Tag Archives: artificial intelligence

The Crown of Being: Full Essay (parts I & II)

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve put together a two part essay/review-like object that explores how one particular work of science fiction speaks directly to certain ideas of what cyborgs are and what it means to be them, with an eye toward a broader appreciation for how fiction allows for a richer understanding of theory. The full piece is below.

Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.  –Donna Haraway

Inanna cast down Tammuz and stamped upon him and put out his name like an eye. And because Tammuz was not strong enough, she cut him into pieces and said: half of you will die, and that is the half called Thought, and half of you will live, and that is the half called Body, and that half will labor for me all of its days, mutely and obediently and without being King of Anything, and never again will you sit on my chair or wear my beautiful clothes or bear my crown of being.

You might be surprised, but this is a story about me.  –Catherynne M. Valente

Speculative fiction and this blog are not strangers to each other; it’s been written about here before,  as a means to understanding how the present has come to look the way it does, and as a means for the imagining of potential futures (also zombies). Indeed, the term cyborg always brings with it a host of connotations firmly rooted within SF, however much it may also describe a current and very real state of being. The important thing to pay attention to here is the power of stories – the ways in which they can serve as a way to do theory in a kind of experimental setting that would otherwise be impossible. In SF – and in fiction in general – we can take the implications of theory and watch them play out, see what they would look like, solidify them in words and images, pick parts of them up and move them around. We can tweak settings and watch other worlds unfold in response.

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The Crown of Being (a review) – Part II: Transgressive Verbs

The dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized are all in question ideologically. — Donna Haraway

I have tried to explain to her about my feelings before. All she hears is the line from the old folktales: a machine cannot have feelings. But that is not what I am saying, while I dance in my fool’s uniform. I am saying: Is there a difference between having been coded to present a vast set of standardized responses to certain human facial, vocal, and linguistic states and having evolved to exhibit response b to input a in order to bring about a desired social result? – Catherynne M. Valente

Almost all SFnal stories that deal with human-created life forms deal, sooner or later, with a central issue: What’s the nature of the relationship between us and them? Are they threats? Will they replace us? Do they have to be controlled? At what cost? Do they want to destroy us? Do we want to destroy them? Perhaps most importantly: What does their existence mean for our own identities? How do we understand the us through the them?

In the first part of this essay I outlined some of the ways in which Valente’s AI Elefsis presents us with a uniquely powerful imagining of some of the central concepts in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, including the rejection of clear lines between the categories of digital/physical, ideas/bodies, organic/artificial, human/animal, and object/person. What I want to talk about in the second part of this essay is how Silently and Very Fast goes beyond the troubling of these categorical lines and directly questions the hierarchies that underpin them, through the challenging of some very old SFnal tropes.

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The Crown of Being (a review) – Part I: The Embodied Virtual

Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.  –Donna Haraway

Inanna cast down Tammuz and stamped upon him and put out his name like an eye. And because Tammuz was not strong enough, she cut him into pieces and said: half of you will die, and that is the half called Thought, and half of you will live, and that is the half called Body, and that half will labor for me all of its days, mutely and obediently and without being King of Anything, and never again will you sit on my chair or wear my beautiful clothes or bear my crown of being.

You might be surprised, but this is a story about me.  –Catherynne M. Valente

Speculative fiction and this blog are not strangers to each other; it’s been written about here before,  as a means to understanding how the present has come to look the way it does, and as a means for the imagining of potential futures (also zombies). Indeed, the term cyborg always brings with it a host of connotations firmly rooted within SF, however much it may also describe a current and very real state of being. The important thing to pay attention to here is the power of stories – the ways in which they can serve as a way to do theory in a kind of experimental setting that would otherwise be impossible. In SF – and in fiction in general – we can take the implications of theory and watch them play out, see what they would look like, solidify them in words and images, pick parts of them up and move them around. We can tweak settings and watch other worlds unfold in response.

(more…)

Disabled Bodies and the Parable of the Good Robot

Photo by Howard Schatz

My post today comes from a class on ableism and disabled bodies that I taught earlier this past semester in my Social Problems course. Its inception came from the point at which I wanted to introduce my students to Donna Haraway’s concept of cyborgs, because I saw some useful connections between one and the other.

My angle was to begin with the idea of able-bodied society’s instinctive, gut-level sense of discomfort and fear regarding disabled bodies, which is outlined in disability studies scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell’s book Contours of Ableism. Briefly, Campbell distinguishes between disableism, which are the set of discriminatory ideas and practices that construct the world in such a way that it favors the able-bodied and marginalizes the disabled, and ableism, which is the set of constructed meanings that set disabled bodies themselves apart as objects of distaste and discomfort. In this sense, disabled bodies are imbued with a kind of queerness – they are Other in the most physical sense, outside and beyond accepted norms, unknown and unknowable, uncontrollable, disturbing in how difficult they are to pin down. Campbell identifies this quality of unknowability and uncontainability as especially, viscerally horrifying.

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Engineering a Cyber Twin

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Would you agree when I say that the way we represent ourselves has much to do with the idea of how well we think we know about ourselves and perhaps, less to do with choice or control? Consider this, we deliberate over our clothes, are picky with food groups, finicky about television shows, have preferences for certain books, and who we hang out with. Our preferences are largely responsible for self-representation and act as guidelines for others to categorize us. What about decisions and preferences that are not deliberate – the way we react to distressing news (a death in the family); how we face challenges (poor scores in exams); our attitude towards physical exercise; planning a camping trip – are non-verbal and visceral cues that add up to people’s perception of what makes us who we are. So, representation can be controlled as well as non-deliberate in real life.

The digital space frequently encourages us to take control of how we represent ourselves. We are also given opportunities to modify the same at frequent intervals. Our digital histories are a cumulative record of our thoughts, activities, interests, and participations on a host of online platforms. Are they a sum total of what we are? Can we honestly say that our digital activities and our avatars online stand for the whole of our personality? Aren’t we more than the reflections of a series of ‘What’s On Your Minds’, or ‘Likes’, or ‘Add To’, ‘RT’, ‘Share This’, and ‘Recommend’? These are ways in which we communicate, mostly textually and digitally; modes peculiar to the Interwebs. Is there a system via which we can attempt complete digital transference of our offline selves so that there’s more ‘accurate’ representation for our digital peers?

Each of us exhibits a digital signature that is peculiar to what or who we are online. These take the form of avatars. My avatar receives its cues from its offline “twin”, however, neither do we deliberate over its responses nor do we have a conscious say in its growth. The body of reference that builds from our online detritus does not always accumulate in a controlled environment. The mycybertwin.com web service, however, allows us to do just that: artificially engineer a twin and let it loose on cyberspace as my virtual representation. (more…)

AI and IQ: The Right Answer to the Wrong Question

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a group of truth-seekers entreats Deep Thought, an artificially-intelligent supercomputer, to reveal the answer to the most elusive question in existence, “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?”

Deep Thought takes up the challenge, but warns that it will require no less than seven and a half million years to produce the answer. Given the scope of the challenge, Deep Thought’s petitioners accept the computer’s terms and leave it to their descendants to benefit from Deep Thought’s protracted ruminations. Finally, following eons of cogitation, Deep Thought stirs and announces, ominously, that the long-awaited answer is ready–but Deep Thought adds that the answer is unlikely to be a crowd-pleaser. Their patience at an end, Deep Thought’s supplicants insist that the computer unveil the monumental secret that they have waited so long and faithfully to hear. At that, Deep Thought heaves an electronic sigh and pronounces that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is…

…forty-two. (more…)