Monday, June 23, 2008

Manufacturing the Alien

I've been thinking on and off about aliens these days. One of the reasons must be because I'm on the CONTACT! listserve, which is fairly choc-a-block with speculations on Earth-like planets in other solar systems. The other has to with my research on other "aliens," those non-human agents that are more and more part of our everyday life.

Of course, it's odd to think about these "agents" (software or hardware) as "aliens" at all, but this is exactly what Morton Klass did in a 1983 essay of his I just re-read, "The Artificial Agent: Transformations of the Robot in Science Fiction" (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 470 (171-179)). Klass spent much of his career as Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College (Columbia University). But his early career was one saturated in science fiction. As the brother of William Tenn (aka Phillip Klass), Morton Klass contributed several sf stories in the 1950s and early 1960s--several which subsequently were re-printed in anthropological science fiction collections like Leon Stover's Apeman, Spaceman.

In this essay, he tries to conjoin those two, otherwise distinct careers in a bit of speculative , cultural analysis on why we feel more comfortable with the alien we've manufactured (the alien we know?) than with the one we don't:

The robot in science fiction was portrayed at first as an alien and as a threat, but the danger was perceived as primarily an economic one--apart, that is, from the theological danger. The robot may drive us from our jobs and otherwise destroy our economic well being, it was felt; it may even threaten to destroy the world as we know it; it may endanger our collective soul. But we have never believed it would dishonour or corrupt us, something we have always assumed that our aliens wanted most of all to do. Perhaps not surprisingly then we seem to be able to live with whatever threat, economic or theological, the robots represent; we do not exhibit horror or revulsion, or even very much trepidation.

What strikes me about this passage is the fate of the robot today. Is it considered alien at all? Perhaps this is one of the reasons I found the movie version of I, Robot so unsatisfying: the robot today is hardly a figure of fear (at least to those people not being bombed by drones). I would even go further and say that the robot isn't really figured as a robot at all, if by that we mean some anthropomorphic, Capek-inspired robot. Instead, we have a wide variety of hardware and software agents that have seamlessly(?) extended our cognition, perception and sociality without actually demanding that we consciously recognize their alien autonomy from us. Of course, robotics labs manufacture extremely life-like robots, but these are not the ones that we encounter in our everyday practice. Our robots have faded into the (human) woodwork--as tools we use. Or, perhaps it's the case that we have become more alien, multiply supplemented by the artificial and hence no longer distinct from some intelligent 'Other".