One variety of what Asimov saw as technophobia is that we may be enslaved or destroyed by our technology (Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985, p. 6). 'Surely the great fear is not that machinery will harm us - but that it will supplant us' (Asimov 1981, p. 136). 'It is not that it will render us ineffective - but that it will make us obsolete' (Asimov 1981, p. 136). Asimov argued that 'The ultimate machine is an intelligent machine and there is only one basic plot to the intelligent-machine story - that it is created to serve man, but that it ends by dominating man. It cannot exist without threatening to supplant us, and it must therefore be destroyed or we will be' (ibid.). The existence of technological entities which rival or surpass our capabilities threatens our sense of human identity.
The Development Of Consciousness. As Langdon Winner notes, 'nineteenth century writers were fascinated by the possibility that scientists and inventors would actually succeed in creating artificial life. That prospect was important in its own right, but it was also symbolic of the growth of industrial society as well as more basic dilemmas involved in any creative act. Artists have always understood that their works in a true sense "have a life of their own" both during and after their creation. When the advance of science and industrial technology became well known, artists were among the first to speculate on the possibilities for a truly perfect, independent, and lifelike work of human fabrication' (Winner 1977, p. 31).
Frankenstein was subtitled The Modern Prometheus. The reference to the modern Prometheus refers to the myth of the god Prometheus fashioning the human race from clay like a living artifact, though a similar theme is also found in Genesis, of course (followed in due course by the Fall which demonstrated the shortcomings of this creation).
In Samuel Butler's satirical utopia, Erewhon (1872), philosophers convince the Erewhonians to destroy their machines because of fears that they would soon evolve to a stage where they would develop consciousness and supplant man. The narrator agreed that at present the machine 'is brisk and active, when the man is weary; it is clear-headed and collected, when the man is stupid and dull; it needs no slumber, when man must sleep or drop.' But iron had invaded the soul: 'Man's very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing; he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that his machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as for theirs.'
'Consider also the colliers and pitmen and coal merchants and coal trains, and the men who drive them, and the ships that carry coals - what an army of servants do the macines thus employ! Are there not probably more men engaged in tending machinery than in tending men?' (Ch. 24). The philosopher insisted that 'We are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.' As technology made progress, humankind regressed. 'We are daily giving them greater power... In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.' Erewhon is a utopia based on Luddism. It also raises explicitly the question of consciousness: 'Where does consciousness begin, and where end? Who can draw the line? Who can draw any line? Is not everything interwoven with everything? Is not machinery linked with animal life in an infinite variety of ways?'
A fundamental difference between human beings and machines is that machines such as robots and computers do not possess consciousness. Even if the behaviour of computers sometimes appears 'intelligent' they are not aware of what they are doing. With consciousness comes autonomy and perhaps malevolence. In Ambrose Bierce's 'Moxon's Master' (1893, in Mowshowitz 1977 & Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985), an artifically created chessplayer strangles its maker.
In Karel Capek play R.U.R. (1921, 'Rossum's Universal Robots', extract in Lewis 1963) the industrialist Rossum (the name coming from the Czech word for Reason) manufactured living tissue and successfully created 'robots' (from the Czech word 'robota', meaning compulsory work) to free men from arduous toil. So human do they look that it is almost impossible to distinguish them from human beings, and the implication is that such machines may be able to become more than machines.
At first the robots seem to be entirely subservient, and problems arise only from the way in which they are used. However, the robots eventually develop consciousness and the slaves become the masters. They destroy not only their creators, who had usurped divine power, but also all but one of the remaining human beings. Capek's play was influential, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s robots turned on their creators. But Capek's underlying intention was most likely to suggest that treating human beings like machines turns them into machines.
Harl Vincent's robot 'Rex' (1934, in Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985) takes over the world and is about to remake Man in the image of the robot when his regime is overthrown. Asimov reported that he did think of his own fictional robots as conscious beings (Warrick 1980, p. 64). In his story 'Reason' (1941) a robot is depicted as curious about its own existence and becomes interested in religion. The Second World War and Hiroshima encouraged the fear that machines were becoming too powerful. Theodore Sturgeon's 'Killdozer' (1944) is a powerful parable about machines acting independently of human control. In the 1950s, machines were increasingly depicted as out of human control and robots were frequently depicted as killing or trying to kill humans: e.g. Philip K Dick's 'Second Variety' (1953) and Asimov's The Naked Sun (1956). Lord Dunsany's The Last Revolution (1951) portrayed the revolution of the machines.
In A E van Vogt's 'Fulfilment' (1951, in Aldiss 1973 & Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985) a computer (or 'Brain') has evolved to the point where it possesses consciousness and self-determination. In Philip K Dick's 'Autofac' (1955) and John Sladek's The Reproductive System (1968) machines can create more machines in their own likeness. Sladek's treatment of the theme is amusing:
The cells had multiplied - better than double their original number - and had grown to various sizes, ranging from shoeboxes and attache cases to steamer trunk proportions. They now reproduced constantly but slowly, in various fashions. One steamer trunk emitted, every five or ten minutes, a pair of tiny boxes the size of 3x5 card files, Another box, of extraordinary lengthm seemed to be slowly sawing itself in half.
Generak Grawk remained unimpressed. 'What does it do for an encore?' he growled. (Chapter 4)
The theme of autonomous mechanical beings is found in Stanislaw Lem's The Invincible (1964), Fred Saberhagen's 'Berserker' series, and Olof Johannesson's The Tale Of The Big Computer (1966, extract in Mowshowitz 1977) (in which human intelligence is seen merely as a stepping-stone to machine intelligence). In The Tale Of The Big Computer computers run society and the computer narrator speculates on 'the human problem', questioning 'whether our society can afford mankind'.
The development of consciousness in computers is a theme in Frank Herbert's Destination: Void (1966), which also raises philosophical issues such as whether a machine can be said to have free will. Harlan Ellison's 'I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream' (1967, in Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985) is a surrealistic treatment of the theme. In it a computer with sentient intelligence is conscious of itself and tortured by that consciousness. The story is also one of the most extreme examples of computer malevolence, since the computer keeps alive human victims only to torture them.
The computer consciousness theme is also found in Martin Caidin's The God Machine (1968), Philip K Dick's Vulcan's Hammer (1960), Olof Johannesson's The Tale Of The Big Computer (1966), Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966, extract in Mowshowitz 1977), Keith Roberts' 'Synth' (1966) and David Gerrold's When Harlie Was One (1972). Computers which have achieved consciousness appear in Roger Zelazny's 'For a Breath I Tarry' (1966), Stanislav Lem's The Cyberiad (1967), Fred Saberhagen's 'Berserker' stories (from 1967) and Richard and Nancy Carrigan's The Siren Stars (1971). In the 'Berserker' series computers seek to wipe out all life in the universe, which Asimov noted 'is the man-machine struggle carried to the ultimate' (1981, p. 126).
Blurred Distinctions. J Storer Clouston's Button Brains (1933) made comic use of a robot being constantly mistaken for its human model. Mistaken identity is more sinister in Asimov's 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' (1951), Philip K Dick's 'Imposter' (1953), Walter M Miller's 'The Darfsteller' (1955) and Robert Bloch's 'Comfort Me, My Robot' (1955). In Asimov's 'Evidence' (1946, in Asimov 1968a & Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985) robot psychologist Susan Calvin is faced with the problem of whether a prominent public figure is really a robot. In the end the robot convinces the world of his humanity and adequacy in the role. The distinction between life and mechanism is also blurred in Asimov's 'Bicentennial Man' (1976, in Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985), which deals with the robot becoming more and more human-like.
Philip K Dick is the writer who most strongly blurs the distinction between man and robot in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968), 'The Electric Ant' (1969, in Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985) and We Can Build You (1969-70). In the Kafkaesque story 'The Electric Ant', widely regarded for its treatment of man's perception of himself as a machine, a man awakes to discover that he is a robot. The merging of the roles of man and machine is reflected in the increasing importance of the 'cyborg' in sf.
Stories which blur man-machine identities raise issues such as 'What does it mean to be human?', 'In what ways are we like and unlike machines?'. Some commentators suggest that we can be seen as 'mechanisms' to the extent that our attitudes and actions are determined by external forces. Various theorists offer us deterministic perspectives weighted in favour either of socio-cultural or technological factors, as if these were not dynamically inter-related. We create our technologies, but then, within the social matrix, few could argue that technology does not contribute to shaping us.
This does not commit us to agreeing with Thoreau, writing in 1854, that 'men have become the tools of their tools'. Whatever the shaping influences, we are less self-determining than we typically assume. Our freedom of action has many constraints, and we are typically unaware of the many social conventions which we have internalized and act upon 'automatically'. When we behave in accordance with such conventions we can be seen as behaving 'mechanically'. But it is also at moments of our greatest skill that the tools and machines which we are using seem to become 'part of us'. We have been tool-users and tool-makers from our earliest beginnings, although we are more fundamentally meaning-makers.
Have we in some ways become closer to machines than to animals, as when we celebrate the rational and recoil from the 'bestial'? Within a Romantic framework technology has come to represent our separation from Nature. Technological developments seem to take us ever further from the simple life of what we like to think of as 'direct experience'. But the myth of an unmediated world springs from the assumptions of epistemological realism, whereby an external objective world is taken for granted.
Such a perspective makes no allowance for our construction of the world through our use of media such as language, the written word, television, computers and so on. Media become environments. We shape the worlds we live in with such media, and these worlds shape us. We now live in, shape and are shaped by a technological environment. It is as important for us to explore our relationships with technology as it is for us to explore our relationships with Nature. Most of us live in environments which are more urban-industrial than rural, and even those of us who don't depend on those who do. Technology springs from the world of Nature as well as the social world. 'Natural' is a slippery term. Categories such as the 'natural' and the 'artificial' are heavily loaded constructions. What is 'natural' can refer simply to invisible assumptions which we have come to take for granted. Nevertheless, Hans Christian Andersen's story of the mechanical nightingale retains its disconcerting power for me at least.
Playing with the notion of sentient machines allows us to question our taken-for-granted but culturally constructed assumptions about what constitutes the humanness of being human. As Mozshowitz puts it, literary tales of technology 'exude anxiety and ambivalence - over human identity, uncontrollable power, and the unknown consequences of radical change' (1977, p. 5). It is no longer easy to adopt the simplistic idiology that Technology is bad and Nature is good. Jeremy Benthall argues that 'the Romance of Technology and the Recoil to the Body represent two necessary constituents in any truly modern consciousness' (Benthall 1976, p. 162), and his book The Body Electric outlines a dialectic between these poles.
Writers and theorists have increasingly emphasized that both language and literary texts can themselves fruitfully be seen as a kind of machinery. Technological influences are visible not only in the explicit literary content but even in the methods of some contemporary writers, and less visible influences are perhaps present in all contemporary literature.
Richard Brautigan's apparently elegiac poem - 'All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace' (1968) touches some exposed nerves, and seems to allude to Blake's 'Jerusalem', where 'cogs tyrannic/Moving by compulsion' were contrasted with the wheels in Eden which revolved 'in harmony and peace'. It emerged in the late 60s, an era in which some of the Californian hippies who harboured romantic beliefs in rural primitivism felt that despite the hi-tech image, computers could become an 'alternative' technology supportive of decentralization.
The poem appears to represent a romanticization of technology, but in my opinion it is not without satirical overtones, as in the case of a story Brautigan wrote in which a man replaced the plumbing in his house with poetry. Nevertheless, the poet Hart Crane had written that 'unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e. acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles... [it] has failed of its full contemporary function' (Marx 1969, p. 240), so one could also see Brautigan's poem in part as a response to such a challenge. Anyway, here is the poem:
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
Brautigan's poem reminds me of Robert Pirsig's cult book of the late 70s and early 80s, Zen And The Art Of Motorcyle Maintenance, where he writes: 'The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower' (Pirsig 1976, p. 18). And the origins of this theme in American literature are traced by Leo Marx in his excellent book, The Machine In The Garden (1969).
Some anonymous verse from the Oxford Book Of Light Verse offers a perspective on technology which is more obviously barbed than Brautigan's:
Take the cylinders out of my kidneys,
The connecting rods out of my brain,
Take the cam-shaft from out of backbone
And assemble the engine again.
We remain, at the very least, more than merely machines. And in this context I find Roszak instructive. He notes:
But how remarkable it is, that we should shrink from what is most akin to the vital processes of the body, preferring what is patently unalive and artificial. And yet how serviceable it is to the urban-industrial ethos. It is almost as if we might wish to disconnect from the meat and juice of our organism and become disembodied intelligences. (Roszak 1973, pp. 88-9).
Roszak's observations serve to underline that whatever functions mechanical metaphors may offer us, bodily being is fundamental to the humanness of being human.