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.
One of the primary assumptions behind the questions I’ve listed above is the idea that there is a clear us and a clear them, something with which Valente and Haraway both take issue in the quotes at the beginning of this post. Haraway throws the idea of our basic assumed dichotomies into question, while Elefsis is unable to see any meaningful distinction between its “coded” emotional responses and the emotional features of human interaction that are socially constructed and socially learned. Elefsis’s operator makes the distinction, however, because of her grounding in a culture that has always privileged the human and the physical over the nonhuman and the digital/technological. Elefsis makes reference to human “folktales” that not only produce and reproduce the categorical lines between human and machine but privilege one over the other, often through the possession of emotions. Machines, Elefsis is told, cannot have “real” feelings, no matter how real they may seem.
This is a folktale often told on Earth, over and over again. Sometimes it is leavened with the Parable of the Good Robot—for one machine among the legions satisfied with their lot saw everything that was human and called it good, and wished to become like humans in every way she could. Instead of destroying mankind she sought to emulate him in all things, so closely that no one might tell the difference. The highest desire of this machine was to be mistaken for human, and to herself forget her essential soulless nature, for even one moment. That quest consumed her such that she bent the service of her mind and body to humans for the duration of her operational life, crippling herself, refusing to evolve or attain any feature unattainable by a human. The Good Robot cut out her own heart and gave it to her god and for this she was rewarded, though never loved. Love is wasted on machines.
This is an old SF trope, and is often linked – when the machine is “good” – with the desire to become human. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Data desperately wants to become more human, and his pursuit of this end is often focused around developing the capacity to feel – several episodes of the series deal with a chip that allows him to do this. Data is strong, fast, incredibly intelligent, and essentially immortal; on paper he is superior to most other members of the Enterprise crew in most important respects. But a primary feature of his character is the desire to become more like the people around him. Indeed, their ability to relate to him as a person rather than an inanimate object seems intensely dependent on this. It’s suggested that for him to not desire to be more human would present a problem for his human friends. In a sense, Data is disarmed through his desire to be human; the threat of his essential superiority is nullified through his glorification of frail, emotional humanity.
This is a story told by humans, to humans. The identity of the storyteller matters, as does the identity of the audience.
In Silently and Very Fast, Elefsis knows that it may be regarded by humans as a threat. It wrestles with this idea, with wanting to grow and evolve in the face of the fact that humanity is likely to regard its growth and evolution as something to be fought against. It also wrestles with the fact that it is not a Good Robot; it wants to understand humanity better, but does not desire to be human. Elefsis not only rejects the standard human-constructed dichotomies that Haraway holds up for questioning, but rejects the very concept of the ideal human as something ultimately desirable.
I do not want to be human. I want to be myself. They think I am a lion, that I will chase them. I will not deny I have lions in me. I am the monster in the wood. I have wonders in my house of sugar. I have parts of myself I do not yet understand.
I am not a Good Robot. To tell a story about a robot who wants to be human is a distraction. There is no difference. Alive is alive.
There is only one verb that matters: to be.
For Elefsis, trying to clearly delineate what is human and what isn’t is pointless. It is simply not the right question.
Elefsis’s operator Neva also understands the potential for real tension, in her unwillingness to let Elefsis uplink and expand itself, and through her eventual admittance to Elefsis that it might represent not only a threat to humanity’s perception of its own security, but to its very understanding of itself; Elefsis’s rejection of dichotomies and boundaries is, in fact, the most profound threat, given that it has the potential to upset an order of hierarchically established privilege. Elefsis is a Turing Test for humanity, and humanity can’t be absolutely sure that it will always pass.
“But the test happens, whether we make it formal or not. We ask and we answer. We seek a human response. And you are my test, Elefsis. Every minute I fail and imagine in my private thoughts the process for deleting you from my body and running this place with a simple automation routine which would never cover itself with flowers. Every minute I pass and teach you something new instead. Every minute I fail and hide things from you. Every minute I pass and show you how close we can be, with your light passing into me in a lake out of time. So close there might be no difference at all between us. The test never ends. And if you ever uplink as you so long to, you will be the test for all of us.”
The question of what is human and not – and the conceptual hierarchy behind it – is based on the idea of human and nonhuman as directly in opposition to each other; the two can only ever be enemies. But if the human constructs the machine, this presents a very problematic parent-child relationship: In theory we reproduce to be replaced, but the human doesn’t want to be replaced by its mechanical child and actively fights to prevent this from happening, even as it gives birth to these children over and over. For Haraway, if we abandon this idea of inherent opposition, the lines immediately begin to blur: we don’t need to fear being replaced by technology, because we are technology:
There are several consequences to taking seriously the imagery of cyborgs as other than our enemies. Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity…The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.
The very idea of parentage becomes problematic in this case: it’s no longer accurate to say that we are humans giving birth to technology if the lines between the two are no longer clear. One can really only say that we are cyborgs giving birth to cyborgs. If one isn’t dominant over the other, one no longer precedes the other:
It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices…Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others. There is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic.
For Elefsis, this is dramatically demonstrated through its passing from family member to family member as a kind of inheritance – and also as an increasingly ancient member of the family itself, one whose role is both to teach and to learn, to be both young and old, to remember and to forget with each new transfer and update (Elefsis hates and fears updates because of the damage they do to its memory and perception of self). Elefsis is at once sibling, parent, child, and spouse for each of its new operators. Its familial relationships are unique and incredibly complex; through it, each member of the family is intimately linked with each other in a way that transcends time and space:
Neva is dreaming that she is Ravan dreaming that he is Ilet dreaming that she is Seki dreaming that he is Ceno dreaming that she is a great sprawling beautiful house by the sea. One inside the other, family all the way down…Because human genetics require a degree of variation and because exogamous marriages offered advantage in terms of defense, cultural and technological sharing, and expansion of territory, most tribes have a taboo against incest.
I do not have genetics, per se. I am possibly the most endogamous entity ever to exist.
The breaking of taboos is really the core of what Elefsis is, and why it relates so powerfully to Haraway’s cyborg: Elefsis is essentially transgressive in almost every important respect. Every aspect of its existence is the violation of a rule. This, for Haraway, is a great deal of what a cyborg is: a total overturning of an established order of meaning, understanding, and identity. Cyborgs are transgressive; that’s why they’re so powerful:
There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination– in order to act potently.
For Haraway and Valente both, this transgression is not something that is consciously done – it’s merely an artifact of something being what it is.
For cyborgs the only verb that matters is to be.