Charles Soule, ANYONE

Charles Soule’s recent science fiction novel Anyone was published in 2019, but I only got around to reading it in early 2020. If I had read it in time, I would certainly have included it in my roundup of my favorite science fiction of the year. Anyone has a brilliant premise that is worked out through an exciting thriller plot. I won’t go into the details of the narrative, except to say that it is quite exciting, with lots of surprising twists and turns. But I do want to think through the implications of the novel’s central premise or novum, and that requires a certain amount of plot summary, including a consideration of the (amazing) ending. Therefore I have a WARNING: there are SPOILERS in what follows; I cannot really discuss the book without them.

The novel’s premise is an old science-fictional idea, but it is worked through in a fresh and highly original way. The idea is: transferring your mind into somebody else’s body. In the book, this technology is extrapolatied from the actually-existing practice of optogenetics, in which neuroscientists use flashes of light to manipulate the brain. In the novel, if you see the right sequence of flashes, you suddenly find yourself in somebody else’s body. Your own body enters into a coma, or a vegetative state, until your mind returns to it. The person whose body is inhabited loses consciousness, and only regains it when the intruder departs; they have very little sense of what is happening when somebody else is acting and experiencing with their body; they retain no memory of it when they awaken. This technology is, unsurprisingly, called the flash; the company that markets it is called Anyone, since the promise of the procedure is that you can become anyone at all.

This set-up might seem, at first glance, to be a Cartesian, dualist one: mind and body are entirely separate. But it’s not that simple. Mind never exists separately from body; your consciousness needs to be embedded somewhere, embodied in an actual brain. If the body you are in dies before you can transfer somewhere else, then you die mentally as well. Your mind is never entirely free and unconstrained; it is both limited and shaped by its physicality. The body you find yourself in makes a difference to what you can do, and how you think and feel. When you transfer, you always have to make adjustments, because the body you newly find yourself in is shorter or taller, older or younger, heavier or lighter, and perhaps differently enabled and/or differently gendered, than your “prime” (your original body).

This means that inner and outer cannot be cleanly separated. On the one hand, a character reflects that every person “had his [sic] own secret self that came to the surface no matter which body he was wearing.” There are tell-tale signs that signal your mental presence, no matter which body you inhabit at the moment. But this is only true to a certain extent. At the same time, your facial expressions and physical gestures just feel different when you are embedded in a different body; the way they come out is subtly but unavoidably changed.

This ambiguity is inherent to the nature of consciousness. Gabrielle White, the scientist who discovers or invents the flash, reflects that “the self-model was utterly complete and bounded in the human mind — a person’s sense of themselves was a conceptual object, transferable from one brain to another relatively intact.” But this is only a limited observation; since the novel also insists that your identity is more than just your self-model. Who you are also depends on the body you have (or should I rather say, “the body you are”?). Your personhood is mediated by gender, bodily habits, aging, disease and injury, and so on: that is to say, by factors that are at once physical (rather than exclusively mental) and that are socially mediated (rather than being entirely innate). Gabrielle also quickly realizes that,

even after only ten minutes inside another physical self, it was obvious to her that a great deal of human experience had nothing to do with the brain. It was the body. Each parcel of flesh and its particular configuration of pluses and minuses created a unique reality. In other words, it wasn’t just the software — it was the hardware too.

When you flash into another body, you retain psychological continuity with your past self; but you also inhabit the world differently (something that will not surprise the phenomenologists). And this happens in ways that you could not have predicted, let alone understood, in advance. All this makes me wonder if Soule got the term “self-model” from the philosopher Thomas Metzinger). For Metzinger’s whole point in using this term is to point out that the “self-model” is in fact a model of who one is, rather than being the entire content of who one is. I use my self-model to navigate the world, but it remains the case that who and what I actually am, as a physical and animal being in a physical world, leaks out far beyond the boundaries of the self-model. The self-model is a representation that does not fully contain, and does not fully map on to, that which it represents. Metzinger draws the nihilistic conclusion from this that the “self” does not exist; but I am rather inclined to think that Metzinger’s argument in fact gives us clues to a positive understanding of what the “self” actually is, as a limited and finite, but entirely positive, entity. It is not a question of debunking the mind’s powers of self-reflection and meta-reflection, but rather one of situating these powers.

In any case, I think that this latter alternative better explains what is going on in Anyone. As the novel recounts it, my self-model can continue to exist in a different body from its initial one; but adjustments are always necessary due to the physical nature and social positioning of the substitute body. A corollary of this is that not all bodies are equally suitable. Soule does not flinch at this prospect. The novel goes so far as to imagine horrific scenarios in which human beings have their minds flashed into the bodies of rats, and in which an adult’s mind is flashed into the body of an infant. In these cases, you find yourself in a body whose neural architecture is inadequate to the mental capacities of your self-model. The result is a sense of suffocating imprisonment. The characters who are flashed into rat bodies have terrifying experiences; they suffer full-fledged psychotic breakdowns once they are restored to their primes.

The novel reaches out from these metaphysical speculations in order to consider the social, ethical, and political implications of the flash. Gabrielle initially has utopian hopes for the technology. It has the capacity to change social attitudes on a vast scale. Everyone could experience, from the inside, what it is like (in Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase) to have a body that is differently gendered, aged, or abled from their own. At the same time, the technology would prevent us from categorizing other people on the basis of first impressions, which is to say judgments about gender, race, and so on:

If you can’t tell who’s inside the skin of the person you’re talking to, maybe you can’t judge them so quickly based on the color of that skin… Black, brown, white, gay, straight, boy, girl, trans, young, old, disabilities… none of that would work as it does now, with the world putting you in a box from day one just because of your face, your hair, whatever.

The novel suggests, however, that these hopes are, well, a bit naive. This is because the potentialities unleashed by any technology are themselves dependent upon, and tied up with, the ways in which the technology is implemented. In Gabrielle’s case, she doesn’t own the rights to her own discovery. A venture capitalist has funded all her research, and he gets to control all the results. Gabrielle at first tries to hide her discovery of the flash from him. She wants, not to make money from it, but to develop it further; and she rightly fears that the venture capitalist will not do this in the right way. But this only ends up making things worse. Gabrielle is unable to escape either the ironclad provisions of “intellectual property” law, or the violence of the venture capitalist’s hired thugs.

The novel is divided between two plot strands. The first one, set roughly in the present, tells the story of Gabrielle’s discovery, and how she loses control of it. The second is set 25 years later, and shows us a world in which the flash has become the dominant technology, and changed world society in all sorts of ways. Some of the consequences are unequivocally good: the climate crisis has been alleviated, because people have largely abandoned air travel and other fossil-fuel-intensive technologies. Why bother halfway around the world, when you can just flash into the body of somebody who is already there? Others are more ambiguous: there does seem to be a reduction in racism and sexism, if not to the entire extent that Gabrielle had hoped for.

But monopoly ownership of the flash technology has its downsides as well. Some of these are reminiscent of the ways that, today, the liberating potentialities of digital technologies have been compromised by corporate control. The Anyone corporation (also known punningly as NeOnet Global) does not charge exorbitantly for its flash services, because it wants everyone in the world to use the technology. But much like Google et al. today, only even more so, it engages in full-time surveillance of everything that takes place over its network, and as a result it owns immense quantities of data about everyone. (There is also an illegal, underground “darkshare” flash economy, in which the technology is used by criminals and others who want to do things undetected; but the police’s top priority, in collusion with NeOnet, is to suppress this). Anyone also extends its control over users by enforcing limitations to the flash technology:

The first of the Two Rules of the flash: if one dies, both die.
The second: no multiple jumps. If you’re in a vessel, you can’t move to a second without flashing back to your prime first.

The Two Rules are supposed to apply to everyone; people are told that they are intrinsic to the flash technology. But in fact this is not the case; they have only been added on arbitrarily. Certain people are secretly exempt from the Rules: they are, in effect, able to live indefinitely, perhaps forever, by continually jumping from one body (once it is injured or gets too old) to another. Stephen Hauser, the CEO of NeOnet, reserves this unlimited use of the technology for himself, for his chief thug/enforcer, and for a global elite known as the “Centuries.” He bribes prominent people with the prospect of immortality, in order to get them t0 serve his interests (and he can take the gift away again, if they don’t cooperate).

There is also the crucial question of the flash’s one-way structure. What happens to somebody whose body is taken over by another mind? It is actually a vampiric process. Usually, the “vessel” is just unconscious for the interim; they awaken once the occupation is over, without a clue as to what the user of their body did — but with whatever physical injuries might have been incurred. The question is why anyone would consent to this in the first place? Though the novel doesn’t go into great detail on this, it is evident that the answer is economic. If I am affluent, I can take a vacation by paying to inhabit someone’s body in a distant location. But if I am poor, my only hope of earning money may be by renting out my body to the rich tourist. Labor seems to operate in this way as well: skilled workers are flashed to a workplace, where they inhabit the bodies of unskilled locals, who are paid even less than they are. It’s even worse with the victims of the Centuries: a older person takes over a younger, healthier body, and never gives it back. The ultimate form of exploitation is murder. Flash technology seems to perpetuate, and even intensify, economic and colonial exploitation — a situation that is far indeed from Gabrielle’s utopian dreams.

In all these ways, the flash technology ultimately works as a kind of dystopian panopticon — much as the contemporary Internet already does, only even more so. And it sets in place a power structure that is almost impossible to dislodge: there is really no way to touch either the corporation as a structure, or Hauser and the other individuals who run it. In the first, near-present plot strand, Gabrielle is definitively dispossessed when the venture capitalist not only takes the technology from her, but also uses it in order to imprison her consciousness in the body of her infant daughter. In the second, 25-years-in-the-future plot strand of the novel, the now-grown-up Gabrielle-in-her-daughter’s-body looks for a way to disrupt the tyranny that she has inadvertently created. There are lots of great plot twists along the way, but the upshot is that she cannot do it. In one particularly notable sequence, she manages a media takeover. She demonstrates, in real time, over the network with billions of people watching, that the Two Rules are lies, and that it is possible both to flash into a succession of bodies, including into a new body when your prime dies. But despite her demonstration, nothing happens. The very next day, her stunt has been entirely erased from the media archives, and nobody else remembers that it happened.

Fortunately, the book does not leave us just with the bleakness of this unsurpassable impasse. But the sheer, brilliant extremity of how the novel ends testifies to how difficult it is to disrupt the control society, and to unleash the liberatory potential of (actually-existing, as well as extrapolated) digital technologies. In the novel’s final pages, everything that we have understood so far is pretty much blown to smithereens. Gabrielle manages to radically alter the flash technology, so that now it works in both directions. Everybody finds themselves in somebody else’s body. You no longer render somebody else unconscious when you flash into their body, because they simultaneously flash into yet another person’s body as well. Everyone becomes someone else. And this is a completely random process: “Everyone would be a traveler, everyone would be a vessel. At random.” Gabrielle’s final stroke of genius abolishes the restricted, vampiric, capitalist economy of flash usage, replacing it with a sort of Bataillean general economy — or perhaps with something like Nietzsche’s Eternal Return as re-interpreted by Pierre Klossowksi. The world is opened up to a universal promiscuity of circulation and exchange. There is no restriction and no control; no stability, and no foreknowledge of who you will become. This also means that there can be no mechanism for payment, or for the accumulation of wealth:

Lawyers become soldiers. Dancers become farmers. Men become women. Young become old. Women become men. Old become young. More than seven billion people, all over the world, become someone new…. *All of humanity is all of humanity*. There is no rich, no poor, no light, no dark, no young, no old…

Instead of the naive (or merely wishful) utopianism of Gabrielle’s initial thoughts about the flash, we get at the end of the novel a much more radical utopianism, one in line with Fredric Jameson’s dictum that “utopia is not a positive vision of the future so much as it is a negative judgement of the present” — and a disruption of that present. Or as Soule’s narrator puts it: “It may not last, but it begins, and that is something.”

There is one important corollary to this vision. Even as she frees the world, Gabrielle abolishes her own selfhood, sending her mind (or her self-model) to the flash equivalent of /dev/null in Linux. This final stroke is a gift to the future.For it allows Gabrielle’s daughter, whose body she has used as a mere vessel for twenty-five years, to awaken and become fully conscious and fully embodied on her own — as she had not been since infancy. We learn from this final twist that when you are reduced to being a vessel, your consciousness isn’t entirely absent; the daughter’s consciousness has existed for all this time in a virtual, nascent state. She is now an adult mentally as well as physically, by virtue of having for so long observed everything that her mother has thought and done. Now this consciousness has finally been actualized. The last line of the novel reads, referring to the daughter: “You are you.” The identity of the self-model is only achieved through the radical contingency of bodily exchange. Where can she go from here? Nobody knows, and that is the novel’s achievement.

Favorite science fiction, 2019

Here are my favorite science fiction novels (or in a few cases, collections of stories) from 2019. As before, I make no pretensions toward completeness or towards numbered or objective rankings — these are simply the new SF books I liked most this year, among whichever ones I have read. I am mostly oriented towards what might be considered science fiction proper, as opposed to other speculative fiction genres like fantasy; as well as towards overt genre writing, as opposed to speculatively oriented literary fiction. But of course, these sorts of distinctions are unavoidably inexact. The list therefore includes a number of books that would more likely be classified as fantasy rather than science fiction, but that were sufficiently SF-adjacent to hold my interest.

  • The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders. This dazzling novel takes place on a tidally locked planet; one side always faces its sun and is extremely hot; the other side faces away and is extremely cold. Human colonists can only live on the terminator between the two sides. It is always twilight for them; the lack of any solar cycle, or indeed any variation in the light, makes it hard to establish regular sleep patterns. There are two cities: one is harshly authoritarian, and has legally enforced regular sleep times. The other is ostensibly anarchist — which means, in practice, that it is controlled by Mafia-like gangs that violently enforce their supremacy. With no fixed sleep times, there is very little in the way of scheduling; people just go to sleep whenever they feel tired or find it convenient, and lots of people are permanently sleep-deprived. From this starting premise, Anders engages in unusually rich and complex world-building, raising all kinds of issues along the way, including reflections on gender and class, on power and aspiration and inventiveness, on technological dependency, on ecological relations among humans and between humans and nonhumans, and on hybridity and transformation. There are great sentient aliens, as well.

  • The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie. This is a fantasy novel from an author whose previous novels have all been science fiction (most notably, the gender-bending Ancillary trilogy). It operates through a highly original conceit that I can only call a theory or theology of multiple gods (and emphatically not of a singular, capital-letter God). The multiple gods of Leckie’s world in this novel are effectively immortal, yet materially circumscribed. They are bound to — or perhaps one could better say — particular physical objects, and their powers are vast, yet finite and localized. Each is a solitary being, though they communicate with one another, and often with human worshippers who feed them energy and in turn receive favors from them. I have never read anything quite like this book, but its conceptualizations are not far from those of a panpsychist power metaphysics.

  • Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan. This brilliant near-future novel is divided between alternating “Before” and “After” chapters – that is to say, before and after the actions of an anonymous hacker group that takes down the entire Internet, thereby disrupting globalized supply chains, along with much else, thus putting an end to most commodity production along with the ubiquitous surveillance that we have become all too used to. The “before” chapters show us the dystopian mechanisms of control that have come alongside digitally-maintained affluence (for some) and deprivation (for others). The “after” chapters present what might at first glance be dismissed as just another post-technological dystopia – but which at closer examination is something else. Yes, the post-Internet society, as Maughan describes it, is decidedly non-affluent, with fascistoid armies rampaging across the landscape and locked-down localites dominated by petty gang bosses and warlords. But actually there is more than meets the eye, including forms of democratic cooperation and artistic production, and minoritarian or non-totalitarian uses of digital technologies. Maughan asks us seriously to consider that the deprived future world he presents to us might in fact be less oppressive than the consumerist, high-surveillance and micro-managed digital dystopia that we actually live in today. Orthodox science fiction criticism regards the genre as essentially utopian; Maughan redefines what this might mean. Much as I am attracted to the ideal of fully automated luxury communism, it may well be that such a vision is total fantasy, and that Maughan in fact offers us the best possible alternative to neoliberal global domination.

  • The Rosewater Insurrection and The Rosewater Redemption, by Tade Thompson. These are the second and third volumes of Thompson’s amazing Rosewater trilogy – I discussed the first volume, which came out several years ago, at greater length here. An alien invasion takes place, not in the so-called developed world, but in near-future Nigeria. The US has devolved into an overt police state, and hidden itself behind a paranoid firewall. The UK has disintegrated due to alien intrusion effects. But Nigeria remains as ground zero for the encounter between human beings and the alien life forms. The second and third volumes of the trilogy are entirely worthy of the first; we get a complete and interconnected narrative that combines sociological observation and social criticism with bio-cybernetic technologies and much else. Lots of my favorite science fictional tropes are here, but transposed into a new key.

  • The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley. This is the second sf novel by an author whose other works can be categorized as harsh, bracing feminist fantasy. (The first was the brilliant The Stars Are Legion from 2017). This novel is Hurley’s revisionist take on military science fiction, combined with an inventive time travel premise. Military sf has both obnoxiously idealized (e.g. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers) and unsparingly displayed the horrors (Haldeman, The Forever War) of organized militarism with its endless conflicts. Hurley’s book is an updated entry in the latter category; it takes place in a fully neoliberalized and technologically heightened society in which corporations have overtly displaced nation-states as the units of conflict. Soldiers are transformed into pure energy so that they may be transported at light speed to the interplanetary battlefields at which they are rematerialized. But the protagonist is unmoored in time as a result of this process, so that she experiences her different military missions in nonlinear order. (So you could think of this novel as The Forever War meets “Slaughterhouse-Five*). The time loops ultimately provide an escape from what is otherwise endless neoliberal/imperialist horror. The book’s final vision is therefore both poignant and hopeful, even as its time-paradoxical nature leaves us uneasily aware how unlikely such an escape from the neoliberal time prison actually is.

  • Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow. This book contains four unrelated novellas, all compellingly political in their implications. The first one is about immigrants who, even when they are finally allowed into the United States, face harsh exploitation, enforced by proprietary digital technologies — until they find ways to hack the technologies for themselves. This story folows lines that are familiar from much of Doctorow’s earlier fiction. But the other three novellas are much more fresh and surprising. One is about older white men who are radicalized into acts of domestic terrorism, except that their targets are not the imaginary ones that propel right-wing terrorism today, but rather health insurance companies that have refused payments for medical procedures that could have saved their loved ones. Another one gleefully deconstructs the ruling-class fantasy of retreating into a bunker in order to sit out (and survive, unimpacted) political/economic/environmental catastrophe. And best of all, there’s a story which is basically Superman meets Black Lives Matter; the story movingly but unswervingly demonstrates the inability of liberal empathy and fair-mindedness to fight against, or even minimally deal with, the systematic and socially-embedded structures of police violence under white supremacy.

  • Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan. This is the English translation of a powerful, near-future Chinese SF novel. It takes place in a Chinese city, based closely on the actual city of Guiyu, that has become a world center for the recycling of electronic waste. Junked computers, cell phones, etc., as well as worn-out biological prosthetics, are disassembled so that rare metals and polymers can be recovered for re-use. The workers are overworked and poorly paid, while the corrupt post-communist ruling class, combining hyper-modern and old-fashioned forms of oppression, appropriates the profits. The processes of disassembly also result in massive toxic waste, and the workers have short life spans as a result of poisoning and infection. In such conditions of hyper-exploitation, it’s nearly impossible to accumulate enough savings to be able to afford to move elsewhere. All this becomes the setting for a dazzling high-tech thriller involving artificial intelligence, and both computer and biological viruses. The novel reminds those of us in the West of aspects of the current global world order that we tend to overlook; beyond this, it is brilliant for the way that it raises and recombines technological issues, socio-political ones, and conditions both of political economy and of the way new forms appropriate and transform old traditions.

  • Exhalation, by Ted Chiang. Chaing is one of our finest contemporary science fiction writers; this volume, his second collection of short stores, contains pretty much everything he has written since the previous volume, Stories of Your Life and Others was published in 2002. The stories in this new volume range from just a couple of pages long to novella-length. They are all treasures, and I cannot here comment on all of them. I will just mention that I wrote at great length about one of the stories here, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” in my 2016 book Discognition.

  • Sweet Dreams, by Tricia Sullivan. This was actually released in the UK in 2017, but I am including it in this list because it only received its first US publication in 2019. I wrote about it here.

  • Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s 2015 sf novel Children of Time. That book dealt with the remnants of humanity trying to terraform distant worlds, inadvertently leading to a society of upraised (boosted to human-level intelligence) Portia spiders. This book takes a mixed crew of humans and spiders to another terraformed world, this one inhabited by upraised octopuses. They also encounter a non-Earth-originated intelligent lifeform, more or less like a sentient, and highly computationally efficient, sort of slime mold. This volume, like the previous one, is brilliant in the way that it imagines and articulates the nuances of intelligence in nonhuman form. Spider intelligence is very different from mammal intelligence, and cephalopod intelligence is different from both. All the intelligences in these books ultimately operate on underlying forms of computation, which is what makes communication between them possible at all. But these intelligences are always embodied, and remain radically distinct from one another because of their different biogenetic and sociocultural characteristics. These novels explore the rich terrain in between the fantasy of total communication and communion, on the one hand, and the opposed fantasy of absolute, radical otherness, on the other.

  • Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is an alarmingly prolific author; the majority of his books are fantasy, none of which I have read. But this year he published a second science fiction book in addition to Children of Ruin. This one is much shorter, just a novella. It is totally unrelated to the Children series, but mind-blowing in its own way. A alien, clearly constructed labyrinthine structure is discovered in the outer solar system that seems to provide shortcut transit (through interdimensional wormholes? we never find out) between solar systems and worlds that are otherwise inaccessibly distant from one another. Our narrator is an astronaut who is separated from the rest of his team, and finds himself walking through and exploring the folds and caverns of the structure. I don’t want to give away the plot here; let’s just say we have an unreliable narrator, and a story that combines old-fashioned science-fictional “sense of wonder” exploration with plot twists worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.

  • Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder. This novel is a powerful thought experiment that considers the utopian and dystopian potentialities of combining the technologies of augmented reality glasses, massively multiplayer role playing games, ubiquitous networks, and artificial intelligence. At worst, this could lead to a new form of surveillance-based extractive capitalism, with corporations controlled by self-perpetuating algorithms that have optimized themselves for rent-seeking. This is just a small extrapolation from the ways that, already today, both banking and financial institutions, and high technology companies, are trying to create conditions under which they can extract payments from all transactions (even ostensibly non-economic ones) in which human beings take part. But against this dystopian situation, Schroeder proposes a vision of cooperative networking, an economy decoupled from the imperatives of finance, and most importantly, the input of nonhuman actors (trees and forests, rivers, ecosystems) into decision-making processes. (This vision was first sketched out by Schroeder in his 2014 short story “Deodand”). This is the first science fiction novel I have read that contains a shout-out to the philosophy of speculative realism (Levi Bryant and Tim Morton are explicitly mentioned).

  • The Iron Dragon’s Mother, by Michael Swanwick. This is the third and final volume of Swanwick’s “Iron Dragon” trilogy of deidealized fantasy. All three novels take place in the parallel reality of Faery – but Swanwich envisions a Faerie whose magic entirely coexists with the uglinesses of Victorian Era capitalism, and the overload of 20th-century-and-following branding and consumerism. The first volume of the trilogy, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), is IMHO one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written – it is brilliantly imagined, and ferociously nihilistic in tone, sort of like the punk rock cover version of traditional fantasy. I didn’t like the second volume, The Dragons of Babel (2008) anywhere near as much, though it has its powerful moments. This new (final?) volume strikes me as better than the second, though not as good as the first. But it is still rich and powerful, and it gives us an admonition on the next to last page that we ought to keep forever in mind: “The world is choking on old stories. Tell new and better ones.”

  • And Shall Machines Surrender?, by Benjamin Sriduankaew. Whatever you might think about the author’s past activities in fandom, she has undeniably become a powerful author of posthuman BDSM-lesbian fairytales. She writes both science fiction and fantasy; I prefer the former (as in this book) because there is also lots of stuff about artificial intelligence, cyborg beings with non-binary genders, and the pleasures (as well as limitations) of living in a total-surveillance, algorithmically-governed society. In any case, Sriduangkaew writes in a highly-wrought prose that I find irresistible.

  • The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz. The author has recently described this novel on Twitter as “a book about angry Jewish girls traveling through time and kicking the ass of the white supremacist patriarchy.” I can’t really better that description, so I won’t try. I will just note that in this book we get, among other things, a glimpse of the Great Columbian Exposition held in 1893 in Chicago, riot grrl rock in an alternative timeline, a vision of the ancient kingdom of Petra, and even a visit back to the Ordovician Period, when trilobites were the world’s dominant life form. The book is an inspiring feminist vision, behind which we get troublingly reminded of the fragility even of the greatest human accomplishments, and therfore of the need to continue struggling. I wrote about this novel at greater length here.

  • Beneath the World, A Sea, by Chris Beckett. Chris Beckett is one of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers, but this beautifully mysterious book is different from anything else I have read by him. (A chapter in my forthcoming book Extreme Fabulations discusses Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy, and I published review of his novel before this one, America City). Beneath the World, A Sea is about a remote region in South America, the Submundo Delta, where biological forms, and maybe even the laws of nature, are different from anyplace else on Earth. What seems to happen in the Delta is that your most repressed and unwelcome unconscious thoughts and desires emerge, and you are forced to confront them. It’s a realm of truth, but also (and therefore) a realm of neurotic misery and depression. Moreover, even to get to the Delta, you need to pass through another region, the Zone of Forgetfulness, whose nature is such that, whenever you leave it, you are unable to remember what you did or what happened while within it. It appears, as far as we can tell, that here people cast off their inhibitions entirely, and do things that they would never countenance were they able to remember having done them. So the novel is really about people of various white European mindsets — the narrator is a hard-headed cop; we also meet scientists, anthropologists, artists, hippies, colonialist administrators, and capitalist entrepreneur types — all of whom attempt, and all of whom fail, in their various ways, to come to grips with the disconcerting otherness of the Zone and the Delta. The novel recalls both Lem’s Solaris (with its alien intelligence that repels our efforts to understand it) and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic (with its Zone where noramal Earthly categories do not quite seem to apply, and which less discloses anything about itself than it responds to those who would explore it and exploit it by reflecting back their own prejudices and limitations to them). But Beckett brings to this novel a sense of metaphysical and psychological disquiet and displacement that is more in tune with our neoliberal present than is the case with those novels written under conditions of “actually-existing socialism.”

  • The Deep, by Rivers Solomon. The Detroit techno band Drexciya invented the mythology of an underwater realm, inhabited by the descendants of pregant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships during the Middle Passage. The children of these women continue to breathe in the water, as they did in the womb, and they create a utopian, high-tech society, safely apart from the horrors of land and air. The experimental hip hop band Clipping revised and extended this mythology, with a 2017 song that imagined the Drexciyans no longer safely apart from the surface world – for now they have to deal with worldwide ecological catastrophe, and with current efforts by large corporations to mine the seabed. Rivers Solomon picks up the story and again reimagines it in this novella, which turns on the dilemma that the Drexciyans can afford neither to forget nor to remember the traumatic history from which they originated: to remember the traumas is ti be crippled into inactivity, but to forget them is to lose any sense of what defines them as a community with a common history. I wrote at greater length about this powerfully affecting novella here.

  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers. Chambers writes science fiction that is exuberantly multicultural — her galaxy is filled with wildly different species, different genders, different social/familial/reproductive arrangements, different forms of intelligence (both biological and computational), and so on. At the same time, her novels have a decidedly retro emotional feel — they are entertaining, and even comfy, in a way that recalls Golden Age science fiction (if only that older sf hadn’t been so white, patriarchal, and heteronormative). It’s a peculiar affective combination, and I know people who have been turned off by Chambers’ upbeatness and utter lack of cynicism or even irony. This has never been a problem for me, but YMMV. In any case, To be Taught… is my favorite book of hers so far. It’s a standalone novel, apart from the Wayfarers series of her other books. There is very little plot or drama; a group of scientists simply examines the various life forms (none of them reaching human-scale sentience) on a number of planets in a solar system 14 light years away from Earth. The novel succeeds in imagining forms of life that are truly different: they don’t fit into anthropomorphic (or mammalomorphic) categories at all. Yet they are also free from any tinge of the uncanny (such as we find in “weird fiction” from Lovecraft a century ago, all the way to VanderMeer or Mieville today). To my mind, this is not a flaw, but a positive accomplishment, and an important one.

  • This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone. This book is kind of a spy romance, in the form of an epistolary novel. Two women are ruthless agents on opposing sides in a universal war that involves time travel — it is fought by both agents going back or forward in time in order to change the very shape of the timeline. The two spies are always setting traps for one another, and outwitting one another. It reminded me, actually, of Antonio Prohias’ Spy Vs Spy comic strips, that appeared in MAD Magazine when I was a kid. In any case, the spies leave letters for one another, each taunting the other for defeating her plans. As things progress, the spies gradually fall in love with one another, and look for ways to defect from the war they are both involved in, in order to be with one another. I found this novel cute and engaging. It was fun to read (though I didn’t love it quite as much as many people on the Internet seem to have done).

  • Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir. This book is ostensibly a mix of space opera and horror-cum-murder-mystery, but it is actually lesbian goth fanfic of a very high order. The prose is lively (or deathly, if you prefer), the plot twists are outstanding, and the highly emo love/hate relationship between the two protagonists (one woman a magician, the other a fighter/bodyguard) intensifies without ever letting go, and gets resolved in the most weirdly twisted manner imaginable.

  • Interference, by Sue Burke. This is the sequel to Burke’s previous novel Semiosis. These books are about sentient plants, the dominant life form on a planet that has been colonized both by human beings escaping the ecological and political catastrophes on Earth, and an equally intelligent arthropod-like species. Where the first novel was mostly about how the human settlers both learn about the sentience of the native plants, and learn how to coexist with them, this second novel widens the scope, giving us a multispecies variety of viewpoints and (often unreliable) narrators, and a wide range of different forms of intelligence, and different sorts of social and political arrangements. I wrote about the novel in greater depth here.

  • The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman. The second volume of the Book of Dust trilogy picks up the story of Lyra ten years after the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Wonderfully inventive, as Pullman always is; and deeply expressive of Pullman’s own sort of vital materialism (in clear opposition both to the dogmatism of organized religion and to any sort of eliminativism and reductionism). Pullman is still exploring his great theme, “the amorous inclinations of matter” (to quote from his early masterpiece Galatea), with a lively and inventive narrative of an alternative world. Also, the book ends on a cliffhanger — Lyra, and a number of other characters towards whom we have become affectionate, are all in deep trouble — and I cannot believe I will have to wait several more years for the third volume, with the resolution.

  • A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. The author of this novel is (in ‘real life’) an historian of the Byzantine Empire; and she puts her knowledge to dazzling use in this novel, focused on a galactic empire reminiscent both of Byzantium and of the (long dominant, but now declining) American imperium. The protagonist is the newly-appointed ambassador from a distant space station, sent to the center of the Empire, and needing to negotiate her way through a dizzying complexity of social rituals, political infighting, and plots and counterplots, all the while striving to somehow maintain the independence (or at least, semi-independence) of her home, which the Empire is anxious to absorb. Besides being tense and thrilling, the novel plays powerfully with the way that different cultures have different customs and rituals, and different underlying assumptions. The narrator is somebody who has grown up entirely fascinated with the Empire’s art and culture — much the same was as people today, in far-flung parts of the world, have been fascinated by American movies, music, and sports. But she is uncomfortably aware that this sort of fascination is very different from being an insider of the culture one is fascinated with. She needs to learn how to negotiate the vast complexities and unexamined assumptions of the Empire, which are alien to her despite her lifelong fascination with them. In addition, she needs to grasp how the Empire is not a monolith, but riven by political and economic privileges and by class conflict. And above all, she also needs to come to terms with her increasing realization that she is in fact a colonized person whose obsession is with her colonizers. The different cultures do not meet on anything like equal terms, and no matter how many of the Empire’s arts, sciences, and general assumptions she adopts, she will never really be one of them, but rather always seen as a barbarian outsider. Add to this artificial intelligence and other cybernetic technologies, and the novel as a whole involves cognitive estrangement (often said to be the defining characteristic of science fiction as a genre) to the max.

  • Escaping Exodus, by Nicky Drayden. Drayden’s previous novels are best be described as something like magic realism, set in an African context (Drayden is African American, but she lived for several years in South Africa). The present novel, however, is full-blown space opera. Human beings of various nationalities and backgrounds live in an interstellar flotilla; Earth is only a very distant memory. The humans have outgrown the generation starships that originally brought them to the stars, and they haven’t found any planets around other stars that are sufficiently Earth-like to live on. So instead they live in the innards of gigantic (Moon-sized) spacefaring beasts; they are essentially parasites, drawing sustenance and shelter from the animals within which they live, and from the animal’s other intestinal fauna and flora. The animals are mortal, however, and whenever one of them dies the human beings have to evacuate, and capture and colonize another one. Add to this the social arrangements, involving rigid class hierarchies, poly-marriages arranged for political or economic advantage rather than love, gender-role inversion, and revolutionary stirrings among the lower classes that are viciously repressed by the ruling class. And cap it all with a forbidden (because cross-class) love between two young women. What’s most remarkable about the novel is its squishy biotechnology; Drayden imagines in discomforting detail what it might be like to live within another organism’s vascular systems. In addition to the politics of race, class, and gender, ecological politics plays a central role, as the people gradually realize that they are killing their hosts, and thereby destroying themselves, through the unchecked exploitation of their resources. The novel is wildly inventive in its particulars, and compelling in its overall bio-ecological vision.

Bats, Dogs, and Posthumans

Here’s an essay I have written for a compilation of essays to be published in 2014 entitled Turborealism, following an exhibition with the same title curated by Victoria Ivanova and Agnieszka Pindera at Izolyatsia, Donetsk, Ukraine.

BATS, DOGS, AND POSTHUMANS

What is it like to be a bat?

The philosopher Thomas Nagel asked this question in a famous essay, first published in 1974. Most people today would assume that bats, like dogs and cats and other mammals, are not mere automata. They have experiences, which is to say that that have some sort of inner, subjective life. In other words, Nagel says, it is “like something” to be a bat. And yet, bats are so different from us that it is hard for us to imagine just what being a bat is like. How can we find a human equivalent for its powers pf echolocation, or its experience of flight? In comparison to human beings and other primates, Nagel says, bats are a “fundamentally alien form of life.” In particular, “bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.” We cannot easily think ourselves into the mind of a bat.

Nagel’s question is really just a vivid example of a problem that has long been a matter of concern for Western thought. Even since Descartes, philosophers and artists alike have worried about the problem of other minds. Descartes makes subjective experience the ground for all certainty. I think, therefore I am: this means that, even if all all my particular thoughts are delusional or false, the fact that I am thinking them is still true. But how much of a reassurance is this, really? I do not experience anyone else’s feelings from the inside, in the way that I experience my own. Descartes worries that the figures he sees through the window might not be actual human beings, but “hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs.” However absurd or paranoid such a hypothesis seems, there is no way to absolutely disprove it. Modern science fiction works — think of Philip K. Dick’s novels, or The Matrix movies — still take up this theme: they express the disquieting sense that the world, with all the people in it, is nothing more than an enormous virtual-reality simulation somehow being fed into our minds.

The best answer to this sort of paranoid skepticism is the argument from analogy. Other people generally act and react, and express themselves, in much the same way that I do: we all laugh and cry, groan when we are in pain, agree that the wall over there is painted red. On this basis, I can presume that other human beings must also have the same sort of consciousness, or inner experience, that I do. Of course, this is not an absolute logical proof; and it leaves open the possibility that other people might be shamming or acting: pretending to be in pain when they are not. And yet, the argument from analogy works pragmatically. As Wittgenstein put it, despite his own skepticism about the language of inner experience: “just try — in a real case — to doubt someone else’s fear or pain!” Only a sociopath would do so.

The real problem with analogy lies in the opposite direction: in the fact that we tend to extend it further than we should. We are so good at discerning other people’s feelings, desires, and intentions, that we tend to believe that these things exist even where they do not. We discern patterns in random bits of data. We attribute intention to deterministic mechanisms. We decipher messages that in fact were never sent. We assume that everything in the world is somehow concerned with us. Paranoid credulity is a worse danger than paranoid skepticism.

If we fail to grasp what it is like to be a bat, then, this is less because we fail to recognize it at all, than because we tend to anthropomorphize it unduly. We all too smugly assume that bats are just like us, only not as smart. We tend to subsume a creature like the bat under our own image of thought, forgetting that it might think and feel in radically different ways. For how else could we hope to understand the bat at all? But if we have a hard time grasping the mind of a bat, then how can we even hope to grasp the mind of a much more distant intelligent organism — for instance, an octopus? And what about — to extrapolate still further — the minds of intelligent beings from other planets? Peter Watts’ science fiction novel Blindsight tells the story of a First Contact with aliens who are more advanced than us by any intellectual or technological measure, but who turn out not to be conscious at all, in any sense that we are able to recognize or understand.

Watts imagines his aliens by inverting the argument from analogy. His novel’s title — Blindsight — refers to a well-documented medical condition in which people are overtly blind, but able to see unconsciously. Blindsight sufferers are not aware of seeing anything. But if you throw them a ball, they are often able to catch it; and if you ask them to “guess” the location of a light that they cannot see, they are usually able to turn in the right direction. Apparently their brains are still processing visual stimuli, even though the outcome of this processing is never “reported” to the conscious mind. Such nonconscious mental activity provides the analogy on the basis of which Watts imagines his aliens. In doing so, he manages disquietingly to suggest that consciousness might well be evolutionarily maladaptive, reducing our efficiency and our ability to compete with other organisms.

Watt’s speculative fiction is not an idle fantasy. In fact, nonconscious mental processes are not just confined to people who suffer from blindsight or other neurological disorders. Contemporary neurobiology tells us that most of what our brains do is nonconscious, and even actively opaque to consciousness. At best, we are only aware of the results of all our complex mental activity. The price we pay for conscious access to the world is an inability to grasp the mechanisms that provide us with this access. We cannot “see” the processes that allow us to see. As the neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger puts it, “transparency is a special form of darkness.”

This puts the whole question of “what it is like” on a different footing. If I do not know what it is like to be a bat, this is because I also do not know what it is like to be a human being. Indeed, I do not even really know “what it is like” to be myself. My consciousness is radically incomplete, and it never “belongs” only to myself. Descartes’ “I think” is generated, and driven, by all sorts of nonconscious (and non-first person) mental processes. Other things think through me, and inside me. My own thought is merely the summation, and to some degree the transformation, of all these other thoughts that think me, and of which I am not (and cannot ever be) aware. Such nonconscious thought may well include — but is surely not limited to — what has traditionally been known as the Freudian unconscious. My thought processes are not self-contained, but broadly ecological or environmental.

In part, this is because all thought is embodied. As Alfred North Whitehead once put it, “we see with our eyes, we taste with our palates, we touch with our hands.” Today we might add that we see with our neurons and cortex, as well as with our eyes. But even this does not go far enough. We should also say that we see with the objects that reflect photons into our eyes. We hear with our ears, but we also hear with the things whose vibrations are transmitted through the air to us. We sense and feel by means of all the things in our surroundings that incessantly importune us and affect us. And these include, but are not limited to, the objects of which we are overtly aware. For the greater part of our environmental surround consists of things that, in themselves, remain below the threshold of conscious discrimination. We do not actually perceive such things, but we sense them indirectly, in the vague form of intuitions, atmospheres, and moods.

This vast environmental surround also subtends our use of analogy in order to grasp “other minds,” or to imagine “what it is like” to be another creature. Degrees of resemblance (metaphors) themselves depend upon degrees of proximity (metonymies) within the greater environment. Consider, for instance, the dog instead of the bat. Dogs are not intrinsically any more similar to us than bats. They operate largely by smell; if anything, this is even more difficult for us to imagine than operating by sound. Blind people can often learn to echolocate with their voices, or with the tapping of their sticks. But it is unlikely that any human being (at least as we are currently constituted) could learn to olfactolocate as dogs do.

Despite this, we feel much closer to dogs than we do to bats. We are much more able to imagine what they think, and to describe what they are like — even on points where they differ from ourselves. This is because of our long historical association with them. Dogs are our commensals, symbionts, familiars, and companions; we have been together with them for thousands of years. We share much more of a common environmental background with dogs than we do with bats. This means that many of the things that think within us also think within dogs — in a way that is not at all true for bats. Evidently, neither visual objects nor olfactory objects affect us, or think within us, in the same way that they affect, or think within, dogs; nonetheless, their common presence helps to bridge the gap between us and them.

No thought is possible without, or apart from, what I am calling the environmental surround. Doubtless this has been true as long as humanity has existed — indeed, as long as any form of life whatsoever has existed. But why is this situation of special concern to us now? Or better: why has it become so urgent now? I think there are two reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.

In the first place, recent digital technologies have allowed us to grasp and account for the environmental surround, more thoroughly and precisely than ever before. Media theorist Mark Hansen writes of how digital microsensors, spread ubiquitously within our bodies and throughout our surroundings, are able to compile information, and give us feedback, about environmental processes that are not phenomenally or introspectively available to us. We can now learn — albeit indirectly and after the fact — about imperceptible features that nonetheless help to shape our decisions and our actions: things like muscles tensing, or action potentials in neurons, but also subliminal environmental cues. We can then use this information to reshape the environment that will influence our subsequent decisions and actions.

The science fiction writer Karl Schroeder pushes this even further. In his near-future short story “Deodand,” he envisions a world in which ubiquitous microsensors break down the distinction between subjects and objects, or between human beings, nonhuman organisms, and lifeless things. “Fantastic amounts of data” are not only collected for our benefit, but also “exchanged between the sand-grain sized sensors doing the tagging,” and ultimately between the “things themselves.” Once an entity has a rich enough datafeed, it implicitly declares its own personhood. Objects are able to speak and respond to one another, and thereby to assert, and to act in, their own interests. Schroeder’s story tell us that we must reject “the idea that there’s only two kinds of thing, people, and objects.” For most entities in the world are “a little bit of both.” This has always been the case; but today, with our microsensing technologies, “we can’t ignore that fact anymore.”

The second reason for the current importance of the environmental surround is a much more somber one. Our technologies — both industrial and digital — have devastated the environment through pollution, global warming, and the extermination of individual species and whole ecosystems. This is less the result of deliberate actions on our part, than of our unwitting interactions with all those factors in the environmental surround that imperceptibly affect us, and are themselves affected by us in turn. Climate change and radioactive decay are prime examples of what the ecocritic Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects: actually existing things that we cannot ever perceive directly, because they are so widely distributed in time and space. For instance, we cannot experience global warming itself, despite the fact that it is perfectly real. Rather, we experience “the weather” on particular days. At best, we may experience the fact that these days are warmer on average than they used to be. But even the coldest day of the winter does not refute global warming; nor does the hottest summer day “prove” it. Once again, we are faced with things or processes that exceed our direct perceptual grasp, but that nonetheless powerfully affect whatever we do perceive and experience.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction short story “The People of Sand and Slag” addresses just this situation. The narrator, and the other two members of his crew, are posthumans, genetically engineered and augmented in radical ways. They have “transcended the animal kingdom.” But their bodies and minds are not the outcome of any sort of Promethean, extropian, or accelerationst program. Rather, they have been altered from baseline human beings in order to meet the demands of a radically changed environment. They are soldiers, guarding an automated mining operation in Montana. The three of them share a close esprit de corps; but otherwise, they seem devoid of empathy or compassion. As befits their job, they are extremely strong and fast; when they are hurt, their wounds heal quickly and easily. Sometimes, during sex play or just for fun, they embed razors and knives in their skin, or even chop off their own limbs; everything heals, or grows back, in less than a day. For food, they consume sand, petroleum, mining leftovers, and other industrial waste. They live and work in what for us would be a hellish landscape of “acid pits and tailings mountains,” and other residues of scorched-earth strip mining. And for vacation, they go off to Hawaii, and swim in the oil-slick-laden, plastic-strewn Pacific. They seem perfectly adapted to their environment, a world in which nearly all unengineered life forms have gone extinct, and in which corporate competition apparently takes the form of incessant low-grade armed conflict.

In the course of Bacigalupi’s story, the soldier protagonists come upon a dog. The creature is almost entirely unknown to them; they’ve never seen one before, except in zoos or on the Web. Nobody can explain where it came from, or how it survived before they found it, in a place that was toxic to it, and that had none of its usual food sources. The soldiers keep the dog for a while, as a curiosity. They do not understand how it could ever have survived, even in a pre-biologically-engineered world. They take for granted that it is “not sentient”; and they are surprised when it shows affection for them, and when they discover that it can be taught to obey simple commands.

The soldiers are perturbed by just how “vulnerable” the dog is; it needs special food and water, and incessant care. They find that they continually “have to worry about whether it was going to step in acid, or tangle in barb-wire half-buried in the sand, or eat something that would keep it up vomiting half the night.” In their world, a dog is “very expensive to maintain… Manufacturing a basic organism’s food is quite complex… Recreating the web of life isn’t easy.” In the end, it’s simply too much annoyance and expense to keep the dog around. So the soldiers kill it, cook it over a spit, and eat it. They don’t find meat as tasty as their usual diet of petroleum and sand: “it tasted okay, but in the end it was hard to understand the big deal.”

From bats to dogs to posthumans: philosophy and science fiction alike explore varying degrees of likeness and of difference. The point is not to achieve certainty, as Descartes hoped to do. Nor is the point to conquer reality, or to think that we can master it, or even that we can really know it. The point is not even to “know thyself.” But rather, perhaps. to come to terms with the multitudes that live and think within us, which we cannot ever live and think without, but which we can also never reduce to ourselves.

Near Future — Reading List

Just a short reading list of plausible looks into the near future, selected from among books I have read recently:

  • Lauren Beukes, Moxyland
  • Charles Stross, Halting State
  • Richard K. Morgan, Market Forces
  • Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel
  • Matthew De Abaitua, The Red Men
  • M. T. Anderson, Feed
  • Tricia Sullivan, Lightborn
  • Scott Bakker, Neuropath
  • Paolo Bacigalupi, The Wind-Up Girl
  • Jack Womack, Random Acts of Senseless Violence
  • Bruce Sterling, The Caryatids
  • Mark Wernham, Martin Martin’s On the Other Side
  • Walter Jon Williams, This is Not a Game
  • Cory Doctorow, Makers

 

Sex + Love With Robots

David Levy’s Love + Sex With Robots aims to persuade us that, by 2050 at the latest, it will be a common thing for people to fall in love with robots, have committed relationships with them, and have sex with them. The author wants both to shock us with the extravagance of this claim, and yet demonstrate to us carefully that such a prospect is entirely likely, and that his extrapolation is entirely rational. And indeed, Levy’s thesis is not all that extreme, when you compare it with, for instance, Ray Kurzweil’s claim that the Singularity will overtake us by 2049.

Still, I think that predicting the future is impossible, and therefore inherently ridiculous. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speculate and extrapolate; what it means is that we should read futuristic predictions in the same way that we read science fiction novels. As Warren Ellis recently put it, science fiction is “a tool with which to understand the contemporary world.” More precisely, SF (and nonfiction futuristic speculation as well) is a tool with which to understand those aspects of the contemporary world that are unfinished, still in process, and therefore (as it were) redolent of futurity. SF and futurism are vital and necessary, because they make us stop and look at the changes going on all around us, breaking with the “rear-view-mirrorism” (as Marshall McLuhan called it) that otherwise characterizes the way we tend to look at the world. That’s why I find it indispensable to read people like Bruce Sterling, Jamais Cascio, Charles Stross, Warren Ellis, and so on. The line between science fiction and futurist speculation is an extremely thin one (and some of the people on my list, most notably Sterling, explicitly do both). Extrapolating the future is necessarily a fiction-making activity; but we can’t understand the present, or be ready for the future, unless we go beyond empirical fact and turn to fiction.

That said, I fear that Love + Sex With Robots struck me as being more symptomatic than truly thoughtful, much less informative. There’s a certain (willed?) naivete to the book, as when Levy cites all sorts of dubious scientific studies and surveys — mostly conducted since 1985 — in order to prove that, for instance, “one of the stronger reasons for falling in love is need — the need for intimacy, for closeness, for sexual gratification, for a family” (p. 40). This is the sort of thing that gives (or at least should give) supposedly “scientific” research a bad name. Is a psychological research team really needed to verify cliches that have wide circulation throughout our culture? “Research” of this sort, which reproduces what everybody already “knows”, is entirely solipsistic: it is pretty much equivalent to telling somebody something, and then asking them to repeat what you told them back to you.

I suppose the idea that people crave intimacy, or sexual gratification for that matter, was merely “folk psychology,” with no objective status, until it was scientifically verified, by research summarized in an article published in 1989 in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (as mentioned on Levy’s p. 38). It’s remarkable how — if we accept Levy’s research sources and citations — we knew nothing whatsoever about human nature a mere thirty years ago, and now we know almost everything about it that there is to know; we have gotten, for instance “a definitive answer to the question” of whether men or women have a stronger sex drive (the answer — surprise, surprise, is that men do — pp. 294-295).

Sarcasm aside, it seems obvious to me — in line with what I said above about science fiction — that one can learn a lot more about “falling in love,” and the intensity of sexual drives, and so on, from reading romance novels, for instance, than from slogging through “scientific” studies of the sort Levy cites on nearly every page of Love + Sex With Robots.

But leaving that aside — and also leaving aside the most entertaining portions of Levy’s book, such as the one where he goes through the history of vibrators and other sex toys — Love + Sex With Robots presents us (inadvertently perhaps) with an odd paradox. On the one hand, Levy argues that we will soon be able to fall in love with robots, and have sex with them, because the experience will essentially be indistinguishable from falling in love with, and having sex with, other human beings. He advocates something like the Turing test for emotions, as well as for cognition: “the robot that gives the appearance, by its behavior, of having emotions should be regarded as having emotions, the corollary of this being that if we want a robot to appear to have emotions, it is sufficient for it to behave as though it does” (p. 120). This, in itself, is unexceptionable. SF has treated the question of androids’ indistinguishability from biological human beings in numerous works, Blade Runner being the most famous but far from the only example. And Levy is not far from SF in his assertions that robots will be able to do everything that we do, only better.

Of course, that still leaves the question of how we get from here to there. Levy tends to elide the difficulty of jumping from what is possible now, to the point where robots can actually pass the Turing test. He doesn’t seem to think that this gap is such a big deal. He blithely asserts, for instance, that programming robots, not only to “imitate human sociability traits,” but also “to go further and create sociability traits of their own” is a task “possibly no more difficult to program than the task of composing Mozart’s 42nd Symphony or painting a canvas that can sell in an art gallery for thousands of dollars — tasks that have already been accomplished by AI researchers” (pp. 166-167). One may well question whether the music-writing program he cites (by David Cope of UC-Santa Cruz) really makes works that have the power and originality of Mozart. But we get this sort of assertion again and again. Levy writes that “I am convinced that by 2025 at the latest there will be artificial-emotion technologies that can not only simulate the full range of human emotions and their appropriate responses but also exhibit nonhuman emotions that are peculiar to robots”; the sole evidence he offers for this assertion is the fact that “research and development in this field is burgeoning” (p. 86).

Levy suggests, as well, that the problem of robots’ intellectual knowledge is a trivial one: “one example of a similarity that will be particularly easy to replicate is a similarity of education, since just about all of the world’s knowledge will be available for incorporation into any robot’s encyclopedic memory. If a robot discovers through conversation that its human possesses knowledge on a given subject at a given level, its own knowledge of that subject can be adjusted accordingly — it can download more knowledge if necessary, or it can deliberately ‘forget’ certain areas or levels of knowledge in order that its human will not feel intimidated by talking to a veritable brain box” (pp. 144-145). Forgive me for not sharing Levy’s faith that such a thing will be “particularly easy” to do; judging from the very limited success of programs like Cyc, we are nowhere near being able to do this.

If I find Levy’s claims extremely dubious, it is not because I think that human intelligence (or mentality) somehow inherently defies replication. But such replication is an extremely difficult problem, one that we are nowhere near to resolving. It certainly isn’t just a trivial engineering issue, or a mere quantitative matter of building larger memory stores, and more powerful and more capacious computer chips, the way that Levy (and other enthusiasts, such as Ray Kurzweil) almost always tend to assume. AI research, and the research in related fields like “emotional computing,” cannot progress without some fundamental new insights or paradigm shifts. Such work isn’t anywhere near the level of sophistication that Levy and other boosters seem to think it is. Levy wildly overestimates the successes of recent research, because he underestimates what “human nature” actually entails. His models of human cognition, emotion, and behavior are unbelievably simplistic, as they rely upon the the inanely reductive “scientific” studies that I mentioned earlier.

Much science fiction, of course, has simply abstracted from these difficulties, in order to think through the consequences of robots and AIs actually being able to pass the Turing test. But this is where the paradox of Levy’s argument really kicks in. For, at the same time that he asserts that robots will be able to pass the Turing test, he still continues to treat them as programmable entities that can be bent entirely to our will. There are numerous rhapsodic passages to the effect that, for instance, “another important difference [between human beings and robots] is that robots will be programmable never to fall out of love with their human” (p. 132). Or that a robot who is “better in the bedroom” than one’s “husband/wife/lover” will be “readily available for purchase for the equivalent of a hundred dollars or so” (p. 306). Or that, in the future, you “will be able to go into the robot shop and choose from a range of personalities, just as you will be able to choose from a range of heights, looks, and other physical characteristics” (pp. 136-137). Or, again, that a robot’s personality “can be adjusted to conform to whatever personality types its human finds appealing… The purchase form will ask questions about dimensions and basic physical features, such as height, weight, color of eyes and hair, whether muscular or not…” and so on and so forth (p. 145 — though interestingly, skin color is never mentioned as a variable, even though eye and hair color are a number of times). In short, Levy asserts that robots will be loved and used as sex partners not only because they are just as ‘real’ emotionally and intellectually as human beings, but also because they have no independence, and can be made to entirely conform to our fantasies. They will sell, not only because they are autonomous agents, but also because they are perfect commodities. They will be just like Tamagotchis, only more “realistic”; and just like vibrators, only better.

Actually, the weirdness goes even further than this. The imputation of agency to robots, while at the same time they remain commodities serving our own desires, leads to some very strange contortions. The book is filled with suggestions along these lines: “A robot who wants to engender feelings of love from its human might try all sorts of different strategies in an attempt to achieve this goal, such as suggesting a visit to the ballet, cooking the human’s favorite food, or making flattering comments about the human’s new haircut, then measuring the effect of each strategy by conducting an fMRI scan of the human’s brain. When the scan shows a higher measure of love from the human, the robot would know that it had hit upon a successful strategy. When the scan corresponds to a low level of love, the robot would change strategies” (pp. 36-37). I must say I find this utterly remarkable as a science-fiction scenario. For it suggests that the robot has been programmed to put its human owner under surveillance, the better to manipulate the owner’s emotions. The human being has purchased the robot, precisely in order that the robot may seduce the human being into doing whatever it (the robot) desires (leaving open the question of what it desires, and how these desires have been programmed into it in the first place). Such a scenario goes beyond anything that Philip K. Dick (or, for that matter, Michel Foucault) ever imagined; it extrapolates from today’s feeble experiments in neuromarketing, to a future in which such manipulation is not only something that we are subjected to, but something that we willingly do to ourselves.

So, the paradox of Levy’s account is that 1) he insists on the indistinguishability of human beings and (suitably technologically advanced) robots, while 2) at the same time he praises robots on the grounds that they are infinitely programmable, that they can be guaranteed never to have desires that differ from what their owners want, and that “you don’t have to buy [a robot] endless meals or drinks, take it to the movies or on vacation to romantic but expensive destinations. It will expect nothing from you, no long-term (or even short-term) emotional returns, unless you have chosen it to be programmed to do so” (p.211).

How do we explain this curious doubleness? How can robots be both rational subjects, and infinitely manipulable objects? How can they both possess an intelligence and sensibility at least equal to that of human beings, and retain the status of commodities. Or, as Levy himself somewhat naively puts it, “today, most of us disapprove of cultures where a man can buy a bride or otherwise acquire one without taking into account her wishes. Will our children and their children similarly disapprove of marrying a robot purchased at the local store or over the Internet? Or will the fact that the robot can be set to fall in virtual love with its owner make this practice universally acceptable?” (p. 305).

I think the answer is that this doubleness is not unique to robots; it is something that applies to human beings as well, in the hypercommodified consumer society that we live in. (By “we”, I mean the privileged portion of humankind, those of us who can afford to buy computers today, and will be able to afford to buy sexbots tomorrow — but this “we” really is, in a sense, universal, since it is the model that all human beings are supposed to aspire to). We ourselves are as much commodities as we are sovereign subjects; we ourselves are (or will be) infinitely programmable (through genetic and neurobiological technologies to come), not in spite of, but precisely because of, our status as “rational utility maximizers” entering the “marketplace.” This is already implicit in the “scientific” studies about “human nature” that Levy so frequently cites. The very idea that we can name, in an enumerated list, the particular qualities that we want in a robot lover, depends upon the fact that we already conceive of ourselves as being defined by such a list of enumerable qualities. The economists’ idea that we bring a series of hierarchically organized desires into the marketplace similarly preassumes such a quantifiable bundle of discrete items.

Or, to quote Levy again: “Some would argue that robot emotions cannot be ‘real’ because they have been designed and programmed into the robots. But is this very different from how emotions work in people? We have hormones, we have neurons, and we are ‘wired’ in a way that creates our emotions. Robots will merely be wired differently, with electronics and software replacing hormones and neurons. But the results will be very similar, if not indistinguishable” (p.122). This is not an argument about actual biological causation, but precisely a recipe for manipulation and control. The robots Levy imagines are made in our image, precisely because we are already in process of being made over in theirs.

Science fiction update

This is rambling and all over the place, but I think I will post it anyway, as it tries to make sense of a lot of the reading I have been doing lately, and which I haven’t previously mentioned in this blog.

SF writer Chris Moriarty, whose excellent novel Spin State I have just finished reading, notes on her website that the most fundamental distinction in science fiction as a genre is “the division between writers who view sf as being primarily about science and writers who view sf as being primarily about politics.” She goes on to note that, of course, this polarity is really a “continuum” rather than an absolute divide; but I think that the major point is well taken.

Actually, I might want to substitute “technology” for science in Moriarty’s formulation, because, even in the “hardest” SF the scientific knowledge is embodied in technology; and also because more metaphorical technologies, like those used in certain types of fantasy writing, are sometimes (though, obviously, not always) closer to the technologies that hard SF provides. (Think, for instance, about the use of artificial intelligence, alongside several kinds of flat-out magic, in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. So it might be best to state the division as between SF that looks at the imaginative possibilities unleashed by potential or future technology, and SF that looks at the political consequences of such technology. Though, of course, most good SF has elements of both.

I’m thinking about this because I want to work out more of the way that SF moves in between these two poles, and helps us focus on the ways that politics inflects technological development (and even scientific discovery) and the ways that scientific discovery and technological change inflect, divert, and alter socio-political possibilities.

For instance, Moriarty’s Spin State is premised on extrapolations from current quantum mechanics. There is a lot of stuff about correlated particles (providing for a loophole in the absolute restriction of movement to the speed of light or lower), and about the many-worlds implications of certain branches of quantum theory (though, thankfully, Moriarty never uses this as a mere plot device to bring alternative universes in contact with the one in which the novel is set). And Moriarty even provides several pages of bibliography at the end of the book, in which the real physics underlying the made-up physics of his novel is grounded and explained.

And yet, Spin State is, in a certain way, more about (old-fashioned) class struggle than it is about quantum theory. The action takes place mostly on a planet where workers are employed in horrific conditions as coal miners, digging up the “Bose-Einstein condensate” that is necessary for superluminal communication and travel, and that is buried amidst the coal. The miners’ conditions are every bit as bad, and even as ‘primitive’, as those of mine workers in, say, South Africa today. The flashy newer technologies that make up the world (universe) of the novel are overlaid upon the older technologies that in fact, already exist today. It is symbolically indicative that, several centuries from now, people are still watching the Mets take on the Yankees in the world series, and government troops are still being brought in to break strikes and keep the workers in line. The novel is split between the hell of the coal mines, where workers routinely die in cave-ins, or — if not — succumb to black lung by the time they are forty, and the paradise of completely immersive virtual worlds in which the illusion of physicality is complete, and material objects are as palpabe, and can be transferred, as easily as occurs in the physical world. We meet emergent artificial intelligences possessing superhuman computing power, quasi-human beings who have been genetically engineered and cloned to provide certain exploitable physical and mental characteristics, and people whose bodies have been extensively wired to give them strength, computing power, prosthetic memory, ability to interface directly with machines, and so forth. Yet these transformations,as well, are not universally available, but tied to power and privilege and economic status.

The thriller plot of Spin State involves contact with an alien form of intelligent life (so alien, that for a long time human beings were unable even to recognize it as either alive or intelligent), together with a love story between a quasi-human “construct” and an AI who can only instantiate itself physically by “borrowing” (actually, paying for use of) the bodies of physical human beings. Though the novel is partly committed to the sort of naturalistic “character development” that is sometimes considered requisite in genre fiction, it does at least to some extent speculate on what it might mean to speak of the “psychology” of an intelligent and communicating entity which, yet, is not entirely human, and not even a unified subject in the ways that we expect human beings to be. Moriarty doesn’t go anywhere near as far in this respect as Justina Robson does in Living Next Door to the God of Love, a book which is mind-blowing in the way that it imagines the depth psychology of entirely nonhuman subjects, and the emotional relationships such subjects might enter into with other nonhuman, as well as with more or less ordinarily human, beings. But Moriarty, unlike Robson, links this sort of strange emergence — something beyond what we might be capable of actually experiencing today — to socio-political conditions that are continuous with our rapaciously capitalistic present.

Well, I seem to have introduced a third category: nonhuman psychology, or (as I would prefer to call it) the affectivity of nonhuman beingss (including transhuman beings, genetically modified human beings, hybrid/cyborg human beings, and artificial intelligence beings), which is as separate from (and as influenced by) either science/technology or politics/economics as these two are separate from, and yet strongly influenced by one another. Nonhuman affectivities are an important part of science fiction, because they are part of the investigation of how “we” (taking this pronoun in the broadest possible sense) could be otherwise, and indeed how we are already (since SF is always about the futurity that is already implicit or incipient in the present) in process of becoming-otherwise. The key principle here, of course, being McLuhan’s, that as media (an even wider term than “technologies”) vary and change, so our very percepts, affects, and concepts vary and change.

But I digress. I wanted to mention, as a contrast to Moriarty, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, which just won the Hugo for best SF novel of 2006. (I am looking forward to Vinge’s visit to my university’s campus later this year). Rainbows End is near-future SF; it extrapolates trends in “social software,” in wearable computing, in ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous networks, and massively parallel computing involving scores of people only virtually connected, etc., in order to suggest how these technologies are radically reshaping our social world. It is much more on the science/technology side of the continuum than the political; and I tend to distrust Vinge’s politics to a certain extent, I must say, as it seems (from what I can gather from his fiction) to trend libertarian-capitalist; not to mention that Vinge is the originator of the concept of The Singularity, which I think has subsequently (in the hands of others, at least) been greatly oversold.

Nonetheless, Rainbows End is quite brilliant both for the ways it integrates into a seamless whole its various technologies, all of which are floating around right now, but isolated from one another and only in incipient versions; and for the way that the book offers a vision in which the surveillance of the national security state, vigilantly on guard against terrorism and against any violation of so-called ‘intellectual property’ rights, has become so ubiquitous and taken-for-granted that the chance of getting away from it doesn’t exist anymore — the loss of civil liberties and of privacy is so established that it isn’t even an issue. The scariness of this is only mitigated by the fact that “freedom” of business entrepreneurship and of entertainment “choices” is left intact — i.e., you are entirely free to swear your allegiance to either of the two popular fantasy authors who have ripped off and updated Terry Pratchett, each in their own way. That is pretty much the way Vinge paints it, though I don’t think he is quite as snarkily ironic about the commerce part of it as I just was. (Disclaimer: I have nothing against Terry Pratchett; I am only objecting to his future imitators).

And, oh yes, Vinge’s book also has some interesting bits about a sort of mental virus that, spread by a combination of biological and net/informational infection, can cause an extremely high percentage of those exposed to suddenly want to buy a given product, or support a President’s rationale for waging war. And, also, the novel contains one mysterious character who (it seems — this is never explicitly spelled out) just may be an emergent AI, having arisen out of the Net itself, with its own somewhat alien agendas/interests and affects… That again.

But, for really hitting that point on the continuum where the social and political blends imperceptibly into the scientific and technological, and vice versa, the best SF I have read in quite some time is Warren Ellis’ new comic book series, Doktor Sleepless. Only two issues have come out so far, so it is hard to know quite where this is heading — it is as if I were to review Moriarty’s or Vinge’s novel on the basis of only reading the first fifty pages — but already we have been hit with an extraordinarily high density of new ideas, innovative concepts per page. One theme, at least, is the contrast between the shiny, high-concept SF of the past, and the way that technological innovation is already, much more quietly and unassumingly, worming its ways into our lives in ways that are far more profound, precisely because they are less spectacularly noticeable. In the world of Doktor Sleepless, people complain, “where’s my jet pack? where’s my flying car?”; but they fail even to notice how much they have been altered by stuff they take for granted, like (just barely beyond what we actually have today) ubiquitous instant messaging. Now, making fun of the grandiosity of Golden Age SF is nothing new; William Gibson did it twenty-five years ago in his short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” But Ellis is pointing, beyond this, to the increasing sense we have, in our globalized network society, that futurity itself is used up, that its horizons have shrunk, that we have nothing to look forward to. Our future hasn’t changed in, what, twenty or thirty years? The future we imagine today is no different from the one that Ridley Scott imagined in Blade Runner twenty-five years ago, just at the same time that Gibson was mocking the future that had been imagined twenty-five years before that. So we would seem to be in a stasis, where futurity has decayed, melted into an infernal, eternal present.

Against this malaise, Ellis’ Doktor Sleepless has a “terrible perscription” — though we do not know, after only two issues, what it is yet. But it does seem to involve DIY low tech, of the sort that has already changed our world, more profoundly perhaps than we have even noticed. [This really does ring true to me. My students are always surprised — not only that I grew up in a time before the Internet, even before personal computers — but, more stunningly, because it is something much more mundane — that I can remember the first time that I saw and used an ATM, and that — prior to that moment — I managed my bank account for many years without one].

Anyway.. Issue two of Doktor Sleepless introduces us to the “Shrieky Girls” — young women who have tiny haptic devices on their hands or arms, connected to the ubiquitous instant-messaging system that they can access through their contact lenses. The result is that they can share, not just words, but perceptions and sensations. When one of the Shrieky Girls takes a boy (or a girl) home with them, then the next morning “it’s all of them who share the modemed sensation of a warm arm closed softly around them.” So “Shrieky Girls are never alone; they live in an invisible web of constant secret conversation, transmitting raw feelings like they were texting notes.” What’s brilliant about all this is that it’s barely even SF; it’s only a step beyond what is already technologically feasible; and, in the world of the story, it isn’t even spectacular, but is something cobbled together cheaply and easily, out of already-obsolete components and second-hand networking links. Which makes it nearly invisible, even as it meses with our ideas about selfhood and privacy, and the boundaries between self and other, more profoundly than the more flashy technologies of science fiction past had ever done.

Ellis’ Global Frequency of several years ago already toyed with the making-mundane of the most extravagant SF visions that recent technologies have given us. And his novel (prose, not graphic) Crooked Little Vein, released this past summer, made the point that categories like “perversion,” and distinctions between the normal and the pathological, no longer make any sense in our society of what Baudrillard calls “transparency” and Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism” — and emphasized this with humor and relief, rather than with the horror of Baudrillard, or the moralistic fervor of those who bemoan the so-called “decline of symbolic efficacy” (the only “perversions” in the novel that are truly odious and objectionable are the ones that stem from the privileges and life-and-death powers that the extremely rich and well-connected exercise against the rest of us). Doktor Sleepless seems to be starting out from where these other works left off, and heading into uncharted territories. Ones in which the micro-affects and micro-politics of technologies that have insinuated themselves within our lives pretty much without a splash (albeit with lots of marketing hoopla) are exposed, dramatized, subject to the harsh scrutiny of genre fiction.

I mean, I’ll never have a jet pack, but won’t the iPhone change me? Why do I want one so badly, even though it won’t do anything for me “as a person” that my current phone (albeit using the disgustingly ponderous and irritating and user-unfriendly Windows Mobile platform) doesn’t do already?

Software and Hardware

Now that Apple has completed migrating its laptops to Intel chips, I really want to get a new one; I really want to replace my aging (in computer-age terms, i.e. it is 2 1/2 years old) 12″ PowerBook with a new 13″ MacBook… Except for one thing. My PowerBook weighs 4.3 lbs, which is way too heavy. The new MacBook — the lightest and most compact Mac laptop model, just announced — weighs 5.2 lbs, it is almost a full pound heavier. If I got one, and took it around with me, it would break my back! I really want Apple to introduce a new, lightweight subnotebook, 3 lbs or less, something that I could carry about with me everywhere.

The laptop — like the Treo (phone/PDA), the iPod, and the digital camera; or for that matter, like my eyeglasses — is really part of my body.These are all prostheses that augment my ability to act in and with the world, to affect and be affected, as Spinoza would say, they are parts of my distributed cognitive (and affective) network, as Andy Clark would say. So these ergonomic considerations are really important; they are equally as important as, and should indeed be considered a part of, the design aesthetics that Steve Jobs so (justifiably, in other respects) vaunts himself on being concerned with. Why can’t Apple come out with something comparable to the 1.9 lb Sony Vaio, which is a beautiful and reasonably high-powered machine (even if not quite as beautiful as Apple’s laptops) machine, whose only major defect is that it runs Windows instead of the Mac OS?

Since I am harping on my techno commodity fetish obsessions — all I want to do is buy! buy! buy!, but the product has to be just right, and that just-rightness includes a brand or corporate identification — let me ask an open question about software. I am looking for some sort of Mac OS program that I could use as a sort of database of writing fragments. That is to say, a program that just connects short notes I write, snippets of questions or half-formed paragraphs, i.e. text fragments from a few lines to a few paragraphs in length, together with a bunch of web and article citations on various subjects — all this to collect material that I could use as raw material for later or more concerted writing.

I already have a fine program, Yojimbo, that I use to collect miscellaneous web snippets, texts, images, links, and so on (sometimes I just keep the urls for pages I have found interesting; other times I keep the entire contents of the web page). But here I am looking for something different, something that I would use mostly for text fragments I write myself. So being able to handle formats other than plain text wouldn’t be that important. (As long as I can hyperlink to bibliography sources, to images, etc., I wouldn’t need them in the database itself). I need something that is not too hierarchically organized (I cannot group these fragments into categories and subcategories, which is why certain programs I’ve tried, like Circus Ponies Notebook, aren’t quite right for me), but that allows for powerful searching. I’d like to be able to associate each fragment or entry with an unlimited number of metadata tags, and be able to search both by those and by full text content. It would be even better if the program could interpret LaTeX and BibTeX, since most of my entries would be in this format

Has anyone reading this tried either DevonThink or TAO, and are either of these along the lines of what I am looking for? Or can anyone recommend another program, that would be more suitable for my needs? Thanks…

Now that Apple has completed migrating its laptops to Intel chips, I really want to get a new one; I really want to replace my aging (in computer-age terms, i.e. it is 2 1/2 years old) 12″ PowerBook with a new 13″ MacBook… Except for one thing. My PowerBook weighs 4.3 lbs, which is way too heavy. The new MacBook — the lightest and most compact Mac laptop model, just announced — weighs 5.2 lbs, it is almost a full pound heavier. If I got one, and took it around with me, it would break my back! I really want Apple to introduce a new, lightweight subnotebook, 3 lbs or less, something that I could carry about with me everywhere.

The laptop — like the Treo (phone/PDA), the iPod, and the digital camera; or for that matter, like my eyeglasses — is really part of my body.These are all prostheses that augment my ability to act in and with the world, to affect and be affected, as Spinoza would say, they are parts of my distributed cognitive (and affective) network, as Andy Clark would say. So these ergonomic considerations are really important; they are equally as important as, and should indeed be considered a part of, the design aesthetics that Steve Jobs so (justifiably, in other respects) vaunts himself on being concerned with. Why can’t Apple come out with something comparable to the 1.9 lb Sony Vaio, which is a beautiful and reasonably high-powered machine (even if not quite as beautiful as Apple’s laptops), whose only major defect is that it runs Windows instead of the Mac OS?

Since I am harping on my techno commodity fetish obsessions — all I want to do is buy! buy! buy!, but the product has to be just right, and that just-rightness includes a brand or corporate identification — let me ask an open question about software. I am looking for some sort of Mac OS program that I could use as a sort of database of writing fragments. That is to say, a program that just connects short notes I write, snippets of questions or half-formed paragraphs, i.e. text fragments from a few lines to a few paragraphs in length, together with a bunch of web and article citations on various subjects — all this to collect material that I could use as raw material for later or more concerted writing.

I already have a fine program, Yojimbo, that I use to collect miscellaneous web snippets, texts, images, links, and so on (sometimes I just keep the urls for pages I have found interesting; other times I keep the entire contents of the web page). But here I am looking for something different, something that I would use mostly for text fragments I write myself. So being able to handle formats other than plain text wouldn’t be that important. (As long as I can hyperlink to bibliography sources, to images, etc., I wouldn’t need them in the database itself). I need something that is not too hierarchically organized (I cannot group these fragments into categories and subcategories, which is why certain programs I’ve tried, like Circus Ponies Notebook, aren’t quite right for me), but that allows for powerful searching. I’d like to be able to associate each fragment or entry with an unlimited number of metadata tags, and be able to search both by those and by full text content. It would be even better if the program could interpret LaTeX and BibTeX, since most of my entries would be in this format

Has anyone reading this tried either DevonThink or TAO, and are either of these along the lines of what I am looking for? Or can anyone recommend another program, that would be more suitable for my needs? Thanks…

A Hacker Manifesto

McKenzie Wark‘s A Hacker Manifesto is a remarkable and beautiful book: cogent, radical, and exhilarating, a politico-aesthetic call to arms for the digital age.

The book really is, as its title says, a manifesto: a public declaration of principles for a radically new vision, and a call to action based on that vision. It’s written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs or theses; the writing is tight, compressed, and aphoristic, or a Wark himself likes to say, “abstract.” It’s not “difficult” in the way that certain “post-structuralist” philosophical texts (Derrida, Lacan, etc) are difficult; rather, A Hacker Manifesto is characterized by an intense lucidity, as if the writing had been subjected to intense atmospheric pressure, so that it could say the most in the least possible space. Deleuze writes somewhere that an aphorism is a field of forces in tension; Wark’s writing is aphoristic in precisely this sense. I read the book with both delight and excitement, even when I didn’t altogether agree with everything that Wark said.

A Hacker Manifesto owes something — both in form and content — to Marx and Engels, and more to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (a book about which I feel deeply ambivalent). Wark’s ambition (which he calls “crypto-marxist”) is to apply Marx’s ideas to our current age of digitization and “intellectual property.” Unlike cultural marxists and “post-marxists” (who tend to refer to Marx’s general spirit more than his actual ideas), Wark focuses squarely on “the property question,” which is to say, on issues of economic production, of ownership of the means of production and the results of the production process, and therefore of exploitation and expropriation. Class is the central category of Wark’s analysis, and Wark defines class as Marx defined it, as grounded in people’s diverse relations to production and property, rather than using the vaguer sociological sense (a group of people with a common sense of identity and values) that is most often used today. It’s always a question of conflicting interests between the producers of value, and the legal owners who gain profit from the producers’ labor, and who control the surplus that the producers produce.

Modern capitalism begins in the 16th and 17th centuries, when — in the wake of the decline of feudalism — wealthy landowners expropriate formerly common lands, reducing farmers or peasants to the status of (at best) paid laborers (but more often, landless people who own nothing, and can’t even find work). (This is the stage of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation,” a useful term that Wark oddly fails to employ). Capitalism then intensifies in the 18th and especially the 19th century, when industrial workers, in order to survive, must sell their labor to capitalists, who control the means of production, and who reap the profits from the massive economic expansion of industrialization. Wark sees a third version of this process in our contemporary Information Age, where the producers of information (understood in the widest sense: artists, scientists, software developers, and all sorts of innovators, anyone in short who produces knowledge) find their labor expropriated from them by large corporations which own patents and copyrights on their inventions. Wark calls the information producers “hackers,” and refers to the owners/expropriators of information as “the vectorialist class” (since “information” travels along “vectors” as it is reproduced and transmitted from place to place).

This formulation allows Wark to synthesize and combine a wide range of insights about the politics and economics of information. As many observers have noted, what used to be an information “commons” is increasingly being privatized (just as common land was privatized 500 years ago). Corporations trademark well-known expressions, copyright texts and data that used to circulate in the public domain, and even patent entire genomes. The irony is, that even as new technologies make possible the proliferation and new creation of all sorts of knowledge and information (from mash-up recordings to database correlations to software improvements to genetic alterations), the rules of “intellectual property” have increasingly restricted this proliferation. It’s paradoxical that downloading mp3s should be policed in the same way as physical property is protected from theft; since if I steal your car, you no longer have it, but when I copy your music file I don’t deprive you of anything. Culture has always worked by mixing and matching and altering, taking what’s already there and messing with it; but now for the first time such tinkering is becoming illegal, since the very contents of our common culture have been redefined as private property. As I’m always telling my students, under contemporary laws Shakespeare never could have written his plays. Though nothing is valued more highly in our world today than “innovation,” the rules of intellectual property increasingly shackle innovation, because only large corporations can afford to practice it.

Wark makes sense of these developments as nobody else has, by locating them, in his “crypto-marxist” terms, as phenomena of “the property question” and class struggle. “Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains” (#126). This means also that the struggle over information is more crucial, more central, than traditional marxists (still too wedded to the industrial paradigm) have been willing to notice. While previous forms of economic exploitation have often been (dubiously) justified on grounds of scarcity, Wark points out that for information this justification becomes completely absurd. Information is cheap and abundant, and it takes all sorts of convolutions to bring it under the rule of scarcity. This alone reveals the idiocy of “intellectual property.” Individual hackers (software engineers, say, or songwriters) might feel they have something to gain economically by controlling (and making sure they get paid for) the product of their particular informational labors; but in a larger sense, their “class interest” lies in free information, because only in that way do they have access to the body of information or culture that is the “raw material” for their own creations. And the fact is that, by dint of their ownership of this raw material, it is always the “vectorlist class” who will profit from new creations, rather than the creators/hackers themselves.

In making his arguments, Wark brings together a number of different currents. If his Manifesto has its deepest roots in the Western Marxist tradition, from Marx himself through Lukacs and Benjamin to the Situationists, it also draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of the “virtual,” as well as Mauss’ theory of the gift. At the same time, it relates directly to the practices (and the ethos) of the free software movement, of DJs producing mash-ups, and of radical Net and software artists. (Indeed, much of the book originally appeared on the nettime listserv).

Much of the power of A Hacker Manifesto comes from the way that it “abstracts” and coordinates such a wide range of sources. Wark argues that the power of “information” lies largely in its capacity to make ever-larger “abstractions”: “to abstract is to construct a plane upon which otherwise different and unrelated matters may be brought into many possible relations. To abstract is to express the virtuality of nature, to make known some instance of its possibilities, to actualize a relation out of infinite relationality, to manifest the manifold” (#008). Abstraction is the power behind our current servitude, but it is also the source of our potential expanded freedom. The regime of intellectual property abstracts away from our everyday experience, turning it into a controlled stream of 1s and 0s. But the answer to this expropriation is to push abstraction still further, to unleash the potentialities that the “vectorialist” regime still restricts. A Hacker Manifesto is already, in itself, such an act of further abstraction; it charts a path from already-existing forms of resistance and creation to a more generalized (more abstract) mode of action.

There are various points, I admit, at which I am not entirely convinced. Wark makes, for instance, too much of a separation between industrial workers and hackers, as between capitalists and vectorialists; this underestimates the continuity of the history of expropriation; I’d be happier with a term like Hardt and Negri’s multitude, vague and undefined as it is, than I am with Wark’s too-rigid separation between industrial production and knowledge production. Hardt and Negri have a more generous understanding than Wark does of the ways in which the information economy creates the common. I’m also, I fear, too cynical to accept the historical optimism that Wark in fact shares with Hardt and Negri; in the world today, I think, in both rich countries and poor, our affective investments in commodification and consumerism are far too strong for our desires to really become aligned with our actual class interests (however powerful a case these theorists make for what those interests are).

Nonetheless, I don’t want to end this review on such a (mildly) negative note. If anything, I fear that my comments here have failed to give a sense of the full breadth of Wark’s argument: of the full scope of his references, of how much ground he covers, of the intensity and uncompromising radicality of his vision. Whether or not A Hacker Manifesto succeeds in rousing people to action, it’s a book that anyone who’s serious about understanding the changes wrought by digital culture will have to take into consideration.

McKenzie Wark‘s A Hacker Manifesto is a remarkable and beautiful book: cogent, radical, and exhilarating, a politico-aesthetic call to arms for the digital age.

The book really is, as its title says, a manifesto: a public declaration of principles for a radically new vision, and a call to action based on that vision. It’s written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs or theses; the writing is tight, compressed, and aphoristic, or a Wark himself likes to say, “abstract.” It’s not “difficult” in the way that certain “post-structuralist” philosophical texts (Derrida, Lacan, etc) are difficult; rather, A Hacker Manifesto is characterized by an intense lucidity, as if the writing had been subjected to intense atmospheric pressure, so that it could say the most in the least possible space. Deleuze writes somewhere that an aphorism is a field of forces in tension; Wark’s writing is aphoristic in precisely this sense. I read the book with both delight and excitement, even when I didn’t altogether agree with everything that Wark said.

A Hacker Manifesto owes something — both in form and content — to Marx and Engels, and more to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (a book about which I feel deeply ambivalent). Wark’s ambition (which he calls “crypto-marxist”) is to apply Marx’s ideas to our current age of digitization and “intellectual property.” Unlike cultural marxists and “post-marxists” (who tend to refer to Marx’s general spirit more than his actual ideas), Wark focuses squarely on “the property question,” which is to say, on issues of economic production, of ownership of the means of production and the results of the production process, and therefore of exploitation and expropriation. Class is the central category of Wark’s analysis, and Wark defines class as Marx defined it, as grounded in people’s diverse relations to production and property, rather than using the vaguer sociological sense (a group of people with a common sense of identity and values) that is most often used today. It’s always a question of conflicting interests between the producers of value, and the legal owners who gain profit from the producers’ labor, and who control the surplus that the producers produce.

Modern capitalism begins in the 16th and 17th centuries, when — in the wake of the decline of feudalism — wealthy landowners expropriate formerly common lands, reducing farmers or peasants to the status of (at best) paid laborers (but more often, landless people who own nothing, and can’t even find work). (This is the stage of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation,” a useful term that Wark oddly fails to employ). Capitalism then intensifies in the 18th and especially the 19th century, when industrial workers, in order to survive, must sell their labor to capitalists, who control the means of production, and who reap the profits from the massive economic expansion of industrialization. Wark sees a third version of this process in our contemporary Information Age, where the producers of information (understood in the widest sense: artists, scientists, software developers, and all sorts of innovators, anyone in short who produces knowledge) find their labor expropriated from them by large corporations which own patents and copyrights on their inventions. Wark calls the information producers “hackers,” and refers to the owners/expropriators of information as “the vectorialist class” (since “information” travels along “vectors” as it is reproduced and transmitted from place to place).

This formulation allows Wark to synthesize and combine a wide range of insights about the politics and economics of information. As many observers have noted, what used to be an information “commons” is increasingly being privatized (just as common land was privatized 500 years ago). Corporations trademark well-known expressions, copyright texts and data that used to circulate in the public domain, and even patent entire genomes. The irony is, that even as new technologies make possible the proliferation and new creation of all sorts of knowledge and information (from mash-up recordings to database correlations to software improvements to genetic alterations), the rules of “intellectual property” have increasingly restricted this proliferation. It’s paradoxical that downloading mp3s should be policed in the same way as physical property is protected from theft; since if I steal your car, you no longer have it, but when I copy your music file I don’t deprive you of anything. Culture has always worked by mixing and matching and altering, taking what’s already there and messing with it; but now for the first time such tinkering is becoming illegal, since the very contents of our common culture have been redefined as private property. As I’m always telling my students, under contemporary laws Shakespeare never could have written his plays. Though nothing is valued more highly in our world today than “innovation,” the rules of intellectual property increasingly shackle innovation, because only large corporations can afford to practice it.

Wark makes sense of these developments as nobody else has, by locating them, in his “crypto-marxist” terms, as phenomena of “the property question” and class struggle. “Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains” (#126). This means also that the struggle over information is more crucial, more central, than traditional marxists (still too wedded to the industrial paradigm) have been willing to notice. While previous forms of economic exploitation have often been (dubiously) justified on grounds of scarcity, Wark points out that for information this justification becomes completely absurd. Information is cheap and abundant, and it takes all sorts of convolutions to bring it under the rule of scarcity. This alone reveals the idiocy of “intellectual property.” Individual hackers (software engineers, say, or songwriters) might feel they have something to gain economically by controlling (and making sure they get paid for) the product of their particular informational labors; but in a larger sense, their “class interest” lies in free information, because only in that way do they have access to the body of information or culture that is the “raw material” for their own creations. And the fact is that, by dint of their ownership of this raw material, it is always the “vectorlist class” who will profit from new creations, rather than the creators/hackers themselves.

In making his arguments, Wark brings together a number of different currents. If his Manifesto has its deepest roots in the Western Marxist tradition, from Marx himself through Lukacs and Benjamin to the Situationists, it also draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of the “virtual,” as well as Mauss’ theory of the gift. At the same time, it relates directly to the practices (and the ethos) of the free software movement, of DJs producing mash-ups, and of radical Net and software artists. (Indeed, much of the book originally appeared on the nettime listserv).

Much of the power of A Hacker Manifesto comes from the way that it “abstracts” and coordinates such a wide range of sources. Wark argues that the power of “information” lies largely in its capacity to make ever-larger “abstractions”: “to abstract is to construct a plane upon which otherwise different and unrelated matters may be brought into many possible relations. To abstract is to express the virtuality of nature, to make known some instance of its possibilities, to actualize a relation out of infinite relationality, to manifest the manifold” (#008). Abstraction is the power behind our current servitude, but it is also the source of our potential expanded freedom. The regime of intellectual property abstracts away from our everyday experience, turning it into a controlled stream of 1s and 0s. But the answer to this expropriation is to push abstraction still further, to unleash the potentialities that the “vectorialist” regime still restricts. A Hacker Manifesto is already, in itself, such an act of further abstraction; it charts a path from already-existing forms of resistance and creation to a more generalized (more abstract) mode of action.

There are various points, I admit, at which I am not entirely convinced. Wark makes, for instance, too much of a separation between industrial workers and hackers, as between capitalists and vectorialists; this underestimates the continuity of the history of expropriation; I’d be happier with a term like Hardt and Negri’s multitude, vague and undefined as it is, than I am with Wark’s too-rigid separation between industrial production and knowledge production. Hardt and Negri have a more generous understanding than Wark does of the ways in which the information economy creates the common. I’m also, I fear, too cynical to accept the historical optimism that Wark in fact shares with Hardt and Negri; in the world today, I think, in both rich countries and poor, our affective investments in commodification and consumerism are far too strong for our desires to really become aligned with our actual class interests (however powerful a case these theorists make for what those interests are).

Nonetheless, I don’t want to end this review on such a (mildly) negative note. If anything, I fear that my comments here have failed to give a sense of the full breadth of Wark’s argument: of the full scope of his references, of how much ground he covers, of the intensity and uncompromising radicality of his vision. Whether or not A Hacker Manifesto succeeds in rousing people to action, it’s a book that anyone who’s serious about understanding the changes wrought by digital culture will have to take into consideration.