I don’t know if Stanley Kubrick was thinking of Immanuel Kant when he filmed the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The film explores the relationships that humans have with technology and the unknown.
In the first scenes of the film, a tall obsidian monolith appears among a group of apes, our presumed ancestors. It rises into the sky like the Washington Monument, but it hangs over them more like a blank gravestone. The apes surround it, yelping and wailing, leaping and shaking—a sort of Paleolithic Pentecostal revival.
Eventually, one bold ape dares to reach out and touch the grave monolith. He hesitates like a man touching a stovetop burner. Fear. The cacophony of his companions continues. Your muscles tense up before you realize it.
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2001 is, of course, most famous for HAL, an artificial intelligence coordinating a manned mission to Jupiter. He is characterized by a glowing red eye, a camera lens, and by his eerie monotone voice, saying “I can’t do that, Dave.”
Near the end of the movie, Dave, the lone surviving astronaut, travels deeper into space where he encounters new horizons of evolution and incomprehensible powers. All we witness is a sensational confusion in the form of clean lines and watercolors. Interspersed with the light and color and sound flash images of Dave’s face. They are like photobooth pictures. Dave is paralyzed with terror, shielding himself from the onslaught of light. Dread overwhelms him like stunned prey.
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Movie goers have grown accustomed to these sorts of otherworldly experiences. Even A Space Odyssey, 45 years later, manages enthrall us with fright and enamor us with wonder. In fact, film is a medium that seems tailored to provide that cocktail of terror and awe. Again and again, we exprience new or imagined places and stunning visual effects that both captivate and inebriate. We are pinned to our seats with the sublime. That’s what Kant called it.
Emotions like these are not foreign to our experience. We experience them elsewhere too: in a vast crowd, at a stadium, in the mountains, at the ocean, watching a jet take off, in a cathedral. Many other places too. But more and more these moments are not incidental; they are manufactured.
More and more, in places like the movie theater, the sublime is something we create. Rather than a human response to creation, it is now technology that evokes in us the sublime. Instead of the awe of the Grand Canyon, we find ourselves inside the Apple store with our mouths hanging open.
As emotions, the creational sublime and the technological sublime have very little to distinguish them from one another. These two emotions vary only in the object generating those feelings. But in both cases, a real spiritual event takes place.
In the same way that a yawning precipice fills up every corner of our attention, so too do technologies lay open our souls when experiencing them for the first time.
As objects, however, the creation and the technological are very different. As objects that astound us, they hold our attention rapt. But how do these very different objects change us—especially when we constantly, consistently behold them? What’s the difference between the Grand Canyon and the iPad? Between the Alps and the autobahn? Between heights and hi-def? What is the effect of man-made wonder versus creational awe? What sorts of people does each one make of us?