Thursday, 30 January 2014

Synthetik Love Lasts Forever

One of those who prefer the artificial lover to a real one is the self-declared technosexual and iDollator Davecat, who lives with two $6,000 RealDolls, one of which he regards as his wife and the other as his mistress. His and his “wife’s” wedding bands are engraved with the programmatic statement: “Synthetik (sic!) love lasts forever.” Davecat knows, of course, that his artificial wife does not really love him, that she, literally, couldn’t care less. He is not deluded in that sense. Yet despite being aware that his “wife” is just a doll, that is, a thing, he speaks to her and treats her – as far as that is possible with a doll – as if she were a real person. He speaks about her family history, her interests, likes and dislikes, her moods and thoughts, and strongly resents people who regard and treat her as a mere thing, which he finds disrespectful of her. “If animals have rights, and rightly so, why shouldn’t we treat something that looks and acts like a human with similar rights and respect?” Well, perhaps because if animals do have rights, then this is not because they look and act like humans, but for other reasons. Animals can be hurt. They can suffer and perhaps even be humiliated. They can be killed. A doll or a robot (assuming that they are not sentient) cannot do any of those things.

Yet for Davecat the case is not that clear-cut. For him, his “wife” is, very much like Santa Claus and other imaginary creatures for small children, both real and not real, not part of the real world, but still, somehow, an agent, to be feared or, in this case, loved and cared for. The boundaries between a mere thing and a person have begun to blur, or are simply considered irrelevant. For Davecat, the difference is merely that the one person is “synthetic”, while the other is “organic”. However, the more the synthetic looks and behaves like the organic the easier it is to see it as a person and to sustain the make believe: “Part of the (sexual) appeal of synthetics is how much they look like their organic counterparts. If you have a robot shaped like a refrigerator, that won’t have as much draw as a robot in the shape of a human.”

Thus the blurring of the line between the real person and the simulated one depends on the similarity that the synthetic bears to the organic. Yet the resemblance that is required and desired is confined to the synthetic lover’s appearance. It is a strictly external resemblance. What distinguishes the organic from the synthetic, the real from the made-up, is equally important: “but the much larger part of their appeal is that they’re humans, but they don’t possess any of the unpleasant qualities that organic, flesh and blood humans have. A synthetic will never lie to you, cheat on you, criticize you, or be otherwise disagreeable.” In other words, the synthetic lover will never be a stranger. They will always “have a mindset or a personality that’s compatible with my own.” And if you are someone who, like Davecat, is “not keen on taking emotional chances”, if you want to spare yourself the “enormous investment of time, money, and emotion” that a real human lover requires, if you are not willing to take the huge risk that is unavoidable when you have someone in your life “who may bail at any time, or who transforms into someone unpleasant”, then you shouldn’t think twice: the synthetic lover is exactly what you need. Organic lovers are not really worth all the trouble we tend to have with them. After all, why should we waste time on an organic if “I have a Doll who is in love with me at home”? That would be just silly. Organics are not worth pursuing because they are “far too unpredictable”. Synthetics on the other hand “have a consistency that I’m grateful for.”

They are also immortal in the sense that their bodies can be replaced when no longer usable. It is interesting how this is being described by Davecat. If after a few years the body, from too much usage, is beyond repair, he simply goes and buys her (!) a new one. So although his “wife” isn’t really anything but body, he distinguishes very clearly between her and her body, as if there really were an immaterial and detachable entity, a soul or person, that, perhaps at any given time, inhabits and expresses itself through a particular body, but that can just as well be present in a different body if the old one is no longer suitable or available. The new body does not even have to look the same as the old one. With each new body her appearance can change, but it will still be her, just improved and upgraded in line with the latest technological developments. So as far as her owner is concerned, she is not a machine: she is the ghost in the machine.

Is Davecat happy? He insists he is. Perhaps, he admits, not one hundred per cent, but that is not because his artificial lover is not really real, but simply because there are certain things that it cannot do yet (for instance speak and interact like a human person would). But once the sex doll has given way to the (soon to come) sexbot of the future, there will be nothing left to desire: “your spouse should be easygoing and a joy to come home to. (...) I think the best way to reach that goal is through humanoid robots.” This would be the perfect remedy against loneliness. It would, he says, be like having your cake and eat it. Indeed, it would.

All the quotes are from an interview that Julie Beck did with Davecat last year. It was published as “Married to a Doll. Why One Man Advocates Synthetic Love” on September 6th, 2013, in The Atlantic and can be found here:

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Strangeness of the Stranger

In another of her stories, Nine Lives, Ursula K. Le Guin writes: “It is hard to meet a stranger. Even the greatest extravert meeting even the meekest stranger knows a certain dread, though he may not know he knows it. Will he make a fool of me wreck my image of myself invade me destroy me change me? Will he be different from me? Yes, that he will. There’s the terrible thing: the strangeness of the stranger.”

The stranger is a terrifying creature. And every real person is a stranger to us and will always remain a stranger no matter how close we get to them. That’s because they will never be us. They will always be different. In that sense every other is a stranger. The fact that they are different from us makes them dangerous. They refuse to be a mere reflection of our soul (our fantasies and desires, the way we look at the world and think and feel about things). They permanently threaten us with the possibility of an imposed abrupt change. That is why we fear the other.

However, we also fear being alone, being with ourselves. We seek the company of others despite the threat that they pose. We may be psychologically disposed that way simply to safeguard the survival of the species. We need others to reproduce and to protect ourselves against a hostile environment. Our kind is, out of necessity, a collaborative one. We may also fear the stranger in ourselves, the realisation that we have no clear understanding of who and what we are, what defines us, what we are capable of and what not. Being alone with ourselves forces us, in the absence of an other who demands our attention, to revert our inquiring gaze to our own being, which can be quite a disturbing experience. If we look too deeply into the mirror, our reflection dissolves until there is nothing left but a gaping absence. So we are driven to the other, and most of us choose to risk the encounter and face the danger that comes with it. Some, however, decide they’d rather be alone than waste their energy, their affection and trust, on a person that will always remain a stranger, and almost certainly will reveal their strangeness some day, leaving us just as alone as we used to be before we attached our lives to theirs. But it’s never an easy decision. We are constantly being torn between the Scylla of a forever unchallenged life that is immune to hurtful surprises, but also very lonely, and the Charybdis of a life spent in the company of others, which permanently challenges our identity and allows for no complacency.

Automatic sweethearts, from Pygmalion’s living statue to the post-singulitarian lovebots and sexbots that transhumanists dream of, provide a perfect solution to this dilemma. They give us an other who is not a stranger, one who possesses no other voice or soul than the one we lend to it. Attaching oneself to it is entirely risk-free because it is not really an other, but our own self posing as an other. We duplicate ourselves, objectify ourselves in an apparent other, which is ideal because it allows us to only ever confront ourselves without ever having to confront ourselves. The other no longer poses a threat because it is not really an other at all, and the self becomes bearable because it is hidden under the mask (the persona) of the other.

Yet this is a perfect solution only if we assume that the risk of a real encounter with a real other, that is, an encounter with the stranger, is not worth taking, that there is nothing to be gained by it. But is that really so? If the identity of the self is endangered each time it opens up to the stranger, if the stranger brings change and makes our life unpredictable and precarious, if the stranger makes our self fluid, shouldn’t we be grateful to them for the opportunity they give us? Shouldn’t we welcome the possibility of change?

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Transhumanists are the True Bioconservatives

I just realised that transhumanists are actually far more conservative in their outlook than those they derisively call bioconservatives.

According to the myth spun by transhumanists, bioconservatives oppose change, largely for no good reason at all. They just prefer things to stay as they are, no matter how much better they could be. They live in fear of the future, of new technologies that threaten to bring about a new, unfamiliar world. They are bioluddites. Like babies to their mother’s teat, they cling to the status quo. Like hobbits, they prefer to stay in their cosy underground homes rather than go out and discover the world, which is clearly very irrational since the world out there is so much better, as must be obvious to anyone not blinded by prejudice and fear. They like to think they are content with their lives as they are, but in fact they are just cowards, and because of their cowardice they turn a blind eye to all the wonderful opportunities that would arise from technological progress.

Transhumanists on the other hand are determined to boldly go where no man has gone before. They have no fear. They welcome change, and like the challenge of the unknown. They are rational, clear-headed. They do not only know what is good and what is bad, but also what is even better than good. They are adventurers, discoverers. They are the Columbuses of a future land of the blessed.

Yet is this pretty picture really true? I always had my doubts, of course, but it was only last night, when I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Poacher” (first published in 1992), that I realised just how false it was. The story is a variation of the Sleeping Beauty tale. A boy whose poverty forces him to poach in the woods belonging to a greedy baron discovers a gigantic impenetrable hedge. Curious to find out what lies beyond, he sets out to cut a path through the hedge. After two years of hard work he is through. On the other side he finds a King’s palace. In the palace, everyone is asleep. He stays there, eats the food, which is still warm and fresh as if had just come out of the oven, and which always renews itself so that he never has to go hungry again. Occasionally he has sex with one of the sleeping maidens, who is as warm and fresh as the food and always remains as young and red-cheeked and welcoming as she was when he first discovered her. Nothing ever changes, which suits him just fine, and he takes great care to stay clear of the princess, who, he feels, might be awoken very easily. He prefers to fuck the maid rather than kiss the princess and thereby risk having his pleasantly tranquil life overthrown. Sometimes he is lonely, but apparently that is a price worth paying:

“When I slept, there inside the great hedge, I never dreamed. What had I to dream of? Surely I had all I could desire. Still, while the time passed that did not pass, used as I was to solitude, I grew lonely; the company of the sleepers grew wearisome to me. Mild and harmless as they were, and dear as many of them became to me as I lived among them, they were no better companions to me than a child’s wooden toys, to which he must lend his own voice and soul.”

Yet instead of breaking the spell to be, once again, with real people, he starts making things and explores the library. He is happy lending his own voice and soul to the things around him. Being alone is still better than change. He is, after all, used to solitude. So he stays and grows old in an unchanging world.

So what’s all that got to do with transhumanism, and why do I think that transhumanists are actually more bioconservative than their opponents? Because what transhumanists, just like the boy in Le Guin’s story, really want is that the world stays exactly as it is. Yes, they do want to change certain things, but only so that other things can stay the same. The bioconservative accepts that life will one day end and change into something very different, the great unknown that we call death. The transhumanist wants life to go on forever and he fears death as the greatest evil. The bioconservative accepts that one cannot always be young, that the changes that ageing brings are part of a natural life cycle. The transhumanist sees ageing as a curse that damns us to a process of slow decay, which debilitates and humiliates us. Consequently, he wants to hold on to his youth as long as possible. The bioconservative accepts that one cannot always be happy, that there are ups and downs, good times and bad times. The transhumanist regards permanent, uninterrupted happiness as our birthright, and is determined to erase all pain and suffering from our human constitution, so that we will never be anything else but happy. The bioconservative knows and accepts that loving somebody is a risky endeavour, that love must be won and that love can be lost, and that you can never own another’s soul. The transhumanist wants to make sure that we are loved and continue to be loved no matter what, that we always have what we want and never lose what we have. The bioconservative accepts and indeed welcomes the fact that we cannot always control and predict what happens to us, that sometimes things come unbidden. The transhumanist wants to keep things under control. He loathes the unbidden.

Transhumanists live in permanent fear of change: of death and disease, of losing their physical and mental powers, of losing love and affection, of being abandoned. Bioconservatives are open to change. Transhumanists are not. They prefer a world fast asleep to a world that is fully awake.