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True Blood: Coexistence
Ben Scarlato   Jun 30, 2009   Ethical Technology  

[Contains spoilers] True Blood is a fascinating HBO series about vampires living with humans, now in its second season. It follows Sookie Stackhouse, a human that has fallen in love with the vampire Bill Compton. While the vampires’ fight for marriage rights and the intense religious opposition reflects the gay rights struggle, True Blood’s depiction of an ageless species with several enhanced powers also provides an exploration of how society might deal with transhumans, and perhaps more importantly how society views such possibilities.

The darker side of human-vampire relations has really come into play this season. Even while Sookie gets deeper into her relationship with Bill, her brother Jason Stackhouse has become a passionate member of the vampire-hating Fellowship of the Sun and lies to her about attending their Light of Day Institute leadership conference. Vampire blood dealer Lafayette was tortured in a basement for his crimes against vampires, and even some of the most powerful vampires have gone missing, presumably taken by humans who do not want to live or work alongside vampires.

The Fellowship of the Sun has strong anti-immortality rhetoric, saying that “one of the most difficult truths for humans to accept is that our time in this world is limited,” and “extremism in confronting eternal darkness is no vice.”



Preventing similar violence between transhumans and regular humans is a core reason why ensuring equal access to enhancement technologies is so important. While enhanced humans would not have vampiric tendencies or any desire to feed on humans, their existence may still attract violence either because it is feared that they could out-compete humans or simply because they are so different. While ensuring fair access to enabling technologies will still leave a rift between those who want to take advantage of enhancement technologies and those who do not, it will at least allow an avenue besides violence for those who want to stay competitive with transhumans and robots.

As for providing for those who reject any enhancements, this is yet another reason for a social wage and Basic Income Guarantee, aside from the fact that robots may replace everyone in the workplace (which should be viewed as an opportunity to be adapted to and taken advantage of, not as the tragic loss of an obsolete economic system).

True Blood isn’t intended to be about the future though, it’s about a thought-provoking alternate reality in which vampires are able to live alongside humans by subsisting on synthetic blood. As such, it is a refreshing break from many science fiction series, which tend to get the future laughably wrong.

By the same token, while it’s not a fault of a show about vampires that it presents vampires as dark creatures, it does reflect a broader theme throughout popular culture where species or groups that are substantially different from humans lack important characteristics or values that we see as central to being human. There is often an implicit assumption that any major change or alteration from the natural human state will bring about negative consequences.

For instance, in True Blood Jessica is a young, impulsive, vampire. Homeschooled and never allowed to watch television by her controlling parents and abusive father, she is made into a vampire by Bill when she sneaks out for her first party. While she is certainly enthusiastic about her new vampiric state, when she goes by her family’s house to see her parents and sister one last time, she can’t even control herself as she slides from the car to the front steps. Without Bill’s intervention, this would have had disastrous consequences. Only he was able to stop Jessica from strangling her father. Her parents, who had been on the news asking for help finding the daughter they believed missing, had to be glamoured “within an inch of their sanity.” Bill himself had to work long and hard over the years to regain some trace of his humanity.

It seems we have great difficulty imagining transformations that actually sharpen, rather than diminish, the traits we value as humans. When a valued trait, such as intelligence, actually is enhanced in fiction, it is often as a cautionary tale, attempting to show us that with increased intelligence must comes hubris or reduced empathy and emotions. It is as if we are to believe that humans are at some magical set-point, with precisely the right degrees of anger, creativity, deceit, honesty, intellect, impulsiveness, logic, jealousy, and wisdom. But we can change for the better. Instead of becoming more impulsive, we could devise ways to control our anger and impulses when they needed to be controlled. So much violence is carried out on impulse or in altered mind-states, it seems a shame not to try to give individuals the tools, perhaps through neurotechnology or pharmacology, to do what they actually want to do.

Terrors of Intimacy

Although it is sometimes overlooked, one of the more intriguing elements of the series is Sookie’s telepathy. Her ability to hear what everyone’s thinking, from rumors to dark secrets, disgusting to twisted, can be very distressing to her. It prevented Sookie from being in a relationship with a man until she met Bill, whose thoughts she could not hear. Series creator Alan Ball has said that True Blood is about “the terrors of intimacy,” and the first time Sookie was able to endure some of those terrors it was only by not having to deal with her partner’s. While horror at others’ thoughts has a parallel in the possibility of developing some form of technological telepathy, a more immediate concern is whether we will able accept each others’ true selves in an increasingly transparent society, or some form of participatory panopticon.

In a society where we accept inevitable losses of privacy in exchange for the ability to watch over government, one of the challenges will be managing reputations as more and more of our secrets are open to the world. When everything we do can be recorded, not only will it be harder to forget interpersonal fights and maintain denial of each others’ flaws, it may be easier to piece together thoughts and desires. Even today, it is somewhat alarming how much dirt you can find on some people by digging up their old, public, teen-angst ridden, LiveJournal entries. In the future such traces could be much more abundant and easier to synthesize.

If we accept a broad interpretation of freedom of speech and, by extension, universal freedom of thought, are we willing to stick with those principles when confronted with the true dark nature of some people? The most repugnant example of such a challenge in True Blood was in the first season, when Sookie told Bill about her Uncle Bartlett who she knew had desired her as a child. However, he never actually sexually molested her, and if it were not for her telepathy her interactions with him would not have been traumatic. In such a situation, where Bartlett controlled his actions but not his thoughts, did Bill have justification for killing Bartlett?

All this is not to say that we should not strive for a transparent society, and admittedly the prospect of having virtually all our actions recorded does not equal coercion to put all our thoughts into words. There are many ways that the challenges of transparency could be overcome, and just one of the elements in addressing the reputation issue could be empowering individual citizens with the transformative technologies that would allow them to become who they want to be.

Ben Scarlato, a former IEET intern, studied Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology and works as a software engineer focused on security.



COMMENTS

We at True-Blood.net have been discussing these very issues. We have defined and examined such issues as Bill’s Humanity, whether he had a right to kill Bartlett (Which you have wrong, Bartlett did molest Sookie, he fondled her. Touching is molestation.) to who has the right to exist and be who they are.

True Blood is a real microscopic study of human behavior wrapped up in a really great soap opera. Feel free to take a look at the forum at True-Blood.net, we would welcome your remarks.

Aslinn Dhan—Moderator, True-Blood.net

Ben,

We’d love to have you on Vamp Radio’s True Blood Monday radio show if your interested.  Please email me at jcreynolds_at_vampradioonline.com for more details.  This is a perfect discussion for us.  Also I agree with the moderator above, their conversations on True-Blood.net are amazing, you should check them out as well. and True-Blood.net Radio is cool as well!

Jess
Program Director
http://www.vampradioonline.com

I write for Truebloodnet.com I agree with the sentiments of Aslinn Dhann. Sookie was molested Her uncle Bartlett touched her inappropriately.I do like your comparison of the demonetization of what we do not understand.Also true is the access to information as you know along with google we have without question from most given up our privacy(and many civil rights) as we are force fed it is for our own safety. As for Bill’s “murder” of Sookies uncle Bartlett.Countries have waged war and taken millions of lives through out history based on religion,ethnicity, territory,and to control vital commodities.So how are we humans less violent?? We have a little something in most places called the death penalty.So does that mean when it is government sanctioned it is OK?? these are things everyone should think about.Especially in our comparison to human behavior on True Blood .The euphemisms in True Blood are what makes the show that much better for me.

Thanks for the correction, Aslinn and Andrea.

You can stream or download the True Blood radio show we did here at Vamp Radio Online.

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