Discuss the Extent to Which Modern Society Reflect ‘Donna Haraway’s’ Theories Regarding the Relationship Between Humans and Machines. An exploration of Postmodern Theory, Cyborgs and the Motion Pictures Bicentennial Man and A.I: Artificial Intelligence
By Sarah Cornish
Chris Columbus’s science fiction Bicentennial Man (1999), an adaption of the novel by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, The Positronic Man (1993), is yet another addition to the postmodern era of exploring the relationships between humans and machines, a genre largely inspired by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982, 1992, 2007).
Technology has undoubtedly changed and adapted the human world. Technology is a necessity of modern life, not only for making our own lives easier such as with electricity, but also through use of the internet and the information and communication benefits that it provides. It has defined eras in history, such as the Industrial Revolution or the Space Age. It could well be suggested that we, as humans, rely on these technologies and can even be defined by them.
Postmodernist theorists such as Donna Haraway have elaborated arguments in this direction, and to an extent it could be argued that humans and machines now share more characteristics than ever before:
‘…the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.’ (1991, p149)
Given the depth of technological innovation in modern society, and the growing interaction between man and machine, it has perhaps never been more relevant to consider not only the relationships between humans and cyborgs, but also what they have in common, and what sets them apart.
It can be suggested that modern society, as reflected by our culture (namely films), is very much aware of and awake to the complex philosophical debate regarding the relationship between man and machine. And, as this essay will elaborate, it is by no means a simple debate nor a linear progression.
The binary division between man and machine is perhaps not as exclusive as it might first appear. All machines were, after all, created by our own species, in terms of concept, design and construction. In many cases what were apparently fictional creations of the past have become a reality. Just as Leonardo di Vinci sketched the first schematic for a helicopter and hundreds of years later it became a reality, machines that may have seemed implausible when first conceived as an idea have, over time, become very real. This model of development over time would suggest that what we consider impossible may not necessarily be so.
One aspect of social reality could be defined as the relationship between parents and the children that they create and nurture. As yet there is little evidence to suggest that machines can form an emotional attachment to either human creators or other machines, but humans can show an attachment to their non-human creations and possessions. In this respect there is a delineation between humans and machines. But with potential technological development in the future, machines may well be upgraded in order to develop their emotions.
It is only logical that cyborgs share human connections – they are created by us, work alongside us and in some cases live closely with us. In some respects humans yearn for relationships with cybernetic organisms in the same manner that we wish to relate to living animals; either domestic animals such as a dog or a cat, or animals that are scientifically close to humans, like primates. Much as a dog could be considered a part of a family, Bicentennial Man suggests that machines could also eventually achieve such a place in society:
‘Andrew Martin: One has studied your history. Terrible wars have been fought where millions have died for one idea, freedom. And it seems that something that means so much to so many people would be worth having.’ (imdb.com)
Interestingly, Donna Harroway appears to extend this argument by referring to machines as ‘modern organisms’:
‘Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace…’ Haraway, (1991, p152).
‘Organism’ is usually a term used to describe a natural phenomenon, but by using it to describe machines Harroway is suggesting that the usual contrast between natural and synthetic is not as simple as first understood.
We, like some machines, are programmed to reproduce. From the perspective of a machine we could be considered to be what we define in some aspects as God, the creator. We are completely set apart from all other living organisms on the planet. We can create life from a test tube, create weapons of mass destruction and even prevent death by replacing an organ – all of course with the use and assistance of the machines we have created to assist us. Neil Postman suggests that technology has been used as a ‘weapon’ to fight disease and illness (1993, p.97), and goes on to suggest that the human-machine relationship in the medical sphere has advanced to point at which machines facilitate the interaction between doctor and patient (p.101). This relationship, between the sick and the medical profession, is one of the most important relationships in human life given the potential ramifications, and machines are at the heart of it.
In many cases machines aid us to create machines, for example robots used in manufacturing, thus perpetuating an already complicated relationship. This relationship could be seen as one of the characteristics that define us as human beings. The idea of the cyborg is no different. It is an idea, a creation, of our own outlook of our very existence:
‘…we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.’ Haraway (1991, p150).
It could be argued that we are on a peak of the postmodern era. Technology is still advancing today, and Japanese engineers have produced an extremely accurate cyborg representation of a human being. It is a robot (humanoid) that can communicate and work as a receptionist, speaks several languages and can even breathe; it is however still on trial (see bibliography). It seems that technology can only ever grow and it is growing fast.
Looking at machines through a postmodern lens, it could even be suggested that humans and machines need each other to define themselves, and indeed each other. Appignanesi and Garratt suggest that Postmodernism is ‘defined by what it isn’t’ (1995, p.4)., and just as cyborgs are a mainstay of postmodernism, machines can help humans to define themselves.
In the film Bicentennial Man, the housekeeping robot Andrew looks for his place in humanity:
‘President Marjorie Bota: Why do you want this?
Andrew Martin: To be acknowledged for who and what I am, no more, no less. Not for acclaim, not for approval, but, the simple truth of that recognition. This has been the elemental drive of my existence, and it must be achieved, if I am to live or die with dignity.’(imdb.com)
Andrew’s speech could be compared with many other speeches made by the leaders of minority groups throughout history – indeed, when it is read in isolation nothing in it suggests that it is addressing the subject of machines. Words such as ‘truth’, ‘recognition’ and ‘dignity’ in particular have a resonance with the speeches of Martin Luther King. Might it transpire that one day machines seek recognition as a race in similar fashion? On the evidence of technological development and the occurring of once-though implausible events over time, it would be difficult to rule out completely.
Although Andrew’s desire is to complete the transition from machine to human, it could also be suggested that in some respects humans are becoming more like machines. Prosthetic body parts and ever-complex reconstructive surgery are prominent examples. In this context it is only relatively recently in history that humans have been able to perform gender-reassignment surgery – something that might have been thought impossible years ago, even heretical to some – which perhaps reflects the potential for machines becoming human in time.
This interlocking human-machine relationship is similar to and reflective of the relationship between technology on the one hand and moral philosophy on the other:
‘Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science’ Paul Goodman, New Reformation (quoted in Neil Postman, 1993).
Goodman clearly feels that the traditional distinction between the scientific on the one hand and the philosophical on the other is irrelevant. The parallels – in terms of difference, similarities and relationships – between these two disciplines and humans and machines are striking. Just as the constructions governing schools of thought can be too restrictive, is the dichotomy between human and machine too restrictive in modern society?
The film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), is yet another human-cyborg relationship. This just like Bicentennial Man, it takes on the political opinion of the robot/cyborg. The book Philosophy through Film, by Mary M. Litch (2002) quotes from A.I.:
‘Professor Hobby: I propose we build a robot who can love….( A robot) with a mind….(a robot) with an inner world- of metaphor, of intuition, of self-motivated reasoning, of dreams.’ Litch (2002) (p87)
‘Assistant: If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that (robot) in return? It’s a moral question.’ Litch (2002) (p87)
The writers of A.I. were clearly aware of the moral dilemma inherent in human-machine relationships when shaping Professor Hobby’s Assistant’s opinion. The inference is that developing machines that can love is only the first part of the equation: what this love means in terms of responsibilities is indeed a complex scenario. If relationships between humans are complex enough, relationships between humans and machines could have added complications.
A.I. also introduces the potential for conflict between humans and machines:
‘Gigolo Joe: They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes that they made. Because, when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us.’ Litch (2002) (p87)
Gigolo Joe is suggesting that humans may come to resent machines, as they may eclipse the human race in time. The writers could be expressing an opinion that developing technology too fast might undermine the status of the human race, and that what is assumed to be progress might actually be a mistake.
In a more extreme expression of this potential discord, the content of A.I. describes human-machine relationships in even starker terms:
‘Many futuristic science-fiction movies involving computers describe a world in which robots are in competition with the human species for dominance of the world.’ Litch, 2002 (p87).
That the prediction of human-machine conflict has become apparently widespread in science fiction films illustrates just what a pre-occupation it is within modern society.
Humans and machines are obviously increasingly dependent on each other. This relationship is by no means a simplistic model. In fact, cyborgs are a key element of postmodernism, and very reflective of its salient arguments. Science fiction films such as Bicentennial Man and A.I. in particular are at the forefront of modern ideas of postmodernity, and many films make very focussed commentary on the moral philosophy inherent with the human-machine relationship.
However, it is clear that any analysis of the current state of this debate can only take account of developments in the past, and to an extent the present. Whilst the history of technology does suggest a rate of progress, any consideration of the future is at best speculative. Yet it is in the future that we will discover the extent to which contemporary modern society’s thoughts on cyborg relationships were in fact accurate.
Appignanesi, Richard and Garratt, Chris, Postmodernism for Beginners, (1995), Icon Books.
Blakstad, Michael et al, Tomorrows World: Look to the Eighties, (1979), BBC.
Haraway, Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women The Reinvention of Nature (1991) Free Association Books
Litch, Mary M., Philosophy through Film, (2002), Routledge.
Lykke, Nina and Braidotti, Rosi, Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace, (1996), Zed Books.
Negroponte, Nicholas, Being Digital, (1995), Coronet Books.
Phillips, William H., Film: an Introduction, (1999), Bedford St. Martins.
Postman, Neil, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, (1993), Vintage Books.
Sue Thornham, (ed.), Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, (199), Edinburgh University Press.
Columbus, Chris, Bicentennial Man, (1999).
Spielberg, Steven, AI: Artificial Intelligence, (2001).
Scott, Ridley, Blade Runner, (1982).