Sunday, January 29, 2006

the accidental patient

A couple of years ago I met a recently-ordained minister, a hospital chaplain here in Iowa City. We have a tertiary teaching hospital here, one of a few large hospitals in Iowa, so there are patients who come a hundred miles or more for treatment, and their families often come along. She said she'd been struck by the number of patients -- and their families -- who were dead certain they were sick because they'd done something wrong. Morally wrong, sin wrong, not pack-a-day wrong or unlucky-choice-of-parents wrong. Over the course of her first few months, if I recall her story, she'd learned to stop trying to explain medically why they were sick, and instead tried to persuade them in religious terms that they were blameless. Also that it was appropriate to shift their concern from self-incrimination and faultseeking to healing.

It's a common conception of illness, I think. More usual than not. It's punishment, or at the very least a sort of gracelessness, and I think many of us attach cosmic significance to our own major illnesses. It's a terrific time for pact-making: If I beat this, I'll ______. Forever. I'll reform, I'll do good deeds, I'll straighten up and fly right. And you hear people talk about recovery in religious terms with great seriousness: God spared me for a reason. There's no mention in there of, say, lucky biochemistry, or being sick at the right time in medical history. Or accident. The accidental mutation, the accidental cascade trigger.

I wonder what would change, socially and storywise, if we mainly conceived of illness as simple, even accidental, mechanical failure. I'm not sure it would necessarily make us kinder to either ourselves or other sick people. There would be, for instance, no readymade story for reform and aiding the sinner. I think of how we look at people who have lousy cars and houses; would we still avoid sick people, feeling that they've got some taint of loserdom or that they're irresponsible managers? I could see how, say, in a William-Gass sort of cold midwestern house, with a sagging braless old maid and the uncomfortable relative who's staying a while, a long illness might lose a sense that somehow, in the silent-treatment vastness of the small town and surrounding, the sick woman might have done something wrong. Something important, maybe, though no one except maybe some infuriatingly overreaching minister would even try to tell her what, or when, or the scale of it. Instead it might carry the same feel, resignation, shame, as the rotting porch foundation she can't afford to have fixed this year, again. I imagine that could be. Only with the porch foundation, someone might inflict or bestow charity on her, fix the thing while she was away. With a tumor, well, not so likely.

so is it science fiction?

I make irritated noises at the idea, partly because of how sci-fi is relegated to genre ghetto, partly because the question's inevitable. The propaganda publishing-world answer is "no". A more thoughtful answer is "it depends on how you define science fiction."

I mean if you think of what science fiction usually means, it's wooden plotting and character, enormous breasts, story staring bug-eyed at some technical challenge (no water, disease, an expensive robot gone bad, space armada with unbeatable weapons) and driven by the grammars of other genres: action-adventure, mystery, fairy tale, gothic romance. This is obviously not what I'm after in talking about our own machineness. While I'd bet there are many novels yet to be written staring at the idea of our being machines...well, I liken it to the difference between tourists and residents.

You go to a strange city, you're struck by the landmarks, by what people wear and how they talk, by the width of the streets, whatever's strange to you. Live there for a while, or a lifetime, and you become blind to certain things (tall buildings, say) or you understand them with a depth and richness unknown to tourists (what it means, for instance, that people talk the way they do). You're A.J. Liebling, not Paul Theroux. And over the span of your life in a place, the features rise and sink and take on different meanings. The tall building is a landmark, is invisible, is an historical anchor, is a political controversy, is a proxy for powerful men you may or may not know or have dealings with. The way a woman talks is a novelty, a struggle to understand, a master to your clumsiness with the local language, a sign of a certain status, a souvenir of a time and place with certain meanings of its own, which may or may not be meaningful to you personally.

So with ideas like machineness. I don't think a novel staring at life's mechanical nature is going to be very much more interesting than a tourist's travelogue. But if artists can draw out the meanings and life of how we already understand ourselves, now, to be machine to some extent -- or if they can imagine a world that doesn't quite exist yet, but is conceivable in, say, the next fifteen years, or 50 -- and get to those depths and richnesses that you get when you really live with something and take it for granted, I think we'll have something very interesting.

And I guess that's really the question: Is it SF if the premise is "just suppose," and you're supposing something to do with science?

(There's a discussion on a related topic at LabLit, mostly to do with how "lab lit" -- fictions about scientists and doing science -- might be distinct from science fiction. They also answer my question by contrasting sci fi with "speculative fiction", at which point I wonder how much the label matters.)

lovely quiet machines

I know there are plenty of people who regard the idea of being machines with a sort of horror, but for me it's a pleasant relief. The feeling I get is much like Doris Lessing's description of modern decor ca. 1940:

The flat was bright, modern, compact. The small living room had striped curtains, pale rugs, light modern furniture. Coming into it was a relief; one enters a strange place feeling, To what must I adapt myself? But there was nothing individual here to claim one's mood, there was no need to submit oneself. In this country, or in England, or in any other country, one enters this flat, is at home at once, with a feeling of peace. Thank God! There are enough claims on us as it is, tugging us this way and that, without considering fittings and furniture. Who used them before? What kind of people were they? What do they demand of us? Ah, the blessed anonymity of the modern flat, that home for nomads who, with no idea of where they are travelling, must travel light, ready for anything.

(That's from Martha Quest.) There's something cheerful, too, even witty, in this bip! Out we go at the end. No mess. No space junk or atmosphere crowded with souls. You only paid for one ride, dearie, come on now, off the horse.

All right, that one's no fun. But I have a New Yorker cover on my wall from Nov. '95, the Angel of Death leading the pack at the NYC marathon. Oh, what a light, jolly soul. In running shoes, with magnificent wings and gray beard, and wiry muscles, a singing heart, and his scythe, hourglass bouncing along at his waist. What fun he has! This happy mower. And everyone behind him straining and panting, eyes bulging, all manner of fat and musclebound and hollow-cheeked.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Is we is, or is we ain't?

At MIT, a roboticist named Rodney Brooks runs the Artificial Intelligence Lab. He's a familiar name to interested non-roboticists like me; he turns up on NPR, at interdisciplinary symposia, in Errol Morris's documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. He's a co-founder of iRobot Corp., which makes the robotic home vacuum Roomba.

If I understand him correctly, Brooks's assertion is that we’re essentially machines, no different in principle from either lower-order natural creatures or robots, and that there is probably no special "life" substance or physics unique to conscious beings. I'm not sure he's all that unusual among scientists in holding those beliefs, but as far as I can make out, he's unusual in his willingness to conjecture openly about the social implications. I like this bit from his 2002 book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us:

A central tenet of molecular biology is that is all there is. There is an implicit rejection of mind-body duality, and instead an implicit acceptance of the notion that mind is a product of the operation of the brain, itself made entirely of biomolecules....The body is a machine, with perhaps billions and billions of parts, parts that are well ordered in the way they operate and interact. We are machines, as are our spouses, our children, and our dogs.

Needless to say, many people bristle at the use of the word “machine.” They will accept some description of themselves as collections of components that are governed by rules of interaction, and with no component beyond what can be understood with mathematics, physics, and chemistry. But that to me is the essence of what a machine is, and I have chosen that word to perhaps brutalize the reader a little....This is the key loss of specialness with which I claim mankind is currently faced....

I don’t know whether Brooks is right about the machine nature of life, personhood, and consciousness (though I find the ideas attractive for what I suspect are mainly aesthetic reasons). Whether or not he’s right isn’t important to me now. What’s important to me is that the science of that’s all there is is influential in a practical, everyday way, and that the lab’s products are forcing an incremental awareness of our machine nature: It’s time to replace this knee. They had to give Mom fake blood. We’ve got your new skin growing on a patch, please be patient, and it’s true you’re deaf, but we can get those cochlear implants hooked up to your nerves by May. They're looking at a new drug for Jeremy, it goes right into the cancer's DNA and chops it up or something, stops it cold, whatever it is.

What’s also important to me is that these ideas are a radical departure from the more general mythologies of angels, souls, heaven and hell, and mothers’ spirits after death, which are not only part of street life but define the background of most contemporary US fiction, either directly or through polite agnosticism, or as the rebelled-against in suburban nihilism. I think the public awarenesses of the machine qualities are nestled against the current religious revival, and I’m curious about what might happen if literary fiction writers paid attention to them.

(Or visual artists, or dancers, or poets, or playwrights (to my mind a kind of fiction writer). I'm just being a bit parochial with the fiction; it's what I know best.)


For me, the lab’s views of life prompt questions to do with the meaning of death: What happens when your brother dies; is it bearable, the idea that he is not anywhere? That what you knew as brother was a set of processes that ran and ended, bip? What might be as powerful as Gilgamesh in that? (Would it matter that your brother was a robot, if you remembered brother?) If you foreshorten human existence to “the time between on and off”, how might people conceive of their lives and the dead? If after death is nothing -- not even the revulsion of nihilism, or the sadistic indifference of existentialism -- then what changes, lightly, in the everyday world? What becomes of such notions as redemption, reward, sin, transcendence, immortality through memory and works, all of which feel necessary now? More interestingly to me, what’s different about walking down the street; what happens if you need to use the phone in a store? Scraps of penny philosophy about life and death surely inform our own peculiar vision, shape how we act, how we perceive the meaning of a stranger, not even a customer, coming in off the sidewalk.

I expect other writers would have different questions, and I think it’d be useful to have rich, literary stories and novels that posit the lab’s views as part of a taken-for-granted worldview. I’m talking not about novels of robots and lab tentacles, but about novels of living rooms, marriages, births and deaths; the same as any other literary novel. Novels that contend with the questions of living with the lab’s apparent realities.