What ‘Deus Ex: Human Revolution’ Says About Social Change

So much has been written on Deus Ex: Human Revolution already that I don’t want to reiterate what has already been said. However, there is something which struck me while I was playing Human Revolution which hasn’t gotten enough attention. It happened as I was walking through the convention hall in Detroit on my way to confront Taggart. This man was giving a speech about the dangers of trans-humanism at a time when a growing subset of the general population had become augmented. There was a woman in the lobby yelling to all that would listen that being augmented is a beautiful thing, that it’s nothing to fear and even this might be a natural part of us. In that moment, I realized that Human Revolution is not a narrative about trans-humanism. It is about how society deals with change.

Spoilers for Human Revolution ahead.

The marketing for Human Revolution certainly doesn’t betray this. The TV spots are about making one’s life better with augmentation, with hints about the ugly underside of becoming dependent on neuropozyne. The surface elements of Human Revolution don’t make it obvious either. A big twist in the plot comes when a corporation embeds a switch in people’s augmentations as a means to control them. The last stage of the game involves a brilliant ‘conversation boss-fight’ where Jensen attempts to convince Darrow the errors of his ways, before devolving into something resembling most zombie shooters today.

Yet, there is an undercurrent to everything that’s presented to us which draws parallels with every major social change in the last century. Listen to the woman in that lobby and you’re reminded of the mantra ‘Black is Beautiful’ or ‘Born this way’. How many times in California did LGBT-activists stand in the lobbies of government halls urging people that they were nothing to be frightened of, that they were people just like them, that being LGBT is a natural thing? While listening to her Trans-Humanism was the furthest thing from my mind, instead images of the Civil Rights movement came to mind.

Remember the debate over Prop-8 (the California law which would ban same-sex marriage). Some argued completely for it, others against, and others wanting to temper it with offering an equivalent of marriage but not marriage itself. Jensen’s boss (Sarif) argues for the complete, unrestricted ability for people to augment themselves. Taggart urges restraint and caution. Darrow argues for the abolishment of human augmentation completely.

Earlier in Detroit, I passed someone who saw Jensen’s augmentations and remarked “You were beautiful, just as you were.” It was a one-off line by an inconsequential character, but it struck me harder than most of my other experiences with Human Revolution. I’ve experienced that before. I have walked down the street and had someone make the same remark. I’m not augmented, but I was changed at one point in my life. The words were spoken to me by someone in my community, someone who knew of me but not personally. I had plastic surgery to correct a birth defect, and now there’s this woman urging me it was a mistake. I’ve never forgotten that, so imagine what it was like to be playing Human Revolution only to be blindsided by the comment again. I’m not alone in this. Many people are often told that we were born perfect and that the alterations we do are unnecessary (even if it leads to a better life). The woman who spoke to Jensen, like the woman who spoke to me, didn’t know him personally. However, they thought they knew enough to say that what we did was a mistake and hint that it’s something we should go back on.

In July of 2012, a man in Paris was attacked because of his eye implant. Another man “angrily” grabbed at his implant, attempting to wrest it off despite it being surgically bound to the victim’s face. It was reported as the first ‘cybernetic hate crime’. Human Revolution shows us a world where this is common. There’s a growing divide between ‘normal’ un-augmented people and the rest. As society changes, there becomes an increasing resistance to that change. Often it turns violent. Hate crimes rise as the issue becomes more and more visible because people are frightened, angry about society becoming something which they don’t fully understand. The targets shift as one group becomes accepted as mainstream, and another first becomes visible. While hate crimes against Lesbian and Gay persons are on the way down, Transsexual persons are still dealing with intense discrimination. I guarantee you that discrimination against people with ocular implants and the like will rise with time. I know it will be around the time when the thought of someone being gay is a complete non-concern to the vast majority of the public.

Darrow himself is another example that Human Revolution is about more than augmentation. Darrow was instrumental in bringing human augmentation to the world, and now seeks to destroy it. He believes that it’s dangerous, and his flipping of a switch to demonstrate how easily augmented people can be controlled is his way of arguing the point. I have to ask, how often have we created something which was supposed to make our lives better but ended up doing the opposite? I’m reminded of the cold war, where two governments stockpiled enough nuclear weapons to obliterate all life on this planet in the name of maintaining peace. You can argue the merits of Game Theory, and it’s possible that mutually-assured destruction did save us. You can also argue that we’ll forever live in the atomic age’s shadow, constantly under threat of the possibility of thermonuclear war. A device which was created to end a war and restore peace, is now a direct threat to it. There is a famous quote where upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb during the Trinity Test. The scientists in charge who witnessed the explosion were forever changed by it. Two of the leading scientists are famous for what they said that day. Kenneth Brainbridge turned to Oppenheimer and remarking, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Oppenheimer later said that he was reminded of a quote from the Bhagavid Gita, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” These were not evil men, and what they created was never meant to hold the world at knife-point for decades to come.

There are two sides to every coin. The Internet (also a product of the cold-war) in the 1990’s was going to be something which united us all. A way to share vast amounts of knowledge with anyone connected. It was going to revolutionize our lives, in a way that a solitary library never could. Many were right in this respect, a quick Google search today can bring you (largely) accurate information on just about anything. People are making friends with others whom they never would have met otherwise. The Internet is also at the centre of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program. A gigantic data-collection program which likely has your emails and text-messages on file, done in the name of national security. The details of the scope of this project are still coming to light, but it’s likely that the data on every smart-phone could have been tapped without a warrant and regardless of you being a US Citizen or not.

Human Revolution uses augmentation to show the lengths of which technology can change our society. There is a widening gap between wealthy and poor, and the technology today doesn’t help. In the world presented to us, the wealthy can afford the best augmentations and never fear of going without nuropozyne. They can afford implants which make them think faster, or replace missing limbs, or even upgrade existing ones. The upper-class becomes smarter, stronger and evermore in charge. I grew up with a computer in the household. At first we didn’t know what to do with it, but I learned to use it. I can now type ninety words per minute, I can maintain my PC, I know how to boolean search, and I have easy access to the internet no matter where I am. In a university setting, the ability to work so quickly with computers helped elevate me above my peers. People who struggled with word processing took twice as long writing an essay, three times if we’re factoring in time it takes to research. I could find information so much more efficiently than others that it helped give me a higher grade, with more free time to enjoy my passions. Human Revolution is set in 2027, not far off from where we are today. Close enough that arguably we’ll be having a laugh about “Where’s my face-sunglasses? I asked for them!” in fourteen years time before it gets old within an hour. Still, by choosing to set the game closer to modern times it only invites us to ask questions about the stratification we’re already experiencing due to technology. Human-augmentation isn’t a reality yet, but smart- phones, laser-eye surgery, and wireless broadband are.

Some people have found Human Revolution wanting because it doesn’t offer a clear moral on the topic of trans-humanism. At the end you’re given four options. Three give you an ending where Jensen talks about the rationale for siding with the key players mentioned above. The fourth option is to defy all of them and leave the future in humanity’s hands. While Jensen’s rationale for whatever you decide could be argued as the story’s moral, the game itself never tells you what to think. Instead, the game world is filled with images of protests and counter protests, of activism, discrimination, and the confusion which stems from radical social upheaval. There are multiple voices on all sides of the argument, and it’s left for the player to look upon it and draw their own conclusions. By the end, I wasn’t thinking about human-augmentation at all. As I walked through Detroit, I didn’t see hints of a new world order. I saw the same world we inhabit today, having to deal with ever-present change.

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