Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Everyone Drives the Same Silver, Avocado Shaped Car

Journal Entry No. 2

In William Gibson's short story, The Gernsback Continuum, Gibson provides one of the first looks into cyberpunk culture and an interesting view that a futuristic, utopian world would be a nightmare instead of a blessing. The ideas of technology becoming too powerful and people becoming numbers, lost in a sea of technology, instead of human individuals provide a basic structure for cyberpunk authors to build upon. The Gernsback Continuum offers a dismal view of the real future, but one that we should enjoy living in.

The Gernsback Continuum is very different from other science fiction stories because the protagonist, Parker, is not actually inside a futuristic world; he is looking at one from the outside. From outside the protagonist's viewpoint, as the reader, it would seem reasonable to suppose that this futuristic dream world with tear shaped chrome cars, neon lights, jazz music, and beautiful people would in fact be an utopia. In the story, though, Parker is constantly running away from it. At first it seems as if he is only trying to avoid the hallucinations so he does not wreck his car, but at the end of the story Parker responds to a merchant's question, “Hell of a world we live in, huh? ...But it could be worse, huh?” “That's right... or even worse, it could be perfect.” So, what makes a perfect world so imperfect? To better understand Gibson's vision of a futuristic dystopia, it best to start at the beginning: the title. The Gernsback Continuum partly takes its name from “inventor, author, editor, and publisher Hugo Gernsback (for whom the prestigious Hugo Award is named) [who] is credited with the creation of the first science fiction pulp magazine” (Source: NNDB). Gernsback was the first to introduce a science fiction world that existed in the minds of people in the 1930's, as The Gernsback Continuum suggests. In Gibson's story, the minds of Gernsback and the people of the 1930's have a created a virtual continuum that is viewed in the actual future by the protagonist.

The most illuminating passage of The Gernsback Continuum might be when Parker wakes up in his car to find a dream-city behind him and a blond couple in front of him. “They were both in white: loose clothing, bare legs, spotless white sun shoes” (Gibson, Mirrorshades, p 9). There is no difference between the couple. They have the same car as everyone else, and probably the same clothing. Clothing that was no chosen, and must be perfectly clean, like the perfect cityscape beside them. Gibson describes them as “American.” This is the America that could be, where everything is regulated, and people have lost their identity. “I knew, somehow, that the city behind me was Tucson-a dream Tucson thrown up out of the collective yearning of an era. That it was real, entirely real. But the couple in front of me lived in it, and they frightened me.” Parker is not in awe of the cityscape or the American couple. He is frightened of this fantastical future, and in fact wishes he could stay in his own world, where people are people, and some of those people have dirty shoes. “They were the children of Dialta Downes's '80s-that-wasn't; they were Heirs to the Dream... Dialta had said that the Future had come to America first, but had finally passed it by. But not here, in the heart of the Dream. Here we'd gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, of foreign wars it was possible to lose. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with their world.” In this Dialta Downes world, is ignorance bliss? Is always being happy a quality a human can ever achieve? And at what cost? This is why Parker is frightened of this fanciful future. The fears of losing one's identity and being taken over by a wave of new technology resonate in this story as they do even louder in cyberpunk stories to come.

Cyberpunk stories often seem to have a very pessimistic view of the future. In the case of Gibson's The Gernsback Continuum, the view of the future is very chaotic and dirty, but it is still optimistic, because it will not be the "perfect" world that Parker sees. In the future, there will be wars, pollution, hazards, and crises, but at least will still have our identities and a government that is not quite controlling all of our actions. (The future, or at least present, as Parker sees, will not have the government commanding everyone to wear white, clean clothing.) In a Rolling Stone interview, William Gibson himself remarks that he has a surprisingly optimistic view about the future. “I find myself less pessimistic than I sometimes imagine I should be. When I started to write science fiction, the intelligent and informed position on humanity's future was that it wasn't going to have one at all. We've forgotten that a whole lot of smart people used to wake up every day thinking that that day could well be the day the world ended. So when I started writing what people saw as this grisly dystopian, punky science fiction, I actually felt that I was being wildly optimistic: 'Hey, look — you do have a future. It's kind of harsh, but here it is'” (Source: Rolling Stone). Cyberpunk does not pretend that technology will fix everything; in fact, quite the opposite. But cyberpunk stories do argue that there will be leaps and bounds in the field of technology, even though some people will use it for corrupt purposes. Cyberpunk stories sometimes have a hope, though, that there will always be “good” humans in the future as well, as sometimes seen in Gibson's other stories, such as Red Star, Winter Orbit, in which there are still Americans in the future that have a “good” sense of exploration of space instead of the militaristic mindset of the Russians.

While I agree that losing individuality is indeed a startling forecast of the future that could be, I do not think technology will ever take over humanity. Though, I think that technology has become so much of an important factor in people's lives that if all the power to our computers got sucked out by aliens to feed their home planet, humans would feel very lost (at least the Americans and the Japanese would). I think we have become very dependent on technology, but it will never take over us. Humans will never substitute the need for more technology over choice; choice of clothing, choice of lifestyle, choice of whether or not to clean your white sneakers. My fears are more akin to Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, where the government or whomever is constantly watching over you, and telling you lies to control you. In The Gernsback Continuum, I actually wanted Parker to step into that dream world of the 1930's. I would love to drive fast, chrome, shark-finned avocados, live in a house decorated with neon lights, and fly in a physics defying boomerang-plane – as long as I could still wear my black, dirty T-shirts.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cyberpunk Fears - Today or Tomorrow?

Journal Entry No. 1

Cyberpunk literature and movies often deal with a future of dangerous possibilities. Is it ethical to create a robot that looks and acts just like a human? Would we be able to tell the difference? Either fortunately or unfortunately, the possibility of cyborgs walking next to us is switching from science fiction to reality very quickly.

A cyborg is the closest a robot can ever get to becoming a human. The difference between a cyborg and a regular robot is that a cyborg is both mechanical parts and organic parts. If you look at this from the mirrored side, the difference between a human and a cyborg is that the cyborg's “physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device” (Source: Dictionary.com, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cyborg).

Both of these kinds of cyborgs exist today. They are not everywhere yet, and are far from perfection, or perhaps even completion. Researchers at the University of Genova are using brain tissue from a sea lamprey (an animal similar to an eel) to control basic machine parts. The idea is to start with a simple brain (that of a sea lamprey), understand how the neurons can interact with robotic parts, and then move on to more complex brains (Source: aboutAI.net, http://www.aboutai.net/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabindex=1&tabid=2&article=aa061300a.htm). On the mirrored side of the cyborg's fast developing reality is the mechanical heart. Seven years ago, the world's first patient received a completely internal mechanical heart. Doctors and researchers and continuing the implement mechanical hearts only in the sickest of people (people who cannot even walk because of their weak hearts), because death is still a scary possibility (Source: BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1420737.stm). One problem they are facing is how the body rejects anything placed inside it: even donated organs get rejected, and the patient needs to take medication to actually decrease the strength of the immune system for as long as the patient lives. Even so, researchers are working together to create better mechanical hearts and better medication, so that one day, people really can depend on a mechanical device to help them survive. Even though some people might “depend” on their computers for everyday survival, I think the manufactured is the closest we have come to creating cyborgs out of humans.

It's exciting that people can one day rely on mechanical organs instead of donated ones – there is huge waiting list for patients who need any organ, and actually getting a working organ from a donor of the same blood type is very difficult, so being able to receive a manufactured one would be more than ideal. I think actual robots that can walk next to us would be for the best as well. Robots could do the tasks that humans do not want to do, and those humans can spend their time doing something more complicated or useful. Using organic parts (brains, in particular) to improve the mechanical functioning of robots is exciting. Even so, I fear the day that robots or cyborgs look or act too much like humans. Especially as outlined in Philip K. Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it is a frightening aspect to not be able to tell the difference between a real human and a manufactured one. I really dislike the idea of another me, manufactured, walking around town.

Despite the dangers depicted in Dick's novel, I think it somewhat optimistic. If you were to ask yourself, “what is the difference between a manufactured cyborg and a human?” You might think you'd know right away. You would be somewhat correct. It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly would be the key difference (Philip K. Dick says it is empathy) between manufactured people and real people, but Dick also argues that humans will just know. Humanity is something that cannot be (at least perfectly) replicated. Humans have a soul. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the characters are able to sense that something is different, off, about the androids. There is something that androids can never quite do: be human.