Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bourdieu Saved From Drowning: Supertoys, Cyborg Theory, and Cultural Capital

This week the readings for LIT 6932 are Brian Aldiss' "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" (better known as the film A.I. -- which still makes me cry like a river whenever I see it or even think about it too much -- or as Walt Disney's Pinocchio), Walter Jon Williams' "Daddy's World," and Pierre Bourdieu's "Postscript: Towards a 'Vulgar' Critique of 'Pure Critiques,'" from Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. The title of this essay is a parody of Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning), a classic 1932 film by Jean Renoir which was remade in 1986 as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and again in 2005 as Boudu.

1. MORE HUMAN THAN HUMAN: In "Supertoys" David asks the question "How do you tell what are real things from what aren't real things?" "Supertoys" and "Daddy's World" are all about the distinction between the mechanical and the natural, of which the latter is traditionally supposed to be more "real." That's a bogus decision, of course. As Heinlein pointed out, whatever humans do is as natural as, say, beavers building a dam. (Lewis also discussed the distinction between "natural" and "artificial" as part of his discussion of "natural" vs. "supernatural" in Miracles.)

Donna Haraway's "cyborg theory" also relates to this. The point is, everyone from Heinlein to Lewis to Haraway agrees, "mechanical" or "artificial" is not necessarily "wrong" or "bad." And there's no reason why a cyborg, mutant, alien, robot, or A.I. shouldn't have the same rights as a human being, and vice versa.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the dividing line between human and replicant is based on empathy; but I am sure that plenty of replicants and other artificial life forms possess more empathy than many natural-born humans.I also find it ironic that David displays emotions, and is afraid of his mother because she seems so cold and distant. Even more ironically, Teddy tells David "We're both real. You're as real as I am," and both Teddy and David lie to Monica.

2. GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE: "Daddy's World" is also about living in a virtual world. Please see Nick Bostrom's "Are You Living In A Simulation?", and Robin Hanson's "How to Live in a Simulation" as well as his article "If Uploads Come First: The Crack of a Future Dawn" (Of course, as a Christian I already believe this world is just the moral equivalent of a simulation; but that simulations are also the moral equivalent of true Reality.)

3. NOBODY KNOWS WHAT "REAL" REALLY MEANS: "Supertoys" is also about alienation from others as well as from self (for being unreal). The world is overcrowded but people suffer from loneliness, so they want robotic companions. Henry also says that people will be linked to the Ambient (i.e., the Internet). The Internet gives me the equivalent of three billion people I can speak with on the phone, i.e. have a realtime conversation with. And most of them can pass the Turing test. I'm not trying to say we don't need plenty of human contact -- I love giving and getting hugs and backrubs. (I don't list sex in there, since sex seems to be masturbation plus hugs and backrubs, and it's easy to masturbate over the Internet.) But I don't see any reason to consider email or IM inferior to letter-writing or phone calls.

4. I GOT YER VULGAR CRITIQUE RIGHT HERE: Bourdieu is the fellow who invented the ideas of cultural capital and social capital, and appropriated -- how ironic -- the idea of intellectual capital from economics. In economics, remember, capital is different from ordinary property because it is *productive* -- in other words, it can be used to produce additional quantities of ordinary property, and possibly additional capital as well. One presumes that cultural capital is what allows one to produce ordinary culture, and so forth; however, one should never expect consistency from /F/r/e/n/c/h/m/e/n/ philosophers.

"Daddy's World" shows the use of virtual reality as (primarily) intellectual and cultural capital, by educating Digit; "Supertoys" shows the use of artificial intelligences as intellectual and social capital. The humans in "Supertoys" control intellectual and social capital, as well as controlling the society and its definitions of humanity.

Bourdieu's other key idea is that "where you stand depends upon where you sit," i.e. that taste is determined by culture and more specifically by sub-culture, which includes class, gender, religion, etc. Pseudo-intellectuals scorn popular culture just because it is popular, a form of reverse-fetishization. C. S. Lewis' essay "Good and Bad Books" is about why genre fiction and alternative media should be treated the same as "real literature." One of my ongoing projects is to do this by applying critical theory to roleplaying games.

5. FANTASY GAMES UNLIMITED: Just a reminder that Walter Jon Williams was in a roleplaying group with several other sf/fantasy authors including George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass; and Williams himself wrote game rulebooks as well as paperback novels for the games Privateers and Gentlemen (from Fantasy Games Unlimited) and Cyberpunk (from R. Talsorian Games). In fact, the virtual world in "Daddy's World" has many of the same characteristics as a roleplaying game-world -- interesting, colorful characters, intelligent puzzles, and striking scenery.


Robin Hanson said...

The movie A.I. makes me tearful too.

John Fast said...


I'm honored that you posted a comment. Also, I'm curious exactly what makes you tear up over A.I.; I usually cry over the ending. Finally, are you familiar with any of the other works I, such as Aldiss' original story, or Williams' story -- or his roleplaying rulebooks and tie-in novels.

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