the main driver of social change and history is technology, not politics or human free will.

The story goes something like this:

After Prometheus granted us fire, humans inevitably used it to form shelter and fashion swords, and rose high over the animal kingdom. Shelter and swords then led inevitably to civilization and conquest, which led inevitably to empires and world wars, which led inevitably to nuclear bombs and ChatGPT4. And everything in between. By gifting fire, Prometheus set us on an unavoidable path towards self-destruction…and, of course, romantic relationships with AI language models.

Technological Determinism is a reductionist view and fails to capture nuances in the process of invention, but it does provide a strong cautionary tale of where things may lead if we allow progress to run unfettered.

For example, there is controversy today over whether the advancement of AI should be put on hold to establish proper guidelines and regulations. Advocates of the hiatus voice similar concerns to that of a determinist, that if we take a laissez faire approach to AI we will, at best, amplify institutional and intranational distrust perpetuating through the public by social media or, at worst, create a technology we don’t understand that incidentally and/or intentionally pulverizes us.

Critics of the AI moratorium, however, believe prematurely stifling a newborn technology would allow adversaries like China to take the lead in a 21st century arms race, leaving America to pout in the dust.

“If we don’t build it,” these critics say. “Someone else will.”

“So let’s build everything.”

But is that true? If we don’t fast-track AI will China beat us to the punch and assume global dominance?

It doesn’t appear that way, with China watching from the wings to see what happens here first while they put their own regulatory systems in place. Could it instead be the case that by adopting an ‘If not me, them’ stance that we actually expedite ‘them’ obtaining the desired technology whilst building recklessly and without acknowledgement of potential side effects from our inventions?

This same argument looms over the second half of Nolan’s flick, with Oppenheimer coming out in opposition to the development of H-Bombs, to the chagrin of many of his colleagues. To him, building bigger, better bombs pointlessly exacerbates the arms race with the Soviets when America already possesses everything it needs to wipe Russia from the globe.

But, as history shows, both Russia and America proceed with their stockpiles of ever-larger, world-ending bombs and the military-industrial complex, as always, prevails.

...We’ll see what happens with the love robots.

A scene that stood out in Oppenheimer is when physicist Edward Teller informs the Manhattan Project of a theoretical chance (though close to zero) that detonating a nuclear bomb will ignite atmospheric particles and start a chain reaction that consumes the entire surface of Earth in flames.

Of course, this doesn’t happen, and America uses their nukes to claim an expedited victory over Japan but, at the end of the movie, Oppenheimer recounts a discussion he had with his mentor, Albert Einstein, regarding accidentally igniting that chain reaction of global catastrophe.

“What of it?” Einstein asks.

“I believe we did,” Oppenheimer replies, transmuting the theory into metaphor.

And with these words he establishes himself as the American Prometheus, the one who fulfilled the ancient prophecy and gifted humanity a new kind of fire…the fire of self-annihilation.

(Literally) Hot Take:

The power of symbols is deep at play in the biopic, as it is in most Nolan films, with Oppenheimer aiming to harness his fame as ‘The Most Important Man Who Ever Lived’ to become a Christ-like martyr and halt the proliferation of nukes in the same way The Dark Knight Rises sees Batman and Commissioner Gordon falsely peddle Harvey Dent to the public as its White Knight, despite his murderous activities, in order to create a symbol of integrity and justice for Gotham to strive towards.

But if Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a tale of caution surrounding nukes, as I believe it is, then why did he opt not to show footage of the bombings and aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

It’s dark, sure, but that’s the whole point. The public, and especially younger generations, should be made frequently aware of the horrifying powers we possess, made aware through history classes and blockbuster movies like this, lest we forget what it truly means to wield the weapons of our own mass destruction.

Oppenheimer could have capitalized on this moment, with its stellar cast and elevating tensions, to indent a symbol of its own upon viewers, one which could have been the emotional crescendo of the movie.

Instead, the footage plays offscreen as we watch Cillian Murphy gaze somberly at the floorboards, escaping its terrible truth alongside the audience.

All in all, and despite this one qualm, Oppenheimer is a masterpiece – get yo butts to the theater!


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