Man vs. Machine: John Henry, Science Fiction, and the March of Progress

February 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

There are only two kinds of plots in true science fiction:  Science is a Hero, and Science is a Villain.

250px-John_Henry-27527In Science is a Hero, there is some problem or other — an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, the Galactic Empire is falling, there’s a Plague IN SPACE!! — and the heroic characters unabashedly use Science to deflect the asteroid, restore Galactic civilization, cure the plague, and, not infrequently, have sex in zero-G.  Ain’t Science great?

In Science is a Villain, Science itself is the problem.  Science unleashes dinosaurs, Frankenstein monsters, unstoppable robot armies, murderous computers, super-soldiers, atomic horror, etc., and humanity has to fight them off.  Sometimes humanity barely wins, at great cost.  Other times we lose.  Science makes a nasty Villain.  Moral:  Science sure can be dangerous, kids!

These two kinds of stories echo our ambivalent attitude towards technology, of course.  Real life science has cured countless social ills and brought previously-unimaginable wonders, but it has also caused social upheaval and brought previously-unimaginable horrors. It’s no surprise that the stories that are most famous, the ones that keep us up at night, are the villain ones:  HAL 9000, velociraptors, Terminator, the Matrix…  The villains, the nightmares,  echo most closely the demons we’re wrestling.

Man and Machine

John Henry isn’t usually considered a science fiction story, but in fact it’s one of the first. It’s a classic Science as Villain plot:  the newfangled steam-driven hammer appears on the scene, threatening the jobs and livelihoods of the steel-driving men.  Actually, it threatens not only their livelihoods, but their whole way of life.  When it’s recalled that, just a few years before, most of those steel-driving men had been slaves, you can sense the undercurrent:  the Rich White Fathers are going to replace their black slaves with machines, rather than pay them an honest wage and recognize their common humanity.

John Henry won’t stand for it:  he’s going to beat that steam-driven hammer.  And he does!  But, of course, his heart bursts in the effort.  The drill is broken, too, but it can be rebuilt.  John Henry can’t be.

What’s the moral here?  Perhaps it’s the same simple moral you find in a lot of Science is a Villain stories:  it’s a cautionary tale.  Watch out, folks!  Turn your back on Science, turn your back on Knowledge, Meddle Not in Wot Man Was Not Meant to Know, etc.

But John Henry puts some fascinating twists on this simple Luddite message. « Read the rest of this entry »


The Mind of a Rock: Animism and AI

February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

For thousands of years, Western civilization has been living with a striking paradox. On the one hand, we are clearly physical beings living in a physical universe. And yet, we have these thoughts, feelings, dreams, and perceptions… They seem related to the physical universe, yet fundamentally different in character. We have an ‘inner’ life, which has its own colors and sounds and structure, operating under a whole different set of rules. In the physical world, I’m 3500 miles from where my body was born; but my mind instantly recalls the name of the state, county, and town where that happened, and gives the exact date and time. And yet, since I have no memory of the actual event, in a way my mind can never go there at all — it’s as though I can visit the post office box instantly, but never get to the house itself.

Mind and body seem so different that it’s almost as if they belong to separate worlds entirely. No doubt this is why it’s been so easy for so many people to believe in a ‘soul’, a mind that can be separated from the body and continue its life, in its inner world, long after the body has died — or even enter another body entirely. This despite the fact that the mind is obviously affected by physical events: it becomes sluggish and unfocused when the body is tired or sick, and it can lose memory or skills or even suffer a change of personality if the brain is injured or chemically affected.

Over time, two main camps have formed around this paradox. The first, as I’ve mentioned, believe that the soul or mind is separate from the physical body, and is fundamentally made of a different kind of stuff; and when the body dies, it moves on to some other realm, or finds another body. The second camp believes that the body creates the ‘mind’, perhaps analogously to the way a computer executes instructions in a computer program, or the way a flautist plays a melody. The mind — the ‘inner world’ — is generated by the brain and will come to an end when the brain stops working, just as a melody stops when the flautist puts down the instrument.

In ‘The Wakeful World’, Emma Restall Orr tackles this paradox, and (1) shows that both the solutions above are lacking in serious ways, (2) points out that there is another solution — indeed, a multitude of other solutions, which have been suggested at one time or another over the past few thousand years, and (3) offers her own take on the problem. In this article I’m mainly going to skip over (1) and (2), since there’s no way I could do Orr’s treatment justice, and instead briefly (and necessarily crudely) describe some aspects of (3) and look at some things that follow from it. In particular, Orr’s take not only leads to the idea that rocks think, but answers why human brains think differently from rocks, and gives a new view of the place of the human experience in the ecology of mind. « Read the rest of this entry »

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