This Must Be How Androids Feel At Christmas

Seems apropos for finals week. Thank you Norway for the finals Christmas tree.

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Blog Post on Blade Runner: Shifting the Question of Empathy from Androids to Humans

During our discussion on Blade Runner today, we talked a lot about the ways in which the movie characterized the androids as extremely empathetic, thereby shifting the narrative to the androids’ perspective rather than the human viewpoint that we get from the novel.  To add to that discussion, I want to talk about the lack of cruelty we see from the androids in the movie compared to the novel, and how this colors our understanding of the relationship between humans and machines – as well as what it means to be human or alive – in both works.

Although the androids do act viciously in Blade Runner – which we can see from the extremely violent and visually graphic acts of slaughter – their actions seem somewhat justified by their motives to stay alive and break free from slavery. In contrast, the novel goes out of the way to depict them as unnecessarily cruel and apathetic – e.g. the scene when they torture the spider – making their humanity and capacity for compassion appear a lot more ambiguous in our eyes.

Rather than questioning the androids’ sense of empathy, the movie focuses on challenging the human characters’ sense of humanity/empathy. For example, Deckard’s role in the movie seem to be to portray the jaded sense of apathy that humans appear to have developed to survive in this society. When Rachel asks if Deckard will come after her if she runs, he tells her that he won’t because he “owes her,” but that “someone else will” – portraying the decision as something more like a repayment of debt than an internal transformation towards feeling a greater sense of empathy for the androids. Although viewers become more sympathetic towards the androids as the movie progresses, the human characters do not seem to undergo any significant transformation towards greater empathy (The Deckard in the movie does change, but the transformation is slight compared to the Deckard in the novel), which was really a focal point of the novel.

By flipping the question of empathy from the androids to the humans, the movie seems to further complicate the relationship between humans and machines by portraying the androids as more “human” and empathetic than people. Is this depiction more disturbing than the one in the novel? If there is essentially nothing different between the androids and the humans except life span – androids even have the added advantage of not being hurt by extreme cold or heat – what does that mean for humanity? Does the movie get at this issue of what being “human” and being “alive” is more successfully and provocatively than the novel as a result of this portrayal?

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Review of “Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth” (a documentary)

For all of you life-long Dick fans, this documentary (which chronicles Dick’s life and career) may be old news. But I was less familiar with his work before taking this course, and completely ignorant about most of his personal life, so I found this documentary particularly intriguing.

Here’s the link (the full documentary is available on Youtube):

If you haven’t seen it yet and have a spare hour and a half (…dead week), I highly recommend watching it. Dick’s close friends, colleagues, step child, girlfriends, and wives (3 out of 5, at least) give personal accounts of their relationships with him. We even see a few clips of Dick himself speaking at conferences. The film was originally made in 2007 for an Argentinian television program but was broadcast in the US soon after.

The whole film is pretty interesting, frankly, aside from the weird fictionalized investigation theme (complete with actors wearing suspenders, looking at files and pinning pictures on a bulletin board… The director of the documentary produced crime dramas in Argentina, so he apparently couldn’t help himself.) The narrator even addresses the audience in the beginning with, “Gentlemen, the future circulation of his work will be based on the results of your investigation.”

Despite the opener’s cheesiness and blatant sexism, it points to one of the most mystifying and formative experiences in PKD’s life: the events during March of 1974, which led Dick to claim that he was a kind of messiah who was chosen to interact directly with God. Dick had a vision that predicted his son’s hernia, and he claimed to interact with God in different ways for some time afterwards. Some of his more skeptical friends claim that these allegedly divine encounters were mere acid flashbacks, but others affirm that these experiences were of a divine nature (like Dick’s close friend and contemporary, Tim Powers.) Whether or not Dick was actually a messiah, this experience shaped some of his later works – including VALIS – and drew him further into his meditation on defining reality, which we know pervades most of his work.

Another interesting aspect about the film is its depiction of Dick’s relationships with women. His therapist claims that Dick’s life was “a tragedy of women”, and several of his friends discuss his attraction to emotionally vulnerable women or women who needed “rescuing.” The film implies that the root of Dick’s attraction to broken women is his guilt about the death of his twin sister, who died during their infancy. Each of Dick’s wives featured in the film discuss how deeply his sister’s death pervaded his life and work, and how his perception of what his sister would have been like affected how he formed his female characters. 

In a clip from a Science Fiction conference in France (where Dick was apparently hugely famous) he admits that many of his novels and stories feature a dark-haired female character who somehow distorts or muddles a central male character’s perception of what is real (Rachel in Androids fits this description.) Dick’s sister was dark-haired, as were most of his wives… perhaps his sister’s premature death prompted him to question the definition and existence of reality, which he then depicted in his work.

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Latour on the critical spirit

In “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Latour succinctly conveys critics’ two approaches in dealing with a “naïve believer”: “Better equipped than Zeus himself you rule alone, striking from above with the salvo of antifetishism in one hand and the solid causality of objectivity in the other”. The metaphor affirms Latour’s claim that, in deploying one or the other (depending on whichever tactic the situation calls for), the critic can count on being right. Previously, Latour argues that two positions of the objects at hand are established when a critic is met with a “naïve believer”, under different titles – ‘fairy’ (antifetishism) or ‘fact’ (causality of objectivity). The first, according to Latour, allows the critic to “show that what the naïve believers are doing with objects is simply a projection of their wishes onto a material entity that does nothing at all by itself”, or in other words, to reduce their objects of interest to “mere empty white screens”. The other position involves the critic’s designation of the behavior of the “poor bloke” as an unconscious process occurring outside of his own will. In either of these situations, the “only loser is the naïve believer”. According to Latour, the “Zeus of Critique rules absolutely, to be sure, but over a desert”, due to the humanities having lost the “hearts of their fellow citizens”.

I want to devote my post to Latour’s description of the “critical landscape” because through the primary methods used by critics, Latour realizes the need for a third position and is willing to address what that third “fair” position would look like. Throughout “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam”, Latour hints at various ways criticism could be reinvigorated – namely, returning to a realist method which concerns itself with matters of concern, rather than fact, not to “debunk but to protect and to care”. That some reality is lost when “we try to reconnect scientific objects with their aura” is disconcerting to Latour. At this point in the article, Latour seems momentarily sympathetic to the naïve believers, or at least not surprised that the believers and the “never sleeping critic” should be disconnected, given the process that ensures the victory of the critic every time. This “critical barbarity”, according to Latour, is grounded in the “total mismatch of the three contradictory repertoires-antifetishism, positivism, realism-because we carefully manage to apply them on different topics.”

What would a new vein of criticism entail? To “see through [objects] the reality that requested a new respectful realist attitude”, as Latour notes Whitehead having done well, or in other words, to realize objects cannot be assessed fairly as matters of fact. The job of the critic should entail a “multifarious inquiry launched with the tools of anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology to detect how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and maintain its existence.” A critic, according to Latour, should not “alternate haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya”.

It seems strange to the reader that after defining this new critic, Latour should throw Turing into the mix, especially as his speculation on how quickly objects turn into things persists throughout the article. On the one hand, this growth of object into thing can seem an irresponsible maneuver on the part of whoever is considering the matter at hand as a form of projection. On the other hand, Latour seems to suggest that this very maneuver is the only way in which matters of concern can surface. Latour notes Turing’s argument that “all objects are born things, all matters of fact require, in order to exist, a bewildering variety of matters of concern.” Latour finds in Turing’s paper the “surprising result… that we don’t master what we, ourselves, have fabricated, the object of this definition of critique.” Latour seems to include Turing’s model of idea generation ironically, considering the footnote that is included (Turing: “I do not do sufficient calculation to decide what to expect them to do, or rather because, although I do a calculation, I do it in a hurried, slipshod fashion, taking risks.”) Either way, the loss of the critical spirit is to Latour lamentable, ending his article with a speculation on what criticism would look like “if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction.

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Faculties Still Divided

Before we move from “Divided Faculties”, I want to pass along Steven Pinker’s “Science is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” as another way to consider the two cultures in the twenty-first century. (Here is a link to the article: Where Snow grounds his literary intellectuals in deconstructionism, Pinker goes so far as to say that those who resist science often do so not so much based on an inclination to reject notions of true or false, but on a resentment of the approaches used by scientists: “In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called ‘scientism.’”

Pinker includes a speech from G.W. Bush’s adviser given in 2007 to support the anti-science sentiment, where scientific discovery is seen as “soul-less scientism” which compromises the “moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West.” In our readings, we have become familiar with the division of science and literature based on intellectualism’s assertion of the importance of studying the classics and of adopting a deconstructionist attitude toward scientific truths. It is useful to understand that the category of “anti-science” has been expanded to include those who see science as impinging on their faith. Pinker defends the work of scientists as “of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism”, rather than sacrilegious labor, which aligns with Snow’s understanding of scientists as equally concerned with both the moral and social life.

Snow notes the gap between the two cultures as having been widened during the thirty years prior to his lecture, saying that at one point the groups once “managed a kind of frozen smile across the gulf”. Education is discussed as the only way to reconcile the two cultures. However, that reconciliation has yet to come, especially within universities – as Pinker points out, the humanities is “the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas.” Since Snow’s lecture, the two cultures have been politicized in new ways, redefined, re-categorized, and have undergone a replacement of prejudices, but the issue is still intact – and as we can see through Pinker’s article, the solution that Snow sought remains hazy. 

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Review: “Innovation Everywhere: Tech & Ideas”

I chose to review The Daily Californian’s week-old “Tech & Ideas” issue because of its timeliness and its proximity to Cal students. Unfortunately, my review itself was not so timely and so you’re reading this after the 24-hour deadline.

But whatever time you read this, I think this special issue of the newspaper is relevant for our class as we think about not only the future humans, but also the human and the humanities.

First of all, the article “Google Glass review: I was a glasshole for a day (And yes, they made me look like a massive douchebag)” made me think immediately of Molly’s cybernetic eye implants in Neuromancer.

But more specifically for our class’ purposes of studying the relationship between the human and the humanities, another article talks about how the humanities are getting a makeover through the innovation of the digital library. Speaking of “the marriage of technology and the liberal arts,” otherwise dubbed the “digital humanities,” projects are in place to make books accessible online for researchers. The project also seems to aim to “update” the humanities, which is interesting for us to think about in relation to Snow’s argument of the two cultures of two different kinds of intellectuals. Do the “traditional intellectuals” need to be updated? The D-Lab digital library implies that we do, and I wouldn’t say that they would be wrong. But traditional intellectualism will not be “updated” just by translating books into digital media. Regardless of what form the books take, a scientific textbook is still going to be read mainly by scientists and The Odyssey is mainly going to be read by “traditional intellectuals.”

This leads to the overall optimistic view of the editors that the humanities and the sciences are already joined together at the hip in our tech-savvy society. Something I think  we have to consider in light of “the Human and the Humanities” is a section that the editors have to offer us in their note: “The musician is a physicist; the writer is a mathematician; and the philosopher is an engineer.” The editors proclaim that Cal is this haven of interdisciplinary bliss. While I would love to sing the praises of our university, particularly on Big Game Day, I would argue that it’s a little more complicated than that. There are plenty of engineering students who still complain about humanities breadth requirements and humanities students who hate their science requirements.

If we truly want an integrated, “general” education, I don’t believe we are there yet.

Finally, just for fun, here’s a lovely story about human-alien interaction in the monstrous sense:

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Humanities as butter

C.P. Snow talks at length about the polarization of and the existence of two distinct cultures, where “This polarisation is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative loss.” Snow writes that this loss owes it to a degree of incomprehension on both sides. This argument of the humanities versus the sciences is something that still exists strongly today, but I wonder if we can approach it from a different perspective.

Snow goes on to write that scientists don’t read, that one “tried” Dickens but it didn’t work out – but maybe a bigger question for our time now is if anyone reads today? Is this lack of literacy/reading for reading’s sake a disease of just the scientific or of the whole human race? Snow does mention earlier that in scientific culture, “its members need not, and of course often do not, always completely understand each other,” so perhaps he’d be inclined to lump the nonreaders with the scientific, seeing that they might have a scientific mood about them.

So while I agree that there is a versus going on between the sciences and the humanities, and that this incomprehension on both sides ought to be remedied somehow, the argument that seems to go on today leans more towards defending the sciences as having a stake in real world relevancy, in its lucrativeness, and everything seems to be against the humanities. What exactly are you going to do with an English degree? Again, that feeling might be skewed since I’m in the humanities (so I’d feel the brunt of the attacks anyway). But again, it seems like it’d be easier to just have everyone be open to reading/literacy/literary exercises more than it would be to encourage everyone to dabble in the sciences (a very surface point but something to consider). If science is the bread, literature/the humanities might be the butter, a new nice spice to life – and that’s not necessarily bad is it?

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