“We’re not computers, […] we’re physical,” explains the Blade Runner‘s chief antagonist, a replicant named Roy Batty. In this moment of dialogue, Blade Runner engages a frequent themes of the Cyborgology blog—the implosion of atoms and bits, which we term “augemented reality.” In this statement, Roy unpacks the assumption that digitality and physicality are mutually exclusive, while, simultaneously, transcending the boundary between the two. Put simply, Roy is contending that computers cease to be mere computers when they become embodied. In contrast to the familiar theme of cyborganic trans-humanism, Roy is articulating (and embodying) the obverse theory: trans-digitalism.
This Copernican turn—de-centering humans’ role in understanding of the universe—is, undoubtedly, one of the great contributions of the cyberpunk genre (and science fiction, more broadly). Quite provocatively, it points to the possibility of a sociology, or even anthropology, where humans are no longer the direct object of inquiry. The question, here, shifts, from how we are shaped by and interact with our tools, to how technology itself becomes an actors (or even agents!) in a particular social milieu.
Increasingly, we find ourselves comfortable discussing what our technology “wants.” This de-centering of human agency was, perhaps, most famously captured by Stewart Brand when he said:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
In Brand’s framing of this argument, information-sharing technologies influence events in a way that is separate from any expression of human will.
It would be rather shallow, however, to simply conclude that these agents are fully distinct and separable from their human creators. In becoming “physical,” the trans-digitalist replicants (or”skinjobs” as they are pejoratively termed) are made subject to many of the same problems which have afflicted human creators from time immemorial (including mortality). Embodied digitality is just as cyborganic as the digitally overcoded body.
Trans-digital cyborgs are always already social—always already co-determining and being co-determined by humanity. Importantly, this means that trans-digital cyborgs are equally embedded in the political structures that define a particular historical moment. These shared political stakes and the inevitability of conflict are what Roy meant to convey when he told one of his designers: “if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” It is precisely for this reason that the prospect of artificial intelligence is always a bit terrifying: there can be no such thing as an apolitical machine.
Sunny Moraine — May 21, 2011
Great post. Two things that I find additionally interesting:
A) Replicants are "more human than human" but their augmented nature causes people to view them as less than human--as less authentic, attempting to draw new lines between humanity and technology even as they erase the old ones. We recognize that the blurring of the boundary between humanity and technology can benefit us, but we still become profoundly uncomfortable when things become too blurry. I think that we as a species continue to feel profound ambivalence regarding this--we're repulsed by it even as we desire it. This is a theme as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
B) I like your point about the embodied digital falling prey to the same problems as overcoded bodies--I think it's also worth noting that regarding mortality, replicants are subject to an even more intense form of that than their creators, with their drastically restricted lifespans. In that sense they really are, in a way, "more human that human"--when Roy refuses to kill Deckard at the end of the film and releases the bird into the air, he embraces life even as he dies. In that moment he feels life more intensely than any "authentic" human being. This is another way in which humans are no longer the object of inquiry in this kind of narrative: we often imagine that our experience of life and time is the only experience worth considering, but how does an AI perceive mortality? How does an AI perceive life and death, the past and present and future, and the phenomenon of history? And what does it mean when different experiences and perceptions clash?
The Cyborgology of “Blade Runner” « PJ Rey's Sociology Blog Feed — May 22, 2011
[...] is a re-post. The original can be found here on the Cyborgology [...]
replqwtil — May 24, 2011
I like the idea of certain aspects of sociological investigation moving Away from humans as their primary focus for analysis.
A friend and I were recently conversing, remarking on how the Financial Markets have always been socially constructed, when it struck me how odd it is that the majority of transactions now made on those markets are done without human intervention. It left me with the question: If these markets are still social constructs, but it is machines who are not responsible for their form, what does that say about society?
I'm not sure how much that relates to this, but it struck me as an interesting case in point of how society is being constructed as much by our machines as by its people.
The Crown of Being (a review) – Part I: The Embodied Virtual » Cyborgology — April 27, 2012
[...] 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 [...]
Epicene Cyborg — May 8, 2012
[...] Great last line of this piece. [...]