What is “human,” really?

In class, we’ve discussed how artificial intelligence is getting increasingly better at solving Turing tests, while human beings, who are supposed to excel at the tests, are actually getting worse at them.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? there is a similar phenomenon going on amongst the androids and humans. Androids, especially the “special” and socially-exiled John R. Isidore, aim to prove that they can become more like humans. In Chapter 6, Isidore brings a cube of margarine to his new neighbor’s door, evidently supposing that this is what humans did before the war. Then, Isidore is baffled by Rachael when he finds out that she does not yet own an empathy box. While the creatures left on Earth suppose that empathy — and bringing “dubious” gifts to neighbors — is the definitive attribute of humanity, androids and “specials” use robotic and somewhat clunky, un-human means to mimic humanity.

The humans left on earth are not fully “human” either though. In order to survive on the war-ravaged planet, humans rely on technological developments to live a “human” life. Obviously, the humans in this story have an altered development of what is “human” compared to us. It seems that because of the mania about androids escaping to earth, humans are on extra alert for non-human behavior.

But even the characters that we know to be human are not on this “human” level that androids and specials are trying to live up to. From the very beginning of the novel, we see Rick and Iran with their mood organs and can’t help but think about how absurdly unnatural those are. Are the human characters in this novel even truly human? The irony here is that the characters in the novel are constantly trying to prove that they are human, or like human, by utilizing robotic means of living. Is being human something different from being natural?

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4 Responses to What is “human,” really?

  1. Great post. Was thinking in lecture a lot about Butler’s “Erewhon” and what it means that we need technology to live. Butler spoke about that as if its a given, when men lived without our sense of technology for thousands of years, and did just fine…Well, they died of the plague, or polio or an infinite amount of things before modern medicine was invented, but the cave man’s version of technology was just a club, or a sharpened rock. I think “Do Androids” is clearly suggesting that we need to reexamine what it even means to be human. Though Butler’s premise is interesting, I sincerely believe we could live without cars and iPods and such. Some technologies change the world–they make life continually possible. But most technology is just a convenience, and perhaps a burden.

    • mercerism says:

      I think you’re right, but it’s so hard to come up with a logical principle that can generate a brightline between “change the world” technologies and “just a convenience technologies”. I mean, humans’ skill in altering our environment simply *is* our survival strategy. An unarmed, naked human can’t even beat a deer or a raccoon in a fight, but a group of humans draped in skins with hunks of broken rock in their hands are the top of the food chain. At the other end of the spectrum, pocket-Google literally makes almost everyone effectively an expert in everything.

      That paragraph makes me sound like some kind of starry-eyed tech booster, which I’m not. As William Gibson said, “The future is here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Pocket-Google is only available to those who can afford it, etc. But what algorithm do we apply to technologies to separate them into the “good” pile and the “bad” pile?

  2. scififann says:

    I think that the point you make about how the human characters in this novel seem to paradoxically be moving towards a more “robotic” existence through using technology to simulate “human” emotions in lieu of actually experiencing them naturally is key. Instead of reading the characters’ use of mood organs as a substitute for experiencing emotions naturally, I think that we can see their cavalier rejection of relying on their natural emotions as a consequence of a societal redefinition of what it truly means to be human. Rick and Iran both experience real emotions – anger and frustration – that overcome their “dialed” emotions at the beginning of the text, showing that their natural emotions are still more potent than the mood organs’ technology. Their reluctance to succumb to these “natural emotions” and instead rely on the mood organ reflects a shift in what they perceive being human is – and their perception of what it means to be human is skewed from reality. I think that for these characters, being human is truly something different from being natural – being human is now akin to being empathetic. In response to your question about whether “being human” has become something different from “being natural,” I think that it definitely has. Since androids can experience emotions “naturally” as well, the difference between an android and a human is become their capacity for empathy, and other human emotions have no longer ceased to become relevant for defining what it means to be human. In this quest to establish ones humanity, the need to be empathetic has overtaken has overtaken the need to experience emotions in a “natural” manner.

  3. kristy0715 says:

    I feel like the humans in this story have become so robotic in the functions it is hard to draw the line between whether they are really human or robots. Perhaps it is the fact that Rick is a bounty hunter and has to deal with androids that he sort of has to adopt an android mentality, to understand their perspectives in order to capture them. I think the human nature is still really appreciated in their society as the inhabitants really appreciate live animals. The humans, in my opinion, still remain humans but have become so dependent on technology (because it is so convenient and holds an advantage in such a technologically developed society) that they appear as androids. Perhaps, they will still be able to survive without all that technology- which draws the lines between these humans and androids. It just like us in society- everyone relies on cell phones and laptops to make their lives easier and more convenient. Without it, people are still able to process and complete these tasks manually, but just choose not to. In my opinion, the characters in the book still have emotions, which sets them apart from the androids, as seen for his obsession and fascination with the live animals.

    Perhaps another question to consider is: Is being human defined as having organic components? Or is it being the same as everyone else around you and being what is socially accepted? (Meaning that if everyone in society were to be androids, technically they would be human because they all act the same way. If someone’s behavior deviated for from that, they are inhuman because their behaviors do not fall within the norms of societal behavior).

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