In a digital age where concepts of productivity, technology, and identity are irrevocably tied together, Zima’s story offers a solution that ties together spirituality and technology.
Consciousness has become more intertwined with the digital world than ever, and technological advancements of artificial intelligence have made artificial creations and art much more indistinguishable from those that are man-made. Marshall McLuhan writes, “we approach the final phase of the extensions of man… the technological simulation of consciousness.”1 As advancements in artificial sentience converge with the potential colonization of human consciousness by technology, questions arise regarding the extent to which we should incorporate technology into our identity, consciousness, and sense of purpose. “Zima Blue,” an episode of Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots, has an extremely unique approach to these questions and sheds some light on this dubious relationship. The narrative follows a reporter meeting with Zima, a futuristic reclusive artist so obsessed with the color shade Zima Blue that his canvases become larger and larger until they are planet-sized. At the end of the story, Zima is revealed to be an artificially created being who has continuously evolved from being a pool cleaning robot that loosely resembles a Roomba to his supreme, all-knowing status. After explaining his origins to the reporter, he dips into the pool, shuts off his higher brain functions and returns to his original purpose: tirelessly cleaning the Zima Blue colored pool tiles. In light of our own recent advances in artificial intelligence, Zima Blue offers an introspective and spiritual guide to navigate this technology, and ultimately questions what these developments mean for our own humanity.
The fear of technology becoming increasingly advanced to the point where it overtakes humans is a common fear and trope in media/science fiction about artificial intelligence. However this demonization of artificial intelligence can often distract us from the more immediate cultural and political implications of this technology today. Treating artificial intelligence as a threatening unknown “other” is largely unproductive; exploring this form of consciousness may shed light on our own burgeoning relationship with this technology. Zima himself has an extremely classy, respectful, and welcoming disposition towards the reporter throughout the narrative, subverting an archetypal demonization of artificial sentience.
While at first glance “Zima Blue” is strictly about artificial intelligence, there is much more than what meets the robotic eye. Although the audience comes to realize that Zima is fully artificial, the narrative blurs the boundaries between artificial intelligence and humanity. The reporter says, “You’re a man with machine parts, not a machine that thinks it’s a man,” to which Zima responds, “Sometimes, it’s difficult even for me to understand what I’ve become.”2 Zima points to the difficulty in truly reconciling the ways technology alters consciousness. Even for those who have fully interiorized literacy, “To think of words as totally dissociated from writing is simply too arduous a task to undertake, even when specialized linguistic or anthropological work may demand it.”3 The modern digital consciousness can barely fathom the consciousness of a fully oral culture; they are almost unrecognizable to one another (like the original and final forms of Zima). We are a sort of artificial consciousness ourselves, as our forms of communication, existence, and identity become increasingly integrated into the digital landscape. By complicating the relationships between these two dichotomous types of consciousness, “Zima Blue” points to the convergence of them as they are irrevocably intertwined. “Zima Blue” blurs the lines of demarcation that it sets between artificiality and humanity, prompting the viewer to reconsider what it means to be a human in the digital landscape.
Critical media theorists, such as Walter J. Ong, largely view the development of the technology of communication through a Neo-Darwinian perspective; Ong notes that without evolutions in technology, “human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations.”4 This evolution of technologically imbued consciousness starts with literacy, as “orality–literacy dynamics enter integrally into the modern evolution of consciousness toward both greater interiorization and greater openness.”5 The modern Darwinian evolution of consciousness insinuates a movement towards an all-knowing and god-like consciousness, one that Zima embodies.
However, “Zima Blue” satirizes, subverts, and undermines this perspective on technology, reveling in the absurdity of viewing consciousness as linearly evolving towards perfection. Zima’s artworks start small but grow to be massive planet-sized undertakings, as he views this as the next logical step in his art. However, they are all essentially the same pieces of art—a square of the color shade Zima Blue. Zima is increasingly dissatisfied with his accomplishments although they exponentially increase in physical scale and popularity. Marshall McLuhan writes, “We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”6 Zima prompts the reader to instead consider this technological embrace of anything and everything, and ask what the technological evolution of consciousness means for our very humanity.
McLuhan realizes that new technology is a double-edged sword, and discusses the idea of self-amputation, wherein a new technology may expand upon one aspect of consciousness while amputating another in an attempt to achieve equilibrium. For example, although social media may give its users the ability to connect from anywhere at any time, it amputates face-to-face interactions and communication.
In “Zima Blue,” a similar amputation is happening. Zima is able to take his advancements to new feats with every new upgrade in his hardware, yet he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his work. While new technologies may allow us to take our material achievements to places they have never been, we could lose the intrinsic satisfaction of and connection to our own humanity. Zima says that his decision to shut down his higher brain functions and revert to his original state was “to extract some simple pleasure from the execution of a task well done.”7 The narrative (and especially the ending) provides a manual for human consciousness, with Zima renouncing his success and pursuing his innate purpose. This is oddly reminiscent of the sentiments expressed by Lord Krishna within the spiritual lessons of The Bhagavad-Gita.
The Bhagavad-Gita lays out the renunciation of material desires as a means of attaining divine, spiritual bliss. Lord Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna: “The man of eternal renunciation / is one who neither hates nor desires; / beyond dualities, / he is easily freed from bondage.”8 In his own eternal renunciation, Zima is freeing himself from the spiritual bondage of his technological upgrades. Renunciation in The Bhagavad-Gita refers to renunciation in action, not the renunciation of action. In the conclusion of the epic dialogue, Krishna tells Arjuna: “Action in sacrifice, charity, / and penance is to be performed, / not relinquished—for wise men, / they are acts of sanctity.”9 Similarly, Zima is not simply deactivating himself and abandoning the world entirely to live an ascetic lifestyle. He remains cleaning the Zima Blue colored pool tiles without worldly desires, tirelessly contributing in his own way.
The overarching message of the narrative is not to renounce advancements in technology entirely; as Ong writes, “to approach [previous forms of consciousness] positively is not to advocate it as a permanent state for any culture.”10 Zima is choosing renunciation even after reaching a god-like level of capabilities and quite literally reaching the cosmos. This choice subverts an Neo-Darwinian lens on the evolution of a technologically-imbued consciousness. Zima offers a path for mankind that is not simply turning outwards to chase the cosmos and become gods, but turning inwards to conquer material desires and consciousness. This is embodied when Zima comments on his original form of consciousness as a robotic pool cleaner: “It was all I knew, all I needed to know.”11 This framework as it pertains to our modern relationship with technology is as relevant as it has ever been. Just as technology becomes increasingly advanced, the problems that present themselves to us both materially and spiritually become increasingly complex. In a digital world where technology is designed to capture and commodify our attention, and where we are measured by our productivity, how do we navigate this relationship holistically?
Zima’s last words before ceremoniously deactivating his higher brain function is that he is “leaving just enough to appreciate [his] surroundings.”12 Perhaps a solution to the technological colonization of our consciousness, on an individual and collective level, is a sense of mindfulness and selective interest.
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell offers some guidance and insight as to how to implement this into one’s own consciousness. Odell eloquently lays out the idea of “doing nothing” as a form of mindfulness, selectively engaging with technology and modern conceptions of productivity on one’s own terms. Like the Gita, Odell is not advocating for a complete renunciation of action (engagement with technology), but a renunciation in action. She writes that “half of ‘doing nothing’ is about disengaging from the attention economy; the other half is about reengaging with something else.”13
Just as Zima deprogrammed himself from his higher intelligence functions, Odell refers to “doing nothing… both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully.”14 Zima’s art embodies but also satirizes the technologized mind, where “our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new in the world.”15 This brings up the question of productivity within a modern capitalist society. As Odell puts it, moments of happiness are “not steps on a ladder” as a capitalist society has deemed it to be. 16As Zima progresses up these metaphorical steps of capitalist productivity, he reaches the very pinnacle of achievement yet receives no real sense of fulfillment in return.
The fact that Zima was able to achieve fulfillment and connection to his purpose is tied to the idea of austerity in The Bhagavad-Gita, where willingly accepting some form of difficulty yields spiritual advancement. Selective attention is posed by Odell as a way to navigate the “attention economy” that we live in, but it similarly requires a degree of restraint and difficulty. As the Lord Krishna says, “A man burdened by his body / cannot completely relinquish actions.”17 Zima gives up his body in order to relinquish attachment to the material world, functioning as a metaphor for the active selective attention and mindfulness Odell advocates for. Instead of pursuing and enjoying the fruits of his labor, Zima chooses a path of infinite struggle and servitude but also spiritual equilibrium.
“Zima Blue” offers an introspective spiritual guide for individuals to navigate a world of ever-evolving technology, as well as a unique framework with which to view artificial intelligence. In a digital age where concepts of productivity, technology, and identity are irrevocably tied together, Zima’s story offers a solution that ties together spirituality and technology. The narrative seamlessly blurs these two aspects of a modern digital mind, prompting the viewer to question what it means to be human in the face of a rapidly technologized consciousness. Although Zima is an artificially sentient being, his story projects the timeless spiritual struggles of human purpose, divine servitude, and sacrifice onto the technological and cultural developments in the present and near future.
After a close look at “Zima Blue,” I think I will try ‘going for a swim’ myself.
- McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge, 2010, 19.
- Valley, Robert, dir. 2019. Love, Death & Robots. Season 1, episode 4, “Zima Blue.” Aired March 15, 2019, on Netflix, 06:35.
- Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013, 14.
- Ong, 14.
- Ong, 176.
- McLuhan, 19.
- “Zima Blue,” 08:34.
- Miller, Barbara Stoler. The Bhagavad Gita. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1996, 76.
- Miller, 185.
- Ong, 171.
- “Zima Blue,” 07:09.
- “Zima Blue,” 08:21.
- Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville, 2019), 18.
- Odell, 22.
- Odell, 275.
- Odell, 20.
- Miller, 186.