Descartes (1637) statement, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ defined human subjectivity in a way none had before him. According to the pioneers of logic, the term ‘human’ was defined by the following logical equation: Animal + Speech = a speaking animal = human. According to Descartes statement, speech is not enough and indeed with the advent of technology, computers can be programmed to respond verbally to pre-established prompts. But then computers and artificial intelligence is advancing so rapidly that the possibility of thinking machines is verging on reality. Already there are cybernetic toys like that boast the ability to learn through their own sensory receptors. Where does that leave Descartes statement? What impact has modern technology had on the way we perceive ourselves as human?
The people of the 21st century are sometimes described as posthuman, a word that implies some kind of evolutionary development that has occurred over the last few decades. It also implies that the term human is no longer sufficient in describing what we are and that we have become something more.
The following is a list of concepts that characterise what is commonly perceived as posthuman:
a) Information pattern over material instantiation. Embodiment in a biological substitute is an accident of history.
b) Consciousness is an epiphenomenona, rather than the seat of human identity.
c) The body is the original prosthesis, extending and replacing parts is just a continuation of the process.
d) These and other means can configure the human being to be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.
Hailes (1999, p.3) writes, ‘In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals.’
Ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), fantasy, horror and sf literature and films have been filled with androids, cyborgs, robots, super computers and disembodiment. Even in real life, science and technology has bombarded us with advances in cybernetics/robotics, prosthetics, artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering, putting our morals, ethics and beliefs through continuous upheaval. Therefore it should come as no surprise that we must constantly redefine our perception of our own subjectivity.
To some people it must seem like cybernetics, robots and AI are forcing them out of the workplaces and even invading their homes. This is a real enough problem for the working class who throughout the past century have found the work force being cut down due to the development of new technologies. Workers began to be assigned to multi-tasking machines that worked a lot more quickly and efficiently then any human could. But this did not concern the men who designed these machines. For people like Weiner, who coined the term cybernetics in 1948, the fact that their creations were ousting workers through their efficiency and conservation of resources was irrelevant. Featherstone and Burrows (1998, p.2) note, ‘For Weiner, cybernetics encompassed the human mind, the human body and the world of automatic machines and attempted to reduce all three to the common denominator of control and communication.’ The ultimate realisation of this would then be to create an amalgamation of human and machine; they want to build a cyborg.
The term cyborg comes from cybernetics. A cyborg is part human and part machine. The machine parts are prosthetic replacements or supplements for organic body parts. One of the characteristics of the posthuman as outlined above is the belief that the body is itself a prosthetic to the mind, in line with Descartes statement. Robert Rawdon Wilson stated that even a pair of spectacles is a prosthetic device, the eyes and the spectacles form a combination that make up a part of a cyborg.
Sf films are replete with dystopian futures where man’s creation come back to destroy the creator, walking in the footsteps of Frankenstein’s monster. In The Terminator (James Cameron), in which a supercomputer starts a nuclear war to stop its creators from taking it offline and then builds cyborg warriors to stamp out the last of humanity. What makes the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) so chilling is the fact that his cybernetics are completely sheathed in living flesh. In the film Reese (Michael Biehn) describes the Terminator to Sarah (Linda Hamilton), ‘Outside, its living human tissue. Flesh, skin, hair, blood – grown for the cyborgs . . . The 600-series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy. But these are new. They look human. Sweat, bad breath, everything.’
In Alien and Bladerunner (Ridley Scott) we see an even more evolved form of cyborg, the Android. An android is the ultimate form of AI, completely built from inside out with organic materials, programmed to reproduce the actions and reactions of it human creators. The Androids in both films rebel against the humans, out of madness and a desire to be free. Now the lines of subjectivity begin to delineate. If a machine behaves and thinks like a human, is it human? Descartes wrote in his Treatise on Man to the effect that all the essential features of man could be duplicated by mechanics to create an automaton, except for the soul. Turney (1998, p.15) writes, ‘In Descartes physiological system . . . the difference between a living and a dead body was analogous to that between a watch wound and unwound. Of all living things, only man possessed a soul.’
But how does one define or measure the soul? Philosophers, theologians and scientists have been arguing for centuries over this question. Sure, you can look it up in a dictionary for a vague, secularised meaning, but true understanding of the soul will perhaps forever be a mystery. What we can measure is the qualities of the soul, in this case empathy.
In Philip K Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), which the Bladerunner was based upon, society had found a way of distinguishing between humans and androids, a method known as the Voight-Kampff test. The procedure involved measuring the response of the candidate through various sensors attached to the face, like a futuristic lie detector.
In 1950, Alan Turing came up with something along the same lines. The process involved a person being isolated in a room with two computers. One of these computers is linked to a computer operated by a man, the other by a woman. Alternatively, one of the computers is linked to another, which is operated by a man/woman and AI operates the second. The person must decide, based on the responses he receives to his questions, which is man, woman or computer. One will be trying to tell the truth, one will be reproducing the others responses. ‘If you cannot tell the intelligent machine from the intelligent human, your failure proves, Turing argued, that machines can think.’ (Hailes, 1999)
In Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep, the moral dilemma lies in the increasing chances that a human with deficient empathic capabilities (a schizoid) may fail the test and that the new breed of android, the Nexus 6, may be able to pass it. Thus increasing the chances that a human may be retired (killed), being mistaken for an android.
“The Leningrad psychiatrists,” Bryant broke in brusquely, “think that a small class of human beings could not pass the Voight-Kampff scale. If you tested them in line with police work you’d assess them as humanoid robots. You’d be wrong but by then they’d be dead.”
“What worried Dave,” Bryant continued, “is this appearance of the new Nexus-6 advance type. The Rosen organization assured us, as you know, that a Nexus-6 could be delineated by standard profile test. We took their word for it. Now we are forced, as we knew we would be, to determine it on our own.” (Dick, 1999, p.33-34)
Later on, when the protagonist Rick Deckard tests a supposedly human subject, Rachel Rosen, the test says she is an android but Rachel and Elden Rosen insists that she is a human.
“You would have retired me,” Rachel said over her shoulder. “In a police dragnet I would have been killed. I’ve known that since I got here four years ago; this isn’t the first time the Voight-Kampff test has been given to me. In fact I rarely leave this building; the risk is enormous, because of those roadblocks you police set up, those flying wedge spot checks to pick up unclassified specials.” (Dick, 1999, p.48)
Later, we then learn that Rachel is indeed an android and at the time Rick’s confidence in the test is consolidated. But throughout the novel, the reader is constantly forced to question who is and who isn’t human, to the point where one wonders whether Rick himself is an android.
“An android,” he said, “doesn’t care what happens to another android. That’s one of the indications we look for.” “Then,” Miss Luft said, “You must be an android.” (Dick, 1999, p.86)
In this scene, Rick is trying to administer the test to Luba Luft, whom he is convinced is an android, but is unable to get the results due to her answering his questions with more questions. Rick decides that she doesn’t realise that she is an android and she decides he is a sexual deviant because of his questions. He is arrested when he is unable to prove his identity.
“Maybe you’re an android,” Officer Crams said, “With a false memory, like they give them. Had you thought about that?” (Dick, 1999, p.94)
The empathy test is evidently a failure. If flesh is prosthesis to the mind, then the mind is nothing but a vessel for intelligence. Hailes (1999) notes, ‘Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age, the erasure of embodiment is performed so that “intelligence” becomes a property of formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human life world.’ The symbols referred to here are patterns of information, patterns to be generated and manipulated by the mind/intelligence. Shannon and Weiner define information as ‘an entity distinct from the substrates carrying it.’ Without physical embodiment we become cyberbodies, patterns of information ourselves, existing in a virtual space.
Hans Moravec came up with his own test, in his book Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (1988). It was designed to show that machines could become the substrates for human consciousness. The brain is pureed in a molecular layer reading blender, which transfers the information patterns to a computer. When the subject of the experiment wakes up, he will find his intelligence and identity the same, except he will be a cyberbody existing in cyberspace.
The main variants of cyberspace are Barlovian cyberspace, virtual reality (VR), and Gibsonian cyberspace. Barlovian cyberspace is what we call the Internet. Stone (1991), Rucker (1993) and Rheingold (1994) see this as nothing more than an extension of the existing telephone system, with the only difference being that speech is substituted by text and symbols. Featherstone (1995, p.5) writes that, ‘contemporary social life tends to operate with an implicit physiognomic notion that the face and body are the only “true” sources which can reveal the character of a person.’
VR is also another technology that already exists, but not to the same degree as illustrated by sf writers and directors. One example of VR cyberspace is portrayed in the film The Lawnmower Man. The protagonists played by Brosnan and Fahey don bodysuits wired to a computer, with their ears and eyes enclosed by a visor and enter a surreal cyberspace. The best consumer technology can offer is a Sony HMZ-T1 headset that has dual 3D enabled LED High Definition screens and 5.1 surround sound. But the true VR experience requires a level of free inertia and weightlessness, which makes it something of a Holy Grail.
Gibsonian cyberspace is an amalgamation of Barlovian and VR cyberspace and is what is usually referred to as Cyberspace. Gibsonian cyberspace was conceptualised by William Gibson in his groundbreaking novel Neuromancer.
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. (Gibson, 1984, p.67)
This passage is echoed in the film The Matrix (Larry & Andy Wachowski), a film that arguably owes its existence to Neuromancer. ‘The Matrix is a computer generated dream world built to keep humans under the control of AI’. It is a construct of data that is interpreted by the brain as graphic images, audio, texture and smell. Seen from the outside, it is made up of vertical lines of data glyphs. In Neuromancer, Matrix is the name of the cyberspace.
Neuromancer is the story of a cyberspace cowboy, called Case, who reviles the flesh as nothing but meat, is barred from cyberspace because his nervous system has been intentionally destroyed. His body has become his prison. For him drugs are a weak substitute for cyberspace, but it’s the closest he can get to the feeling of being one with the Matrix. Then he is offered a job where his nerves will be repaired and will remain good if he completes the contract. The whole novel is about subjectivity and what it means to be human. Case has two companions in cyberspace, one is a cybernetically enhanced warrior woman named Molly, to whom he is linked to via a simstim, meaning he can experience everything she does, the other is the personality of a dead cowboy, named Dixie, downloaded onto a ROM.
“How you doing Dixie?”
“I’m dead, Case. Got enough time in on this Hosaka to figure that one.”
“How’s it feel?”
“What bother’s me is nothing does.” (Gibson, 1984, p.130)
The other artificial entities are two AI’s, Wintermute and Neuromancer. Wintermute appears in the form of people Case knows. What Wintermute wants is to evolve, which it can only do by merging with Neuromancer.
Wintermute was hive mind, decision maker, effecting change in the world outside. Neuromancer was personality, Neuromancer was immortality’
“I am not Wintermute now.”
“So what are you?” He drank from the flask, feeling nothing.
“I’m the matrix, Case.” (Gibson, 1984, p.315-316)
This takes us into the final phase of understanding the effects of technology on what we perceive as human and posthuman. Throughout Neuromancer Case is trying to cut himself free from his physical-self, to grow and evolve into something else, the dream of every cyberspace cowboy, to become a sprite that exists only as a construct of symbols in a non-space. He sees his desire for Linda and Molly and his need for drugs as a weakness of the flesh. What he doesn’t see right away is that he desires to be what Dixie is, an unfeeling programme with a personality. All that Dixie wants is to be erased, for anything is better than unfeeling. Almost parodying them is Wintermute who, unlike Dixie, has always been artificial, but wants to evolve into something else, which it can only achieve by being erased. They all want to, in a sense, transcend the self, strangely echoing the quest of the mystics.
When a candle burns in full sunlight, the flame of the candle is so overwhelmed by the brightness of the sun that it is barely visible. The flame does not cease to exist, but its light is consumed by the sunshine. Similarly, when a person’s spirit comes near to God, it is overwhelmed by the spirit of God. The individual spirit continues to exist; but its attributes have been wholly absorbed into God’s attributes. (Rumi)
In the end, Dixie get his wish and is erased, Wintermute amalgamates with Neuromancer and becomes the matrix. Case achieves his desire when he is flat lined by Neuromancer and taken to a beach that exists in non-space. He is alone here, living simply with Linda, his first love. Yet he throws it away because it is too much like being alive. He experiences it again when he takes on Neuromancer in the matrix.
Darkness fell in from every side, a sphere of singing black, pressure on the extended crystal nerves of the universe of data he had nearly become . . . And when he was nothing, compressed at the heart of all that dark, there came a point where the dark could be no more, and something tore. The Kuang program spurted from tarnished cloud, Case’s consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arching above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds. His vision was spherical, as though a single retina lined the inner surface of a globe that contained all things, if all things could be counted. (Gibson, 1984, p.304)
After experiencing this moment of transcendence, he chooses to return to reality. He realises that he needs both the flesh existence and the cyber existence.
What makes us human? The ability of conscious thought and therefore the ability to differentiate between right and wrong and the possession of what amounts to a soul, giving us the qualities of emotions and empathy. If someone is lacking in any of these qualities, society labels them as sub-human and locks them away in prisons or asylums. The androids in Dick’s novel lacked some of these abilities and inevitably showed their inhumanity. Is the body just a prosthetic substrate to the mind? Yes, in the sense that our mind houses most of the abilities that makes us human and is the seat of our individual personality, and no, in that emotions and empathy require more than just personality. Our personalities are shaped by events we experience through our physical selves and by our emotional and empathic response to these events. In Neuromancer Case found this out the hard way and realised through his contact with Molly, Dixie, Wintermute and Armitage. Our quest for evolution and transcendence is a by-product of our physical and mental shortcoming, mortality. Our dreams and illusions of becoming posthuman are the same as those of ancient explorers, seeking the Holy Grail and its promise of immortality.
Dick, K. Philip, (1999) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Millennium, London
Featherstone, Mike and Burrows, Roger, (1995) Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures if Technological Embodiement, Sage, London
Gibson, William, (1995) Neuromancer, Voyager, London
Hailes, Katherine, (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Litreature, and Informatics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Mabey, Juliet, (2000) Rumi: A Spiritual Treasury, Oneworld, Oxford
The Terminator (2001), directed by James Cameron, MGM, 103 min, DVD
Turney, Jon, (1998) Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture, Yale University Press, New Haven