Alan N. Shapiro, Autonomy in the Digital Society

Blog and project archive about media theory, science fiction theory, and creative coding

“Groundhog Day” (film), by Alan N. Shapiro

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In most movies and television series about time travel, a temporal displacement system still under construction (usually at the cutting edge of research in theoretical physics) has gone haywire. In the TV series Time Tunnel (1966-67), the Pentagon is about to cut off financial support for a top-secret time travel project operating from an underground site in the New Mexico desert. Although the experimental system is not yet fully debugged, two of the bolder scientists enter the tunnel without authorization in a last-ditch effort to convince the visiting top brass auditors that the technology is useful and deserving of further financing. The machinery misfires, and the two scientists become lost in time, setting the stage for the viewers to follow the scientists’ misadventures from week to week, as they pop into and out of different historical scenes. In Quantum Leap (1989-93), Sam (Scott Bakula) also jumps into his time machine (the Accelerator) before it is ready, and malfunctions of the apparatus establish an even more complex series premise. Each week Sam inhabits the body of a target character in a particular historical space, and he has to resolve the existential or moral impasse of the borrowed body’s character (unravel the situational puzzle and return the character to his or her rightful path). Then Sam can leap to the next borrowed self and continue his quest to get back to (his technoscience laboratory in) the future.

Imperfections in time travel technology also play an essential role in the Back to the Future movie trilogy (1985-90), in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), and in many television series about travel to alternate universes or dimensions.

In Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), time has gone berserk – but without any time machines, wormholes, theoretical physicists, or government funding of high-security clandestine research. Groundhog Day is fascinating because it is time travel without a single history book adventure, science fiction without a single technological device, and the triumphant reign of the computer program without a single computer. Groundhog Day tells us a great deal about the inevitable failure brought about by the projects of “mastering” reality through information and extending the self via its cloned “intelligent” agents, free as the film is of all the usual self-important lustrous signifiers of science fiction and digital technology. The groundhog (colloquial synonym for the woodchuck, a lowly burrowing animal) and Groundhog Day (the most trivial, even self-ironic, of all the holidays on the calendar) are signifiers of banality. The happy prognostications of prosthetic split selves by computer science luminaries are uncannily already realized in Groundhog Day – they have already come true in the non-intact quotidian reality of Bill Murray among the rodents.

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