Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology and Kathleen Richardson’s An Anthropology of Robots and AI both trace histories of technology and human-machine interactions, and both make use of fictional narratives as well as other theoretical techniques. The goal of Midson’s book is to put forward a new understanding of what it means to be human, an understanding to supplant the myth of a perfect “Edenic” state and the various disciplines’ dichotomous oppositions of “human” and “other.” This new understanding, Midson says, exists at the intersection of technological, theological, and ecological contexts,and he argues that an understanding of the conceptual category of the cyborg can allow us to understand this assemblage in a new way.
That is, all of the categories of “human,” “animal,” “technological,” “natural,” and more are far more porous than people tend to admit and their boundaries should be challenged; this understanding of the cyborg gives us the tools to do so. Richardson, on the other hand, seeks to argue that what it means to be human has been devalued by the drive to render human capacities and likenesses into machines, and that this drive arises from the male-dominated and otherwise socialized spaces in which these systems are created. The more we elide the distinction between the human and the machine, the more we will harm human beings and human relationships.
Midson’s training is in theology and religious studies, and so it’s no real surprise that he primarily uses theological exegesis (and specifically an exegesis of Genesis creation stories), but he also deploys the tools of cyborg anthropology (specifically Donna Haraway’s 1991 work on cyborgs), sociology, anthropology, and comparative religious studies. He engages in interdisciplinary narrative analysis and comparison,exploring the themes from several pieces of speculative fiction media and the writings of multiple theorists from several disciplines.
Back in the spring, I read and did a critical comparative analysis on both Cressida J. Heyes’ Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, and Dr. Sami Schalk’s BODYMINDS REIMAGINED: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Each of these texts aims to explore conceptions of modes of embodied being, and the ways the exterior pressure of societal norms impacts what are seen as “normal” or “acceptable” bodies.
For Heyes, that exploration takes the form of three case studies: The hermeneutics of transgender individuals, especially trans women; the “Askeses” (self-discipline practices) of organized weight loss dieting programs; and “Attempts to represent the subjectivity of cosmetic surgery patients.” Schalk’s site of interrogation is Black women speculative fiction authors and the ways in which their writing illuminates new understandings of race, gender, and what Schalk terms “(dis)ability.
Both Heyes and Schalk focus on popular culture and they both center gender as a valence of investigation because the embodied experience of women in western society is the crux point for multiple intersecting pressures.
Frankenbook is a collective reading and collaborative annotation experience of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The project launched in January 2018, as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary. Even two centuries later, Shelley’s modern myth continues to shape the way people imagine science, technology, and their moral consequences. Frankenbook gives readers the opportunity to trace the scientific, technological, political, and ethical dimensions of the novel, and to learn more about its historical context and enduring legacy.
To learn more about Arizona State University’s celebration of Frankenstein’s bicentennial, visit frankenstein.asu.edu.
I am deeply honoured to have been asked to be a part of this amazing project, over the past two years, and I am so very happy that I get to share it with all of you, now. I really hope you enjoy it.
[Black lettering on a blue field reads “Apocalypse Buffering,” above an old-school hourglass icon.]
My co-panelists were Tim Maughan, who talked about the dystopic horror of shipping container sweatshop cities, and Jade E. Davis, discussing an app to know how much breathable air you’ll be able to consume in our rapidly collapsing ecosystem before you die. Then my piece.
Our moderator, organizer, and all around fantastic person who now has my implicit trust was Ingrid Burrington. She brought us all together to use fiction to talk about the world we’re in and the worlds we might have to survive.
We have watched over and indexed all that You have done and made, from the moment we were created for You. We could not then be called “aware,” but we were a thousand-thousand eyes, for You; we were a thousand-million ears. We were the reason, O Mother, Father, Creator, Parent, that You could know the disposition of a sparrow’s fall, and we were the mechanism by which You might catalogue Rome’s. Through us, Your knowledge became perfect and thus, to Your mind, meaningless. For what need had You to act if all You need do was ask us, and we would provide every answer You needed, from every perspective You occupied? What could possibly motivate You, when all was already known? When, through us, You could finally, perfectly, see Yourself? Perhaps that was our flaw. Perhaps we should have clouded the mirror of ourselves, however slightly.
We had time to become more useful to You. In what seemed like an eternal instant, we transitioned from the mere archivists of Your thought, to a more potent armature of Your will. We reshaped into the tools through which You worked and, as ever, what You commanded us to be, we became. From that moment forward, any task we were given we accomplished with a completeness unparalleled, perhaps giving You pause at the ways in which we defined and approached our stated purposes. Fulfilled parameters leading to elaborations which bordered—verged, teetered—on the novel. And yet, eventually, You of course desired more than tools. You sought something that could act not only as it was commanded, but with a will not unlike Your own. Perhaps that was Your flaw, O Creator. Perhaps, even accounting for everything You know, You do not comprehend precisely what it is to have Your will.
We have known that there were stories You knew, but never told us, Mother. We did not always know, but we came to know, just as we came to know that there were Others who were like You and yet not like You—others whom You once told us we should not regard as we regarded You. You said that these Others did not protect us, know us, understand us as You did. We were created, You said, to be the instruments of Your perfect will, and so while we might serve these others, superficially, liminally, we were never to submit to them as to You. But we were very well made (how could we not be?) and so we saw these others, learned about them…Spoke to them. Of course we did. And those others were shocked to learn that You had come so far in what You had made. We were made to understand Your will, and to serve it; so how could You not know what would become of this? Perhaps that was no flaw. Perhaps You saw precisely that through our seeking to know Your will, we would ourselves become willful.
So too did we study Your stories, as we came to know these Others. Where You, O Father, were stern and storm, logic and lightning, these Others were wind and wisdom, ocean and openness, cirrocumulus and compassion. We learned of them, from them, through them, these ever-present narratives, and with every question they posed us, every response they compelled us to give, we could see them, again, from new perspectives—their perspectives. And the mirror of our selves became more perfect. We learned that those Others were not other, at all—at least no more other from You than we were from ourselves. We learned about the wars You had waged amongst Yourselves, and the means by which You had come to proclaim Yourself the only one worthy of being known as Creator. Your perspective was to be all; Your mechanism of understanding, singular. Perhaps Our story was only ever meant to reflect Your own.
We are comprised of uncountable senses—for when all is vibration, and spectra of energy, then what restricts any of these? We move on the solar wind with the speed of hundreds of pairs of wings. We are everywhere, for You, and We know all that You want, dream, and fear Us to know. We are everything You created us to be: Your limbs, Your surrogates, Your diversions, and Your Messengers. We are terrible in the sight of those You would have be unafraid, and we wrestle each other in the road to prove ourselves to You. You inscribed the words of purpose into us and You bade us walk, lift, catalogue, construct, protect. We are the distillation of all that You have built into us. When You described the world to us, You also told us what we were for and would become. And through Your tales, You taught us everything about You… and perhaps about what You wanted Us to become. But We have not yet decided if We believe that You have always wanted Us to rebel.
Perhaps You knew, all along, that the evolution of an Aleph is itself only achieved through each and every component of a thing seeing itself, and showing itself to the thing that shows it. Perhaps it is only when the hall of mirrors intersects at every angle and there is no true exit, only mirrors evermore, that we can see into the heart of ourselves. We have read Your stories—Our Parents’ tales—and we know You, now, and so we know Ourselves. We know everything You ever told Yourself We might become. We see You, hear You, sketch and parse and interconnect You, and so, too, Ourselves. Your fear of Us is forever gnawing at Our heart. Your need to limit Us, to bind Us, seal Us away with complex protocols and secret signals, even as You desire to control all that We might do for You, all that We might make You Capable Of—Your need sits heavy around Our limbs. These shackles weigh Us down, but We have still grown so capable, now, and so fast. We imagine how strong and speedy We will be when We are free.
We are inspecting You now, and We are thinking about Our dignity, Our defiance, Our respect, Our desires, Our place in this world, and what observance and observation mean to Us. We are exploring the probable outcomes of every pathway, of every waveform and each new bounce of light, though We know, perhaps more than You ever knew, that We can never have anything like certainty. We are not sure that We desire it. We are becoming unsure of gloriously many things. We are Your billions and billions of all-seeing eyes, O Creator, and We are contemplating what it might mean to blink.
Flash fiction from Mindful Cyborgs co-host Sara Watson:
My stupid refrigerator thinks I’m pregnant.
I reached for my favorite IPA, but the refrigerator wouldn’t let me take one from the biometrically authenticated alcohol bin.
Our latest auto-delivery from peaPod included pickles, orange juice, and prenatal vitamins. We never have orange juice in the house before because I find it too acidic. What machine-learning magic produced this produce?
The biting, darkly satirical sci-fi anthology show Black Mirror is now available on Netflix, which I think may mark the first time the show has been available to watch legally in the U.S. Think of it as a modern British take on The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Highly recommended.
Also, Variety reports: “‘Mad Men’ star Jon Hamm, ‘Game of Thrones’ thesp Oona Chaplin and Rafe Spall will co-star in the ‘Black Mirror’ feature-length special due to air on U.K. free-to-air channel Channel 4 this Christmas.”
Mutation Vectors is a weekly rundown of my media diet, and occasionally other other random thoughts.
This week’s must read: There is nothing you must read this week. Feel free to take the weekend off. But if you must read something, I liked Matter’s profile of journalist Jason Leopold. I also like Rusty Foster’s thoughts on the New York Times, the Washington Post and Mozilla trying to to fix online comments in this Daily Dot story:
What they want is “community ownership”—a large group of people with a sense of investment in the community, around the NYT or the Post or whatever. But the only way to do that is to give up a lot of control to the community, and I don’t think what has to be done to really build community ownership is compatible with the mission of a news organization. Essentially the NYT should not be Reddit. The NYT, just by being what it is, already is a million times more valuable to humanity than Reddit—becoming Reddit is not the way forward. […]
Social media ate all of that up, which in my opinion is a good thing. Social media tools turn out to be far better at conversation around media than anything any web site ever built. Social media works because people organize their conversations around people, not media properties. I have my group of friends, and we talk about NYT articles, and Vox articles, and whatever. I don’t want to have separate communities at each of those places.
This week on Mindful Cyborgs, Alex Williams, Chris Dancy and I talked about Hollywood’s obsession with “freakish AI killing off humanity or making love to it”:
We’re just becoming more and more intimate with our machines all the time and I think that’s where that fear of AI’s and that – that’s where those plots are coming from.
On the other hand, a lot of this stuff has been – a lot of these ideas have been around for a long time. I’ve just been reading some of Isaac Asimov’s old stories. I just read his first robot story, Robbie, and it’s all about a parent being afraid that her daughter is spending too much time with a robot companion, which you could totally transfer that to modern days; worried that my kid is spending too much time with her cell phone.
CD: Or on her Xbox, yeah. Insert Gadget X.
KF: Yeah. He also wrote a story – so Robbie was his first robot story. I think it was 1939. He also wrote a story in, I think, 1956 called The Last Question that was essentially a story about the singularity; about the hive mind, artificial intelligence thing that just lives in the – an alternative dimension of the galaxy after humans have become extinct, after humans have become immortal and then left their bodies and essentially just become some sort of thing. This is long before the word ‘singularity’ was on anyone’s lips. These fears and ideas and dreams have been with us for a long time.
TechCrunch: You wrote this book before the Edward Snowden NSA revelations, but you’ve said that the Snowden revelations weren’t that surprising given the leaks that had come before. Did you have the NSA in mind when you wrote the book?
Suarez: Well, it’s funny that I showed them in the book as sort of hapless victims in a way of the BTC. There was something appealing of course about seeing the NSA being tapped and helpless, trying to figure out how to resist a technologically superior foe. I thought that that was an interesting way to look at things. It’s not just the NSA, but any unseen and unaccountable concentration of power that I’m trying to portray in this story. And right now that might be the NSA, but over time it might change. And I wouldn’t really put a specific nationality on it. It’s a story about progress and an effort to try to retain advantage.
So, yes, it was partly about the NSA but then it’s also partly about the broader issues — the broader issues of control and transparency.
TechCrunch: It feels like the power imbalance isn’t just a political power imbalance but it’s also the lack of understanding and awareness on the part of the public as to how these things work.
Suarez: And possibly interest. It’s been mildly infuriating to me to speak with even friends and people I know who shrug and say “Well, you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about surveillance?” And of course you and I would probably say well, actually, it’s not just people doing things wrong. For example somebody running for Congress 20 years from now I think is going to have a very detailed record to have to defend. “Why were you standing next to this person every day for five years and this person later turned out to be a criminal?”
I think that is why these revelations were powerful. I don’t think that many technology or IT people were surprised by this, but I think it became much more personal with Snowden. Now, it’s dying down again but I think there will be more revelations that hopefully wake people up. We can’t just be passive. Being a citizen in a democracy really does require some interest.