I’m not saying one’s better…
- Analog = dogs – digital = cats
- Analog = old school talent scouts – digital = metrics
- Analog = Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men – digital = Josh Brolin in Infinity Wars
- Analog = the difficulty of manipulating dark-room produced photos – digital = the difficulty of keeping secret that you manipulated your online image
- Analog = the mellifluous tones of beautiful radio voices – digital = the beautiful (enhanced) faces of nearly every teevee personality
- Analog = Pong – Digital = every game developed since 2002
Again, I’m not saying one’s better…
I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative voice as a ghost (or awakening ghosts, or impersonating ghosts, or whatever) and so I re-watched Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell animated film in order to see how it approaches memory and identity through the lens of a type of ghost. Originally written and illustrated by Masimune Shirow, as a film it’s awkward – the animated characters barely move, and the dialogue is pretty wooden (perhaps it’s better in the original Japanese). Still, it’s a fascinating take on what now has become a ubiquitous concern – when we are living in the machine what will happen to our bodies?
- The plot focuses on an elite terrorist-fighting police squad located in a fictional Japanese city, roughly translated as New Port City.
- As far as scenery goes, that’s pretty much all we see – endless city. The last scene in particular links the city directly to a data core, as its indistinct lines in the artwork make it appear to look like a series of databases. The scenery constantly changes and exposes us to new parts of the city, but we see so little green that the world’s constant rain seems like a comment on our own desires to wash the world clean.
- Cyberpunk as relentless urbanity invokes what feel like modernist anxieties in this film.
- This world is relentlessly crowded, and the city has had to adapt to global warming, all key elements in the cyberpunk world.
- My guess is that part of the lack of movement among the animated characters can be attributed to the fact that they are cyborgs. The humans in the squad move a little more – still, the lack of blinking or breathing is unnerving, and helps me realize why avatars in games like the World of Warcraft appear to breathe heavily – they look more alive.
- The questions the film raises are fascinating – Shirow invokes Arthur Koestler (who I know far better as the author of a truly terrifying novel, Darkness at Noon) and his arguments about the core of identity. Koestler’s work deserves a much longer treatment, but broadly he argues that we are not simply souls inhabiting bodies but that our connections are much more complicated.
- Shirow calls the cybernetic soul a ghost, and the term becomes increasingly more complicated as the film (and manga) proceed. The protagonist, Major Kusanagi, struggles to figure out who she is, and the connection she finds at the end of the film to the Puppet Master (a rogue AI that to me is the kissing cousin of Wintermute in the Sprawl series) speaks to Koestler’s ideas of how we (whoever the ‘we’ is) are connected.
- The violence in the film is fascinating. The cyborgs are the only bodies we see destroyed, with wires and tubes hanging out of decapitated limbs. Still, those bodies (and they’re gendered very specifically as female) are not only alive but able to function – and the ghosts can be transferred.
- As one can imagine, the idea of sentience becomes up for grabs by the end.
Although I’m not exactly sure how the themes in this text connect to the ones that I’m trying to identify, I’m glad I re-watched the film. It clearly hits a cultural sweet spot, and as we find ourselves ever more immersed in screens we can probably learn a thing or two from it. The artwork is damn near hallucinatory at points, and I found myself glad that the film moved so slowly, as I could spend time drinking in the arcane and stuffed world that the artwork spends time developing.
I’ve not read enough of McEwan’s work, something I’ll try to remedy after reading Machines Like Me. This is ostensibly a robot novel, and it has a lot to say about identity and the ways we look at our historical moment. More thoughts below:
- I’m currently reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, and it’s making me rethink how I think of historical fiction, and history in texts in general. In Machines Like Me, McEwan creates a novel that I think might well be called ahistorical, as he intensely winds the narrative up in historical events that are actually sort of the opposite of what actually happened.
- I had to keep looking up events to make sure that I remembered history correctly. For instance, in this version of the Falklands War, The Exocet missiles do far more damage to British ships than they actually did, and the British navy turns around and heads home rather than risk more losses. Thatcher is weakened politically, and starts a long decline that results in her resignation, a wee bit different than actual human events.
- Even the artificial people are a result of this novelistic approach – a breakthrough happens because Alan Turing (yep, that one) refuses the chemical castration that he actually took to reduce his sentence in real life, does his jail time, and comes out on the other side to become an entrepreneur whose genius combines with the work of a couple of Stanford labs to produce actual robots that are marketed to the general public.
- I won’t talk about it here, but the alternative history that McEwan creates fits neatly with the arguments in Berlant’s book, ones I hope to address in this blog before too long.
- McEwan hints at his narrator’s approach to history in this passage (one that neatly , in which the narrator listens to his girlfriend complain about her graduate work in history:
It was no longer proper to assume that anything at all had ever happened in the past. There were only historical documents to consider, and changing scholarly approaches to them, and our own shifting relationship to those approaches, all of which were determined by ideological context, by relations to power and wealth, to race, class, gender and sexual orientation (35)
- McEwan’s narrator both shows a familiarity with the work of historians, especially academic ones, and rejects them as being too politicized, neatly lining up with his view early in the novel that our technology is apolitical and ahistorical. He will probably change that opinion by the end of the novel.
I knew of Newitz from their (Newitz uses the pronouns they and their) non-fiction work at io9, and while Autonomy definitely shows connections to that stuff it’s also a cut above. More thoughts below:
- This novel is compared to Gibson (again), but I’m not sure that comparison works. Gibson’s prose is incandescent at times, so much so that it threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Autonomy, on the other hand, feels intensively and carefully crafted, more late-term, Pattern Recognition Gibson than the earlier author who coined terms like the consensual hallucination that is cyberspace and wrote of skies that were the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
- I appreciate Newitz’s care in crafting her world – at times Gibson’s Sprawl universe veered out of control with his attempts to depict the undepictable, while Autonomy takes care to tell its story convincingly and naturally. I think I understand what Gibson was trying to do – showing the connections between wetware and the cybernetic systems that are evolving around and in it had not been done yet in science fiction, and his prose explodes from the page in its attempts to look at intersections that were just starting to be imagined…
- I’m trying to use the word “naturally” intentionally here. One of the joys of this novel is the ways that in Newitz’s world ideas that are barely scifi in contemporary times are now (in the now of the universe of the story) commonplace. She populates her world with lots of tamed viruses and bacterium that create all sorts of products that we use (concrete, for instance, or drinking mugs) and that biodegrade as soon as they’re not needed.
- This universe is constantly full of amazing stuff, none of which is labelled as amazing. Because these magical creations have all become natural I’m all the more intrigued.
- More important for Newitz (as is evident from the title) is the idea of personal sovereignty and autonomy. They wind up the ideas of what autonomy means to specific individuals and let it go, and the results are interesting studies in class. This world features the idea that humans can be indentured servants to all kinds of forces (mostly the rich), and much like robots they strive to gain whatever independence they can.
- The emotional states needed to become autonomous are also a trope, and the military cyborg that helps the pharma cop (and that’s what he is, as very little interaction with actual law enforcement is required thank you very much) is given a human brain to help it with facial recognition and understanding emotional states.
- As a blow to our human egos, that’s all the brain does – it doesn’t provide any other cybernetic control. Software does the rest, even as that software practices its own form of machine learning.
- Newitz also doesn’t make anyone directly evil. The corporate cop who kills “terrorists” got his start trying to help those captured in the indentured servitude racket, and finally got out due to the burn out caused by trying to fight a corrupt system. He’s portrayed even by his enemies as a property zealot, not a fascist. Our Robin Hood, Jack, has decided to sell copies of drugs to make money to finance her more Robin Hood-worthy pursuits, but that selling out causes her to make a copy of a drug that kills people by addicting them to work.
- Newitz definitely has a fondness for hacker undergrounds that fight big corporate powers, but she also doesn’t romanticize them, and part of the critique offered by this novel lies in its willingness to test the depths of what selling out means.
- Finally, and there’s lots more going on here, the deadly addictive drug that the pirates release and then and try to reel in the damage on is deadly because it causes people to only want to do their jobs, relentlessly, obsessively, and until bad things inevitably happen.
- Newitz’s critique of the culture of work in the US seems spot-on…
There was a belief for a while that cyberpunk was dead, with Gwyneth Jones its perhaps last practitioner. After all, the epiphany that William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy invoked shook up scifi in all the right ways, and produced a subgenre that moved the main genre away from its fascination with deep space and its flirtation with post-apocalypses to an engagement with the reality that networked computers and the systems that connect them. But the implications of what Gibson (and Sterling and Cadigan and all the rest) had played out, and the resulting weak revisions of the original cyberpunk vision were at best boring.
At the time I hoped that the death of cyberpunk was not true, but there wasn’t a lot of forward movement in the genre. Since then, it’s been reawakened and re-envisioned. I’ve already posted a couple of times about Richard K. Morgan’s Kovac series, and Morgan’s update of the genre is compelling and fascinating, with Kovacs’s first-person narrative simultaneously infuriating, energizing, and powerful.
Even acknowledging the power of that series, I’m particularly happy to have stumbled upon Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, an interesting new take on the movement. Drayden adds a whole new realm of inquiry to the genre in part by locating the material action in South Africa while maintaining cyberpunk’s reliance on far-flung systems. The fact that cyberpunk can go global (following Gibson’s good-guy Rastafarians in space and Morgan’s intentional opening up of the ethnic make up of human attempts to explore the universe) is a heartening one.
More thoughts below the fold:
This review of former Rust Belt cities (from the US and Europe) is way too long to do a thorough post on, so I’ll offer some thoughts below.
- The premise is that Rust Belt cities are far from doomed – instead, according to the authors, they are the next source of innovation and are a burgeoning market in and of themselves.
- They look at cities like Akron and Dresden, and highlight leadership, universities, big companies that are trying to remain innovative, and government initiatives as the reasons for these changes.
- Their optimism is tempered a bit by some of the challenges they see – more smart technology (and some emotional intelligence) is still needed for leadership, more focus on developing products rather than experiences or systems, more support for universities. They identify these problems, and thankfully don’t rename them opportunities.
- The authors have done a lot of traveling and have talked to a lot of the people who are driving innovation, and they use mostly these interviews (with a few well-chosen stats) to make their argument. That approach makes sense, and helps me appreciate Piketty’s intensively thorough approach even more. As a reviewer on goodreads commented that this book is a mile wide and an inch deep, and that methodology leaves a lot out…
- I’m troubled by the fact that there seems to be little focus on the folks left behind. Again, this argument fits neatly into the narrative that claims that smart technology will save us all, and the fact that robotics seems to mean that the work left for humans (yay capitalism!) will be either gathering all the money at the top or doing the dirtiest, meanest jobs that require some human decision-making (i.e., strawberry-picking), since building a machine to do that work would be more expensive than paying people minimum-wage and not offering them benefits doesn’t seem to occur to the authors.
- This part of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 argument always seems the shakiest to me – it feels like such a dystopian, cyberpunk future, with elements of The Circle thrown in for good measure. The alternative seems so utopian as to be ridiculous…
- Despite my pessimism, though, I sincerely hope their vision of the future comes true.
When I first read The Circle, it was 2014 and although Gamergate and worse had happened I refused to believe that social media and the alpha tech primadonnas could extend influence much beyond the confines of the diggerati. Re-reading it after the 2016 election reminds me that I’m a moron…
- Frustration with the cult of the tech alpha male in our culture seems to wax and wane, but Eggers clearly is more than frustrated. The three-headed monster that created the Circle neatly identifies what I think passes for the three sides of the tech alpha male – a sort of blind optimism about the perfectibility of humans (through technology, often developed by the alpha male’s company), financial smarts and a sort of willful ignorance about the dangers of monopoly capitalism, and sheer technical virtuosity.
- The fact that they’re all white guys is of course perfect.
- Eggers skips right over the usual binary – techno-optimism vs. techno-pessimism – and portrays those who want to uphold values like privacy as doomed. Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer gets particularly rough treatment…
- It’s hard not to read this as a sort of political thriller, one that ends badly.
- This novel ain’t subtle, all the way down to Stenton (financial guy) and his love of the voracious shark that eats the world and covers it in fecal material that is simply grey ash. The fact that the shark is transparent is another nice touch.
- I’m guessing that Eggers thinks this conversation is too important to be subtle about.
- The way that most of us so quickly immerse ourselves in the intensely anxious world of social media approval-seeking frightens me for the future, and makes Eggers’s vision particularly relevant.
- At the same time, Mae is so relentlessly caught up in the social prestige of being a bigwig at the Circle that I hope when she wakes up in twenty years that there is still a world.
- Every time I think Goodreads will offer me interesting conversation about a novel, I’m wrong. One of these days I will stop being surprised.