Post #21, Week #14 – Robot whores and the future of humanity

It is appropriate that, after our little class discussion about the problematic self-pleasure device, I encounter this particular gem of an article.

The robot prostitute: the natural next step of humanity. Our first instinct is repulsion, but let’s stop and think about this.

The article proposes that robot whores would be safer than human whores (no STDs, for one, because technological advances will build self-cleaning, self-disinfecting robots). The robots will remain forever young, forever beautiful, and as an added bonus, be customizable in every possible gender/race/body type imaginable. Additionally, we will no longer need to worry about the current ethical questions that plague prostitution, because the whores are robots, not disenfranchised young girls from bad homes who made bad decisions.

I think here is where we will begin to see the phenomenon so often played with in science fiction: men and robots finding love. How easy would it be to fall in love with a robot whore? The robot looks like a beautiful young girl, she’s kind and sweet and attentive to your every need…and you have sex with her! People will fall in love with these robots, logic be damned! There will be discussions over whether or not a man can marry a robot and leave his estate to her. If you can leave millions of dollars to a dog, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched that you could live millions to a robot. Ethics will tackle the issue; the government will get involved. Before you know it, robots will be as good as people under the law. But we won’t stop at the ones who look like humans: soon people will be marrying their laptops or their iPods. Man will be free to love his machine, any machine, and the inevitable meeting of man and machine will be complete. (I use male and female personal pronouns for simplicity’s sake, but the future of robot love will not be confined to heteronormativity).

Basically: robot prostitution is how robots will become human.

And for the record, if they made robot prostitutes who looked and sounded just like Jude Law, I’d be 100 percent sold on the idea.

Post #20, Week #14 – CLU and the uncanny valley

In class today, we saw the mildly unsettling Tupac hologram/magic trick/CG thing that made waves at Coachella this past weekend. It was pretty far-away so it looked pretty realistic. Maybe up close it would have been more disturbing/uncanny, but for the audience and video-watchers, the distance was just right to make him seem real (as much as a man resurrected from the dead can look realistic, anyway).

If you read any of the breakdowns of how the illusion was pulled off, there is of note the fact that the company who created the holograph was the same one who did the CG for a variety of CG-heavy movies over the past few years…including TRON: Legacy.

TRON: Legacy got a lot of flack when it first came out for the lingering uncanniness of the de-aged Jeff Bridges (though no one had a problem with young Bruce Boxleitner, strangely). And there is, indeed, something faintly immobile about CLU, something ever-so-slightly off about him. He looks like young Jeff Bridges, he sounds like young Jeff Bridges, yet there is something about him unmistakably NOT Jeff Bridges, young or old. He is, as we say, stuck in the uncanny valley.

In my English class, we are discussing Freud and the uncanny. Freud says the uncanny (as best personified in dolls and other marionettes) disturbs us because we are seeing a double of ourselves–an imperfect one. Seeing this flawed reflection troubles us; something about these imperfect doubles reminds us of our inherent narcissism and our fear of our own mortality. Our egos just can’t handle it.

Now, most people don’t like Freud at all these days, but the man’s got a perfectly valid point here. Seeing young Jeff Bridges reminds us that present-day Jeff Bridges is getting pretty old. One day there will simply not better any Jeff Bridges any longer. It is a troubling thought. If one day, Jeff Bridges will die, then isn’t it true that one day we will die too? A chilling thought.

Most critics, of course, did not get so philosophical in their criticisms. Mostly they just said that CLU looked pretty creepy. I thought that his faint uncanniness was highly necessary, however: CLU is, after all, only a double created by Flynn as a digital self. He was incapable due to his programming to represent Flynn as a person; it is appropriate that he looks like Flynn but lacks the humanity that would have made him be Flynn. I thought the imperfect replication was a good plot detail, basically, though most people disagreed with that viewpoint.

TRON: Legacy wasn’t the greatest movie ever, but I think it still holds a lot of lessons about technology for our modern generation. Plus, it’s just a sexy movie, and no one can ever take that away from it.

Post #19, Week #13 – Songs that make me sad

Back on our very first day of class, I was singled out as the one and only person who has never had an emotional reaction to a song. I was bewildered by my classmates–I suppose I was picturing a bunch of people shambling around, weeping while they listened to Adele a la Saturday Night Live. Goldberg told me that the class would make me an emotional music playlist (this will never happen, though I would be curious to see what kind of music it would have contained). He also told me that I could blog about my experiences trying to find that one emotional song, and my good memory enables me to finally make good on his suggestion, thirteen weeks later.

Now, I still don’t weep uncontrollably when I hear music (I don’t think I ever will, as I am a primarily visual person), but I did manage to find one song that triggers on its own some kind of emotional response in me:

The famous “To Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X. One of the video game milestones of my life–something that influenced me in some indiscernible but yet undeniably there way that I can never quite articulate. On one level, you can kind of chalk it up to the immense amount of time I spent immersed in the game, the fact that I did love those characters on some level, the fact that the game has a really sad ending. I’m an English major; I just get really into stories, you know? I spent at least a hundred hours playing it (which is not a SUPER BIG AMOUNT, as far as video games go. I’ve spent more time playing Pokemon).

But the truth (if you’d like to look at it cynically) is that somehow I became so deeply involved in the lives of these imaginary people that just thinking about this game makes me more emotional than any song that I associate with a real-life human being or experience. Seriously–no other song does it to me. Not at all. Regular songs are nice to listen to but don’t make me feel especially emotional, even if they do remind me of other people. It’s the digital memory that moves me, or it’s no memory at all.

I am precisely the demon that this class has been trying to exorcise all semester!

No wonder I was the only one who didn’t raise my hand that very first day…

Post #18, Week #13 – Hamlet knows best

Sometimes our class discussions get a little too grim for me. Everything is evil. The technology that I love so much is evil. Facebook. which I habitually keep open while I browse the internet on Firefox, my one and only browser, is apparently tracking each and every website which I visit and to which I distribute my credit card number. Google, which provides me with my handy Gmail that I check every ten minutes, is also evil. Every second that passes is another second of me giving my identity away–of me giving my soul away. And I’m just living in the submarine, content with my books and my video games to ignore the problems of the surface. I am one of those people.

I would like to quote Hamlet here. (We talk a lot about how people live in the bubble of their self-absorption, but we never talk about the kinds of media we consume in the bubble. Ah well).

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The Danish prince spoke those words, and in my mind, no truer were ever spoken.

Technology is not inherently evil. Facebook is not inherently evil. As a platform–in its purest state as a tool, eliminating the motivations of its creators and all the rest–there is nothing bad about Facebook. There is nothing bad about any tool unless we make it so. If we choose to see the internet as evil, then it is evil. If we choose to see it as good, then it is good. Simple as that.

I guess what I don’t like about our discussions sometimes is that we only talk about things as if they are definitively evil, which they most certainly are not. Guns are not evil on their own; it is only placed in the hands of a man that they become tools of destruction or salvation. We seem to have ceased to make that distinction between that which humans do and that which technology does: we talk about the two as if they are one and the same, which they are not. The program is not evil; it only does what its programmer wished. We don’t talk about the motivations of the programmers anymore, is what I’m saying. Now we only talk about the programs, as if they were thinking on their own. For all that steps technology has taken to become more autonomous and beyond the control of humans, we must never forget: they still cannot do more than what we programmed them to do. We are still the agents. We should not disregard our roles in this so easily.

I saw this article about super-awesome technological stores today. My first thought was, “Hell yeah, a store that would let me virtually try on clothes! That would save so much time and help me experiment with things that I would otherwise never try!” But then I thought, “Oh, but wait, I’m sure it’s just a marketing tool that secretly records my image and tracks every single thing I try on in order to sell me more merchandise later. Oh joy.”

I know that it’s bad to be that Instagram person who only wants to think about good things. I know that! But I also don’t want to live in a world where I only think about bad things, which is sometimes where I feel our class is glumly heading. I’m an English major–if we go with that submarine metaphor from class today, I’m one of those lame-asses who aren’t going to be of any use when the thing breaks down and I don’t know the engineering or the physics to keep things together–so I have a biased interest in understanding the cultural creations (or as the cynics would say, the distractions/shadows on the wall of the cave) that captivate us in our daily lives.

But remember what Hamlet said: thinking makes it so. If we get trapped in this binary way of approaching technology, culture, and the world, then there’s no surprise that things are heading down the toilet. We have to be able to be flexible in our thinking: we have to be able to see how things are both evil and good, as our thinking allows.

Post #17, Week #12 – Why AREN’T you on Facebook?

In this age of digital convenience and technology, I am sometimes confounded when I can’t find someone/something on the internet.

It’s like going to ratemyprofessors.com and NOT seeing your professor listed. (Goldberg, for the record, only has one rating from 2009. Back when I was determining whether or not to take this class, I was forced to draw conclusions based on this one lonely, albeit positive, review. I wondered: was he just a new professor? Were his students all enabled by an environment of laziness not to write anything? Were they all so pleased with him that they just all neglected to write a review? In the end, I just decided to bite the bullet and take the class, and so far, no regrets. Unless I get an out-of-left-field bad grade, in which case, I would anguish. Would I rate him then, to warn future students of his unpredictability? I wonder…)

Or when I’m trying to look up a restaurant’s menu before I go, only to discover that they don’t have their own website or even a Facebook page. Yelp can only help a person so far. (Why doesn’t Yelp have a “post restaurant menu here” spot? Get on it, Yelp. If you can give these restaurants stickers to post in their windows about how popular they are on Yelp, you can ask them for a copy of their menu).

What I’m basically trying to say: we’re coming to a point where you NOT being online is becoming kind of weird. Okay, yeah, so maybe we humble cogs in the machine should be concerned about our over-ubiquitous presence online, as we worry frantically over whether or not our future bosses are trolling our Facebook, but isn’t it weirder that there are still companies that purposefully forgo their own online presence? If the cogs are all online, then how come so many of the machines are still trying to hop on board?

Returning to my earlier examples, it would seem that many businesses have an online presence only through the machinations of the people. Unless a person writes a Yelp review, a restaurant might as well not exist. Yelp has become a driving force of the restaurant industry, I think. “My friend said this place was good” has become “let’s use Yelp to choose where to eat.” Unless a professor is rated online, they kind of disappear in comparison to the popular, highly rated teachers. We rely on other customer reviews when we shop online (like on Amazon)…

It’s just fascinating to me that so many businesses are content to sit back and let the people write their narrative for them. But why have they let the people do the talking? In this era of celebrities trying to control their own image through personal Twitters, of companies that struggle to deal with the PR fiasco of public Facebook complaint posts, it is clear that only now businesses and corporations are trying to fight against the machine that they have created. In the age of social media, the people have take the power of communication away from public relations officials and journalists and advertisers and the like. It’s a double-edged sword, at best. The people can build you and break you, within a single day.

Is it possible for the corporations to regain full control over the narrative? I wonder…

Post #16, Week #12 – I’m not really that big on privacy

The truth of the matter is that I just can’t really get all fired up about invasions of privacy.

As Professor Goldberg said, the common rationale is that if you have nothing to hide, then why worry? This is precisely what I subscribe to, for better or for worse (apparently, for worse). I don’t do bad things, I am highly unlikely to end up as a future terrorist… I mean, the government is pretty much just wasting its time if it wants to monitor me, because they will find next to nothing of interest. I guess I am an English major, and sometimes we can be a radical people, but mostly we read books and nobody listens to us anyway. So yeah. You want to spy on me? Go ahead! You probably won’t find much.

I also justify it in my head as being just logistically not something to worry about for a long time. Much as pure democracy is something that is highly unfeasible with today’s bulging population, so too is universal every-moment-of-the-day spying on anyone. I mean, seriously. It takes a lot of resources to spy on someone, crunch the data, arrest them, and dispose of them afterwards, even if it is all technology-driven nowadays. There are hundreds of millions of people in the United States. The government just does not have the capabilities or resources to descend our world into 1984-territory just yet, so it’s a bit ridiculous to me when people start talking about the secret police knocking down our doors. Dude, we can’t even fix our roads, and you think the Thought Police are going to come crashing in at any second? Let’s be realistic: yeah, it’s an issue, but we don’t need to hide our wives and kids just yet.

So when I saw that the government was releasing the 1940 census records, my first thought was: I’ll bet someone’s going to complain that’s an invasion of privacy. Like, how dare the government keep records of our personal residences? How dare they keep them for 72 years and not say anything? How dare they release it to the public without our direct knowledge and consent?

Seriously, at least one American out there is super-pissed. There’s gotta be at least one guy.

Post #15, Spring Break – Google Fiber is (not) a joke

Google’s April Fool’s jokes are always pretty good. This year, they have the awesome Dragon Quest-homage Google 8-bit, which is adorable and charming to my nostalgic video game senses. Go to the real Google Maps, click the “Quest”  button, and check it out, if you haven’t already. The thing is true to NES graphics, yet still remarkably detailed. Go to Street View, and you can see just how far they took that joke.

But Google also has two other interesting pranks this year: Google Racing and Google Fiber.

Google Racing suggests that Google has collaborated with NASCAR to create self-driving cars. Its blog cheekily says, “We think the most important thing computers can do in the next decade is to drive cars—and that the most important thing Google Racing can do in the next decade is drive them, if possible, more quickly than anyone else. Or anything else.”

It’s funny because it’s true. Cars will absolutely drive themselves. Google is already sending out computer-controlled cars to take pictures for Street View. I’m waiting patiently for these computer cars so that I don’t need to learn to drive and risk death on my own. It seems ridiculous that computer-run cars will compete against real-life drivers, but it actually doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Doesn’t it seem so plausible? There will be a terrible tragedy one day. Dozens of drivers will die. It will be natural to hire remote operators or programmers to drive the cars from a distance. Soon it will be a competition of skill and technology, and we will wonder why we ever relied on fallible human drivers. Because they will be safely (in theory) driven by computers, they will indeed be able to go even faster than a human can.

So there’s the future. It’s not that funny a joke because we all know its imminent.

Google Fiber proposes that Google has decided to improve fiber energy bars instead of fiber-optic cables, creating a fiber bar that reads your body and gets nutrients and fiber to the parts of your body that need them most. It sounds mostly like we swallow a computerized vitamin (they never really show you what the fiber bar looks like in the video, sadly). This one can be funny, because isn’t it just so silly, the idea of Google investing in food instead of computers?

Except that this, too, is the future. With our constant advancements in health technology, wouldn’t we naturally develop a system to ensure that we are monitoring our vitamin intake and levels? Wouldn’t we want to optimize our nutrition levels? Of course we would.Actually, that would kind of be awesome. I probably don’t get enough fiber and vitamins myself. I could sure use a magical energy bar that solves all these problems for me, right?

On the other hand, having optimized food sounds a lot like the start of one of those dystopian societies, a la Brave New World, where we all eat government-sanctioned and standardized food that is designed to give us what we need to survive with no room for luxuries.

April Fool’s: it’s just so fun. Even Google’s jokes sound like ominous predictions for the future. Well, at least we have Google 8-bit.