Thursday, May 7, 2009

Useful as Teats on a Robot

Someone asked, “Why would you put teats on a robot?” and I realized a few things. The first is that I should probably never be allowed to design robots. Secondly, we gender everything (or a certain syrup brand would be bottled different and less ships would be “her”). Beyond those, was a simple recognition of the long and tortuous history of body modification; that it is here, has been since the beginning of people, and that denouncements almost always ring with a neo-luddite fervor and actual concerns over impingement on health or society.

In Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy, when two men put sex organs on a utensil, it becomes a woman for them. When a woman (her brain, at least) is put into a utensil in C.L. Moore’s No Woman Born, two men in the story acknowledge the artifice, instead. It is not only fictional characters, really. We see dehumanization in any physical modification, as though tool-based species is not going to enhance themselves more directly than the use of a fork and knife. This is why Richard Appignanesi (in Introducing Postmodernism and elsewhere), attributes cyborg qualities to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a human being because of a role he played in a film and not the physical enhancements he has undergone through anabolic steroids or open-heart surgery. It is why someone will invariably downgrade a person who has breast implants, not because of the international study that demonstrates women with augmentation mammoplasty are 4.5 times more likely to commit suicide than otherwise (which would be a specious argument, anyway, depending as it does on an unrealistic causality chain), but because they are trying to be something they are not.

Lots of people recoil from breast/pectoral implants, from the artificial hand, from tattoos. These modifications distress us not because they seem to have something negative to imply about the person, but because of what they imply about the person exposed to them. I have seen people appear afflicted by someone else’s tattoos. I watched a woman once tell an amputee she did not see why he needed a new and better hand since he already had a three-fingered prosthetic of decade-old design. Getting above their station, these people.

That seems to be the real concern, the ungendering or dehumanizing that the two men in No Woman Born believe to be happening with Deirdre; she is getting above her station. She has a brain, a history, and a will, yet her current body allows her range she was previously denied. Her dependency on the two men is now weighted less than their continued dependence on her (as procedural, or performing, meal ticket). Who thinks of this in terms of themselves? If I had a stool, I could reach that shelf and would never have to ask for help again! The horror! We augment ourselves daily, hourly, and apparently, so long as it never breaks boundaries or skin… but, if it has to break skin, if the flesh must be permeated or reevaluated, it has to be on authorized terms. Who authorizes is not the question; they just do.

And we wonder why our parents sometimes made us walk instead of carrying us everywhere. Or had us fetch our own drink from the kitchen.

It is sort of drastically different between No Woman Born and Helen O’Loy, in terms of need. Perhaps, unfairly so. Phil and Dave, in Helen O’Loy, require an externalized apparatus to help make daily life easier and gender it because, apparently, gendering things is fun. The robot is soft and fun to look at (and do other things to, as the story progresses) because it is enjoyable for the two users. In the other story, Deirdre requires the apparatus for the express and immediate purpose of not dying. Not dying also makes life easier, and is generally more fun than being dead (I would assume), but are the benefits, in toto, of the mechanism any differently deserved?

At what Gnostic paranoid moment did such a bulk of the human species as have, decide that our only right was towards survival? Why does No Woman Born’s “had she needed eyes” cut us to the quick? Where did “be happy with what you have” come from, except from those who had better? I suppose, there are also those who indulge and find pleasure in suffering, hardship, and other things counterproductive but good for any community operating under a parent/god hierarchy of patrician/priests, but they tend to have runaways, modifications, allowances, or they die out. The haves, if you will, they do not die out.

Warren Ellis’ addendum to the classic Asimov Three Laws of Robotics was something like, “Robots do not give a shit about you.” This may not be true (it is yet not verifiable, certainly), but it seems likely, especially considered on the basic level of tools. Robots are tools, whether they be complete forms walking about, a mechanical arm swinging through a factory building engines, or a mechanical arm swinging by your side, fitted to the scarred stump that still feels attached to meat and nerves you miss some Sunday afternoons, when the sun falls between cloud and hill just right.

We fear internalization in irrational, purity-based ways. Injection is always considered seedier than if the heroin user simply swallowed – or somehow other got – their intake. We wear knee guards and back braces, but cringe at the idea of having the knee swapped out for something better. Putting an RIF tag in your hand to activate your indoor lighting and heating as you touch the knob of your front door is illegal in some places! Pegging became the tabloid/internet proof of latent or repressed homosexuality (and therefore verifiably wrong for a default heterosexual, whom presumably must treat the orifice as all healthy socially-acceptable people treat pelvic orifices – something to ignore unless cleaning, taking care of scents, and letting the doctor have a look).

Deirdre, in the Moore story, is entirely internalized because she is all external now. Her “featureless head” and “robe of chainmail” leave others with no familiar anthropomorphized anchors to weight themselves with, to secure themselves to her in any sympathetic way. She can put on the actions, herself, get the message across, but it is artifice, practices artifice, and has none of the necessity we may read into a familiar fleshed face, the generalities assumed with naked gender. The two men respond to her as if she wore a chastity belt over her soul, and while at the end of the story, Deirdre does admit to feeling locked in, distanced from humanity, but it’s locked up with her concept of the present, of an expected, a stasis (“My brain will wear out in another forty years or so. Between now and then I’ll learn… I’ll change… I’ll know more than I can guess today.”).

The case is not so much that she will “change – That’s frightening,” as Deirdre states and then belies with “There’s so much still untried.” Where the fear comes in, is that no one else can come along. Which, is where the return to the stage, the performing – and, specifically, performing old routines – comes in so strongly, as a desperate linkage to present/past familiarity, and to maintain a semblance of dialogue, of interdependence and interaction with the rest of people. Helen O’Loy operates oppositely; if it were not for replicated televisual tropes and tired charades, what interaction would she have, what dependence on, or awareness of, these fleshy womb-birthed meat puppets?

Both del Rey and Moore are examining the extropic notion of pleasure and relief through tool-based means, but their representation of human reaction seems at a slight remove, each from the other. The men who conceive Helen are blind to the fact that, as they benefit from their pretty and predictable tool, they appear excessive and fetishistic to an outside perspective, i.e. the reader (who is, by definition, excessive and fetishistic, putting unnecessary effort towards these artifices bestowed unreasonable facsimiles of truth). Deirdre, in the Moore, similarly benefits from a pretty and predictable (in that it is directed and inhabited by her) tool, and is faced with an external audience (Harris and Maltzer, at the least) whom find her excessive and fetishistic, especially when she recreates old patterns with her new untenable form.

The reaction, to a non-wielding party, to a complicated tool in hand, it would seem, is the same as the general reflexive reaction to a most primitive technology possessed by another: My God, they’ve got a knife! We don’t know what they intend to do with it, but the potential scares us because we, with our empty hands, do not have it. And when the tool is body, we never know if it is truthful, if it has authenticity as we crave it. “A marionette? Or the real grace and loveliness shining through?” as No Woman Born phrases the fear.

Shooting an unarmed opponent is not sporting, not fair. “Fair” is important, because it implies truth. Justified truth is greater than abject reality. Small Poxing the unexposed masses to death is unsporting. Russian pencils defeating American ballpoints in the space race is cheating. Oscar Pistorius, the racing double-amputee has an “unfair advantage” in his replacement limbs. Take you up to the point, fine, but when you surpass: wrong. Untruthful. Unreal.

And this is what the cyborg, the android, the artificial person of all arrangements seems to eventually come to recognize, before they machine us. This is why the robots of Capek’s R.U.R. revolt in imitation, why the robots of Asimov learn to best be tools for us, they must utilize human beings as tools, that a society of beasts reshaped as human society must mirror and devalorize human society into the shapes of beasts. Helen O’Loy learns to direct people for her pleasure and expectation as she was designed to placate theirs. Deirdre, performing sensation, manufactures and manipulates – steers – her audience of one, two, or ten thousand. As dualities accede to admittance of symmetries and simultaneities, control becomes what?

Late in Helen O’Loy, Phil considers that “maybe all thought is a series of conditioned reflexes,” and in this thought he carefully – and not consciously – excludes himself (or his fellows) from consideration. Other people’s thoughts may be discounted in this way, but he avoids that his own ideas or reactions could be the results of programming as much as the mechanical maid, bride, and entertainment system he and his housemate and coworker had jury rigged with tear ducts and a digestive tract, aside from the already questionable teats and flesh-fabrications that allow her, not only to “simulate every human action,” but to be “ready to simulate every human action.”

If it is built or machined, it is replaceable. Right? Not just modifiable, but replaceable. Bill Cosby’s cruel joke of “"I made you, I bought you into this world, and I can take you out, and I can make another one that looks just like you." The suggestion shared by Moore and del Rey’s stories is that the tools we ourselves possess may be unsatisfactory at their base, because they can be improved upon only inasmuch as they can be pushed around, reorganized, repurposed.

In the del Rey, one of the characters suggests, “[W]e’ll get around to it. Put in some mechanical emotions or something,” but the best they can do is not, synthesize, but extend and transplant, as the endocrinologist Phil knows intimately. It is all about parts and extension, but like a picture mutilated and collaged back together, once those new breaks, new segmentations, are established, no matter how closely glued back together, how accurately recomposed, the newness and strangeness remains. The perspective has changed.

Nothing but the perspective need have changed. I am thinking of the Hans Moravec quote, “Assuming that a human being is fully explained by the physical interaction of his parts… suppose you took a human being and started replacing his natural parts with equivalently functional artificial parts, and you did this on a very small scale, neuron by neuron, or whatever. At the end what you’d have would be something that still worked the same.” That is all that is required for the fear to come in, and that fear is partially because, the recognition reduces us to admitting the basic anarchic state of existence. We have laws because we agree to them, customs because of wont, but even with the foreknowledge of fallout or aftereffects, we do what we do because of desire and impulse. We have done what we have done, because it is done, with desire, impulse, and awareness all incapable of invalidating the event(s).

Causality and planning both are nonessential to present perception, to abject truth. Robotics – moreso than most tools, as they replicate or share our forms and bits, so frequently – remind us for change and of impermanence. The minute we build a machine that can comprehend its own state enough to rebuild or reconsider it, or that can do the job of what good, honest flesh and bone once might have, our superfluousness is where our thoughts turn, so why not the robot’s? Robots could grow impatient with us as we grow impatient with us, as anyone who has used heated running water becomes impatient with drawing from a well, or how we tire so using a five year old computer.

The change is frightening (and intriguing) because it is indicative of inevitably existing further avenues of alteration and the frustrated acknowledgement that going back is always unsatisfactory when it is necessity. The altered perspective may see changes of an entirely different horizon than those from the unaltered, and yet divergence will never have the good taste to leave either ignorant of the trajectory of the other, unless we, too, become unquestioning, unaware automatons that other seeks to anthropomorphize with the care or moral imperative of Asimov’s attentive nannies, Wells’ Moreau, or the reader of a C.L. Moore story, a Lester del Rey short, imbuing humanity on artifice for our own sake and reinforcement of purpose.

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