Mirrors of Our Soul: Technology & the Human Imagination

This essay was written for my “Science Fiction and American Culture” class.

cyborg in a computer - self vs. other

“Who Am I?” and “What is my purpose?” are questions often asked in art. The answers have taken the form of 2-inch think novels, 10-page short stories, and 2-hour films. The question has been cried out in sculpture, paintings, and music. Some say it is this longing to know that separates us from the beasts.

A while back, an explosion of change, called the Industrial Revolution, gave birth to a new way to answer this question — science fiction. A continuous theme in science fiction is humankind’s relation to “the machine.” The machine is symbolic of “the Other” which helps define “the Self.” The Other helps make the boundaries between Self and not-Self more clear, but the Other can also threaten the existence of the Self.

In science fiction, the Other is often some representation of technology. Science fiction often challenges the concepts of what is Self, what is Other and whether there really is a distinction. It asks: What happens to one’s image of oneself when a machine begins to acquire human characteristics? If machine intelligence can perform the functions of human intelligence, are we then nothing more than machines?

Self vs. Other: Computers

Computers are compelling machines. They are “stupid” in that they only do what you tell them to do. But they are “smart” because they are thinking machines. Sherry Turkle, in her book The Second Self, suggests that computers are mirrors, reflecting what is already inside the user.

In one respect, the computer is Other. It is separate, distinct. It is not connected, physically, to the user. But if it is a mirror, then it is at the same time an integral part of the user, psychologically. She continued, “The simplest force that makes the computer seem more than a machine among other machines is its behavior… It is hard to capture the computer by seeing it in terms of familiar objects or processes that existed before it was invented.” (p. 272).

Of all the machines we have created, the computer is the most like us. Computers are made of logic. And thinking about the core of a machine as logic leads people to think of the computer as a mind. People tend to have strong opinions about artificial intelligence:

“The vehemence of response expresses our stake in maintaining the line between the natural and the artificial, between the human and the mechanical. Discussion about computers becomes charged with feelings about what is special about people: their creativity, their sensuality, their pain, and pleasure. But paradoxically, when faced with a machine that shows any degree of ‘intelligence,’ many of these same people seem pulled toward treating the machine as though it were a person.” (Turkle, 1984, p. 271)

Robots as Other

Computers don’t look like people, they don’t walk around and they don’t have faces. So, what happens when a computer brain is placed in a humanoid shell? In his robot stories and novels, Isaac Asimov explored the robot other. Because his robots were ruled by the three laws of robotics, they were benevolent. They freed humankind from doing the drudgery work.

But not all tales of robots are optimistic. There is the fear that robots will replace us, leaving us with no reason to exist. In movies like Westworld, Futureworld, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Terminator, robots are a menace to humankind. They are relentless, virtually unstoppable foes bent on the hero or heroine’s destruction.

Androids and Humaniform Robots

When a robot is humaniform — is indistinguishable from a person — the fear can be even stronger. How can you fight an enemy when you can’t recognize it? How can you recognize the Other when it looks just like the Self? Asimov explored this idea in his novella “The Bicentennial Man,” in which a robot seeks to become human. According to Warrick (1980), the implication of “The Bicentennial Man” is that a line between the animate and the inanimate, the organic and the inorganic, cannot be drawn. If the fundamental materials of the universe are matter, energy, and information patterns (or intelligence), then man is not unique. He exists on a continuum with all intelligence… (p. 73)

However, if a humaniform robot is physically superior to a human, will it try to eradicate us? Turkle poses the question, “Can an intelligence without a living body, without sexuality, ever really understand human beings?” (pp. 19-20). Will what makes humans special and unique as a life form be treasured or reviled by robots?

Phillip K. Dick, in this novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, asked the question “When does a machine cease to be a machine and start to be alive?” His robots, or replicants, were so much like people that the only way to tell them physically apart was to have a bone marrow analysis performed. His answer was that the difference is moot.

In Ridley Scott’s film version, Blade Runner, Scott took Dick’s vision and made it more poignant. The replicants, with their implanted memories, were even more like humans. “The replicants,” says J. P. Telotte in his article “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire,” “threaten to render their creators superfluous and take their place” (pp. 154-155). But Scott’s version offers us a hope the book does not — in the form of Rachael.

Rachael, although a replicant, Telotte argues, “mirrors something significantly human… a loneliness and longing for others wherewith that loneliness might be overcome” (pp. 156). Rachael “awakens Deckard’s slumbering desires and effectively serves as a mirror in which he might see his humanity.”

Self and Other Begin to Merge

In other words, the Other, in becoming more like the Self, helps define the Self more sharply. As computers and medical technology advance, the idea of brain implants has come to the forefront. If we can replace the human heart with a plastic and metal pump, why can’t we insert high-tech computer chips into our brains?

The movie Total Recall showed what such technology could be capable of. People could go on vacations without ever leaving their homes — with the aid of false memory implants.

In Tom Maddox’s short story, “Snake Eyes,” a man fitted with computer implants in his brain is confronted with the Other which is really just a suppressed part of the Self. He does not recognize — nor does he want to — that what he calls “the snake” is actually a part of himself. This part of his brain “compels” him to do strange, and often violent, things that he finds repugnant. However, he is confronted with the fact that these actions are a part of himself. A highly advanced computer which he can “plug into,” says to him: “There is no snake. You want to believe in something reptilian that sits inside you, cold and distant, taking strange pleasures. However … the implant is an organic part of you. You can no longer evade the responsibility for these things. They are you” (p. 27).

The Other Within

Stories like “Snake Eyes” and Total Recall tell a tale of the alien within. As postmodernism becomes a way of life, it is becoming more difficult to tell the difference between what we have traditionally considered the Other and what we have traditionally considered the Self. Kenneth Gergen suggests that “as consciousness of interdependence expands, so withers the distinction between Self and other, mine and yours” (p. 255)1.

Asimov (1990), in his essay, “The Machine and the Robot,” stated that “the great fear is not that machinery will harm us — but that it will supplant us. It is not that it will render us ineffective — but that it will make us obsolete” (p. 440).

Turkle suggests people tend to “search for a link between who we are and what we have made, between who we are and what we might create, between who we are and what, through our intimacy with our own creations, we might become” (p. 12).

Machines, computers, and robots are the fruit of our labor. They are our surrogate children and they are mirrors of our souls. They are tools to understanding ourselves. In literature and film, we use them to face our fears and express our hopes. We use them to symbolically embrace the Other in order to affirm the Self.

  1. Gergen, Kenneth. (1992.) The Saturated Self.