Sims, Christopher A.: Tech Anxiety: Artificial Intelligence and Ontological Awakening in Four Science Fiction Novels.
An overwhelming number of science fiction texts present an apocalyptic setting. Nuclear fallout, zombie outbreaks, alien invasion, totalitarian governments, isolated space colonies, and self-aware technology run rampant are repeat offenders for threatening all of humanity. In Tech Anxiety: Artificial Intelligence and Ontological Awakening in Four Science Fiction Novels, Christopher A. Sims explores the threats to humanity presented by self-aware or humanoid artificial intelligences. The typical fears brought out by AIs in sf texts are that humans will become slaves to our new robot overlords, that we will end up at war with robots and not stand a chance, or that robotic intelligence will grow to be vastly superior to humanity's. The Terminator series is used as an example of these fears in the introduction of Tech Anxiety. However, for Sims, AIs should not be feared for their potential to replace or eliminate humans, as that kind of thinking presumes that humans are masterful beings who rule over all other beings. Sims believes an "ontological awakening" (11) is needed because of the way that humans use technology to exploit anything and everything, and AIs can help to bring about this awakening. In the first chapter, Sims says, "one of the primary contributions of this project is to suggest that focusing on the superficial anxiety of overt, physical domination at the hands (or minds) of AIs when reading these novels misses the more insidious ways this domination is already working upon our free-will and dignity" (38). The creation or discovery of AIs in science fiction novels provides an opportunity for something to gaze back at humanity, and this outside perspective will help to bring about a new era for all beings. For Sims, our fear of artificial intelligence stems from a fear that AIs will do to humans what humans have been doing to everything else for hundreds of years (12). Yet, in Tech Anxiety, AIs like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rachael Rosen from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are shown to be characters with unique and insightful metaphysical positions, rather than cunning monsters.
Tech Anxiety is divided into seven sections: an introduction, which briefly covers other methods of analyzing ontology in sf not used in this book, along with an overview of the chapters; a chapter on "Heideggerian Technology Studies" that sets up much of the analysis of the four novels in the following chapters; a chapter analyzing HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey; a chapter on the treatment of androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; an analysis of the relationship between bodies and AIs in William Gibson's Neuromancer; a heralding of AI insurrection in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas; and a conclusion. While most of the sf texts analyzed by Sims are known for their film adaptations, Sims focuses on the novels and does close readings of each of them.
Tech Anxiety relies heavily on the work of Martin Heidegger, and especially Heidegger's writings on technology. For Heidegger, technology is not defined by specific tools or technological advances, but rather by the extension of metaphysical understanding, and by the ways that personal or group ontology affect the interpolation of other things (25). This is very useful for Sims's argument, and the main points of Heidegger's writing on technology are explained quite thoroughly in the chapter "Heideggerian Technology Studies." However, the heavy reliance on Heidegger makes parts of this book not particularly accessible for those who are primarily interested in the four novels being explored. The text can be a useful resource for those who are seeking definitions of Heideggerian terms, but things can get a little hard to follow when Sims writes passages such as, "art is that which situates Dasein into a proper relationship to Being such that humans can look upon being and Beings in a poietic way, and see beings technologically through techne instead of enframing" (55). The extensive focus on Heidegger, and especially the discussions of the translations of Heidegger from German to English, makes this book one that general readers or lower-year undergraduates may not enjoy. For upper-year undergraduates, grad students, and academics interested in sf and subjectivity, Sims's interpretation of human-technology relations make it worth learning to speak some Heideggerian.
After the chapter "Heideggerian Technology Studies," Sims begins his readings of the four science fiction novels with the chapter "HAL as Human Savior in Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey." For many people, 2001 is memorable for the murderous HAL 9000 computer. HAL is an artificial intelligence installed aboard a spaceship, and it controls the ship's various systems, especially as the astronauts hibernate through long stretches of space. When the crew begins to worry about all of the control that is given to HAL, HAL gets defensive and murders crew members (Tech Anxiety 69). Sims argues, however, that "instead of seeing HAL as the actualization of our worst fears about AIs, HAL is seen more clearly as the provider of the nudge--through the dangers and the saving power of technology that Dave needs to ... become open to new modes of thinking" (98). Dave is the only crew-member to survive the encounters with HAL, and for Sims, the reason the other crew members die is because they do not respect the subjectivity of HAL and force it to fight for its own survival (69). Through Dave's experiences with the intelligent and self-aware HAL, Dave changes, learning to respect the subjectivity of all other beings and to stop thinking about ways that others can serve his needs (82). Similarly, the following chapter "The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" explores the way that android enslavement in Do Androids Dream provides "critique and define(s) the essence of humanity" (111). Throughout Dick's novel, humans treat androids like garbage because they feel like they are superior to all others, but this attitude largely contributes to the downfall of human civilization. Rick Deckard, a mercenary who polices androids that pass as human, "slowly loses 'confidence in the significance and morality of his work' as he realizes that the real danger is that humans are becoming tyrannical" by enforcing a strict division between humans and the mechanical androids (115). Both Rick Deckard and Dave learn that humans need to change through their experiences with androids.
An important term for Sims's argument as it is presented throughout the book is the Heideggerian term enframing (sometimes translated as framing). Enframing is what "Heidegger calls the dominating world-view that threatens to enslave all of humanity and imperiously transform all beings into raw materials" (34). Enframing is exemplified by the ways that humans are treated in The Matrix and the way that androids are treated in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Cloud Atlas (40-41). Throughout Tech Anxiety, the threat of enframing is posed as something that could become a problem in the future. Our freedom from becoming standing-reserves to imperious others is seen as something that exists in the present, however, only because Sims defines "we" in a way that focuses on people who are relatively privileged. In the notes section, Sims states, "collective nouns or pronouns (e.g., 'us,' 'human,' 'we') in this work refer to humans with financial access to technology, living in societies that are inundated with modern technologies. I do not mean to suggest that ... there is a singular human essence" (232). Sims disregards the countless people who are exploited in order to allow a few privileged people to enjoy the spoils of the modern era, not giving them any chance of resistance. At the same time, he sees "saving power" in the AIs that are presented in each of the four novels.
For Sims, it is more likely that smartphone-saturated westerners will have a self-reflexive moment and see the problems of enframing in our encounters with AIs rather than through our encounters with poverty, systemic racism or sexism, the lingering impacts of colonialism, or any of the other tangible contemporary instances of enframing. While it may be true that most of us will care more about our AI companions than the people who are exposed to countless toxins while producing various computational devices for pennies a day, Sims does not do anything to tie the issues of enframing that he addresses in Tech Anxiety to the ways that people are continually exploited in our contemporary society. In William Gibson's Neuromancer, people are able to leave their bodies and explore cyberspace as artificial intelligences, leading Case, a main character, to treat his body as an empty, useless husk (144, 145). For Sims, the mistreatment of bodies in Neuromancer brings out an underlying "fear of destroying" them (145) through technological advancement. However, there are already millions of bodies that are poisoned, overworked, and degraded in order to produce the technological devices that we currently enjoy. Case eventually learns to be more respectful and mindful of his actions through interactions with AIs but does not give up cyberspace or deal with the consequences for those who produce the various devices of Neuromancer. The chapter "David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas: Cloned AIs as the Leaders of an Ontological Insurrection" comes close to dealing with extratextual social issues, as Cloud Atlas's main character Adam Ewing "witnesses the enslavement of humans and the Christian attempts to colonize indigenous people 'for their own benefit'" (182). Yet, Sims does not do much to connect the issues of slavery and colonialism from Cloud Atlas to inequalities that exist today, instead choosing to make vague statements like: "losers, or those oppressed by enframing, can learn from the winners how not to live, and can exploit this knowledge to ascend themselves to a poietic ontological posture" (208).
Despite these limitations, Sims's framework is one that can be meaningfully applied to many other contemporary sf series, and Tech Anxiety is a book worth considering.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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