I hold a PhD from the Joint Program in Communication and Culture at York University and Ryerson University (Toronto, ON), where I specialized in media and culture. I also hold an MA in English Literature and an Honours BA in English and Comparative Literature, both from McMaster University (Hamilton, ON).
I have recently served as a part-time professor of General Education at Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, having taught courses in humanities and communication studies. I have also done freelance work as a developmental editor for James Hoggan on a new book called The Polluted Public Square, in which he explores issues surrounding environmental politics and communications. His previous publications include Climate Cover Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (2009), and Do the Right Thing: PR Tips for a Skeptical Public (2008).
My ongoing scholarly research involves an investigation of the cultural significance of robots, androids, and other artificial life forms as a means to probe the limits of modern biopolitics and to interrogate the (bio)ethical implications borne out by technological re-articulations of the concept of life. Interdisciplinary in scope and method, my research is situated at the crossroads of literary and rhetorical studies, continental philosophy, critical media theory, and ethics. I also draw heavily from scholarship in science and technology studies, the history and philosophy of science and technology, and the rhetoric of science.
The dangerous aesthetic pleasure of our time is not mass destruction, but the mass creation of new, ever more vital and virulent life-forms. . . . The epithet for our times, then, is not the modernist saying, “things fall apart,” but an even more ominous slogan: “things come alive.”
—W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction”
My ongoing research project focuses on the cultural significance of robots, androids, and other artificial life forms in order to investigate the ways in which machines, media, humans, and nonhuman animals communicate, mediate communication, and so generate communities. For me, this broad investigation leads to a more specific inquiry into the relations between technological development and contemporary biopolitics. Whether concrete products of science and engineering or inhabitants of fictional narratives; whether humanoid, zooid, or somewhere in between; robots serve as figurations that probe the limits of modern biopower as well as the (bio)ethical implications borne out by the ever-more intensive and intimate interpenetrations of biology and technology in technoscientific practice and the popular imagination.
In my doctoral dissertation, Creatures of Artifice: Rodney Brooks and the Bioethics of Animated Machines, MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks provides a point of departure for me to explore this deep entanglement of life and artifice. Brooks draws lessons from biology and ethology in order to design and build embodied, responsive robots he provocatively calls “artificial creatures.” In many of the popular and academic texts where Brooks describes his creatures, outlines his design methodologies, and speculates on the future of robotic engineering, he ascribes a strong sense of “life” to his machines. Through close readings of these texts, I tease out the rhetorical and narratological frameworks through which Brooks suspends (quite deliberately) easy distinctions between the animate and inanimate. In so doing, I trace Brooks’ inheritance of the conceptual elision of the machine and the animal (including the human animal) in modern Western thought through mid-century cybernetics to Descartes’ bête-machine.
The suspension of the animate and the inanimate, life and the lifelike, raises a provocative set of problems concerning our conceptual understandings of life. Under what conditions and considerations do we judge when something is “alive” and what the status of that life might be? How do we distinguish between human and nonhuman life and, subsequently, evaluate the worth of the one relative to the other? What ethical responsibilities do we hold toward nonhuman beings—those we have made, those we have not, and those somewhere in between? Such questions are crucial in an era of increasing digitization and roboticization, where the desire for autonomous technologies and “smart” devices seems more and more to enliven globalized cultures and economies. Yet the stakes of this inquiry are more immediate than, say, speculations on how human societies might treat future artificial life forms. For me, it affords opportunities to challenge modes of thinking and acting that assume human mastery over natural and technological environments, as well as to reevaluate the intimate connections to animals and machines that animate human lives and make them livable in the first place. Ultimately, I suggest the need for critical scrutiny of the anthropomorphic conceits that underpin ethical approaches to contemporary technoscientific development, and take preliminary steps toward a new form of bioethics: an imaginative attitude or ēthos that is sensitive to technological rearticulations of the concept of life.
We Are Not Born: The Biopolitics of Technological Generations
1. Making Live, Making Life
How does it feel to have a child? How does it feel to be born, for that matter? We’re not born; we don’t grow up; instead of dying from illness or old age, we wear out like ants.
—Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I am currently developing the outline for a book-length study in which I will further develop my “anthropo-eccentric” bioethics, examining narratives of artificial life in relation to the theme of generation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “generation,” first and foremost, as “The action or fact of bringing something into existence by natural or artificial processes.” Because the word stands just as well for both natural and artificial processes of creation, it invokes tensions among ideas of production, reproduction, and procreation. For me, these tensions point in turn to notions of labour in the double sense of both work and childbirth. To speak of generation, then, can lead to discussions of an existential temporality of natality, that is, the conception and appearance of the new within an already-extant world (O’Byrne). With these thoughts in mind, what does it mean to figure artificial forms of life and intelligence as generations: not only as technologically generated artifacts, but in a certain sense also as our progeny, generations born of a (pro)creative desire to project a trace of human life onto ostensibly inert matter and into the future? How do narratives about the “birth” of artificial life and intelligence speak to the role that technology and a technological worldview play in shaping how modern Western societies understand children, the experience of childhood, and practices of childbirth and childrearing? In the course of my study, I will confront these questions through close readings of a number of fictional and nonfictional texts, ranging from Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Richard Calder’s Dead Girls; to Alan Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Cynthia Breazeal’s Designing Sociable Robots, and Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic case history of Joey, the “mechanical boy.”
The interpretive framework for my readings will derive in part from Michel Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics in terms of a broad historical shift during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when state governance became increasingly concerned with the management of the biological life of populations—a focus on the health of a people as an organic whole, which was accompanied by a gradual retreat of death from the purview of political power and public ritual. Hence Foucault’s formulation of biopolitics as the right and the power to “make live and let die” (Society Must Be Defended 241).
I interpret the generation of artificial life forms as a radicalization of the first half of this formula, translating the power to “make live” into an endeavour to make life itself. There are reproductive politics at stake here that beg thorough investigation considering the frequency with which robots in science-fiction narratives and technoscientific discourse take on the guise of children. An obvious example is David, the high-tech Pinocchio of Steven Spielberg’s film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Perhaps less well-known is Turing’s proposal to build an artificial intelligence by way of a “child-machine,” which would undergo an education approximate to that of a human child (Turing 456ff). While this recommendation has largely been ignored in the history of AI research, Breazeal has taken up the notion of the child-machine in the design of Kismet, a “sociable” robot that interacts with humans according to the paradigm of an infant-caregiver relationship (Breazeal; Brooks 92-97; Anderson, “Robots, Transduction, Dingpolitik”).
The figure of the child-machine suggests to me the ambiguous status of child subjectivity in modernity, an ambiguity that led Walter Benjamin to write that the modern age, “far from regarding children as little men and women, has reservations of thinking of them as human beings at all” (Benjamin 101). The scandal of Benjamin’s statement lies in its disclosure of an undecidability in what distinguishes a livable human life from an animal or mechanical life. Children play at the limits of the human. They are anthropologically “primitive,” psychologically and socially undeveloped individuals, who do not (yet) fully possess those faculties—reason, autonomy, self-possession, self-reflection, and so on—that mark and guarantee the status of fully human being in the context of the modern humanist tradition. Of course, adult society must take on the responsibility to cultivate these faculties, to devise techniques for educating and raising its children. The machine in the likeness of a child casts into relief the notion that the child’s passage from nonhuman to human is a technological process. And a crucial one—after all, the consequence of the adult world’s failure to lead its children out of immaturity and elevate them to become “upright” citizens would be a generation of uncultured individuals who fall into patterns of unreflective, automatic behaviour, that is, bestial or mechanical ways of thinking and acting. The figure of the child-machine thus invites us to consider the technologies we employ, the ways we employ them, how they inform—or deform—a child’s growth to maturity, and subsequently the models and modes of citizenship we wish to produce.
2. Letting Die, Wearing Out
The rhythm of machines would magnify and intensify the natural rhythm of life enormously, but it would not change, only make more deadly, life’s chief character with respect to the world, which is to wear down durability.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
The ambiguity of the child-robot in particular and artificial life forms in general extends as well to modern attitudes toward renewal and progress. The popular imaginary surrounding robots and other synthetic beings fixates on a cultural ambivalence toward a future of increasing technological mediation, a future that appears to promise as much violence, impoverishment, and exclusion as it does increased comfort, wealth, and community. Indeed, it has become cliché for narratives of artificial intelligence and artificial life to invoke visions of the end of of the human—whether by way of a revolutionary uprising of intelligent machines that threatens the human species with extinction, or an evolutionary merger with our artificial progeny that promises to thrust humanity toward a transcendent, posthuman, postbiological state of being.
More than just responses to the rapid pace of technoscientific development, such narratives probe the very limits of the biopolitical order. They dramatize what Foucault would call an “excess of biopower,” which, he argues, “appears when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate,” thus creating forms of life that extend biopower “beyond all human sovereignty” (Society Must Be Defended 254). In other words, stories about catastrophic robot rebellions or ecstatic posthuman mergers do not so much portray the menace of technology run amok, but rather the looming threat of overabundant, uncontrollable, life.
At the same time, this is a life subject to a logic of industrial technological development and an economy of aggressive innovation, according to which successive generations can only compete with, and ideally supplant, what came before. Within such an economy, the passivity of “letting die” shifts to an autonomous process of obsolescence, by which lives are consumed, neglected, and disposed of, as their productive value is exhausted. Here we find a normalization of waste that, in Bernard Stiegler’s argument, precipitates a “generational confusion,” eroding connections between generations and degrading familial, social, and natural environments (Taking Care of Youth 42). I argue that this degradation stems from a broader attitude toward human finitude within a biopolitical context, where new life must replace or substantially revise the old with obligatory vitality, at the same time that illness, disability, senescence, and death are rendered wasteful afflictions to avoid, eradicate, or exclude, more often than they are affirmed as necessary experiences that demand response rather than remedy, care rather than cure. Such negligent attitudes threaten to obstruct communication and community between youth and elders, severing the lives that follow one another from those that came before, and fostering generations that are irresponsive and thus irresponsible to one another. I argue that an examination of the discourse that surrounds the generation of artificial life forms can offer critical insight into how we might think about and mobilize technologies in order to reflect upon finitude with fresh creativity, as well as to cultivate a renewed ethics of responsibility and care for future generations, whomever and whatever they may be.
Anderson, Nick. “Robots, Transduction, Dingpolitik: Cynthia Breazeal’s Kismet and the Social Life of a Thing.” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 16 (2006): 69–90. Print.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. “Old Toys.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1930. Ed. Michael W Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. 98-102. Print.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
———. “Joey: A Mechanical Boy.” Scientific American 200.3 (1959): 116-127.
Breazeal, Cynthia L. Designing Sociable Robots. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Print.
Brooks, Rodney A. Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us. New York: Vintage, 2002. Print.
Calder, Richard. Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things: A Trilogy by Richard Calder. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998. Print.
Čapek, Karel. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Trans. Claudia Novack. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-1976. Ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003. Print.
Mitchell, W.J.T. “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction.” What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 309-35. Print.
O’Byrne, Anne Elizabeth. Natality and Finitude. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2010.
Stiegler, Bernard. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. Print.
Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind 59.236 (1950): 433–460. Print.