Friday, February 21, 2014

Robots and habermans, and the body in the deep future

A story I find myself coming back to over and over again is Cordwainer Smith's Scanners Live in Vain (1950). There are many reasons for this, but today I'm thinking more about robots. When Smith was writing this story, it was not known whether humans could survive in space. Or even what space was like - the geomagnetic storms, the plasmas, the corrosive atomic elements, the radiation. All this would have to wait for the first satellites.

Smith didn't imagine physical hazards for the first astronauts: he imagined a psychological hazard. (Actually, now that I write this I realise that is how I interpret it. His vision might have been more physical). Anyway, people in space did not die of radiation or exposure: they died of pain, the pain of space. Just to be in space was to endure unimaginable pain. To overcome this, space ship crews were made into habermans: their bodies were surgically severed from their brains and run by machines. As Martel, the protagonist, says, know what I am. A machine. A man turned into a machine. A man who has been killed and kept alive for duty.
He goes on to say some revealing things about this state of being:
Don't you think I remember what it is to be man and not a haberman? To walk and feel my feet on the ground? To feel a decent pain instead of watching my body every minute to see if I'm alive? How will I know when I'm dead? Did you ever think of that, Luci? How will I know when I'm dead?
The pain of space is almost malevolent, like a surf crashing against a rocky outcrop, trying to get past the blocks to the sentient being within. Any sensation would give it a tiny crack to enter the mind and overwhelm it with pain. The senses have to be obliterated so the mind can withstand the pressure. Martel can't taste, feel, hear, touch. He communicates with his fellow scanners by writing on a tablet. He monitors his physical body with a control box set in his chest, which you can just make out here:

Illustration by Jack Gaughan from the cover of Fantasy Book, 1950
He's not a robot, but he's not quite human either; and as the story unfolds, the ways of thinking that arise from being cut off from the senses become quite important. But I won't go any further in case you haven't read it. (In which case, do .....).

The scanners are the forerunners of many literary explorations of the insertion of human cores of sentience into different types of machine. Normally we would consider, like Martel, that losing our accustomed senses is a sacrifice, something done under compulsion or for the most noble of motives. But it doesn't have to be that way. In the video below, the characters from Sealab 2021 go wild imagining the new worlds of experience open to them in robot bodies:

(Cracks me up every time)

But it's all about the interface, the exact way in which the biological and the technological are meshed. Contemporary late industrial societies have generally inherited an approach to the body in which the skin is coterminous with the individual and more importantly, with the self. What's inside it is me, and what's outside it is not. Things like hair, fingernails, excrement, fluids, are highly dangerous because they transgress the boundary of the skin (see Freud, Mary Douglas, Julia Kristeva and others for more about this). They threaten to overwhelm the sense of self and have to be carefully controlled, socially and ritually. (Think about it).

Other societies in both the past and present have had other ways of understanding the body and the self, and they haven't always mapped directly onto each other. Gatherer-hunter-fisher people, once dominant in the world and now increasingly under threat, frequently have complex logics where boundaries between categories like alive, dead, human, natural, physical and spiritual are drawn in places modern industrial people might not recognise (early colonialists certainly didn't, and used these cosmologies as evidence of 'primitivism'. Another story!). If you grew up with such a worldview, it might not be such a big deal to have, say, your consciousness distributed over numerous sites, or to have a sense translocated somewhere else.

This isn't quite where I expected to end up when I started writing this, but it turns out there is a point here. In the future, biotechnology and robotics might transform what we think of as human, and there is likely to be a lot of human-machine interfacing in radical ways. We already see it in performance artists and the cutting edge of technology. Science fiction writers have gone much deeper into the social and personal consequences of such changes. But, and this is the bit I wasn't expecting, it might be people from marginalised societies with very different approaches to the body who are going to best at this sort of stuff. The distance they have to travel may not be as great as for western industrial  people committed to a consuming, desiring, capitalist body. It's going to be important to foster cultural diversity so that humans have the capacity to adapt to the future.

As Martel's friend Parizianski observes in Scanners,

Everybody will be Other.

(Afternote: I never thought my doctoral research on body modification would come in handy when discussing space!)

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