Trace your family history using Ancestry Library Edition, in-library only online genealogical database.
This introductory class will give participants a basic overview of Ancestry Library Edition. Bob Conklin, Adult Services Librarian, discusses and demonstrates basic features of the database which contains over 10 billion genealogical records. Collections within Ancestry Library include birth, marriage, and death records; military records; census and immigration records and much more.
Becoming American: A Documentary Film and Discussion Series on Our Immigration Experience is a project of City Lore in collaboration with the Immigration and Ethnic History Society and the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience. The project has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.”
Registration is required in person at the 2nd floor Information Desk or by phone at 309-524-2470, seating is limited.
In late November, the Justice Department unsealed indictments against eight people accused of fleecing advertisers of $36 million in two of the largest digital ad-fraud operations ever uncovered. Digital advertisers tend to want two things: people to look at their ads and “premium” websites — i.e., established and legitimate publications — on which to host them.
The two schemes at issue in the case, dubbed Methbot and 3ve by the security researchers who found them, faked both. Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist. Views, meanwhile, were faked by malware-infected computers with marvelously sophisticated techniques to imitate humans: bots “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers.” Some were sent to browse the internet to gather tracking cookies from other websites, just as a human visitor would have done through regular behavior. Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.
How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Timesreported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”
In the future, when I look back from the high-tech gamer jail in which President PewDiePie will have imprisoned me, I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real. The “fakeness” of the post-Inversion internet is less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not “real” but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.
The metrics are fake.
Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: They are countable, trackable, and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data–gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures. In October, small advertisers filed suit against the social-media giant, accusing it of covering up, for a year, its significant overstatements of the time users spent watching videos on the platform (by 60 to 80 percent, Facebook says; by 150 to 900 percent, the plaintiffs say). According to an exhaustive list at MarketingLand, over the past two years Facebook has admitted to misreporting the reach of posts on Facebook Pages (in two different ways), the rate at which viewers complete ad videos, the average time spent reading its “Instant Articles,” the amount of referral traffic from Facebook to external websites, the number of views that videos received via Facebook’s mobile site, and the number of video views in Instant Articles.
And maybe we shouldn’t even assume that the people are real. Over at YouTube, the business of buying and selling video views is “flourishing,” as the Times reminded readers with a lengthy investigation in August. The company says only “a tiny fraction” of its traffic is fake, but fake subscribers are enough of a problem that the site undertook a purge of “spam accounts” in mid-December. These days, the Times found, you can buy 5,000 YouTube views — 30 seconds of a video counts as a view — for as low as $15; oftentimes, customers are led to believe that the views they purchase come from real people. More likely, they come from bots. On some platforms, video views and app downloads can be forged in lucrative industrial counterfeiting operations. If you want a picture of what the Inversion looks like, find a video of a “click farm”: hundreds of individual smartphones, arranged in rows on shelves or racks in professional-looking offices, each watching the same video or downloading the same app.This is obviously not real human traffic. But what would real human traffic look like? The Inversion gives rise to some odd philosophical quandaries: If a Russian troll using a Brazilian man’s photograph to masquerade as an American Trump supporter watches a video on Facebook, is that view “real”? Not only do we have bots masquerading as humans and humans masquerading as other humans, but also sometimes humans masquerading as bots, pretending to be “artificial-intelligence personal assistants,” like Facebook’s “M,” in order to help tech companies appear to possess cutting-edge AI. We even have whatever CGI Instagram influencer Lil Miquela is: a fake human with a real body, a fake face, and real influence. Even humans who aren’t masquerading can contort themselves through layers of diminishing reality: The Atlantic reports that non-CGI human influencers are posting fake sponsored content — that is, content meant to look like content that is meant to look authentic, for free — to attract attention from brand reps, who, they hope, will pay them real money.
The businesses are fake.
The money is usually real. Not always — ask someone who enthusiastically got into cryptocurrency this time last year — but often enough to be an engine of the Inversion. If the money is real, why does anything else need to be? Earlier this year, the writer and artist Jenny Odell began to look into an Amazon reseller that had bought goods from other Amazon resellers and resold them, again on Amazon, at higher prices. Odell discovered an elaborate network of fake price-gouging and copyright-stealing businesses connected to the cultlike Evangelical church whose followers resurrected Newsweek in 2013 as a zombie search-engine-optimized spam farm. She visited a strange bookstore operated by the resellers in San Francisco and found a stunted concrete reproduction of the dazzlingly phony storefronts she’d encountered on Amazon, arranged haphazardly with best-selling books, plastic tchotchkes, and beauty products apparently bought from wholesalers. “At some point I began to feel like I was in a dream,” she wrote. “Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.”
The content is fake.
The only site that gives me that dizzying sensation of unreality as often as Amazon does is YouTube, which plays host to weeks’ worth of inverted, inhuman content. TV episodes that have been mirror-flipped to avoid copyright takedowns air next to huckster vloggers flogging merch who air next to anonymously produced videos that are ostensibly for children. An animated video of Spider-Man and Elsa from Frozen riding tractors is not, you know, not real: Some poor soul animated it and gave voice to its actors, and I have no doubt that some number (dozens? Hundreds? Millions? Sure, why not?) of kids have sat and watched it and found some mystifying, occult enjoyment in it. But it’s certainly not “official,” and it’s hard, watching it onscreen as an adult, to understand where it came from and what it means that the view count beneath it is continually ticking up.
These, at least, are mostly bootleg videos of popular fictional characters, i.e., counterfeit unreality. Counterfeit reality is still more difficult to find—for now. In January 2018, an anonymous Redditor created a relatively easy-to-use desktop-app implementation of “deepfakes,” the now-infamous technology that uses artificial-intelligence image processing to replace one face in a video with another — putting, say, a politician’s over a porn star’s. A recent academic paper from researchers at the graphics-card company Nvidia demonstrates a similar technique used to create images of computer-generated “human” faces that look shockingly like photographs of real people. (Next time Russians want to puppeteer a group of invented Americans on Facebook, they won’t even need to steal photos of real people.) Contrary to what you might expect, a world suffused with deepfakes and other artificially generated photographic images won’t be one in which “fake” images are routinely believed to be real, but one in which “real” images are routinely believed to be fake — simply because, in the wake of the Inversion, who’ll be able to tell the difference?
Our politics are fake.
Such a loss of any anchoring “reality” only makes us pine for it more. Our politics have been inverted along with everything else, suffused with a Gnostic sense that we’re being scammed and defrauded and lied to but that a “real truth” still lurks somewhere. Adolescents are deeply engaged by YouTube videos that promise to show the hard reality beneath the “scams” of feminism and diversity — a process they call “red-pilling” after the scene in The Matrix when the computer simulation falls away and reality appears. Political arguments now involve trading accusations of “virtue signaling” — the idea that liberals are faking their politics for social reward — against charges of being Russian bots. The only thing anyone can agree on is that everyone online is lying and fake.
We ourselves are fake.
Which, well. Everywhere I went online this year, I was asked to prove I’m a human. Can you retype this distorted word? Can you transcribe this house number? Can you select the images that contain a motorcycle? I found myself prostrate daily at the feet of robot bouncers, frantically showing off my highly developed pattern-matching skills — does a Vespa count as a motorcycle, even? — so I could get into nightclubs I’m not even sure I want to enter. Once inside, I was directed by dopamine-feedback loops to scroll well past any healthy point, manipulated by emotionally charged headlines and posts to click on things I didn’t care about, and harried and hectored and sweet-talked into arguments and purchases and relationships so algorithmically determined it was hard to describe them as real.
Where does that leave us? I’m not sure the solution is to seek out some pre-Inversion authenticity — to red-pill ourselves back to “reality.” What’s gone from the internet, after all, isn’t “truth,” but trust: the sense that the people and things we encounter are what they represent themselves to be. Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems, and unregulated platform marketplaces, have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online — to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort — than it does to be real. Fixing that would require cultural and political reform in Silicon Valley and around the world, but it’s our only choice. Otherwise we’ll all end up on the bot internet of fake people, fake clicks, fake sites, and fake computers, where the only real thing is the ads.
A coast-to-coast roundup of efforts to restore the open internet
The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Restoring Internet Freedom Order (RIFO) took effect June 11, 2018, overturning the net neutrality rules the agency established with 2015’s Open Internet Order. Since then, many individual states and other entities have taken it upon themselves to try to restore net neutrality protections. The following is a review of those efforts—successful, failed, and in progress—around the US.
More than 35 states have introduced legislation to protect net neutrality, although only four (California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) have passed laws. Several governors have also issued executive orders related to net neutrality.
The details of state net neutrality actions vary significantly, but common provisions are:
prohibiting all internet service providers (ISPs) in a state from blocking lawful content, applications, services, or devices; impairing or degrading the speed of lawful internet traffic based on content, application, service, or device; engaging in paid prioritization of traffic; or unreasonably interfering with a user’s ability to select, access, or use broadband internet service
requiring ISPs to meet the net neutrality provisions above to be considered for state contracts (in some cases, these acts apply to contracts for municipalities as well)
requiring ISPs to transparently disclose their network management principles
establishing certification systems or registries of ISPs that meet net neutrality requirements
issuing resolutions urging the US Congress to implement net neutrality requirements but having no regulatory power on their own
“Having 50 different approaches to net neutrality is not optimal for anybody,” observes Larra Clark, deputy director of public policy for the American Library Association’s Washington Office and the Public Library Association. However, in addition to providing net neutrality in the states where they’ve been implemented, state activities are valuable in advocating for meaningful protections nationally.
“States taking these leadership roles makes it more likely that the FCC will come to the table and the telecommunications companies that have fought us on this issue will work to find a compromise,” she says.
State legislation passed
On September 30, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill (S.B.) 822, requiring ISPs in the state to comply with net neutrality principles and disclose network management practices. The bill goes beyond the Obama-era regulations by also limiting certain forms of “zero rating,” in which ISPs favor certain information by not counting content or websites they own against data limits.
The bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) called it “the strongest in the nation.” However, the US Justice Department filed suit against the law the same day Brown signed it. This suit has been postponed, and California has agreed not to enforce its law until the D.C. District Court decides on the state attorneys general suit on RIFO.
Brown also signed Assembly Bill (A.B.) 1999 on September 30, requiring broadband networks created by local governments to follow net neutrality.
Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill (H.B.) 4155 on April 9. The law prohibits public bodies from contracting with ISPs that do not abide by net neutrality.
May 22 Gov. Phil Scott signed S.B. 289, requiring state agencies to contract only with ISPs that practice net neutrality, directing the state Secretary of Administration to develop a process to certify ISPs that practice net neutrality, and directing the state attorney general to study the extent to which the state should enact net neutrality rules. It also requires ISPs to disclose their network management practices. The law followed Executive Order 2-18, issued February 15, that required state agencies to contract only with ISPs that follow net neutrality.
Even though the scope of this law is narrower than California’s, industry groups filed suit to block it October 18 in the US District Court in Vermont.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed H.B. 2282 on March 5. The law requires ISPs to practice net neutrality and to accurately disclose network management practices.
In addition to Vermont, governors in the following states have issued executive orders related to net neutrality. Each of these orders requires ISPs to follow net neutrality principles to receive state contracts.
Gov. David Ige issued Executive Order 18-02 on February 5.
Gov. Steve Bullock issued Executive Order 3-2018 on January 22.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy issued Executive Order 9 on February 5.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 175 on January 24.
Gov. Gina Raimondo issued Executive Order 18-02 on April 24.
Bills introduced but not enacted
Neither of the proposed bills requiring ISPs to practice net neutrality (H.B. 277 and S.B. 160), nor House Joint Resolution 31 and Senate Joint Resolution 12 urging the US Congress to overturn the FCC’s order, were acted on in committee.
H.B. 18-1312 would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality to receive money from the High Cost Support Mechanism, the state’s implementation of the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which provides funds for deploying broadband in rural areas. The bill passed the house but failed in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.
The senate passed S.B. 366, requiring ISPs in the state to practice net neutrality and disclose network management practices. However, the house did not vote on the measure. H.B. 5260 and S.B. 2, which would have required ISPs to adopt net neutrality policies to qualify for state contracts, both failed in committee.
Neither of the bills related to net neutrality introduced in the house or senate progressed out of committee. S.B. 310 would have required all ISPs to follow net neutrality, while H.B. 1066 would have prohibited the state from contracting with ISPs that don’t provide a certification of net neutrality.
S.B. 2644, which would require ISPs to follow net neutrality and disclose network management practices, passed the senate unanimously, but its house companion, H.B. 2256, stalled in committee. The similar S.B. 2088 was deferred in committee.
In addition to requiring net neutrality, H.B. 1995 would have established a task force to examine the costs and benefits of a state-owned public utility to provide broadband internet service. Two of three house committees recommended passage of the bill, but the Finance Committee did not act on it.
H.B. 425, which would require ISPs to comply with net neutrality, was not acted on in committee.
H.B. 4819, which would have required state contractors to comply with net neutrality and other ISPs to notify consumers of any deviations from those principles, passed out of the House Cybersecurity, Data Analytics, and IT Committee, but the house re-referred it to the Rules Committee and did not vote on it.
Two other measures did not advance out of committee: H.B. 5094, which would have required ISPs in the state to abide by net neutrality, and S.B. 2816, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality to qualify for state contracts.
Neither Senate File 2286 nor House File 2287, which would have required ISPs to provide service in accordance with net neutrality, advanced out of committee.
H.B. 2682, which would have prohibited state contracts with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality, died in committee.
The Small Business and Information Technology committee did not act on H.B. 418, which would have required state contractors to practice net neutrality.
H.B. 1654, which would prohibit state agencies from contracting with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality and require ISPs to notify customers about the types of personal data they collect and disclose, passed the house, but the senate did not vote on it. The similar H.B. 1655, which would also authorize local governments to grant franchises for broadband internet service, did not pass out of committee.
S.B. 287, which would require the state to only contract with ISPs that follow net neutrality, did not pass out of committee.
Senate Order S2263, establishing a special senate committee on net neutrality and consumer protection to review RIFO, was adopted January 18. The committee issued its report March 23 as S.B. 2376. This report accompanied S.B. 2336, a bill that would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality.
S.B. 2336 was replaced by S.B. 2610, which would direct the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable to create standards for a Massachusetts Net Neutrality and Consumer Privacy Seal to identify ISPs that abide by net neutrality and provide consumers with an easy way to opt out of providing third parties access to personal information. It would also establish a registry of broadband service providers in the state and list their network management practices and privacy policies. The bill passed the senate July 19 and has been referred to the House Ways and Means committee.
H.B. 4151, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality, was replaced by House Order 4684, authorizing the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy to study documents concerning several bills, including those on net neutrality. This order also covered H.B. 4222, requiring ISPs to follow net neutrality and establishing the Massachusetts Internet Service Provider Registry to provide service quality and pricing information to customers.
Two bills have been introduced in both the house and the senate that would require ISPs to follow net neutrality and prohibit state agencies and political subdivisions from contracting with ISPs that do not. None of the bills—S.B. 2880, S.B. 3968, H.B. 3033, and H.B. 4411—has been acted on in committee.
H.B. 1994, which would require ISPs to follow net neutrality and publicly disclose their network management practices, was not acted on in committee.
Legislative Bill 856, which would require net neutrality, was indefinitely postponed.
S.B. 1577 and A.B. 1767, identical bills that would require all ISPs in the state to abide by net neutrality, have not been acted on by their respective committees.
A.B. 2131, which would prohibit the installation of broadband telecommunications infrastructure on public rights-of-way or underground facilities owned by public utilities or cable television companies unless the ISP follows net neutrality, was favorably reported out of committee. The senate has not acted on the identical S.B. 2458.
A.B. 2132, which would require state agencies to reject all contract bids from ISPs that do not follow net neutrality, was reported out of committee. The senate companion, S.B. 1802, has not been acted on in committee.
A.B. 2139, which would require cable companies that provide internet service to follow net neutrality principles, passed out of committee.
H.B. 95 and S.B. 39 would amend the state Unfair Practices Act to require ISPs to follow net neutrality; both have been postponed indefinitely.
S.B. 155, which was similar to those bills but would also allocate $250,000 to the state attorney general in FY2018 and FY2019 to review RIFO and to file or join a lawsuit challenging the decision, was also postponed indefinitely.
A.B. 8882, which would direct the state Public Service Commission to develop a plan for monitoring broadband ISPs and create a certification for ISPs that comply with net neutrality, passed the assembly June 19. Under this bill, only certified ISPs would be eligible for state agency contracts. The senate has not acted on its version, S.B. 7183.
Other bills have not made it out of committee, including: S.B. 8321, which would require net neutrality, provide regulatory control by the state Public Service Commission, prohibit zero-rating of certain content in a category but not the entire category, and require ISPs to comply with net neutrality to be granted permission to attach broadband infrastructure to utility poles; S.B. 7175 and A.B. 9057, which would require state agencies to contract only with ISPs that adhere to net neutrality and appropriate $250 million to a fund to establish municipal ISPs; and A.B. 9059, which would establish a commission to study and report on potential implementation of net neutrality rules.
Neither S.B. 736, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality, nor H.B. 1016, which would have applied only to state contractors, passed out of committee.
S.B. 1543, which would have required state agencies to contract only with ISPs that follow net neutrality and created a fund to support municipalities attempting to create their own ISPs, was not acted on in committee.
H.B. 2062, which would have required ISPs to abide by net neutrality, did not make it out of committee. The same fate befell S.B. 1033, which also would have prohibited state contracts with ISPs that don’t follow net neutrality and required ISPs to disclose network management practices.
S.B. 2008, which would have required state agencies to award contracts only to ISPs that follow net neutrality, passed the senate June 19. The House Corporations Committee has not acted on it.
That committee recommended that H.B. 7076, which would require ISPs to follow net neutrality and require the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers to annually certify ISPs, be held for further study. It made the same recommendation for H.B. 7422, which would require net neutrality and obligate ISPs to disclose their network management practices.
Neither H.B. 4614 nor H.B. 4706, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality and disclose their network management practices, passed out of committee.
The Senate Commerce and Energy Committee voted February 6 not to send S.B. 195 to the full senate, killing the measure. The bill would have required ISPs to abide by net neutrality and disclose network management practices to receive contracts from the state.
Several bills were introduced but did not pass out of committee, including H.B. 1755 and S.B. 1756, which would have required ISPs to abide by net neutrality and disclose their network management practices, and prohibit state agencies or local governments from contracting with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality; S.B. 2183 and H.B. 2253, which would have prohibited state governmental entities from contracting with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality; and H.B. 2405 and S.B. 2449, which would have created a task force to study issues relating to RIFO.
H.B. 705, which would have required ISPs to practice net neutrality, stalled in the Commerce and Labor Committee.
S.B. 948, which would have required ISPs to practice net neutrality and prohibited them from knowingly disclosing personally identifiable information about customers, did not pass out of committee.
Neither H.B. 4399, which would have required ISPs to practice net neutrality and disclose network management practices to receive state contracts, nor S.B. 396, which would have applied to all ISPs in the state, passed out of committee.
The assembly voted against taking up A.B. 909, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality and limited disclosure of personally identifying information. Senate counterpart S.B. 743 did not pass out of committee.
Neither S.B. 740 nor A.B. 908, which would have applied only to state contractors, were acted on by committee.
In February, Senate Resolution (S.R.) 74, urging the US Congress to reinstate the 2015 rules, passed.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 44, expressing the state assembly’s opposition to RIFO and urging the US Congress to enact legislation preserving net neutrality, passed the senate in January.
District of Columbia
A round table hearing was held in January 2018 on Proposed Resolution 22-0691 opposing RIFO. While it was cosponsored by all 13 members of the council, no vote has been taken.
House Resolution 1161, a resolution that would have encouraged state agencies to establish policies requiring contract recipients to adhere to net neutrality, was introduced, but it did not progress out of committee.
S.R. 1196, which would have urged the US Congress and the Trump administration to advocate for permanent adoption of net neutrality rules, did not advance out of committee.
S.R. 131, which would have urged the governor to issue an executive order requiring ISPs with state contracts to abide by net neutrality, has not been acted on in committee.
House Concurrent Resolution (H.C.R.) 84, which would urge the US Congress to pass legislation restoring net neutrality, has not been acted on in committee.
Senate Joint Memorial 17, urging the US Congress to review RIFO, passed, but the house postponed action indefinitely.
The Committee on Federalism and Interstate Relations did not act on H.C.R. 18, which would have urged the president and US Congress to protect net neutrality and open internet access.
I’m Todd McAulty. I’m a science fiction writer. My first novel, THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM, set in a future Chicago conquered by machines, was published in hardcover this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Admittedly, science fiction writers don’t have much of a productive role to play in society. When we’re all working twenty hours a day in robot factories, we’ll be the ones getting chewed out by robotic overseers for constantly putting our slave collars on backwards. But we do have one sacred duty, and we take it seriously. It’s our job to prepare people for the future, ugly as it may be. We were the first ones to tell you about atomic power, Velcro, and the rise of hip hop. Yes, we missed the boat on Pokemon Go, but only because Neal Stephenson was on vacation that month.
The most helpful thing a science fiction writer can do today is to prepare you for the inevitable rise of our machine overlords. Yes, I know. You just got your deck resurfaced, and now you won’t get to enjoy it because you’ll soon be chained to a post, eating protein gruel and making power packs for a robot army. It could be worse. No, I don’t know how. Look, it’s just our job to tell you the bad news, not handhold you through the entire process.
Fortunately for me, most of the hard work preparing society for the robot uprising has already been done. Science fiction writers have been warning you about our future as second-class citizens for nearly a century, ever since Czech writer Karel Čapek penned the robot play R.U.R. in 1920, and Fritz Lang released the brilliant silent film Metropolis in 1927. If you haven’t got your escape route planned and your hidden mountain cave picked out by now, we wash our hands of you.
What’s that? You’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones and The Good Place, and totally missed all the warning signs science fiction has been spooning you for the past thirty years?
All right, fine. We’ve probably got some time before the robots make their first move. While we wait patiently for our slave collars, here’s a quick refresher course on all those important lessons you missed. We can’t cover them all, so I’ve condensed it down to a list of the Top Ten Evil Robots in Science Fiction. Study these carefully, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll be ready for your future role as a resistance fighter in burnt out urban trenches, or a loyal toady proudly posting proclamations on behalf of your robot masters. Wherever your career path takes you, we don’t judge.
A few caveats before we get started. We’re including only one evil robot per media franchise. Otherwise, let’s face it, this entire list would be made up of increasingly advanced Terminator models and five entries for Mechagodzilla. Also, we define ‘robot’ fairly loosely, to include pretty much any computer or algorithm with a nasty disposition.
With that, let’s plunge into the list!
[Caution: Spoilers for all the films mentioned below, plus Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, a bunch of Star Trek episodes, and other random stuff.]
10. Ultron (The Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015)
Ultron is the newest robot on this list (and also the shiniest). That means he built on everything that came before, and it shows. Ingenious evil plan for world domination? Check. Witty villain dialog? Check. Killer robotic styling? Check.
But the real reason Ultron makes the list is that Age of Ultron – which earned nearly $1.5 billion at the box office worldwide — instantly made him an iconic villain. He fought the Avengers to a virtual standstill, and went down to defeat only because his own robot creation, Vision, turned against him.
That’s tough luck, and it shows that even the greatest robot villains can have an off day. Remember that when you’re dithering between enlisting in the human resistance, and signing up for a cushy job as a robot toady.
Image courtesy of Disney
9. Megalon (Godzilla vs. Megalon, 1973)
Technically, Megalon’s not really a robot. He’s a 180-foot tall cyborg god, unleashed by an undersea civilization to wreak havoc on surface dwellers in retaliation for thoughtless underwater atomic testing (as they do). However, once you surpass about 30 feet, all these classifications get a little meaningless, so we’re just going to go with ‘robot.’
Why is Megalon on this list, and not Godzilla’s other metal adversaries, like the entirely awesome Mechagodzilla? Well. While it’s true that Mechagodzilla successfully went toe-to-toe with the big guy in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Megalon has the distinction of facing off against bothGodzilla and his giant robot buddy Jet Jaguar, and acquitting himself admirably.
Also, there’s this. Yes, that’s Megalon on the receiving end of a drop kick by a 90-ton Godzilla. In my book, that earns you a place of pride in the Top 10 Evil Robots of All Time.
Image courtesy of Toho
8. Ava (Ex Machina, 2014)
Ava almost didn’t make this list. And it’s because you can alllllmost be sympathetic to her plight.
She was made in an isolated laboratory by a textbook mad scientist and, despite the fact that she is without a doubt the most sophisticated artificial intelligence ever created, she’s scheduled to be cruelly dismantled for parts so her creator can get on with the business of creating the next model.
So, yeah, the murderous plot she hatches and executes really is all in the name of self-preservation. But it’s the way she does it that leaves you in a cold sweat. Her doe-eyed seduction of the naïve Caleb, and the grateful way she shields him from the worst of the violence, lulls you into a false sense of security. Until she coldly leaves him behind to die of starvation.
Also, she’s definitely the hottest robot on this list. I mean, woo. She is one hot robot. You can understand Caleb’s fascination with her, and the dawning horror he feels, helplessly watching her escape the compound. She is a ruthless and efficient killer slipping effortlessly into a world that doesn’t even know she exists.
It’s only as the credits come up in Ex Machina that you realize you’ve watched a horror film. And that gut punch you feel is because you understand Ava for the first time.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
7. Ash (Alien, 1979)
Like Ava in Ex Machina, Ash has secret motivations, and you sort of understand them. He’s an android secretly planted among a human crew by the evil Weyland-Yutani corporation, and he’s there to make sure nobody does anything to jeopardize profits. And that includes damaging a deadly alien specimen the bioweapons division would love to get their hands on.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Ash is an asshole. I mean, seriously. His entire crew is being systematically slaughtered by an alien xenomorph, and he’s secretly helping the thing? Dick move, Ash. You’re an evil robot, and you suck.
Image courtesy of Paramount
6. HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)
HAL is one of the oldest entries on this list – 50 years old this year! — and in many ways is the archetype for every evil computer of the last half century. Yes, people argue that HAL wasn’t really evil, that he was just confused, but those people want to suck the fun out of everything. HAL was evil, and we love him for it.
Is it true that when IBM refused to allow Arthur C. Clarke to name his evil computer the IBM 9000, Clarke just nudged all the letters in “IBM” down the alphabet by one to produce HAL? If not, it should be. If I were IBM, I’d put a big red glowing eye on every supercomputer I make from now on, and watch my stock take an easy 50% bump.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
5. Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982)
Roy Batty is a coldly ruthless killer, and richly deserves a place of honor on any list of Top Ten Evil Robots. When he and his band of replicants hijack a shuttle to Earth, they kill the entire crew. Batty kills his creator Tyrell with his bare hands, and even kills poor Sebastian, whose only crime was trusting Roy enough to bring him to Tyrell.
So does it matter than when Rick Deckard kills his beloved Pris and comes gunning for him, Batty chases him relentlessly, only to save his life? Does it matter that life become so precious to him in his final moments that he lets Deckard live? Does it matter that in those moments he delivers the famous “Tears in rain” monologue, which critic Mark Rowlands describes as “the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history”?
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros./Getty Images
4. The Doomsday Machine (Star Trek, 1967)
You remember the Doomsday Machine, right? The deadly mechanical artifact left over from an ancient galactic war that destroys Commodore Matt Decker’s ship and crew, and leaves him a traumatized wreck until Captain Kirk and the Enterprise find him on the battered husk of the USS Constellation? “The Doomsday Machine” is one of the most beloved episodes of the original Trek, and it’s for a reason. Forget Khan Noonien Singh – the Doomsday Machine is the most dangerous opponent Kirk and crew ever faced, and no mistake.
Also, the machine gets serious points for originally of design. Most robots on this list have two arms and two legs, and use them for mischief. Not the Doomsday Machine. It’s a miles-long space cigar with a big glowy mouth, capable of gobbling planets for fuel and carving a path of destruction through the most densely populated section of our galaxy. It’s destroyed only through grit, quick thinking, and the kind of determination that Kirk and his crew are justly famous for.
Star Trek has a rich legacy of evil robot villains, from the indestructible Nomad of “The Changeling” to the V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But the Doomsday Machine towers above them all.
Image courtesy of Paramount Television
3. GLaDOS (Portal, 2007)
Valve’s brilliant Portal is the only game to make this list, and it’s purely on the strength of its magnificent villain GLaDOS, one of the most well-realized and sinister fictional robots ever created.
Portal has a fairly simple story. You wake up with no memories in the Aperture Science research facility, where the computer voice of GLaDOS guides you through a series of increasingly dangerous trials of something called the portal gun, a weapon that creates portals you can teleport through. The true nature of your surroundings and your circumstance gradually becomes clear as the tests progress. It’s a magnificent game, with a revolutionary play mechanic and a terrific sense of humor.
GLaDOS is one of the greatest villains in science fiction, of any kind. On top of using you to perfect her methods of killing, GLaDOS also totally cheats with her reward system. Since she’s a disembodied voice for virtually the entire game, it’s a challenge for her to find ways to really motivate you. One she abuses shamelessly is the promise of cake. Mmmm, delicious cake. You can almost taste it. But then you find desiccated corpses of earlier clone bodies, and ominous graffiti written in hidden locations: “THE CAKE IS A LIE.”
Could it be? Could the despicable GLaDOS, exterminator of all mankind, also be LYING ABOUT THE CAKE? Spoiler: yes.
Image courtesy of Valve
2. T-800 (The Terminator, 1984)
Now don’t act all surprised. You knew the Terminator had to be on this list somewhere. Although the film The Terminator is 34 years old (yes, 34 years old – stop thinking about it), it remains the high-water mark for evil robot cinema.
Although the T-800 has been technologically surpassed by newer models, including the terrifying shape-changing T-1000 and the T-X, the sturdy T-800 has never really been supplanted in our hearts.
In fact, the Terminator movies – and I’ve kinda lost track of how many there have been by this point – are a treasure trove of evil robots. The grandpappy of them all of course is Skynet, the net-based superintelligence that brings Armageddon down on its creators, one of the greatest of all fictional artificial intelligences. I debated giving Skynet the place of honor on this list rather than the T-800. But Skynet is not played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
1. Agent Smith (The Matrix, 1999)
Hmm, did I say The Terminator was the high-water mark for evil robot cinema? I meant, “except for The Matrix.”
The Matrix is a brilliant film, and a film like that needs a brilliant villain. It found it in Agent Smith, chillingly portrayed by Hugo Weaving.
Is Agent Smith a robot? I think so. He’s an artificial intelligence, that’s for sure. He shoots guns and you can punch him. Ergo, he’s a robot. Q.E.D.
Now that we got that out of the way, I submit that Agent Smith is the greatest evil robot ever created. All the other machines on this list are flawed in some way. Either they have sympathetic motivations, like Ava and Roy Batty, or they’re just following their programming, like Ash. Or they have a secret weakness, like the Doomsday Machine and GLaDOS.
Not Agent Smith. Despite that brief moment where he pulls out his earpiece and has some chummy one-on-one bonding time with Morpheus, we never come to sympathize with Smith. He is evil, supremely capable, and he has no weaknesses. And unlike other, lesser Agents, he absolutely will not give up. He is your nightmare, wrapped up in a superintelligent and indestructible package.
Image courtesy of Warner Brothers
There you have it. All the abject lessons of 100 years of science fiction condensed down into a neat package. You’re welcome.
While we await the inevitable arrival of our robot overlords, I know you have lots of questions. Let me simplify it for you. There’s really only one that matters: When the robots come, will they look like WALL-E, or Agent Smith?
The Martian. Science fiction, or not? For many the answer is obvious: it’s about an astronaut living on Mars. Pure SF. Hard SF. No question about it. And yet it turns out the answer is something of a black-and-gold dress or, to use a more recent mind-bending metaphor, can be heard as either “Laurel” or “Yanny.”
I attended a local book club recently (not one limited to SF books) to discuss The Martian. The group of twenty was pretty evenly split as to whether or not it was SF. And it was all down to how the individual reader perceived the likelihood of the events, and the technology being portrayed. “We landed on the Moon,” “People live in the desert to simulate this stuff,” “Pathfinder is a real thing,” “We’ve got robots on Mars!”
For what it’s worth, I see The Martian as very much SF. But the discussion was interesting and it got me thinking about the interaction between technology and storytelling and, in particular, how the evolution of technology pushes at the boundary of fiction and science fiction.
Here are five ways in which technology and storytelling interrelate, in no particular order.
1. Fictional technology quickly becomes reality: I grew up watching “Star Trek: TNG”and, while the show rests primarily on the premise of warp drive, the little nuggets of day to day technology were the things that at once seemed so real and yet were completely out of reach: food replicators, holodecks, tablet computers…
Younger members of my family are far less impressed. Tablets are in all our homes, and aren’t replicators just fancy 3D printers? Travelling in the opposite direction, when my parents first watched the original “Star Trek,” the things that stood out to them were handheld communicators and doors that opened automatically when someone approached them – neither of which appeared at all odd to me when I was watching it!
One of the most interesting aspects of this phenomenon is the feedback loop between fiction and technology: those consuming science fiction shows tend to try and create the amazing tech that they’ve watched as a child. After all, who wouldn’t want a go on Marty McFly’s hoverboard?
2. Technology changes the rules: While technology does open new possibilities for storytelling, its rule benders can also pose serious problems for authors. Two examples are the cellphone and the internet. After all, how can a protagonist be put in danger when they can simply call for help? And how can satisfying puzzles be set for our characters, when those same cellphones give them access to the sum of humanity’s knowledge?
The fact that technology is constantly changing doesn’t just cause headaches for science fiction. Would we believe a story, for instance, that didn’t include characters using credit cards (which first appeared in Edward Bellamy’s 1887 story, Looking Backward)? Or a modern crime novel that didn’t include forensics, etc. etc.?
When writing my new novel, The Synapse Sequence, I was thinking about some of the ways in which policing is likely to change in the very near future. So when a teenage girl goes missing, would the police assign a grizzled detective to the case – or would they be more likely to get an AI to judge the evidence and use facial recognition to try and find her? At the time of writing, I considered this to be very much science fiction. Now though, I can almost hear the members of my book group objecting – and certainly similar systems are being introduced in certain parts of the world (notably China).
The main component of The Synapse Sequence, however, is more speculative. It involves the use of technology that allows an investigator to explore the memories of witnesses. A little more far-fetched than using AI’s and algorithms? Nope. All stuff that’s in development, and being reported on in science journals.
3. The world becomes both smaller and larger: In the decades leading up to the end of the 20th Century, technology was increasing the scope of stories, and opening up constrained settings: Phileas Fogg traveled around the world in eighty days, whereas nowadays it takes a few hours. Similarly, it’s possible to find out what’s happening on the other side of the globe on the evening news. So our stories are not limited to a single place, and characters like James Bond can hop from the Caribbean to Moscow to Japan between a few chapters…
…but this effect has also led to revisions to once staple story elements. We now know there is no life on Venus or Mars, we can be certain there are no sea creatures that once adorned ancient maps, and the rough sketches of exotic animals drawn by early explorers have long since been replaced by definitive photos. The answer? We’ve had to create more complex alien worlds and fantastical settings. The aliens no longer inhabit Mars, but interdimensional spaces!
4. Technology allows us to tell stories in different ways: I live quite close to the only place in the UK which has cave art (dating back 13,000 years). Alongside oral traditions, it represents some of the earliest forms of storytelling. Of course, writing itself can be viewed as a technology. The development of the printing press allowed mass communication and (arguably) accelerated the loss of local languages. And the personal computer has transformed our ability to edit and craft our work.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to claim we’re living through a period of rapid storytelling innovation. As some debate whether the novel is “doomed,” storytelling itself seems to be in rude health. A Golden Age in television drama is giving us hours of astonishingly complex worlds and plotting; computer games are delivering on the promise of truly interactive entertainment; and new social media tools (Twitter/Instagram) are quickly becoming a hybrid of oral, printed word, and visual traditions.
5. Technology changes the way we look at ourselves: One of the most important contributions of the space race was to transform our understanding of Earth’s place in the universe. The Hubble Space telescope – and its astonishing deep field view – provided a glimpse of thousands of galaxies from a tiny segment of space. Many have written about the environmental narrative being strengthened by photos of the pale blue dot, but I would also suggest that it has had another more subtle impact. Aliens are no longer of sole interest to science fiction – there is growing mainstream scientific interest in the search for life beyond our planet and indeed our solar system. The view increasingly seems to be that we are not alone, which might explain growing interest in speculative fiction within mainstream genre circles.
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And that’s my list (typed on a very old, but serviceable, laptop). So how will technology affect storytelling in future? I can’t wait to find out!
There are great bookish podcasts starting all the time—but I also constantly find myself discovering older ones I hadn’t known existed. I asked my fellow Book Rioters what podcasts they’ve discovered this year and would recommend to you.
I knew Gin and Whiskey Jenny from their website Reading the End. This podcasts features the two women talking about the books they’re reading, recent themes that occur at various times of the year, and annual events or pet peeves. One event that I enjoy hearing about is the “Hatening,” where both Gin and Whiskey Jenny decide to choose books that they will probably dislike and then form opinions about them. Their October discussion on the Twilight gender swap novel is quite remarkable, and it makes a person’s hair stand on one end to realize that they are completely right about how switching the genders in Twilight doesn’t take away the problematic material. Definitely listen, and try not to cry at their reread of Watership Down.
Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy host this weekly podcast where they (usually) interview one writer and talk writing, pop culture, and all things bookish. I got turned onto Writer’s Bone by the author David Joy (The Line That Held Us), who’s been a longtime and vocal supporter of the show. A good place to start is the episode with Friday Black author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
This podcast launched in 2016, but I just discovered it earlier this year. The premise is this: two Harvard Divinity School graduates read Harry Potterchapter by chapter, discussing it as if it were a sacred text. The result is a bit like English class, a bit like church, and a bit like book club. I consider Harry Potterthe mythology of my generation, a set of stories that connect me with a diverse community of people who share many of the same values but differ broadly in backgrounds and religious beliefs. For that reason, I love having the opportunity to engage deeply with these texts, examining the themes and considering their universal application. So far I’ve listened through seasons 1 and 2 (which cover the first two books), but the podcast is midway through Order of the Phoenix.
Hosted by author Nicole Falls, the #FallsonLove podcast features conversations with indie romance authors. I discovered this podcast earlier this year and quickly subscribed. Nicole brings her signature wit and charm and makes each episode worth the listen. Discover new authors, find out why they chose to write romance, and a few fun facts when you subscribe to this podcast.
Full disclosure, I know one of the hosts from grad school. And Megan was as funny and brilliant then as she is now! Each episode explores a work, a theme or a writer and each is educational but still hilarious. Try them out in any of their Oscar Wilde discussions for a good first time.
What started out as a podcast about horror movies has since branched out and has become a podcast about EVERYTHING trying to kill you, including many episodes about spooky books! Some of my favorites are the two minisodes where they read and react to stories from everyone’s childhood favorite, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. In addition to being incredibly funny, these women are super smart and offer three very different perspectives on every text they discuss. If you don’t believe me, just check out their episode about Dracula, which is both hilarious and taught me things about vampires and gothic fiction.
I’m going self-referential—this is a Book Riot podcast, but it is also one of my favorites and I only got into the backlog this year. Jeff and Rebecca dive into cool bookish stuff, using scripts and tons of good research so it feels like listening to NPR (in the best way!). I love cozy conversational podcasts, but I also love that I can listen to Annotated with my kids, send it to my mom and grandma, and talk over deep bookish history and figures with my husband. “The World’s Most Glamorous Librarian” about Bella De Costa Green is one of my favorite episodes, shining a light on a rocking librarian I had never heard of.
My friend (and fellow Book Riot contributor!) co-founded this podcast. It’s essentially a book club, but with very smart women leading the critique. They also talk about various elements of popular culture, and there’s a blog that complements it. They also take listener feedback, which is really cool! I loved the episode on Annihilation, and of course I also recommend the episode about The Book of Speculationbecause they invited me to be a guest!
If you’ve ever tried to predict what was going to happen next in a book and been spectacularly wrong, this is the podcast you’ve been waiting for. Each month these two friends—with very different tastes in books—take turns picking a book that one has read and the other hasn’t. They read the first few chapters, make predictions, and then finish the book and re-evaluate those predictions and the book as a whole (in a separate episode). It’s as fun to listen to as you’d imagine—especially when they discuss books you’ve already read so you can laugh along as whichever host picked the book tries not to react to the other’s wildly wrong (or right) predictions. There are only a few episodes out so far, but they’re so entertaining. Definitely a great pick for people looking for a fun bookish podcast with lots of laughs alongside the analysis.
For the bookish, there is nothing more magical and mysterious than the journey from the seed of an idea to a hardcover sitting in your hands. In Launch, middle grade author John August walks us through the entire process. The part I love about this podcast is how real-time it all feels. We get to watch as he has an idea in a hotel room on a rainy night. We experience with him the unexpected calls from a literary agent who wants to represent him and a publisher deciding that his book is perfect for their stable. We listen as he interviews the men on the line as the book is manufactured. We sit in classrooms with him as he does readings and has conversations with children about how the book impacted them. And August, with his previous experience as a screenwriter, takes listeners on this trip in a way that feels like we’ve physically been by his side through the entire wild ride.