Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I was a teenage sci fi geek!

Known for its fair share of B-grade literature and films and the attraction of pimply teens with poor social skills, I know of no better genre that examines the post-human future than science fiction. With the appearance of works on the theology and philosophy of science fiction such as Mark Rowlands, author of The Philosopher at the End of the Universe, and many books on The Matrix trilogy - it is a fact that should be appreciated more.

The fundamental question posed when considering the post-human future is ‘What does it mean to be human?’ What is it about our present state that makes us human, and how might that change? There are two major ways in which the question may be addressed. Firstly, how might technology augment human bodies, and secondly, how might or indeed can our technology replace us? The former is addressed by issues of genetic engineering, biomedical advances, interbreeding and cybernetics, the latter typically with robotics.

Ideas of genetic engineering have been around for a long time. The Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World and the movie parody Demolition Man examined a society where procreation is performed in laboratories. Controlling reproduction is about controlling the personalities, characteristics and societal roles of the progeny. Genetic determinism is replaced with a humanistic one. Sex is purely a form of pleasure, although indirectly mediated in Demolition Man by technology to avoid disease. Both stories are dystopic in that people do not have any real free will (or even the illusion of it). Dictatorial governments decide who will be what - and anyone born naturally such as Huxley’s John the savage is outside of normal society. Perhaps the movie Gattica is closer to the mark, where the parent as consumer is the model. In either case, cynicism portrays the post-human future as one where humanity as a whole is not better off in any genuine sense. To allow chance to choose is preferable to human intervention. Something appears to be lost from what it means to be human. Are we comforted in a sense by our imperfections and finitude, or is it simply that we do not trust each other, governments and drug companies. Gene technology is still in its infant stages. The human genome has been sequenced, but we are a long way from understanding how these genes make us who we are. Only time will tell how readily these secrets are unlocked.

The addition or subtraction from human bodies and our identity is explored in the Dr Who episode The End of the World. The last ‘pure human’ is Cassandra, a woman who exists as a flat surface area of skin with a face and nothing else, requiring constant moisturizing. She rails against all those who have become inbred with alien species. What is it that makes her the last ‘pure’ human? This question is tied up ultimately with the telos or end goal of humanity. A purely evolutionary view would undermine Cassandra’s view of herself, since humanity continues to be subject to evolution by natural selection. The idea of purity is a nonsense if humans simply move forward all the time. Humanity is like a river, not a solid block of ice; being in becoming. Telos is something that occupies the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jean Luc Picard is captain of the Starship Enterprise (you probably knew that). Very shortly into their journey he and his crew encounter a being known as Q, part of the Q continuum. Their race is the nearest thing one can get to God. The idea that evolution by natural selection could produce beings that are virtually omnipotent and omniscient was recently discussed in Paul Davies’ book The Goldilocks Enigma. In a later episode (Hide and Q) Picard raises the suggestion with Q that the continuum fears what humanity might become, quoting Shakespeare "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!" How are we to reach this, by natural providence or our own bootstraps? The suggestion that human development should always be upwards is not one that has universally been adopted. The dangers of radiation are well known. In the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the movie Bladerunner was based, radiation affects people’s ability to reproduce (hence the fashion of lead cod pieces) or think, reducing some of them to the status of chickenheads. Chickenheads are not allow to reproduce or emigrate off the Earth. They are, in effect sub-humans.

It has been suggested that humans are already cybernetic beings because of our close association with various forms of technology such as the internet and telecommunications. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this idea is taken a step further with tow devices. The first is the mood organ, a device that can change your mood to anything you like (including the desire to watch TV, no matter what is on). In a post-atomic world slowly decaying into ruins, it would be all too easy to fall into despair. The irony is that the lead character’s wife recognises the futility of it all and chooses an emotion of depression. Authentic humanity in a post-human future appears to be to own our own feelings, to run to and not away from the truth. In a world where belief in the divine has declined, the cult of Mercerism and a device known as an empathy box allow humanity as a whole to share a transcendental experience. Dick’s novel defines humanity on the basis of empathy, separating it from androids. Androids cannot express empathy with anything. An android is able to tear the legs off a spider despite their rarity, to the horror of the chickenhead John Isidore. Ultimately, even those whom society considers sub-human still retain their humanity because not only does Isidore empathise with the spider as another living thing, but also with an android when they are ‘retired’.

An interesting twist on technology and what it means to be human arises in another Philip K. Dick story, We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, on which the movie Total Recall is ‘based’. It centres on the idea of human identity. Who are we? Douglas Quail (Quaid in the movie) visits Rekall in order to have false memories implanted, only for us to discover he already has lived what he wants to have implanted. In Total Recall, is Quaid really Quaid or is he Hauzer, the man who planned Quaid’s invention and designed his implanted memories? They are aspects of the same body, but have totally different memories and different attitudes. On the basis of the memory theory of identity they are different people. So when Quaid was created, Hauzer ceased to exist or at least went to sleep. If we were ever to reach the point where memories could be implanted (although hypnosis and brainwashing have moved in this direction), humanity will become even more liquid than some people suggest it is now. This is taken to the nth degree by examining Cartesian skepticism in The Matrix and sequels. Human experience is totally mediated through technology while we exist as organic batteries.

Cybernetic bad guys feature commonly. The salt shaker shaped Daleks show what happens when evolution is given a helping hand. A seemingly endless war between two humanoid races on the same planet, Thals and Kaleds has produced mutants due to the increasing atmospheric radioactivity. The evil (and yes, mad too) scientist Davros, himself a mutant, uses this as an opportunity to experiment with how radiation affects organisms and what the future of his race might be. This organism requires a transportation vehicle (the familiar salt shaker). In the process, Davros’ inner megalomaniac sees the opportunity for universal conquest and genetically engineers away the emotion of pity - which he later regrets as they wipe out the remaining scientists and attempt to murder him. It raises the interesting question as to whether specific emotions could be engineered away. Pity appears to be an emotion that animals lack (ever seen a cat with a mouse?) but that humans prize (except when it is for yourself, or you are Nietzsche). To be able to remove it would be a backwards step.

Another well known cyborg race are the Borg from the Star Trek series. Their policy is rather like that of many past Australian government to indigenous Australians, one of assimilation. Other cultures, civilizations and races are sources of raw material and information. Like much of today’s trends and fads, although there are external differences in appearance, everyone is the same. The Borg form a collective where individuality is irrelevant. It does not occur to them that other races might, in the words of the Klingon Worf ‘life my species the way it is’. The Borg are less than human in that individuality means nothing and community is deep in its integration but shallow in that unity relies upon diversity. Life is a Borg spaceship is a pale imitation of Christian eschatology. Mobile phones, the internet and other devices allow us to communicate with each other 24-7, but do not extinguish our individuality; yet.

The ultimate fear in science fiction is that humans will be replaced by their own creations; robots. Robots are often pictured as superior, being smarter and stronger than humanity. In I, Robot, the collection of short stories by Isacc Asimov (not the Will Smith movie), the major character and robo-psychologist Dr Susan Calvin finds them preferable to humanity and does not lament the fact that they take over the running of the world. One of the major selling factors of the robot is that they operate purely by logic. However, very often this is shown as a shortcoming and not an asset. In the Dr Who episode The Destiny of the Daleks, it is this logic that sees the robotic races the Daleks and the dreadlock wearing Movellans tied in an eternal deadlock in their war against each other. The android Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation seeks to be more human by trying to learn to move beyond logic and find emotions. Not being programmed to do so, he has to acquire his ‘brothers’ emotion chip to do so. Neural network brains are described as complex, but will an android ever replace us in every way by becoming creatures with complex inner emotional lives? Bladerunner and Terminator 2 answer in the positive whereas Dick in his short story answers in the negative. Robots in Sci Fi vary in shape and size, but their human like shape without the human like emotions and body language give rise is another Dr Who episode (Robots of Death) to the condition of robophobia. In order to deal with the concerns humanity might have with robots seeing us as irrelevant and hence expendable is the three laws of robotics. 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. The stories of I, Robot show how these can come into conflict and create Robot psychosis. What is interesting, if not disturbing is the suggestion by Susan Calvin that these three laws essentially sum up human ethics. The Golden Rule they are not.

Science Fiction is able to pose the sorts of questions we need to be asking now about technology and the post-human future, and as such plays a prophetic role. In not being the pronouncements of futurists, they can be spectacularly wrong and get away with it. That is not the point. The point is that we need to imagine the possibilities. Perhaps there should be more Christians writing Sci Fi, certainly there should be more reading it.

1 comment:

Ariane said...

The memory theory of identity is not one of my favourites. A couple of years ago I wrote a few little bits about it, in fact it was a trigger for me to start writing my blog.

It has had drastic impacts on our legal system, and it just seems so laughable I am stunned it was ever taken seriously. I still have images of myriad "me's" popping in and out of existence as I forget and remember parts of my life.

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