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IEET > Vision > Bioculture > Contributors > Kyle Munkittrick

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Fringe and the Neutrality of Technology


Kyle Munkittrick
By Kyle Munkittrick
Pop Transhumanism

Posted: Dec 15, 2009

In keeping with the theme of talking about my favorite TV shows under the pretense of some sort of analysis, I’d like to talk a little bit about Fringe.

For starters, Fringe does three very important things.

  1. It gives us a genuinely mad, morally gray scientist who works for the good guys. Who doesn’t love Walter Bishop?
  2. Three very strong female characters: FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, FBI Agent Astrid Farnsworth, and CEO of Massive Dynamic, Nina Sharp.
  3. A completely human and yet totally Other menace.

If I’m feeling cheeky I may write a post on each of those points (especially #2) sometime this week, but for now I just want to point out those are traits of the show rarely seen on TV. And though I’d love to talk about how much I love the gross-out factor of the show, (giant parasitic worms? sign me up!) what I’m more interested in the moment is Fringe and its portrayal of technology as neutral.

Like its cousin Lost, Fringe is a mythology show, with a long, extended plot arc that requires and rewards viewer loyalty and neurotic attention to detail. Unlike Lost, Fringe has mastered the “monster” episode that made the original X-Files so popular. A “monster” episode is one in which the larger mythology of the show is secondary to the investigation of something weird, like a feral child or a chimera. They have a jump-right-in feel and are less subtle. Monster episodes in Fringe are some of the most enjoyable and, curiously, some of the most ripe for analysis because of the formula used by the shows writers.

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Invariably, whatever horrific thing the team from Fringe Division is investigating, Walter Bishop and William Bell, the two super-scientists from Fringe’s fictive universe*, had a hand in inventing it. At some point Walter remembers what he was trying to do when he concocted said malicious thing, reverse engineers his own invention and solves the case. The fantastic part about this goofy formula is that it shows the technology to be invented by a man we trust and like yet are unsure of, Walter Bishop, is then misused by evil people, and then better understood and countered by that same inventor. In short, the technology is always a pawn. There is never a moment where the inventor is taken over by his inventions (a la Doc Ock) or is his invention shown to be inherently evil.

For example, one of my favorite episodes involves Walter’s elaborate scheme to hide the components to a teleportation device and the criminals usage of a matter-wave disruptor thingamajig that allows them to walk through solid matter. What makes it brilliant is that neither technology comes off as evil, or even bad. The episode makes a point to highlight the very good intentions Walter had with his initial invention. Furthermore, we see that technology did not merely “fall” into the wrong hands, but was stolen by manipulative double agents. Abrams, despite his tendency to camp things up a bit too much, always knows how to seek the human element in a situation.

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We accept cursory explanations of how a person can transform into a beast or how a computer screen can liquefy someone’s brain because the story isn’t riding on the reality of those events, but on how people work together to cause evil and do good. Every case on the show has been solved by a full team effort. Every character has their weaknesses, but as a team (which at its largest was six people including Charlie and Broyles) their strengths are able to shine and save the day. It’s schmaltzy when I spell it out like that, but what makes Fringe entertaining is that the dynamic between the weaknesses and strengths is different every week.

In addition to the presentation of technology as a neutral thing in non-neutral hands, Fringe does a decent job of showing medicine and drugs as neutral as well. Though initially used for humorous purposes, Walter’s seemingly wanton usage of hallucinogens and narcotics is shown to stem not from hedonistic drives (though those are sated) but from intellectual curiosity and self-control. At least twice, we see Walter’s use of LSD to allow Olivia to confront her own mental situation. Yet in another episode, we see Walter suffering due to a minor overdose of Valium. The usage of drugs by an exquisite mind for both enjoyment and betterment is a rare portrayal in popular entertainment indeed.

It is very easy for a show like Fringe to take the Michael Crichton approach where science goes crazy, escaping its inventor’s control. Instead Fringe shows a consciousness is necessary to guide a technology to good or to evil. Walter and Bell invent a technology, evil people misuse it in their absence, Walter reasserts ownership of the tech through his intellect and regains control. It’s nice to see a show about new technologies and cutting edge science that focuses more on the people and their reasons for acting than just the tech itself.

I also enjoy watching Olivia shoot people and Walter eating Twizzlers while he is doing an autopsy. Also Broyles and Nina Sharp are both terrifying and weird. Did I mention there was a snake-bat-lion-scorpion? The show is good. You should probably watch it.

*It is worth noting that J.J. Abrahms uses science fiction tropes (time travel, parallel universes) to actually explain his fictive universe. In Star Trek, time travel explains his reinvisioning of things. In Fringe, parallel universes explain why Walter Bishop, William Bell, and Massive Dynamic exist yet the rest of history so closely matches our own.


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
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