Friday, 28 September 2012

How the Good can be Worse than the Bad

I'm trying to finish a paper that I started a while ago and have not been working on for a while. I don't normally do that. What is different this time, is that I'm struggling to find a solution to the problem that I intended to solve, which is the following: let's say we could make people morally good by applying some simple device, like a morality pill: you swallow it and then you will be free of all anti-social impulses and will never (want to) hurt anyone again. If we gave this pill to everyone, the world would be a much better place, wouldn't it? No crime, no racial killings, no child abuse, no rape and torture. We would all be good simply because we would be incapable of evil. Now what is the problem with that, if any? The problem is that some people, including me, have this weird intuition that something important would be lost in a world in which people were incapable of doing anything bad. As if the very freedom to do terrible things to other human beings were more precious than the state of being good. What I haven't quite figured out yet is why exactly that freedom should be regarded as so precious that it is better to allow the occasional atrocities that humankind is prone to committing than to be without it. My intuition is that it has something to do with human identity and dignity, with the way we understand ourselves, as free agents and moral subjects, as ends rather than means to an end (even if that end is morality itself, or a world without human-caused pain). But at the moment my grasp and understanding of this is fuzzy at best. Has anyone got an idea? Or am I completely on the wrong track when I feel that there is a problem here?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ray Bradbury on the Real Happiness Machine

Here's another story by Bradbury that I liked. It's called "The Happiness Machine" and it is, I think, about the ordinariness of happiness. Happiness is often thought of as a state of exaltation, or at least some kind of subjective, positive feeling that is desirable in its own right. It is decidedly not normal, out of the ordinary, something to be desperately sought and, when found, jealously guarded. We commonly feel that in order to be happy, we need to be able to enjoy all the good things in life, need to be healthy and fit, young and beautiful and reasonably well-to-do. Then we can rush off, from highlight to highlight and pursue happiness to all those fancy places where it is to be found (or, more likely, to be bought).

This assumption is shared by the protagonist in Bradbury's story. His name is Leo Auffmann, and he has set his mind to construcing a "happiness machine". Finally, after having tirelessly worked on it for some months or so, all the while completely neglecting his wife and children and his own health, he has a result, the machine is finished and it's working. However, to his dismay his wife is not the least interested in the machine, which, in her view, has almost ruined her husband's life, not to speak of their relationship: "Man was not made to tamper with such things. It's not against God, no, but it sure looks like it's against Leo Auffmann. Another week of this and we'll bury him in his machine!" And what's all this artifical happiness good for anyway, she asks, and flatly refuses even to give it a try. "If you died from overwork, what should I do today, climb in that big box down there and be happy?" Then his son uses it and is utterly miserable as a result. Leo doesn't understand. And then his wife finally gives in and decides that she will, after all, try out the machine. We hear her voice from inside. Apparently she sees and hears and smells wonderful places, Paris, Rome, the Pyramids, feels herself to be dancing (not really, of course), gasps "Amazing!", and then - she starts to weep. It's the saddest thing in the world, she says when she comes out. She had never missed any of this, and now she does. Now she wants do see Paris, but knows that she can't and won't. The machine let her feel young again, but she knows she isn't. It's all a lie. Nothing of it is real. The happiness machine is in fact a sadness machine. The problem is that we have to go back to reality, and reality is not like that: there are dirty dishes to be washed, beds to be made, children to be fed.

Moreover, it is not even desirable to have those wonderful experiences all the time and whenever you want to: "let's be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last? Who wants perfect temperature? Who wants air smelling good always? So after a while, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let's have something else." "Sunsets we always liked because they only happen once and go away." When Leo replies that this is actually very sad, this briefness, the ephemeral nature of the good, she says: "No, if the sunset stayed and we got bored, that would be a real sadness."

Then, the machine catches fire and they let it burn until it is no more. They can now go back to their lives, which are very ordinary, but not so bad after all, to "putting books back on shelves, and clothes back in closets, fixing supper" and ordinary things like that. And then Leo finally discovers "the real Happiness Machine", which is a life that is shared with other people, doing everyday things, and being there for each other. Nothing more is needed: "There sat Saul and Marshall, playing chess at the coffee table. In the dining room Rebecca was laying out the silver. Naomi was cutting paper-doll dresses. Ruth was painting water colors. Joseph was running his electric train. Through the kitchen door, Lena Auffmann was sliding a pot roast from the steaming oven. Every hand, every head, every mouth made a big or little motion. You could hear their faraway voices under glass. You could hear someone singing in a high sweet voice. You could smell bread baking, too, and you knew it was real bread that would soon be covered with real butter. Everything was there and it was working."

Monday, 17 September 2012

Ray Bradbury on Life and Death

I've been reading The Stories of Ray Bradbury lately, published in Everyman's Library, and I'm almost through. They make wonderful bedtime reading, and in several of them you can discover a whole philosophy of life. One of the stories that I liked most is called "The Leave-Taking". It is very short and not really much of a story at all. What happens is that an old woman dies. One day she decides that enough is enough and she lies down and stops living. Not that her life is bad in any way. She lives with her extended family, seems to be well-loved and cared-for, and loving and caring herself. She has had a good life, and is still having one. But that does not cause her to cling to her life as long as possible, as we might expect. On the contrary. It is the reason why she finds it easy to go. She has seen everything worth seeing, done everything worth doing, and it's simply time to go:

"Now it was as if a huge sum in arithmetic were finally drawing to an end. She had stuffed turkeys, chickens, squabs, gentlemen, and boys. She had washed ceilings, walls, invalids, and children. She had laid linoleum, repaired bicycles, wound clocks, stoked furnaces, swabbed iodine on ten thousand grievous wounds. Her hands had flown all around about and down, gentling this, holding that, throwing baseballs, swinging bright croquet mallets, seeding black earth, or fixing covers over dumplings, ragouts, and children wildly strewn by slumber. She had pulled down shades, pinched out candles, turned switches, and - grown old. Looking back on thirty billion of things started, carried, finished and done, it all summed up, totaled out; the last decimal was placed, the final zero swung slowly into line. Now, chalk in hand, she stood back from life a silent hour before reaching for the eraser."

When her decision to die becomes known to the family, her grandchildren try to change her mind - they need her, will miss her, don't want to be without her - she insists that there's nothing to be sad about. It's like watching too many movies in a row: "when the time comes that the same cowboys are shooting the same Indians on the same mountaintop, then it's best to fold back the seat and head for the door, with no regrets and no walking backward up the aisle. So, I'm leaving while I'm still happy and still entertained." And anyway, she says, she's not really leaving. It's only a small and insignificant part of her that will disappear. As we don't mourn a clipped fingernail, we shouldn't mourn the passing of a person, because a person is also only a part of a larger whole, which persists even when that particular person is gone, just like the body lives on when it loses some of its cells to be replaced by others. "Important thing is not the me that's lying here, but the me that's sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that's downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I'm not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family." It seems to me, though, that even without a family, without children, we can see our individual selves as being parts of a greater, more encompassing self, which lives on and in which we live on even when "we" are dead. The self is not fixed. It doesn't have clearly defined boundaries. It depends on where I see myself ending. I can see myself in you, can identify myself with the whole human community (or even the community of living beings). I can feel one with the universe, and then there's no reason to fear my own death because I will live on in others.

Bradbury's story ends with the death of the old woman, but her death is like a home-coming. It is described as if life had been a brief interruption from something else, something at least equally good: "A long time back, she thought, I dreamed a dream, and was enjoying it so much when someone wakened me, and that was the day when I was born." Now she is trying to pick up the thread of that dream, and then she finds it. "'It's all right,' whispered Great-grandma, as the dream floated her. 'Like everything else in this life, it's fitting.'" And with this glorious trust in the fittingness of all things, of life and death, the story ends. 

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Uncanny Valley

Earlier this week I attended a workshop where someone gave a talk about early animated films. The talk also included a reference to the so-called "Uncanny Valley" hypothesis. Since I had never heard of it before, I had to look it up, which is odd given that the hypothesis has been around for more than forty years now. In 1970 the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Moti published a paper, in which he suggested that our positive feelings towards a robot steadily increase the more human its appearance becomes, until, that is, we reach a point where the robot looks almost human, but not quite. Then sympathy quickly turns into revulsion, that is, the sympathy curve that up to this point had steadily risen falls suddenly below zero, before it rises again with equal suddenness when the robot becomes indistinguishable from a human. The term "uncanny valley" refers to the sudden dip in the sympathy curve. In 2007, Jamais Cascio speculated that we might experience a "second uncanny valley" once we have started to radically enhance human beings. The slightly more than human might be as uncanny as the slightly less than human, while we might be fine with sufficiently distant posthumans.

So if that is correct, then what exactly is it that provokes such a negative reaction to the almost-but-not-quite-human and the no-longer-quite-human? And which entities, aside from robots, are we talking about? The Wikipedia entry on the uncanny valley shows a graph which positions zombies and corpses in the uncanny valley. But I find this not very convincing. Surely zombies and corpses are not uncanny because they so closely resemble real (i.e. living) humans, but because they are dead, and they are rotting, and some of them want to eat you. Perhaps better examples would be the animal people in H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, which the narrator Prendick, when he first encounters one of them, mistakes for human, though he feels that there's something odd about them that disturbs him. Or think of the aliens in Don Siegel's 1956 film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", which look quite human, except that all human emotion seems to have drained out of them, and they, too, come across as creepier than any monster could be. What is it that repulses us here? Is it the transition from the non-human to the human or from the human to the non-human? Is it the ambiguity? Lower down on the rising curve, before the sudden dip into the uncanny valley, we know that the entity is not human, and its efforts to look more human are seen as a kind of hommage paid to humanity. No ambiguity here. But an entity that looks almost human, but not quite, without being human, is like a pretender to the throne. An usurper. Perhaps it also reminds us of the fragility of humanness, which sometimes appears like a thin veneer rather than a deep-reaching and solid identity. It is also interesting that, if the hypothesis is correct, then an entity that, in its appearance, cannot be distinguished from a human, does no longer disturb us, even if we know that it is not human! Why should that be? Does it perhaps have something to do with the fact that we cannot think of someone who in its outward appearance (including the way it moves and acts) is really indistinguishable from a human, as anything other than human? Perhaps that is what we are for each other: animated bodies with a particular, characteristically human appearance.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

How the Cuddle Hormone Oxytocin May Improve Your Life

Human enhancement always sounds good on paper, but if you look at how enhancement techniques are actually being used, you may be excused for having doubts about the whole enterprise. Just take the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which has been celebrated as a wonder drug, a "cuddle hormone" and "love hormone". It is supposed to enhance our social competence, to make us nicer and more considerate, more attentive to the needs of others, generally more trusting and at the same time more self-confident. It even increases the sexual drive in men.

All that sounds really wonderful, doesn't it? And sure enough, the pharmaceutical companies have quickly realised the potential of that little hormone, so that meanwhile you can buy it on the internet as a nose spray - which has been welcomed by some enhancement enthusiasts as an important step towards the urgently needed moral improvement of humanity. However, the way such sprays are marketed speaks a different language and makes it very clear what this is really all about. Just take the aptly named 'Liquid Trust Enhanced', which is sold and marketed by Vero Labs (for a handsome amount) as "trust in a bottle" and openly advertised as an extremely efficient tool to manipulate other people. Under the slogan "Trust is Power" it is described what the spray can be used for and how you can benefit from it. For instance, if you happen to be a salesperson, Liquid Trust Enhanced will help you to sell more because, if you spray yourself with it, people will be inclined to trust you: "Close the deal! Sell more of your products and services!" Yet even if that doesn't work out, never mind, you will get a pay raise anyway because your boss, too, will be impressed by you even without a particular reason, and will trust in you if you beguile him with your irresistable oxytocin smell: "Give your career a powerful boost! Ask for a raise - And GET IT!" It is also useful in private matters, because it will make it much easier for you to start personal and especially sexual relationships: "Meet more women because they trust you more." So there can be no doubt that this fantastic product is not only "the ultimate career builder", but also "the ultimate sales tool for relationships".

I think the example shows very nicely how on the one hand the enhanced human may become more capable of manipulating the world around him (including other people), but on the other also more prone to be manipulated by others. It seems that the more extensive the control we gain, the more extensive is also the control that we may be subjected to.