Wide Awake for Good Night Oppy
Back in 2004, twin Mars rovers were sent to the red planet with one mission: collect data. The rovers, named Opportunity and Spirit, may not sound very exciting unless you’re into NASA and space. And I am not. What I found fascinating was how the documentary film titled Good Night Oppy detailed the rover design and expanded on the mission. In the film’s spirit, we’ll explore manipulation and take the opportunity to better the world.
Voter Manipulation: Ballots for Space
Through detailed interviews, Good Night Oppy (“Oppy” being the nickname for Opportunity) shows how the engineers designed the rovers to appear humanoid. Director Ryan White explains exactly what NASA orchestrated: “We were always saying it’s like ‘E.T.’ meets ‘Wall-E’ meets ‘Her,’ because of the human-machine connection.”
This brings up a question. And that question and its answer land in the millions. Why would NASA go to the trouble of making a robot with human characteristics if it was traveling 70 million miles away from humanity? Because that robot cost $400 million.
As I explored in my “1982 vs. 2022: Greed vs. Giving” article, because the U.S. space program is funded by taxpayers, public opinion is important to the continuation of NASA. And the public is much more likely to have a positive opinion of a robot that looks like them…or their favorite Steven Spielberg alien.
At worst, this is a confirmation of a government agency attempting to secure funds by manipulating U.S. citizens. At best, they used harmless marketing tactics to get a project off the ground. Motivation plays a key role in how we view influence.
Both Sides of the Manipulation Mouth
Our society experiences a love/hate tug of war with manipulation. Sometimes exploitation is portrayed as good. Maybe an individual worker is manipulating or a company has a “do whatever it takes” culture. Regardless, often a controlling mindset is seen as a prized business and/or marketing strategy.
This capitalist approach has carried over into higher education, finding loopholes in the legal system, verbiage on social media posts, and a host of other areas of our lives. That mentality can spill over into our relationships, how we spend our recreational time, what we do with our finances and resources, how we approach religion, and how we expect religion to approach us (i.e. our preferences on how we’re greeted in church or content from religious associations, etc.).
But we also hear manipulation demonized – often out of the other side of the same mouth that is manipulating us. A lawyer directing us into using them because their ad plants the idea we’re being manipulated by someone or something. A well-meaning friend who has a personality conflict with your partner insists that partner is manipulating you. And every election season we see smear campaigns as a “perfect” politician uprightly informs us of their opponent’s exploitative failings.
It is certainly important to be aware of attempts at manipulating us. But it’s equally crucial to investigate and understand the motivation behind influencing. Why was the time taken to control and who benefits?
Motivation Behind Manipulation: Ethics to the Equation
In an NPR interview Good Night Oppy director Ryan White admitted to the allure of manipulating a narrative. White told of conversations with Spielberg about editing where Spielberg advised they needed to ride the line between duping the audience into loving Oppy and allowing its design and story to speak for itself. After all, the point of the movie was to document why Oppy was so special. I won’t spoil that reason for you as I highly recommend you watch the documentary, but it is important to review Oppy’s mission.
The project’s goal was to collect data about why Mars went from a habitable planet to its current wasteland state. More than just informational, the scientists collecting the transmitted statistics hoped to piece together a cause in order to keep earth from sharing a similar fate. Since the cause was unknown and earth’s likelihood of survival is unknown, it’s hard to imagine any rational person disagreeing this was a worthy mission.
NASA intentionally designed Oppy to curry public positivity, but they did so to save earth. Motivation matters. So we must ask, do the ends justify the means? Frankly, I don’t know.
But I will say for this mission, and other more important decisions (because they affect me or others personally), I apply ethics to the equation. Ethics, loosely defined, are a set of standards that come from outside oneself. Applying business ethics to our examples of industry and marketing prioritize integrity, humility, and transparency above the perceived needs or betterment of an individual or business.
Similar, but more important, when we consider our social and spiritual ethics, it’s important to use a manual of integrity outside oneself. I use the Bible because I believe it is God’s word. Contrary to some of what has been said and done in the name of God in the past, the Bible never resorts to manipulation for the good of an individual or institution. However, there are some times when God uses people or circumstances to bring people closer to Him.
I must tread carefully here, and not just by using words for “manipulation” with a positive connotation like “negotiate” or “influence.” I don’t want to use semantics to weasel out of a tough but important topic.
To insinuate that God forces people against their will or that we’re allowed to “influence” others by any means necessary if it brings that person closer to God, not only undermines the purpose of this article but is an assault on the good character of God. After all, part of the negative connotation within manipulation is the presence of deception. And gaining control by deception is the furthest thing from God’s heart.
Considering that manipulation is using control to exploit someone, while persuasion moves someone through reasoning, the contrast between ideas becomes clearer. I didn’t define these terms earlier because a person’s motivations should determine whether we believe ourselves to be victims of exploitive control or having been reasoned with. And time and again, in the Bible and in our own personal lives, God reasons with us, hoping we will draw closer to Him.
I don’t blame NASA’s engineers for designing Oppy like a cute WALL-E alien, and it gave me a chance to look deep inside myself to explore why I manipulate and why I persuade. But in the end, more important than any robot trying to save humanity is the God who created humanity telling us He has made a way to save humanity. We just need to be willing to read the instruction manual.
…no manipulation here…just a little persuasion.