Tuesday, July 29, 2008

robots and agents

The robot-gone-awry has been a theme in literature and popular culture from at least Goethe. The 20th century variant generally revolves around advances in robotic technologies that lead to robots displacing humans altogether--basically the Braverman thesis (after Harry Braverman) followed to its natural asymptote. But can the same thing be said of other kinds of non-human agents? I mean--not the anthropomorphic robots produced by various research groups to simulate human feelings, speech, perceptions or cognition, but those agents that swarm in and out of our lives as vaguely intelligent, vaguely autonomous search engines, routers, global positionings, spyware, etc. What about these? The difference between these and more anthropomorphic agents is in a way similar to what Andy Clark (in Natural Born Cyborgs) terms "transparent" versus "opaque" technologies:

A transparent technology is a technology that is so well fitted to, and integrated with, our own lives, biological capacities, and projects as to become (as Mark Weiser and Donald Norman have both stressed) almost invisible in use. An opaque technology, by contrast, is one that keeps tripping the user up, requires skills and capacities that do not come naturally to the biological organisim, and thus remains the focus of attenion even during routine problem-solving activity. (37)

I think I would re-work Clark to include in the list of "opaque" technology agents that emulate human behavior, and thus make human-like demands upon our attenion and concentration, a politics of recognition for robots, as it were, that doesn't exist with more transparent technologies that simply reflect back upon the self to the ultimate amplification of ego.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

M. John Harrison

I just finished M. John Harrison's Light (2002)--that novel, as well as those of Gaiman, Egan, and other contemporary, SF authors, seems to revolve around the question of postmodernity in the quantum universe. That is to say, it combines contemporary cosmology with the vertiginous technologies that are ultimately construed as transformative of the human. And yet, like so much in sf, this isn't so much of a prediction as an ironic gloss on information technologies that, far from emancipating us from both corporeality and parochial indentity, seem to immobilize us both physically (with whole generations of Americans captive to the television) as well as mentally (the strong resurgence of knee-jerk ethnocentrism and know-nothing jingoism). If only our products could allow us to escape from our Newtonian world into a quantum universe! But--shopping's not going to lead us to the revolution, right?