March 28, 2017 § 3 Comments
“Everything has a price.” This phrase in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is not new, but it takes on a new meaning in the context of her novel (139). In today’s world, corporations dominate in every sphere from the economy to religion and politics. While Atwood’s world in which corporations have absolute control is unsettling, her ideas are merely an extrapolation of current times to the future. However, as Atwood shows, commercialism and commodification come at a high price to society and the humans that are a part of it.
Early on in the novel we learn that Jimmy (or later Snowman) lived on a company compound called OrganInc. The corporation controls everything in Jimmy’s life including his school and the rules he has to abide by, enforced through the CorpSeCorps. Later on, we learn that Jimmy and Crake attend what are similar to universities. These “universities,” particularly Crake’s Watson-Crick Institute, aim to generate profits as well, encouraging the very bright students to innovate and develop new technology, carefully securing their facilities, and minimizing interaction with the outside world. In Jimmy’s world, corporations control everything, and their motives clearly dominate.
The corporation-developed compounds seem absurd; however, in reality, they already exist. Massive companies like Amazon and Google have “campuses” that contain everything one needs to live off of. They include restaurants, gyms, childcare facilities, and even sleeping pods – all designed to keep you inside and focused on doing everything possible for the company. Beyond company campuses, universities today mimic those in Atwood’s story. As Vandy students, we even say that we live in a “Vandy Bubble.” Our lives all exist within the confines of our campus as we strive to learn and make new developments in all fields. We are not far off from the fictitious world that Atwood describes.
Images are renderings of future campuses for Google, Amazon, and Apple (from left to right).
Why does it matter that corporations and technological research centers have such a wide sphere of influence? In a world where profit governs, everything becomes a commodity. This can easily be seen in Oryx and Crake with the story of Oryx. Not only is Oryx commoditized by the pimps that earn money for her sexual acts and pornography but Oryx is also commoditized by every viewer that watches the child pornography, including Snowman. In her discussions of her experience, Oryx has clearly been influenced by the corporation mentality surrounding her, as she states:
“They had no more love…but they had money value: they represented a cash profit to others. They must have sensed that – sensed they were worth something.” (126)
Do we only value human beings for the monetary value they provide? I hope not. Atwood shows a disturbing reality if corporate power continues on its current trajectory. The power of corporations to influence politics and culture even today has implications for cloning and other advanced technology. It is unsettling to think of the development of human clones by companies driven by their own bottom-line. Morality does not seem to have a place in this kind of world.
If we do consider these clones to be “human,” how do we prevent the corporate developers from treating the clones like commodities and not humans, especially when humans today are already commoditized? In the novel, Snowman compares the children in the pornography to “digital clones,” as they did not feel real to him (90). With this statement, Atwood warns of the commodification of both existing humans and potential human clones in the future. If corporations both govern and profit, we cannot prevent abuse and exploitation.
Atwood is not far off in her portrayal of the commodification of human clones. Human cloning has often been criticized for turning human organs into commodities due to their monetary value with cancer treatments and other diseases. President Bush famously rejected all human cloning, stating, “Life is a creation, not a commodity.” He is not alone in being concerned with this idea, as scientists, philosophers, and policy-makers have discussed the implications of human cloning for decades. The Presidents Council on Bioethics expressed the following:
“When the ‘products’ are human beings, the ‘market’ could become a profoundly dehumanizing force.” (The Presidents Council on Bioethics, 2002)
When corporate greed becomes entangled with the morality of health remedies, the potential commodification of humans and human clones is endless. Although Atwood’s fictitious world seems so distant, the reality is that it is much closer to present day than one would first think. From humans to clones to our independence and our value, Atwood shows that everything has a price, and the costs to society are high.
Images source: http://www.geekwire.com/2013/4-tech-titans-building-campus/
January 23, 2017 § 5 Comments
In the fall of 2011, Duke University’s undergraduate literary journal published a rather unassuming poem entitled “For the Bristlecone Snag” (“The Archive”). To the journal’s poetry editors, the poem appeared to be a typical undergraduate work, comprised of several unfulfilled metaphors and awkward turns of phrase. What the editors did not know at the time of publication, however, was that this poem was not written by a human. Instead, it was written by a computer program (Merchant).
When I first learned about “For the Bristlecone Snag”, I was reminded of the writings of Alan Turing, a renowned English computer scientist in the mid 20th century. In his seminal article on the subject of artificial intelligence (A.I.), Turing articulates that the question, “can machines think?”, is “too meaningless to deserve discussion” (Turing 442). After all, he claims, we have no direct evidence that other humans can think, and we merely assume that they do based on their behavior. Turing argues that this “polite convention that everyone thinks” should apply to all beings that can demonstrate human behavior (Turing 446). It is from this line of thought that Turing conceptualized the Turing Test, an experiment in which a computer tries to convince a human of its humanity. According to Turing, if an A.I. can convince a human judge that it is human, then we must assume that the A.I. can think.
While the program that produced “For the Bristlecone Snag” did not complete an extensive and proper Turing Test, it did convince human judges that it was human. At the very least, the poem’s acceptance into an undergraduate literary journal reveals that literate machines can, and will, exist in the near future. The way is paved for more professional and accomplished artificial authors.
Indeed, even in the half decade since “For the Bristlecone Snag” was published, the technology behind artificial intelligence has improved rapidly. Watson, IBM’s “cognitive computing platform”, is a great example of this progress (Captain). In 2011, Watson defeated two reigning champions in Jeopardy, successfully interpreting and answering the game show’s questions. While this feat alone was a remarkable step in cognitive computing, Watson’s analytical abilities have since then contributed to over thirty separate industries, including marketing, finance, and medicine (Captain). For example, the machine can read and understand millions of medical research papers in just a matter of minutes (Captain). As intelligent as Watson is, however, he was never designed to pretend to be human. The chief innovation officer at IBM, Bernie Meyerson, believes ‘“it’s not about the damn Turing Test”’; his team is more interested in accomplishing distinctly inhuman tasks, such as big data analysis (Captain).
While IBM may not be interested in the Turing Test, other artificial intelligence companies have been working specifically towards the goal. In 2014, a program by the name of Eugene Goostman passed the Turing Test using machine learning strategies similar to those that drive Watson (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). The chatbot, or program that specializes in human conversation, was able to convince several human judges that it was a thirteen-year-old boy (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). Given the success of Eugene Goostman, and the intelligent accomplishments of Watson, it is indisputable that the Turing Test can be, and has been, passed. Artificial intelligence is a reality. Machines can think.
As an aspiring writer and computer scientist, I can’t help but fixate on the implications that A.I. has for literature. It is entirely possible, even likely, that “For the Bristlecone Snag” foreshadows an era in which the most successful and prolific authors will be machines, an era in which the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature are no longer given to humans, an era in which humanity no longer writes its own stories.
Yet, this era of artifice should not be greeted with worry or anxiety. Art has always been artificial, a constructed medium for human expression. In the coming decades, we will author the next authors, create the new creators, we will mold the hand that holds the brush. Artificial intelligence should not be feared as an end to art, but rather a new medium, a new age of artifice.
– Zach Gospe
Captain, Sean. “Can IBM’s Watson Do It All?” Fast Company. N.p., 05 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
Merchant, Brian. “The Poem That Passed the Turing Test.” Motherboard. N.p., 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
“The Archive, Fall 2011.” Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.<https://issuu.com/dukeupb/docs/thearchive_fall2011>.
Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, vol. 59, no. 236, 1950, pp. 433–460. www.jstor.org/stable/2251299.
“TURING TEST SUCCESS MARKS MILESTONE IN COMPUTING HISTORY” University of Reading. N.p., 8 June 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
October 19, 2015 § 3 Comments
Matt Damon. Need I say more? Some say that love is moving past physical attraction and toward a gradual love of the person’s personality and quirks. I sat in my movie seat smiling when he smiled, laughing when he laughed, and really worrying for him when his potatoes froze. The Martian might as well be a love story up there with The Notebook and Titanic. I wouldn’t mind living on Mars if it were with him.
Ahem. Anyways. Once I overcame my beating heart, my brain finally got enough blood to do some actual thinking and processing. I heard prior to seeing the film that producers collaborated with NASA to make the film more realistic, and with that in mind, I spent the movie scrupulously analyzing and critiquing every little detail. Was Mars’ atmosphere really thin enough for Mr. Damon to cover the nose of his ship with a tarp and blast off the planet? Could the soil on Mars, when enhanced with a few human contributions, really support plant growth? Could Mars have such violent storms if it has a thin atmosphere?
And then it hit me. Say all of the scientific plot points were plausible and accurate with sufficient scientific developments. Say everything I doubted, questioned, and critiqued was suddenly true without a scientific doubt. Would Matt Damon’s character have the psychological health and mental endurance to thrive through such an ordeal?
Researchers with Georgetown University, among other research facilities, have investigated that concern and found that a combination of alienation from relationships on Earth, cultural differences, language barriers, differences in personal values, restriction to small facilities on the space crafts, and other physiologically influential variables can lead to the gradual physiological deterioration of those onboard. And in a series of studies conducted by both government and independent space exploration organizations, researchers often found negative consequences of long-term space travel, including suicidal thoughts and tendencies, decreased group cohesion, sleep disorders, irritability, and changes in appetite.
So what does all of this mean for Mars and the future of long-term space exploration? It means that human development may not keep up with scientific development. I say “may” because, for all I know, there could be incredible advances in psychology and medicine that overcome the negative consequences of extended space exploration. But from where we stand right now, Matt Damon probably wouldn’t be so positive and clear minded being stranded on Mars.
And for our relationship’s sake, I really hope science can figure a way around human psychology. I can’t spend my life with a negative and depressed person, so I guess time will tell if we make it or not. I mean that both in marrying Matt Damon and society making it to Mars without killing each other.
– S. Jamison
October 9, 2015 § 1 Comment
A line of characters flooded the screen, alternating as my friend shifted her position in my keyboard. My book report was pulled up in Microsoft Word, the cursor blinking frantically as it tried to keep up with my friend’s sabotage. I just laughed as I pushed her off, then entered my newest discovery into the keyboard, taught to us only a week before in 5th grade computer class:
I was fascinated by the concept of that combination of keys. I could make the most impulsive of edits, write the most ridiculous statement, and delete entire chunks of my paper without worrying about any long term consequences. If I didn’t like the result of my action, I could just push those two keys- Ctrl+Z- and everything would be as it should. A fresh start. Slate cleared. Back to whatever square I chose I wanted to resume work from. I didn’t have to worry about reconstructing any past reality or losing anything to time and effort, because with those two keys in my hand, I could take myself back to any foundation, given I had built the foundation before.
What a tool.
Hooked as I was on the thrill of “Edit-> Undo,” I was a little taken aback when I realized that this handy shortcut didn’t apply to social interactions. It was irrational, I know- but after a week of riding the high of Ctrl+Z, I had somehow assumed that the same rules that applied to my word processor could apply to real life. And when they didn’t, I was not so much alarmed as unsettled.
I always knew Ctrl+Z was a function of the digital realm. But nonetheless, when my confession of a crush to the boy I liked was met with a blank stare, I found my thumb and forefinger twitching, pushing at the keys that weren’t there:
I couldn’t edit this unfortunate moment out of my past, couldn’t insert myself back into an earlier version of my life’s document, the one where he didn’t avoid eye contact every time we passed in the hallway. Just like everything else in the real world, I was bound by time–that immutable, stubborn dimension that refuses to yield to all of human ingenuity, that force that turns into bold, permanent marker the marks that we’d rather be in pencil. There is always the possibility that you can cover up the Sharpie-mask it with the paint of reconciliation, or hide it underneath the tarp of loaded silence.
But no matter what you throw over it, the Sharpie always remains, bleeding through the medium to remind you that yes, this happened. You messed up. You will have always messed up this moment. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Science fiction’s answer to this kick in the brain, this blow of helplessness?
Novels like Timescape take our worst fears–that we might irreparably damage our world, whether that world be the world of individual humans or the literal world of humanity–and puts a bandaid over them, then tucks us into to say goodnight and tells us that everything is going to be okay, because somebody will fix it. Somebody will hit the undo button. The irreparable will become repairable, and we can throw away our tarnished slates and start again.
Time travel grants us control over the fourth dimension and releases us from the chains of time, thereby releasing us from our mistakes. We are fascinated by it because we so deeply want it to be true–to imagine that we can go back and make things right before they ever went wrong.
But at the same time, it’s these wrongs that make us who we are. All of those “character building moments” would be lost if we indulged in easily-accessible time travel-we would never learn anything, because there would be no significant consequences for our actions. Perhaps more importantly, all of the good, unintended consequences of mistakes would be lost. The world would stagnate, because all of the rich innovation that arises out of failure would be lost.
We can’t predict the long term consequences of our actions. Our mistakes can be our biggest triumphs.
However, as Timescape notes, sometimes our triumphs–chemical developments and more efficient methods of manufacturing–can be our biggest mistakes, leading to our downfall–the dismal world Benford describes. And it is this possibility–that we could, as a species, ruin the world–that is the most terrifying to us, because it means that we would tarnish every blank slate born into our mistakes.
Furthermore, it is this possibility that is terrifyingly real.
Gregory Benford might not have the means to time travel in real life, but his fingers are desperately twitching at Ctrl+Z anyway–and as a result of this twitching, typing out a great novel of warning. This book is Benford’s best version of a tachyon, a message to the present urging change and a greater consideration of the future–
because the future will soon become the present, and when it does, we can’t just hit
September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
I was miffed.
“The names of the scientists are going to be on the test?”
My honors physics teacher, who I regarded as a generally reasonable man, had lost touch with reality and was resorting to the lowest of low testing methods: rote memorization without purpose.
Memorizing formulas was one thing–those were tools, mental shortcuts we employed to cut through a problem in a timely manner. P=mv, F=ma, W=mg–these facts were full, bloated with the theorems my teacher wrote out on the board when introducing the concepts to us.
But Rutherford, Hooke, Bernoulli–these were empty signifiers, a collection of letters that did no more to better my understanding of how things move about in space than watching Jeopardy did. In my mind, these names were trivia, and nothing more.
Rutherford, Hooke, and Bernoulli may have lived rich lives–to their contemporaries, peers, family, and friends, their names must have been loaded with connotation, each utterance of “Rutherford”–or perhaps, “Ernest”–conjuring up memories and feelings. But to the high school science student, “Rutherford” was associated with one thing: the discovery of the nucleus. We did not have the privilege of knowing Rutherford as a person, only the privilege of knowing his discovery.
And if that was all “Rutherford” boiled down to in our heads, what was the use of knowing that name? His life could have been interesting, but to feign the resurrection of his existence, to pretend that we were paying homage to him by remembering those empty letters when all we understood of them was the discovery, not man, attributed to them, seemed superfluous, almost irreverent. I had a deep appreciation for Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, not for him. I couldn’t have. I didn’t know the guy. I had a lot to thank the guy for–we all did, as students standing on this giant’s shoulders–but the rote memorization of his name didn’t do anything for him.
“These men devoted their lives to these discoveries,” formerly-reasonable physics teacher droned on. “We owe it to them to remember their names.”
But did we? The man was long gone–what did it matter to him if, 75-odd years after his death, students drew a line from his name to the gold-foil experiment on the page of a test?
Hypothetical #1: Suppose Rutherford’s last wish was to have his name go down in history for making a meaningful contribution to science–which element of that wish, the remembrance of his name or of his contribution to science, really matters?
History is important in that it allows us to learn from past mistakes, to build on the knowledge gathered by our predecessors. We learn nothing from the man’s name.
Hypothetical #2: Suppose Rutherford made his meaningful contribution to science in order for his name to remembered, and that was his true last wish.
As unlikely as this scenario is, it begs the question: why do last wishes matter?
Last wishes matter only insomuch that some actor in the present derives utility from them. That actor may be the person making the last wish, comforted by a notion that they have the power to make an impact after they expire. It may be a relative or close confidant of the deceased, comforted by the notion that by honoring the last wish of their loved one, they’re salvaging a part of them by keeping a bit of their corporeal desires alive.
Or it might be a high school science teacher, seven decades after the last wish was made by a man he never met, comforted by the notion that it is important to remember the name of the deceased. He draws reassurance from this via a loosely-drawn syllogism, buried within the depths of his subconscious: if people considered remembering names important, then people might remember his name–and through every utterance of his name that occurs after his death, he might live a little longer.
This syllogism is buried in the back of most brains.
When I was thirteen, someone asked me the name of my great grandfather. With a shock, I realized that I didn’t know it–and I was terrified. Had he lived 80 years to only be forgotten by his great granddaughter, his existence fading into nothingness? Would I be doomed to a similar fate, forgotten by descendants, my life fading into
For that is the most grim notion of all–the notion that the sum of our actions, struggles, relationships, passions, and toil could amount to nothing. Welcome to life, the zero-sum game. Prepare to be overtaken by suffocating depression.
So we erect monuments to individuals, we pepper college campuses with statues, we catalogue gratuitous details of our fellow humans’ lives that far exceed the amount needed to learn anything significant from their experiences. We honor last wishes and memorize Rutherford’s name. We fight the idea, voiced by Andres in Mayflower II, that we exist merely to produce replacements: we strive to prove that we, as individuals, matter–to exert some semblance of control over that great leveling force, the eraser of our identities, the zero-sum despot known as death.
Because when death strikes, our voices are silenced. We can no longer fight to preserve our individuality. Thus, we preserve the individuality of others, rewarding innovation, breakthroughs and fame–and, in turn, striving to accomplish something notable enough that our successors will do the same for us.
Tooth and nail, blood and sweat, we claw our way to meaning.
But this logic is flawed. It’s driven by a desire to be more than just a blink in the timespan world–to last beyond the 80-odd years granted to us by nature. But even if we accomplish something notable enough to warrant a statue, that statue is just a pebble thrown into a canyon. After thousands of years, stone erodes. Names are forgotten. And thousands of years are mere blinks in the timeline of the universe.
Ultimately, we all fade.
But not to meaninglessness.
Our lifespans may be naught but flashes in the perspective of the universe, but in our perspective, they are everything. They are our own universes. They matter, if only to us and our contemporaries. And they will leave legacies, if only ones that are accepted as assumed, attributeless characteristic of the future world. Our very state of existence implies this.
Those who do not know Rutherford’s name still benefit from his breakthrough. Perhaps more significantly, they benefit from all of the miniscule steps taken by nameless shadows of the past that enabled Rutherford to make his breakthrough. The tiniest fraction is still part of the sum–and, as Bradbury notes in A Sound of Thunder–the smallest butterfly a factor in the future of the world.
And it’s okay that we are ultimately all fameless fractions, our limits approaching zero. Long after we die, we’ll–you know–still be dead. And it won’t matter if there’s a hunk of rock out there with your name on it, or a group of students reciting your name to their teacher. With the eclipse of our personal universes comes the snuffling out of our pride and vanity. We’re gone. Dust in the wind.
And that thought is empowering.
If we narrow our perspective to the timeline of our own lives, instead of trying to grasp the strands of infinity, every action becomes more meaningful. With the recalibration of our viewpoints comes the revitalization of the “small things.” Stop and smell the roses. Appreciate the feeling of the sun on your face. Write a thank-you card. Hug someone.
Accept that all of these actions will inevitably be forgotten. But in the present moment, they are