THE SOUL OF TECHNOLOGY

Pixar’s new animation SOUL (2020) has some interesting observations about learning psychology, the Internet of Things, and art.

The story begins with a contemporary theme. SOUL’s hero, a jazz musician, faces that famous dilemma: do I work for job security, or do I work for love? His mother is unhappy that he constantly avoids the security of teaching to pursue various gigs. Just when he’s landed the dream gig with a jazz celebrity, the musician falls into a manhole and transitions to ‘’the other side’’. But he’s not content sitting idly on a cloud. Countering the advice of Heavenly psychologists, he returns to Earth.

So far, the plot is predictable; it draws on tales like WINGS OF DESIRE, where angels return to Earth because they love it more than Heaven. But then Pixar introduces a new character — the ‘’Lost Soul’’. She is the hero’s accidental sidekick, who is looking to discover her talents. Traveling back to Earth, they end up in the wrong bodies. The musician is trapped in the body of a cat, and the Lost Soul finds herself in the musician’s body.

This body swap is a learning device — a mirroring roleplay — for the two protagonists. In training, the two would confront their hidden potentials and limitations. The musician would learn that his perfectionism can be a hindrance to intuition. The Lost Soul would find her spark through Mindfulness. Meaning is found in a heightened perception of the world.

All of this happens in the film, yet it is the underlying psychoanalysis that finally nails the problem (and the possible solution). Namely, when the climax comes for the musician, and he is able to do his favorite gig, he leaves the event strangely disappointed. As it turns out, the fulfillment of his Dream led to a confrontation with emptiness. Psychoanalysis teaches that desire does not come from a positive presence: it can never be ‘’had’’ or ‘’fulfilled’’. Because of this, we can only grow if we accept an interruption of our expectations.

The end sees the hero embracing total uncertainty. As he steps over the threshold to a new life, he doesn’t know where he is going. But as long as he keeps going, he might invent the goal. This is like the ending of psychoanalysis. The client realizes all must be built from emptiness. True knowledge comes from a void.

This leads us to SOUL’s observations about art and technology. In a crucial shot, the camera lingers on an advertisement from New York’s Modern Arts Museum:

The advertisement is a great animator’s in-joke. The line figure you see in the foreground is of a Heavenly ‘’policeman’’. He chases the fugitive hero using various energy circuits. Pixar is saying that their complex animation technology can be reduced to line art. Much like the design of the classic ‘’La Linea”:

The energy circuits that the Celestial Policeman uses are like the ‘’life line’’ La Linea walks on. They also refer to the invisible communication lines in the Internet of Things. The life line regenerates itself on the basis of an interruption. This presents an interesting paradox. Simulation technologies — many of them pioneered by Pixar themselves — remove the gap between art and technology. For example, the concept that computers can’t be creative. The ‘’Internet of Things’’ allows travel between Heaven and Earth. It also connects the hero’s musical talents with energy circuits. Finally, it opens his soul to lifelong learning.

The power of innovation is usually attributed to art as a ‘creative discipline’. In SOUL, technology has become the new art form.

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