Friday, March 20, 2020

Quick Sips - Serial Box: Machina [ep01.07 & 01.08]

Well the end of the first season is closing in and Serial Box’s Machina is shaping up to be an exciting and complex experience. Mixing hope and capitalism in beautiful and painful ways, the race is still very much on between DevLok and Overwatch to see whose machine will reign supreme. In the midst of this competition, though, the goalposts are shifting, and fear of failure is being deepened by what that failure might look like, and just how devastating a rogue AI can be. So far the focus has been on the possibility for good that these AIs and their programmers have, but there’s a small detour here to show just how large that possibility is for harm, too. So buckle up and let’s get to the reviews!


“This Facility has Gone 0 Days Without a Gray Goo Incident” by Martha Wells (ep01.07)

No Spoilers: Despite the garbage fire that Trey started at team Overwatch last episode, this one leaves readers/listeners hanging for a while longer while the focus shits back in time. For the entirety of the story so far there have been a few large events hanging in the background. The largest of them were the splitting of Overwatch from DevLok and the Gray Goo Incident, which destroyed the better part of an entire mesa. Well, finally we get a look at the goo! And in the fallout from that we also see the beginning of how and why Overwatch splits away, as the original partnership between Smits, Trey, and Stephanie fractures and fails.
Keywords: AIs, Accidents, Employment, Programming, Rules, Non-binary MC, Queer MC
Review: As much as I understand why the series has chosen to take this time to step back in time and revisit the moment of the big mistake, the moment of the destruction of the mesa, the moment that’s been haunting a lot of the characters for the whole series so far...I’m also on the edge of my seat wanting to see the fallout from this latest explosion! But deep breaths. I do really like how the story steps back and gets back to why DevLok and Overwatch split. Not just because of the huge personality differences, but because Trey isn’t able to see the flaws in his approach to the mission. With his approach to everything. Really what the episode does for me is underline how the Overwatch crowd couldn’t work for Trey. Could not. Because of how they were treated, because that sort of authoritarian drive only got worse and worse, and destroyed everything that had been cooperatively built between Trey, Smits, and Stephanie. And it did so because once Smits was out, the balance of power shifted. Left with only Stephanie, only a woman as his professional partner, her couldn’t even pretend to think of them as equals. And I love that the episodes manages to show all that without actually showing Trey. Trey is absent this whole time while everything is very much about him and his policies. The characters are revealed in contrast to the versions of themselves we’ve come to know through the story so far. And the difference between the “then” and the “now” is the level to which Trey dominated everything. Once the split happened, the people previously stifled by Trey were able to flourish, while Trey himself seems only to have gone further down the rabbit hole of his own Exceptional Genius.

And really I see it as further exploring the philosophical approaches the two teams have. On the one hand is Trey with his traditional Great Man approach. He wants to be the name, the hero, the person who fixes things. He wants responsibility for getting humanity to Mars because it’s a trophy to him. He doesn’t seem to care about the fate of humanity. Rather, that the world is ending is an opportunity. He’s not scared for what he might do because he is convinced he is good and right. While Stephanie comes at it from a different angle. She seems to really want to save humanity (even as that fruit is slightly poisoned by her desire to shut Trey up and make him look like an ass). But she sees what might be actually required to get humans there, and it’s more than just meeting the technical specifications of a government who has already fucked up one planet. I like that for all that Overwatch has been rocked by what happened, for all that Trey seems like he’s Winning (and feels like it, definitely), what Stephanie said about him is still the most true. He’s his own worst enemy, willing to sabotage Overwatch rather than admit that his vision wasn’t the best one. How that’s going to play out is still uncertain, but I like the further context the episode gives, and I am now fully ready to see how this thing plays out. A wonderful read!

“The Promise You Made” by Curtis C. Chen (ep01.08)

No Spoilers: We’re back to the future as the situation with DevLok and Overwatch during the trials intensifies. And if you thought things couldn’t get worse, well... The episode focuses on a few large threads. One is the continuing ways that Overwatch’s AI is defying expectations and coming up with solutions that go beyond the mandates of the competition. Another is the situation with Cameron, and the way they’ve been betrayed, and the weight they carry after the Gray Goo Incident, the fear that they will create something truly terrible. Finally, Noor and some of the DevLok team try to figure out what exactly Trey’s up to, and where his mysterious code came from. Each of the elements is interesting, and for those hoping for an easy resolution to problems at Overwatch, that’s not really in the cards. But I’m fascinating by the ways all the threads are starting to come together, and almost cringing with how bad things still might get.
Keywords: AIs, Employment, Non-binary MC, Queer MC, Programming, Competitions
Review: Well, things aren’t exactly roses at either DevLok or Overwatch, though Trey’s at least smug that he won this round and set his rivals into complete chaos. What he’s not really dealing with, though, is that the code he accepted to “help” his chances for winning seems to be something different than he thought. And he’s being checked up on by his employees, something he really doesn’t like. Except that’s what happens when the rules are supposed to apply to everyone and even the boss breaks them. The reason for the structure is to have accountability and make sure mistakes don’t happen. But Trey has tried to take himself away from being accountable to anyone, and so what’s left is the rest of his employees having to decide what they’ll do if they find evidence of something very unsavory. It’s in stark contrast to the teamwork of Overwatch, but that’s not exactly doing well at the moment.

I really feel for Stephanie, still, because while she’s violated privacy in a rather profound way, it’s been the pursuit of protecting everyone from Trey. I do appreciate the attitude she has, where only in this kind of complete transparency can they be protected. And I want to say that I think it explores the gap between that, between trying to protect people, and wanting to trust people. I don’t think it’s a matter of trust for Stephanie, entirely. At least not that she doesn’t trust the team to fraternize or etc. I don’t think her paranoia is about being betrayed. I do think it’s about recognizing that Trey is toxic and has no boundary he won’t violate. That said, it’s telling that his toxicity has spilled a little onto her, that she’s trying to take all of that onto herself, trying to give her team a way to not have to worry about him. And in that it _is_ about trust, because a part of her doesn’t trust them to treat Trey like as much of a threat as he is. To give him too much credit, and to be intimidated or seduced by him. But Stephanie is hardly distant or cool when it comes to Trey, and it really shouldn’t be her handling that aspect of the job.

And for me that all comes back to what the judges are grappling with. Trust. Loyalty. Following the rules. The thing about going to Mars is that people imagine these AIs as just tools, as just an extension of humanity. As, ultimately, disposable because they are machines and not people. But I feel that loyalty and trust go both ways. And neither team yet has quite mastered how to trust the AIs and consider them a partner rather than a minion. I fell like Overwatch is so much closer, but there’s only so far they can really act when they are still shackled by investors and the need for money. And I think that’s coming to a head, as Overwatch has to face what exactly they’ve created, and have to decide how much to trust the AI they’ve brought into the world to act independently with their best interests at heart. It’s a complex and interesting process and I am still very much on board. I love what the series has been doing and here is the last breath before the ramp up to the series finale. Fantastic work!


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