Robot and Ruin at UT

It is confirmed that I am reading a lecture at the University of Texas at Austin in the Fall semester of 2016, in the course Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (Professor James Slotta), on the 17th of October, 2-3 PM, ART 1.102.

The lecture is titled Robot and Ruin: Nostalgic / Ethnographic Object.

The reading to the lecture is an amazing essay A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, written by Donna Haraway in 1985, accessible on the Internet as a PDF for those who are interested.

Please get ready.

Advertisements

The Village of Karda, Siberia

Choy, Tim. Experimental Futures: Ecologies of Comparison. An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham, NC, USA: Duke University Press, 2011

I’d begin with stating that I am absolutely charmed by Tim Choy’s writing. I don’t know if it’s his gentle personality that accounts for that — I heard his talk at UT and was introduced to him after the talk — but actually no, his and his colleagues’ and “co-conspirators’,” to use his word, writings — I refer to Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway here — make me pause frequently and read slowly. The kind of dense durée that they create in their books (especially Choy and Tsing, Haraway is another matter, she liquefies and speeds up the time and condenses things in a different manner), speaks to the amount of effort that was invested by the authors in thinking and writing.

Soft humor and attention to detail that Choy exhibits in his writing, are especially appealing: “Not one to waste food, even of dubious genetic origin, he ate his way through the mountain of chips and candy bars while working at his desk for the rest of the day” (20). Choy portrays one of his interlocutor working on a campaign against genetically modified food. One could see behind that funny, endearing, and somewhat poignant phrase a real person, the glory and doom of his cause, and “local and translocal ecologies of gender and expertise” (14), emerging through “ongoing practices of self-care and self-comparison” (14).

An example especially speaking to me that Tim Choy gives in his book, is the plot around the village Tai O, for which the Hong Kong Planning Department had a strategy of “revitalizing.” Too often the administrations’ plans of “revitalizing” of the territories brings further destruction. In this case, the project included “the planning proposal’s suggestion that a strip of stilt homes adjacent to Tai O Bridge be demolished.” (25). It aroused the resistance, and the government drove back claiming it revokes the plans. “Then, on July 4, a runaway fire in Tai O burned one hundred families’ stilt homes to the ground.” (27)

It reminded me of the fate of the village of Karda in Siberia, in fifty kilometers from the village of Anosovo, my primary field site. The village of Karda was evaluated by the government to be a settlement with no prospects. The government provided people who lived there with apartments in tenement housing in the city of Ust’-Uda. In 2008, Karda ceased to exist. However, after different periods of living in the city, some former residents of Karda returned to their half-ruined homes. I am spending the summer of 2016 in Siberia, and I hope to uncover some of the dramas that are connected to, in a number of cases, double relocation.

The change of social practices when one moves from the rural space to the urban is drastic. How much more difficult it is, if the change is not fully voluntary? How hard it is, if there is no place to return, because the government deemed your land hopeless and decided it’s easier to deprive the village of the last care? Right now, I could only guess. Perhaps some of the meetings during the summer would bring me heavy answers to these questions.

Archeology of the Robotic

The archeology of robots unfolds robotic creatures as an object traversing spaces and time; humanoid robots are nostalgic objects. Employing Donna Haraway’s (1991) notion of cyborg, I ask where is the division between human and non-human, alive and dead, animate and inanimate, is situated now, in the anthropocene eschatologies? Where do we transgress these digressions, with our fascination with phones, which create the affect of interconnectedness with the world but simultaneously alienate us from what might be called “real” experiences of presence? How do we interact with robots?

The phones and other devices, starting with electronic pet prosthesically standing for the figure of lack and allowing to become a caregiver of nonbiological entity, like Tamagotchi (Allison, 2006, 2013), account for our fascination with self-representation online, including the practices of selfie-taking and checking-in-ing in the places visited and consumed. By constructing identity through the means of sharing and reblogging and thus co-authoring of the content, we are thoroughly less (or more) or rather otherly human than we were but twenty years ago.

However, robots already existed at the time, if not constructed, than envisioned. They went through the epochs changing appearances, gender, and sexuality: androgynous, manifestly feminine, like early “maids,” and exageratedly masculine, like transformers from the planet Cybotron. Racially, contemporary robots are overwhelmingly “white,” which corresponds with the politics of racializations and power dynamics.

Cyborgs emerge as a response to disability in cases of the transplantation of artificial heart or employing prostheses. Robots still belong to the future, yet they visibly mark our presence. The transformative power of the machines, toys, gadgets, tools, has been long employed by humans in order to enhance the capacities of the body and increase production of goods. Humanoid robots were envisioned as forms intendedly anthropomorphic, and pet robots are often caninomorhic (see BigDog).

The feeling of mysterious horror, which robots excessively resembling humans, trigger, is known as uncanny valley; a poetic and space-related metaphor. This is the affective state where curiosity, fear, dread, and denial are mixed together.

Robots challenge our understanding of moral and become the subjects in courts, changing practices of law and producing precedents (Calo, 2016). Robotic disembodied voices, like Siri, are interrogated by users to fulfill erotic fantasies, and become the absolute geisha in the frustrated dreamworlds of unattainable desires.

Robots explore the surfaces of planets and depths of the oceans, are used in military actions, droids become the ideal apparatus of surveillance embodying state sovereignty, driverless cars and planes provoke fear, spell checkers influence writing, ubiquitous video cameras entice paranoia, agglomeration of devices serve as the machinery of collective memory and archives. This is the nascent world we are inhabiting, technology creating infrastructure and shaping interactions merging public and private into what I would call pubvate. As is often the case, while science, computational and engineering technologies build towards creation of the anthropomorphic robot, the quick, liquid imagination of mass culture generated tremendous amounts of multifarious robotic creatures.

Robots are hypothesized to replace the whole clusters of human laborers which were previously considered within the realm of human creative genius, such as doctors (Cohn, 2013) and translators, and even writers, lately, with a program having written a novel metapragmatically called “The Day A Computer Writes A Novel.” As during the industrialization the machines had replaced the weavers, dispossessing human workers, the new wave of technologization might dispossess the new clusters of workers. Additionally, biomimicking robots start replacing animal agents in scientific research, including medicinal. What does the world of the future look like, with the the increasing presence of robots and humans’ drift towards becoming more cyborgian, and how this vision of the future influences and shapes our presence?

References

Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. Springer Netherlands, 2006.

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. University of California Press, 2006

Allison, Anne. Precarious Japan. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2013

Calo, Ryan. Robots in American Law. Talk at the University of Texas in Austin, 3/22/2016

Cohn, Jonathan. “The Robot Will See You Now.” The Atlantic, March 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/the-robot-will-see-you-now/309216/ [retrieved 4/2/2016]

Do Robots Only Matter in the Context of Our Humanity?


In "A Cyborg Manifesto" Donna Haraway employs the notion of cyborg in order to question what it means to be human, but engages with it rather on the level of metaphor, I think. "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated by hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics." (Haraway, 2006, 118)

It is fair to claim we are cyborgs but I think the justification to this claim should be extended and developed. We transplanted a part of our mnemonic functions into machines, and extended all kinds of facilities, but in essence we remain pitifully human, which is most evident in human/nonhuman interactions. Many people think that it would not be morally right to torture the robot (Calo, 2016). What is telling is how we anthropomorphize robots and why this way and not some other. Why is it wrong, for example, to torture robot, whereas it feels no pain, and why it is not wrong to shower a robot with your affection, whereas it is an inanimate object?

The first time I became fascinated in robots, I think, was at the time when Tamagotchi became ubiquitous. You had to care about them. This electronic creature required to be loved: fed, cleaned, and played with. It could also die. Terrible tragedy. Mortal robot.

The relationship which you built with a Tamagotchi was an extension of breather/breather interactions. Breather is the term which Tim Choy proposes to employ instead of "life form," as well as instead of definitions reinforcing hierarchical structures, like "human/nonhuman," "animate/inanimate," and other possible dualities. Breather becomes a figure of life connected to other breathers through the medium of air. Now robots are in a strange realm in regard to breathers, because some of them also need air for functioning, they consume air and therefore in some sense breathe.

The relationship between a Tamagotchi and a human carer is the relationship between an imagined breather and a real breather. The robot becomes a prosthesis of our own humanity, empowering but also signifying absence, injury, wound, loss, deficiency and lack.

References

Calo, Ryan. Robots in American Law. Talk at the University of Texas in Austin, 3/22/2016

Haraway, Donna. A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century. Springer Netherlands, 2006.

Choy, Tim. Breathers Conspire! Drawing Breath Together. Talk at the University of Texas at Austin. 3/7/2016