What Does it Mean to Be Human?
Updated: Feb 15
What truly defines the human experience? Is it our ability to think beyond means of survival, or the mechanisms through which we regulate our emotions past those of primal instincts?
Humans, now streaming 3 seasons on Amazon, questions the lengths to which mankind goes to in order to distinguish themselves from other beings. The show follows two distinct families, one human and riddled with undisclosed trauma and a depleting marriage. The other, a diverse group of individuals who transcend the definition of mankind: “Synths” capable of achieving consciousness.
In a world parallel to our own, the creation of anthropomorphic synthetic robots (‘Synths’) are subject to slavelike treatment and the most basic of living standards in the name of progress. These synths are housemaids, factory workers, drivers, and more. They roam the world in oblivion as to what living actually entails; the pleasures, pain, triumphs, and torment.
“Though the show’s influences include the movies Blade Runner and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, it has a lot in common with The Handmaid’s Tale’s queasily relevant dystopian angst… and even the down-to-earth domestic melodrama of This Is Us," Noel Murray writes for The Verge.
Humans proves to be one of those shows that takes on an array of thematic warnings and messages of hope. Over the course of three seasons, it proves to do this successfully and with purpose by pinning family against family, life against life.
Let us first examine some key similarities and differences between the humans and synths portrayed in the show, using the aforementioned families as reference.
The Hawkins family consists of five members: a working mother, a stay at home father, teenage daughter skilled in technology, tweenage son, and young daughter who often mirrors those around her. The family first encounters the group of synths when they buy one to help with the home. This event serves as a catalyst for the schism that would ultimately occur between the relationships of the Hawkins family.
The show’s synthetic family includes six young adults, all diverse in gender and sex, who call themselves siblings, having been given conscious by one single creator. We are first introduced to each individual synth by the current roles they find themselves in: A homemaker destined to be the property of some foreign owner, a sex worker programed to do just that but cursed with consciousness at the same time, a strong male leader capable of understanding both the synthetic mind and human one, and more. As the show progresses, we see the synthetic family grow larger and larger.
The humans find themselves grappling with their own purpose separate from their work, questioning if their work rules their identity. The matriarch of the Hawkins family is a working mother, a lawyer with both grit and integrity. As the show progresses, she becomes the voice of the synthetic community, fighting for their right to be deemed living beings. Her role tarnishes her relationship with her husband, who moves to a city void of synths and goes on to own a produce store boasting ‘natural, man-made’ foods. The two prove to lie on opposite ends the attitudes towards synths: we need these beings to grow and develop as people vs. refusing to acknowledge their existence altogether.
The synths within the show - having only just woken with consciousness - find themselves trapped within an endless cycle of working for those above them. With little rights and recognition for their human-like qualities, the synths are destined to be slaves within a capitalist system as they are treated more like robotic workers than creations with minds and feelings. Their purpose derives not in their work, but in recognizing that their jobs make them cogs within an unending machine. From this, the synthetic beings within Humans learn to differentiate their purpose for living from that of their work - a concept that often seems foreign to the humans of the show.
Within Humans, the concept of self and identity is apparent within the first few minutes of the series. The Hawkins family, for example, must navigate their individual roles as mother, daughter, father, and son as it relates to one another. This results in a confusion of self and priorities, and of withholding emotions or making sense of them in entirely misconstrued ways. Man struggles to understand his emotions when given them through nature, but lives his life supposing that this itself is ‘natural’.
The synths, by contrast, must comply with their emotions as they gain consciousness. A synth’s sense of self is learned, rather than given. This leads to the show’s greatest queries: do synths deserve basic human rights? Can they be granted automatic power to charge themselves at night, like when humans sleep? Can synths live amongst humans without an owner, since their will to live is no longer a symptom of a code of data? As synths discover more about their minds and identities, they appear to be more aware of themselves than even their human counterparts.
The synths are united only once they have a cause - that is, the survival of synths going forward. In season 3, the synths find themselves living in barracks and compounds, hidden from the human world and not yet existing on their own. Despite frequent power outages that stop their charging, poor living conditions, and violence towards their kind, the synth family we met so many seasons earlier are aggressive in their message: Conscious synths have rights no different to those of human beings. Let us Live.
The ways in which the show juxtaposes synthetic beings from that of humans quickly converges upon itself over the course of the series. Routinized tasks, limited emotional capabilities, duty to one’s owner, and more, are all turned on its head when the synths gain consciousness.
So is this the message of the show? Is Humans trying to explore a world in which mankind is defined by his abstract thoughts, interconnectivity within the world, or awareness of oneself and actions? Is this not what defines a human being? Are we nothing more than synthetic beings, created for the purpose of minimizing stagnation within a society, working until we die, living to serve others?
The stark differences between the free and the controlled are increasingly blurred, as are the conventional protagonists and antagonists of the series.
In accordance with this concept, Dannette Chavez writes for the AV Club:
"Technology has increasingly become a part of even the most intimate parts of our lives, and these green-eyed workers (who have been replaced in season three with the purportedly innocuous orange eyes models) fulfill all kinds of roles. But the desire to have something so outwardly human under their thumbs raises all kinds of ethical questions."
This seems to be something that the humans themselves are lacking, if not apathetic towards survival, they genuinely act out of anger or vengeance. Man appears as the oppressor within a system that revolts against progress. Synths, on the other hand, stand for that same future that humans fear so greatly.
But if being conscious is the very thing that differentiates man from animals, and synths prove to hold an even greater sense of enlightenment, then are synths in fact the vision of progress? The show encounters matters of faith and spirituality, love and lust, parenthood and more - all through the eyes of what has been, and what will occur next.
Humans ended its third season both with an air of optimism and loss of hope. I can only wish that season 4 will depict a much-needed revolution of thought and action amongst the human and synthetic world.