Thursday, October 8, 2009

Trans Human Express

Robocop was released in 1987, at the tail-end of the Reagan years. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, it adopts a similar aesthetic and themes to two of his other dystopian action movies - Total Recall and Starship Troopers. The story centres around a futuristic Detroit, a city where a privatised police force fight against sadistic organised criminals for control of the streets. Into this context comes Murphy, a cop who transfers in from another district to Old Detroit, a particularly violent and crime-ridden area due to be torn down and replaced by newly built skyscrapers. One firm, Omni Consumer Products, are in charge of the policing and the construction of the new 'Delta City'.  As such, the movie is probably Verhoeven's most prescient, foreseeing the kind of corporate monopoly over entire cities which is now the norm in America and the militarisation and privitisation of domestic security which is becoming the norm the world over. 

Early on in the movie, Murphy and his partner pursue a group of bankrobbers in a disused factory, a setting used numerous times in the course of the film and presumably a reference to Detroit's gradually dying heavy industry. He is caught by the gang and slain in the graphic manner that has become typical of Verhoeven's movies, though it passes over into humour in some of the 'bug battles' in Starship Troopers. Meanwhile, Omni Consumer Products test out their ED-209, a fully automated policing robot not at all unlike those being deployed in Iraq. More up to date images bear an even more uncanny resemblance. Indeed, contemporary robot soldiers can even be fuelled by biomass, leading to the company's CEO stating:

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission.” - Harry Schoell

The ED-209 test goes horribly wrong, leading to the slaughter of a corporate executive (yay) in a manner very similar to Murphy's death. Subsequently, the dead Murphy's body is then used as the basis for a cyborg, an organism comprising both artificial and organic elements, supposedly the 'best of both worlds' in terms of robotic policing. He becomes the eponymous Robocop, created by a corporation to serve its interests. Although Murphy's memory is supposedly erased and replaced by four directives he rapidly starts showing residual signs of humanity, dreams and memories in particular. After a flashback to being killed he sets out to wreak revenge on the criminal gang.

Around halfway through the film it emerges that a senior executive at OCP is in cahoots with the leader of the gang, when he hires him to kill to the young upstart executive (yay) who masterminded the Robocop product which rivalled the senior executive's ED-209. As such the movie is not only a tale of privatisation, media and corporate monopolies and transhumanism, it is also contains elements of the conspiracy thriller. It resists easy generic classification, which is in my view very much part of its charm. It culminates in the OCP boardroom, with Murphy unable to arrest the senior executive due to a directive in his programming. Murphy presents his recorded memory of the executive admitting his guilt, so the executive takes the chair of the board hostage. The chair then fires the executive, allowing Murphy to summarily execute him (yay) by shooting him through a window.

Of all the themes the one this movie speaks about most is transhumanism, the development of artificial intelligence and the like which will enhance or replace human functions. In Robocop the principal message is that technology can spin out of control, not just in terms of the protagonist turning against his masters in the form of OCP. Interjecting at various points in the film are brief news bulletins which tend to feature three stories - an ongoing foreign war, domestic crime, and the constant problems with an earth-orbiting space station. One of these bulletins features a story of a misfiring laser aboard the space station which killed over a hundred people on the ground, including two former presidents. While Murphy is ostensibly the hero of the piece it is his humanity which ultimately wins, not just his technology. In one sequence towards the end he fights against an ED-209, which has no organic parts, and is mostly beaten by its superior weaponry until it tries, and fails, to follow him down a flight of stairs. Robocop is later seen easily destroying an ED-209, firmly placing the partly organic and human over the purely robotic and inhuman. Indeed, the apparent aim of the movie is to warn against the potential dangers of technological advancement, particularly in terms of military cyborgs and the automising of domestic security i.e. policing.

The year after Robocop's release postmodern philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard published The Inhuman, a series of essays on what he terms 'development' through 'techno-science', or the the collaboration between elite technological and capitalistic interests and institutions. The opening chapter queries how human thought could continue beyond the lifespan of the sun, estimated at 4.5 billion years. Lyotard was being literal in describing this quandary as to him it represents the only logistical barrier to the unfettered progress and expansion of this 'development' if we humans do not provide resistance to it. However, for most people not only is this development largely free from criticism, it is often seen as an achievement. As described by Stuart Sim in the Postmodern Encounters book on this subject:

"Development has become an end in itself in this reading...

...Nor will development ever be satisfied: it will always want to push on to a higher level than the one it has already attained. If left unchecked, development will lead to a culture based on inhuman principles - hence Lyotard's call for mass resistance to its plans." - Stuart Sim, Lyotard and the Inhuman, p28

This call for resistance is somewhat out of character given the 'type' of philosopher Lyotard is recognised as being. In much of postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy, of which Lyotard is firmly a part, humanism is largely torn to shreds. Subject to particular criticism was the secular humanism of the 19th and 20th centuries, whereby belief in metaphysical destiny (heaven, the afterlife) was replaced by belief in scientific fate, that the human purpose is not to worship a god or gods, but worship future technological development as a manifestation of our own greatness, our own virtue. However, a running theme in Lyotard's work, made explicit in The Inhuman, is the failure of this 'grand narrative' of humanism, that rather than these narratives explaining why we believe what we do, they seek only to legitimise it. In The Postmodern Condition (1979), Lyotard explained how the narrative of the spirit (science, discovery, revelation) is legitimised not through a logical explanation of what empirical evidence can provide, but through the institutionalising of such beliefs through a consensus of people taken to be experts.

To see this in action one only has to look at how anthropogenic global warming theory advocates such as George Monbiot treat those experts who disagree. Renowned botanist David Bellamy, also a long-serving broadcaster, is a perfect example. In March 2009, Monbiot wrote a hit piece on Bellamy that sought to attack him personally and involved very little by way of describing and presenting evidence. Numerous references to Bellamy as the 'bearded bungler' and as a 'climate change denier' in the article's URL, betray the accuracy of Lyotard's analysis. If Monbiot's aim were driven by a desire to investigate and explain then he would have made more effort to present the evidence. However, his article is littered with comments like:

The evidence suggests that global average temperatures between 900 and 1100AD were warmer than in subsequent centuries but cooler than today's. Most of the recent hockey stick graphs do in fact show a medieval warm period, but the temperature anomaly was smaller than that of the past 30 years - see the IPPC and this graph. - Monbiot, The Guardian

Note firstly that Monbiot labels what he's about to say a 'fact' yet opens with 'the evidence suggests', when what the evidence suggests depends on how it is interpreted, and a 'suggestion' has a very different status to a 'fact'. He goes on to cite two authorities, the IPCC (which he mistakenly calls the IPPC) and a graph courtesy of Ultimately, he defers his argument not to the evidence, but to interpretations of the evidence by the IPCC and others. Thus, his narrative is one of granting authority to those experts who say what Monbiot wants to hear, and using such experts to decry others who say what he doesn't want to hear. The evidence is mere detail to be subjected to human authority.

Despite Lyotard's near-rejection of humanism as one grand narrative that had been shown to have failed, in The Inhuman he turns from the past to the future, where humankind's present indicates we are going, and how the failings of the past might be repeated.

Inhumanism calls for a reassessment of the significance of the human, and a realignment of our relationship to technology. It is just such a process that Lyotard, for all his post-humanist bias, was so afraid of, and which he was repeatedly warning us against in his late career. - Sim, Lyotard and the Inhuman p12

Technology as it is presented in the mainstream is almost entirely shown to be an enabler and liberator, something that benefits humankind. Only a couple of weeks ago renowned scientist and futurologist Ray Kurzweil predicted that immortality was only 20 years away via to developments in nanotechnology. However, it is not just our medical condition that Kurzweil thinks will improve:

"Nanotechnology will extend our mental capacities to such an extent we will be able to write books within minutes.

"If we want to go into virtual-reality mode, nanobots will shut down brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will become commonplace. And in our daily lives, hologram like figures will pop in our brain to explain what is happening.

"So we can look forward to a world where humans become cyborgs, with artificial limbs and organs." - The Telegraph

Kurzweil is another example of the narrative of the spirit described and criticised by Lyotard, in that he sees such potential developments as a good thing, and only a good thing. However, the possibilities for social control and indoctrination are clearly advanced by such technologies, making it more possible to predict and dictate to the population. As noted by Edward Bernays:

Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man's rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. - Bernays, Propaganda

While the Telegraph's article on Kurzweil contains an image from the popular Terminator films a more responsible comparison would be to 1974 film The Terminal Man, adapted from an early Michael Crichton novel. In that story, an epileptic psychotic is given brain implants which are designed to prevent violent seizures by detecting their early stages and stimulating pleasure centres in the nervous system to prevent the seizures from taking hold. In reality the patient becomes gradually more and more prone to seizures as his body becomes addicted to the stimulation of the pleasure centres. This sort of foreseeable consequence is typically not discussed by those whose authority derives almost entirely from technological 'progress'.

A technology that is supposedly a progressive move can end up regressive - allowing greater dominion by the ruling class while exacerbating instead of solving social problems. Through the 20th century the masses have not become better educated, more rational beings more capable of participating in a peaceful and democratic society. They have become ever easier to manipulate, to set upon each other in often violent ways and to subject to ideological and psychological conditioning.

In spite of this, or probably because of it, humans still widely believe in the grand narratives, though the narratives have undergone something of a shift. Modernity would have it that technology is an example of human ingenuity and achievement, that progress is a good thing because it demonstrates that humans are virtuous. The postmodern shift on this story is that technology is the means for liberation, combing the narratives of spirit and emancipation into one. Under modernity, humans are the origin of technology, its master and creator and they are largely given the god-image of the pre-Enlightenment period. Technology is merely the means to an end defined by humans. Under postmodernity, technology is our master, as it is capable of much more than we are alone, and we are a means to developing it as far as possible, potentially even to the extent where AI becomes capable of developing itself (the singularity).

Lyotard broached this question in The Inhuman, outlining his two main concerns in the introduction:

What if human beings, in humanism's sense, were in the process of, constrained into, becoming inhuman? And, what if what is 'proper' to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman? - Lyotard, The Inhuman, p2

Before going on to ask:

What else remains as 'politics' except resistance to this inhuman? - Lyotard, The Inhuman, p7

The tale told in Robocop in part answers these questions. Murphy is classed as legally dead and so what remains of his mind and body is converted by OCP into a tool for their political machinations and desires. When he starts showing signs of residual humanity it is seen as a crisis because he cannot be controlled, is no longer subject to OCP's whims. The more reliant we become on technology, the more subservient we are to it and to who ultimately control it. As such, resistance to the imposition of technology has become of paramount importance.

The rise of abortion is one of the best examples of how these shifts and tensions are playing out, and hint at the possible dangers to come if we fail to heed the warning of Lyotard and others. Abortion was 'sold' to women as a liberating technology, as was the contraceptive pill and ultimately the abortion pill too. Instead of having to be bound by biologically determined (but very human) processes of gestation and childbirth, women could now have as much sex as they liked, thanks to the new technology. However, as medical technology has got 'better' it is now possible not only to keep alive a child born below 24 weeks of age, but also to perform abortions later and later in pregnancy, thus getting ever closer to the naked, systematic slaughter of babies.

In defence of this is the essentially humanist notion of 'the woman's right to choose', and the debate is phrased in terms of largely Christian/other religious 'pro-life' groups versus largely secular 'pro-choice' groups, as though one can either be in favour of human life or in favour of human choice, but not both, never both. In a return to a modernist philosophy, 'freedom' is the end aim of the grand narrative of emancipation, and if that means life is less important than choice then so be it. It is precisely this sort of logic that, without hyperbole, led to the Nazi holocaust, as the self-determination of Germany rendered the lives of Jews, homosexuals, blacks, the homeless and so on less important than the Nazi's state's 'right to choose'. Even the humanist concept of individual choice is subjugated to the pressures of the advance of the inhuman, though by a twisted logic it is largely humanists who are acting as apologists for this.

Why should we have to 'choose' between 'choice' and 'life'? There is a third option, as indicated by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In that story children are produced artificially, in wombs outside of the body. If no one gets pregnant, there is no need for abortion, thus allowing for the potential reconciliation of the tensions in the combined postmodern narrative of technology as liberator. However, it would be the ultimate invasion by the inhuman of the human, particularly for women who are distinguishable from men largely in the sense that they have the capacity to carry children in their bodies. No doubt if such a technology did become the norm, this would be accomplished by convincing women that it was setting them free from the trammels of having to bear children. However, what would then remain of female identity to distinguish it from male?

The difference between genders is crucial in many ways to a healthy society, it helps provide for dispute and disagreement and ultimately helps people to accept that not everyone is the same nor should be the same. We can have equality (of sorts) while being different to one another. But some feminists don't see it that way. Donna Haraway is a philosopher with a predominantly scientific, evolution-based background so perhaps it is unsurprising to find her seeing cyborg technology as a useful tool for feminism.

'The cyborg is created in a post-gender world', Haraway declares, leading her to conclude 'I would rather by a cyborg than a goddess.' - Stuart Sim, Lyotard and the Inhuman, p46

To Haraway, quoted from her tract Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, cybernetic organisms would be a way for women to overcome their biologically determined roles. However, she does concede that in many ways the cyborg is already here, with bionic limbs and organs. As such her contention that the cyborg is 'created in a post-gender world' is simply not true, if we create a cyborg now or in the near future it will very much be in a gendered world, where the differences between men and women are used to subjugate one, the other, or both. Just because a cyborg is conceptually genderless does not mean the world it inhabits will be too, and this is a recurring flaw in Haraway's otherwise compelling arguments.

So, what does it mean that we are willing to place human life and identity in a binary opposition to the techno-liberation imperatives? What does it mean not only to place them in a binary opposition but to rank the latter as the preferred of the two? As we become more accustomed to technological involvement in our everyday lives, we become ever more like the technology we use. We think in modes taught to us by television broadcasts, we run our businesses according to spreadsheets, we converse with one another only within the limitations dictated by our communications devices.

Consider as a final example that of mobile phones and other near-instant messaging technology. In the past a friend, or partner, or parent could not expect someone to be available to them on a minute by minute basis, and so if a child came home after curfew or a boyfriend was unavailable it was mostly accepted as going to happen, though obviously lots of arguments did take place. However, we now have the same expectation of our friends and relatives that a computer has of its processors - that they will simply act as required, when required. Instead of bollocking their kids when they come home late with the typical 'you could have called', the parent sits and calls their child's mobile, getting increasingly worried and frustrated each time the kid fails to answer because they're up to whatever it is they're doing. Likewise, the inconsiderate boyfriend who doesn't call his girl to tell her he's going to be home late has been replaced by the near constant suspicion of cheating. Again, 'you could have called' turns into 'he isn't answering his phone, he must be with that slut' or 'he isn't answering his phone, he must be on'.

One question largely not answered by the postmodernists, whether it be apparent neo-humanists like Lyotard or ardent transhumanists like Haraway, is why this 'invasion of the inhuman' is taking place, precisely what it is behind it. According to the story in Robocop the technology can spin out of control, whether automated or cyborganic, but this is accidental and unintended. In Haraway's narrative the use of technology is very deliberate, as a means of creating a less gendered, more equal society. In Lyotard's view, technology is subservient to capitalist motives in what he calls 'development'. Each involves its own understanding of cause and effect, and in reality none are full explanations of what is happening. As the 'most conspiratorial' end of the scale is Aldous Huxley, who explicitly outlined the transhumanist movement's motives in a 1962 lecture at Berkeley.

A number of techniques about which I talked seem to be here already. And there seems to be a general movement in the direction of this kind of ultimate revolution, a method of control by which a people can be made to enjoy a state of affairs by which any decent standard they ought not to enjoy. This, the enjoyment of servitude. - Huxley, The Ultimate Revolution

In Huxley's analysis the sort of scientific dictatorship envisioned in Brave New World (contrasted with Orwell's 1984 where people are motivated by fear rather than pleasure) occurs as means by which a ruling class can placate those it limits and enslaves, that this is intended, even premeditated. He went on to explain that the scientific dictatorship is in his opinion more likely to follow the Brave New World model than the 1984 model:

[N]ot because of any humanitarian qualms of the scientific dictators but simply because the BNW pattern is probably a good deal more efficient than the other. - Huxley, The Ultimate Revolution

He concluded, in a statement similar to the concerns outlined in Lyotard's The Inhuman:

Our business is to be aware of what is happening, and then to use our imagination to see what might happen, how this might be abused, and then if possible to see that the enormous powers which we now possess thanks to these scientific and technological advances be used for the benefit of human beings and not for their degradation. - Huxley, The Ultimate Revolution

You can download the entire lecture via, or listen to it below.