The Terror and Appeal of the Machine

A continuous thread running through much of science fiction literature and film is humankind’s relationship with “the machine.” The machine is symbolic of “the Other” which helps define “the Self.” This essay explores the progression, through science fiction, of the narrowing distinction between Self and Other. What is the difference between Self and Other? Is there a difference? Does there need to be a difference?

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Table Contents

  • Introduction
  • The Self vs. The Other
  • The Computer as Other
  • The Robot as Other
  • The TV as Other
  • The Other becomes a Part of the Self
  • Conclusion
  • References

Excerpt

Introduction

There is a thin line between pleasure and pain, so too with fear and attraction. Sherry Turkle (1984) noted that “what disturbs is closely tied to what fascinates and what fascinates is deeply rooted in what disturbs” (p. 33). A continuous thread running through the literature and films we have explored this semester is humankind’s relation to “the machine.” The machine is symbolic of “the Other” which helps define “the Self.”

The Terror and Appeal of the Machine

Through time, the Other has been something to embrace and something to fear. The Other helps make the boundaries between Self and not-Self more clear, but the Other can also threaten the existence of the Self. The Other can be as innocuous as one’s mate and as frightening as Satan. In science fiction, the Other is often some representation of technology. Patricia Warrick (1980), in her book The Cybernetic Imagination, noticed trends in science fiction relating to the love/hate relationship humankind has with its own creations:

The literature about automation from the early antecedents to the present reveals an interesting pattern of oscillation. From the Greeks through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, man’s imagination created optimistic visions of the fruits of technological innovation. Then the opposite view began to appear… Early American SF, splitting away from mainstream fiction in the twentieth century, was optimistic. But since about 1950, it has become negative….” (pp. 55-56)

Brian Stableford (1987), in his book The Sociology of Science Fiction, found a slightly different trend: “The science fiction of the Fifties clearly gave voice to public anxiety about technological ‘progress’ and its products, but the dominant opinion within the genre … held that this anxiety was unjustified and that the fear was misdirected. The real danger … was not the machines themselves, but our moral and intellectual inability to deal with them” (p. 110). Either way, it is seen, technology plays a role in the dilemmas of humankind — it embodies the evil, it mirrors the evil or it makes the evil possible.

When humankind creates something, it is often compared to playing God. The act of creation is seen as God-like. The implications of this comparison are both appealing and terrifying. If people can play God, then they can also have power like a god. However, there is always the fear that God will frown upon such actions and the fool who plays God will pay dearly for such audacity. There is a Native American tribe that purposely puts imperfections into their art so as not to anger the gods. “Technology can now create almost anything man can imagine; and man is horrified and fearful when the products of his imagination become actual” (sic, Warrick, 1980, p. 56).

In early science fiction, there is a clear distinction between Self and Other, human and machine. The Other was a machine, a computer or a robot. It was distinct and separate. There was no melding, no physical symbiosis, no interfacing between the human Self and the mechanical Other. But as time progressed, and science fiction changed along with the growing capabilities of technology, this separation became narrower and narrower, until in some more recent science fiction stories it is hard to tell where human stops and machine begins. There are now stories where “a man-machine symbiosis in which the distinction between organic and inorganic is no longer possible” (Warrick, 1980, p. 206).

This essay will explore the progression, through science fiction, of the narrowing distinction between Self and Other. What is the difference between Self and Other? Is there a difference? Does there need to be a difference?

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