The Synth/Slave Paradigm

Spoiler Note/Primary Character Current Progress: Completed main quest (“Institutionalized” complete; minor Brotherhood afilliation, but not locked out of other factions yet; extensive exploration of the Institute)

The question of the humanity of AIs has long been a staple of science fiction, even before science fiction was recognized as its own genre (think Frankenstein). If an artifcial entity achieves sentience, self-awareness, and agency, should it be considered a person? If so, what are our responsibilities toward these beings, given that we create them for our own purposes? Fallout 4 confronts these questions both directly and indirectly by presenting the player with synth-related dilemmas early in the main quest, and even earlier if certain side quests are completed.  While Bethesda uses synths to tell a number of morally complex stories in Fallout 4, such as the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque storyline in Diamond City, this post will focus on the role of synths as a metaphor for slavery in the real world.

Fallout 3 introduces this synth/slave paradigm overtly in “The Replicated Man,” a side quest in which the player must choose between helping Dr. Zimmer track down a runaway android or assisting “The Railroad” in allowing said android to elude his pursuers.  The parallels to the Underground Railroad and the American abolitionist movement are obvious, but Fallout 3‘s karma system makes it very clear that siding with Zimmer is evil and allowing the android to go free is good, so the moral question is answered before it can really be asked.

Fallout 4 continues this story, expands it, and, by dropping the karma system entirely, opens up a whole new set of possibilities for moral engagement. By way of preemptive qualification, I should point out that I have not progressed very far in any of the relevant factions, so my treatment of the attendant moral intricacies in this post will be far from complete.  I have already, however, experienced the tripolar tension among the factions regarding the “synth” problem:

  • The Railroad: All synths deserve to be free, even if that means that some will make terrible choices (like becoming raiders).
  • The Brotherhood of Steel: All synths are dangerous and must be destroyed.
  • The Institute: All synths belong to the Institute and are useful only insofar as they assist in the Institute’s goals.

Of the three, the Brotherhood is probably the least relevant to the exploration if the synth/slave paradigm.  While they certainly deny the humanity of the synths, they have no use for them at all.  They wish to eliminate rather than dominate.  If anything, their view of the synths is more akin to genocide than to slavery, and will be considered in a subsequent post.  Their contribution to this analysis has more to do with a productively unsettling pattern that emerges from the faction system in Fallout 4: namely, each faction appears to have some unsavory qualities that only become evident after the player has had an opportunity to “buy in” to the faction to some small degree.  In the case of the Brotherhood of Steel (who were almost irreproachable in Fallout 3), I have grown leery of Elder Maxson’s enthusiasm for killing synths.  His relative youth and brashness, combined with his lack of concern about military overreach, make me charry of progressing much further in that questline; more on that uneasiness later.

The Institute, of course, is more directly relevant to the synth/slave paradigm.  As the creators of the synths, they have an arguable claim to ownership.  Nevertheless, I noticed some very disturbing parallels to plantation slavery in the American South while I snooped around the Institute — the Coursers being a prime example.  During the main quest, the Courser is presented as a kind of super-synth: very tough and nearly indistinguishable from humans (in the manner of a Schwartzeneggerian Terminator). However, when I took the time to explore the Institute, I noticed several upsetting details, not the least of which was the way they interact with the other synths.

While wandering around the Institute, I witnessed several exchanges in which the Coursers behaved like plantation overseers toward the “lesser” synths.  One of these encounters that raised alarm bells for me involved a Courser berating and threatening a maintenance synth for using a computer terminal without authorization; I could not help but think of the slaves would were punished for learning to read.  I also hacked into a few terminals and learned more about the “reclamation” process, which sounds a whole lot like the practice of hunting down runaway slaves.  In both cases, the synth/slave is treated as property owned by the master/Institute, rather than as a sentient being with real agency.

One of the strengths of Bethesda’s quest writing is the manner in which they are able to use fantasy or sci-fi platforms in order to engage players in conversations that would be far too politically and emotionally fraught to have in the real world.  Furthermore, unlike the more vehicles of novels, movies, and TV, the video game forces the player to actively participate in these dilemmas.  In this instance, the synth dilemma allows us to examine certain, more controversial aspects of slavery outside the tragic history of human trafficking and the Atlantic slave trade.  For example, consider the question of ownership.  Clearly, in the real world, one human owning another is detestable.  However, we are not that far from building the kinds of AI depicted in Fallout 4.  What happens when these creations become self-aware has been the subject of many apocalyptic imaginings, but we rarely consider scenarios in which we are the oppressors.  When we finally succeed in creating something like a synth, will we own it?  Will it be acceptable to abuse it if it is, after all, only a machine?  Even if it possesses autonomy, it wouldn’t really be human like we are, so would we be able to do as we please with it?

But there’s the rub: in chattel slavery, the slave is never seen as human.  It isn’t like us, so we can do as we please to it.  If we were, at one time, able to make that mistake with regard to our fellow man, will we do it again when the man is artificial?  And will even later generations condemn us for it?

So, it would seem that the Railroad is the only viable moral choice for one who looks upon the synth/slave as a person.  I have not as yet gone beyond talking to Deacon, but I have heard from other players that there are some troubling aspects of the Railroad that rival those of the Brotherhood or Institute.  I am intrigued by the possibility of seeing an unseemly side of an organization that is modeled so blatantly on one of the most unassailably virtuous groups in American history.  Is there a limit to what is tolerable in the service of freeing the synths/slaves?

I look forward to finding out.


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