The Vigilante: A Crowdfunded Film About Compulsory Technological “Mind Correction”

Crowdfunding and transhumanism are a natural fit.  Crowdfunding provides a way to channel funds into worthy and exciting projects that might otherwise have trouble connecting with investors or donors.   And transhumanists are a creative lot, never lacking for amazing new ideas and the energy to make them real, but often short of funds to enable execution.  Kickstarter is the best known, but a number of intriguing crowdfunding sites have been popping up recently, such as RocketHub which has done a particularly great job of funding science projects.

With this in mind, Humanity+, the organization that sponsors this magazine, is considering a venture into the crowdfunding arena itself in the near future — but more about that another day.   My topic for the moment is a group of ambitious recent NYU film school grads, who are using crowdfunding to try to put together a 30 minute film with a heavily transhumanist thematic.

Their film is called The Vigilante, and its theme is one that has worried a lot of transhumanists over the last decades: What happens when mind modification technology is not only possible but starts to be considered obligatory?  What if you don’t want the recommended tweaks to your psyche?

Imagine a world with neuro-plastic surgery: you have the ability to customize your mind, so what would you like to change? Nail biting, procrastination, even psychosis – doctors can map out your mind, locate the source of any problem, and correct it.

It’s just become an affordable procedure, decide for yourself, will you embrace a natural identity or surpass your human limitations; as long as you’re not a ward of the state, the choice is yours.

“The Vigilante” is a film about Artemis, a brilliant teenager who loses his parents and winds up in state custody. While the other orphans eagerly await their corrections, hoping for a better future, Artemis doesn’t want one. With no other option he’s forced to escape, and must accept a life on the run.

Artemis encounters the notorious John Hardin (reformed serial killer) as he’s assaulted by an angry group. After they get away, John relates to the 16-year-old as on outsider and wonders if he sees his former self in the boy. He struggles whether he should report the young fugitive, but John can’t begin to imagine what Artemis is planning.

I had the opportunity to chat recently with Jos Diaz, one of the film-makers, about the project; and I’m happy to share our conversation with you here.   If you want to help The Vigilante come into being, you can make a donation at their Kickstarter page here.  The way Kickstarter works, they need to accumulate a certain amount of donations by June 11, or they don’t get anything.

The themes involved in The Vigilante will be familiar to anyone who’s been around SF and/or transhumanism for a while.  But it’s interesting to me to see how different people take these themes on, and in general to see how rapidly and definitively they’re becoming mainstream.

Ben:  Why did you decide to make a film on the particular topic of mind correction technology?   What gripped you about it particularly?

Jos:  I think the workings of the human mind have been shrouded in the kind of “scientific mystery” that used to apply to genetics and nuclear physics–the idea that control was outside of our reach. As more and more people use psychiatric prescriptions and exercises that use our knowledge of neuroplasticity it’s becoming increasingly clear that that won’t be the case for long.

This project comes from the feeling that no one has done a very good job of evaluating these inevitable developments in a fair and accessible way. The human mind is kind of the final frontier–it’s what we use to understand and create. The consequences of gaining greater control over it will be huge and change the very way we think about these questions in the first place.

Ben: What are your own views about mind customization?  Do you see it becoming widely available in your lifetime?

Jos: Trying to guess the specific timeline and direction of scientific advancement is usually a losing game, but I’m sure that within our lifetimes there will be developments in the field of “mind control” or “mind customization” that we can’t even imagine. Study after study has shown that changes in the way we interact with technology are already changing our brains; once it becomes a goal to target and direct those changes it won’t be long before it becomes a precise science.

Ben: Would you customize your own mind?

Jos: Would I customize my own mind? Absolutely. Human life is already a constant battle to overcome whatever psychological or behavioral patterns we don’t like about ourselves–technology could make that conflict a lot easier to overcome.

Ben: If you had kids, would you customize their minds, or wait till they were old enough to understand the concept and ask their permission?

Jos: Would I customize my children’s minds? That’s a more complicated question. In a lot of ways that’s what parenting is. There has to be room for resistance though, and the ability to make your own decisions growing up. I’m not sure that using technological “corrections” would foster the healthiest relationship with your kids.

Ben:  Do you see a risk that the government will force people to have certain mind customizations?

Jos: Is there a risk that governments would use the technology on people against their will? I don’t think there’s any question. That’s exactly what The Vigilante’s central conflict is all about.

Ben: Any particular SF films or novels that were particularly major influences on your work?

Jos: We were highly influenced by the work of Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Alan Moore, and Ray Bradbury (RIP) among others.

Ben: All great writers of course; Dick is a personal favorite.   Actually your Vigilante story reminds me a bit of the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut?  Do you know that one?  It seems to have a quite similar theme…

Jos: Harrison Bergeron is obviously an influence, but we’re more concerned with the implications of new technology in a democratic society. Just like real life, the world of The Vigilante is neither a dystopia or a utopia–science changes society (and vice versa) for both better and worse.

Ben: Often SF stories can be seen as metaphors for aspects of current society.  Do you think the Vigilante has this aspect?  Are there experiences in your own life that remind you of what the protagonist of Vigilante goes through?

Jos: I interned at a psychiatric medicare facility in the Bronx, where thousands of people would come through every day for government-paid subscriptions to Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Adderal, even Methadone and more. Once someone has been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder they lose the right to deny care and usually stay on their prescription for years, if not the rest of their lives. Even though we haven’t developed a surgical procedure to fine-tune mind correction it’s certainly not only a goal–but an ongoing practice  –of our society.

Ben: True enough. And of course “mind correction” could be interpreted more broadly, beyond the use of drugs or implants.  The whole school system is, in a sense a massive effort at mind correction — though sometimes I think it’s really more like mind incorrection.

Anyway, I think your project sounds fantastic, and I hope you get the funds to make your film.  And I hope to see a lot of transhumanist movies and media coming out of you and your friends in the future…

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