Only by listening to technology’s story, divining its tendencies and biases, and tracing its current direction can we hope to solve our personal puzzles.
– Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants
Karel Capek’s international reputation as an sf writer rests on the play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920; translated into English 1923) and the novels The Absolute at Large (1922), Krakatit (1924), and War with the Newts (1936), but his stature as the greatest Czech writer of his generation rests on a far larger and more varied body of work, highlighted by the allegorical drama From the Life of the Insects (1921), the trilogy of philosophical novels Hordubal (1933), Meteor (1934), and An Ordinary Life (1934), the stunning detective fiction collected in Tales from Two Pockets (1929), the biographical essay President Masaryk Tells His Story (1934), and an extensive, as yet uncollected and largely untranslated, body of short journalistic essays or feuilletons.1
In an early story (1908) “System,” a cigar-smoking bourgeois boasts that he has solved the problem of workers’ rebellions by choosing his workers from the poorest, the worst educated, the mentally incompetent – in short, the most abject members of society – and then systematically depriving them of any stimulation in order to render them free of ideas and desires, making them, as he puts it, as reliable as machines. At the end of the story like many of his later more familiar works these dehumanized or mechanized Fordist or Taylorist humans would rebel against their masters. But did they ever recover their affective life? Are were they forever doomed to their affectless sociopathic machinic existence?
“…individuals with psychopathy are marked with a constellation of impairments that primarily affect emotional processing. …this account suggests that genetic anomalies give rise to a disorder where there is reduced responsiveness of the amygdala to aversive stimuli in particular. This specific form of reduced emotional responsiveness interferes with socialization such that the individual is more likely to learn to use anti-social behavior to achieve goals.”
– James Blair and Derek Mitchell. The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain
Adam Kotsko in Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television describes the sociopath, saying:
…as I understand it, real-life sociopaths are pitiable creatures indeed. Often victims of severe abuse, they are bereft of all human connection, unable to tell truth from lies, charming and manipulative for a few minutes at most but with no real ability to formulate meaningful goals. The contemporary fantasy of sociopathy picks and chooses from those characteristics, emphasizing the lack of moral intuition, human empathy, and emotional connection. Far from being the obstacles they would be in real life, these characteristics are what enable the fantasy sociopath to be so amazingly successful.2
Are we misreading all this? Are we not seeing in our midst not some strange illness or psychological malfunction, but rather the alternative path of a new posthuman subjectivity that has yet to be registered as such? We’d like to think that over time evolution would produce a progressively better creature. But as Stephen J. Gould reminds us progress is a myth not a fact, there is no teleology in the natural order of things, nothing but the distorted lenses of certain thinkers, writers, scientists, philosophers, etc.:
No question troubled [Darwin] more than the common assumption, so crucial to Victorian Britain at the height of industrial and imperial success, that progress must mark the pathways of evolutionary change. Darwin clearly understood that the basic mechanics of natural selection implied no statement about progress, for the theory only speaks of local adaptation to changing environments….To resolve this troubling discordance between the mechanics of his basic theory and his fundamental impression of pattern in life’s history, Darwin called up [an] ecological principle encompassed by the metaphor of the wedge. …
Progress is not merely a deep cultural bias of Western thought…it is also…the explicit expectation of all deterministic theories of evolutionary mechanism that have ever achieved any popularity, from Darwinian selection to Lamarckism to orthogenesis. I do not, of course, mean progress as an unreversed, unilinear march up the chain of being; Darwin did away with this silly notion forever. But even Darwinism anticipates that an imperfect, irregular, but general ascent should emerge from all the backing and forthing inherent in a theory based on a principle of local adaption to changing circumstances. 3
What he was most against was the progressive position is well represented by journalist Robert Wright’s argument that both social and natural history have a trajectory that moves from simple to complex. This notion that society and natural history have a telos (trajectory) is what he saw as not only evil but downright malicious for both science and natural history, or any other form of knowledge. Richard Dawkins on the other hand always supported a progressive stance in science and thought. He proposed that “evolution exhibits progress” that is “value-free” (neutral) as well as “value-laden.” Explaining that “a progressive trend is one in which there are no reversals; or if there are reversals, they are out-numbered and outweighed by movement in the dominant direction.” So Gould and Dawkins would battle over this and other issues endlessly. Gould felt that a belief in progress is a prime example of how social biases can distort science. Gould aimed to show that the natural world does not conform to human aspirations. Nature does not have human meaning embedded in it, and it does not provide direction to how humans should live. We live, instead, in a world that only has meaning of our own making. Rather than viewing this situation as disheartening, Gould saw it as liberating because it empowers us to make our own purpose. Gould stressed, similar to Karl Marx and other radical thinkers, that we make our own history and that the future is open (see Richard York and Brett Clark: Stephen Jay Gould’s Critique of Progress).
Yet, that is just it: if meaning does not exist out there embedded in the real world, then we are free to make it, right? This seems to be the path of a certain form of posthuman technological singularity. But before I go into this I want to return to our psychopath’s and sociopath’s among us, and ask a question: Is this illness something new in our time? What causes this issue with the “reduced responsiveness of the amygdala to aversive stimuli” (psychopath), or those who ” lack of moral intuition, human empathy, and emotional connection” and “charming and manipulative” or “unable to tell truth from lies”. In an article Psychopathy: An Evolutionary Perspective (here) we read “Mealey (1994) also suggests that “…sociopaths are designed for the successful execution of social deception and that they are the product of evolutionary pressures which, through a complex interaction of environmental and genetic factors, lead some individuals to pursue a life history strategy of manipulative and predatory social interactions,” here suggesting again a genetic predisposition subject to shaping by their enviornment.” In another article we read (here):
Another psychopath in our research said that he did not really understand what others meant by “fear”. However, “When I rob a bank,” he said, “I notice that the teller shakes or becomes tongue tied. One barfed all over the money. She must have been pretty messed up inside, but I don’t know why. If someone pointed a gun at me I guess I’d be afraid, but I wouldn’t throw up.” When asked to describe how he would feel in such a situation, his reply contained no reference to bodily sensations. He said things such as, “I’d give you the money”; “I’d think of ways to get the drop on you”; “I’d try and get my ass out of there.” When asked how he would feel, not what he would think or do, he seemed perplexed. Asked if he ever felt his heart pound or his stomach churn, he replied, “Of course! I’m not a robot. I really get pumped up when I have sex or when I get into a fight” (Hare, 1993, pp. 53-4).
I’m no expert in this field so have no real knowledge of the latest scientific information concerning the details of psychopathic or sociopathic behavior or it’s evolution so will not add my own conclusions for the science of this dark corner of humanity. What was interesting for me is that these beings seem to have become android/robot like in our midst. Returning to Karel Capek and the first showing of his play in New York he remarked (after several people argued over the humans and the robots in the play) that the debaters seemed obsessed with the robots at the expense of the people in the play. The play’s reputation and success depended heavily upon the spectacle of the expressionless, uniformed robots, numbers blazoned on their chests, marching in step onto the stage to announce, at the end of the second act, the end of the age of man and the beginning of the age of machines, as if to epitomize the traumatic transformation of modern society by the First World War and the Fordist assembly line. The appeal of the idea of the robots perhaps overshadowed the actual drama, or at least the apocalypse of the middle acts tended to overshadow the comic tone of the opening, in which the five directors of the Rossum Corporation simultaneously fall in love with a lovely visitor to the factory, Helena Glory, and the sentimentalism of the finale, where the last man alive witnesses two robots awakening to the emotion of love. (Fifty Key Figures 49) One wonders what our android like sociopaths might think of that? That this was wishful thinking on the part of Capek’s romanticism and liberal humanist attack on the communism of his homeland is now a truism. But what’s interesting is the notion that people were becoming more and more like the machines that they used, and were becoming through such use machines themselves.
In the play, R.U.R., the chief proponent of this vision is the director of the Robot factory, Domin. The human workers may be out of work, “but within the next ten years Rossum’s Universal Robots will produce so much wheat, so much cloth, so much everything that things will no longer have any value. Everyone will be able to take as much as he needs. There’ll be no more poverty. Yes, people will be out of work, but by then there’ll be no work left to be done. Everything will be done by living machines. People will do only what they enjoy. They will live only to perfect themselves.”
On stage with such well known writers as G.B. Shaw and G.K. Chesterton Capek commented:
I wished to write a comedy, partly of science, partly of truth. The old inventor, Mr. Rossum, is no more or less than a typical representative of the scientific materialism of the last century. His desire to create an artificial man— in the chemical and biological, not the mechanical sense— is inspired by a foolish and obstinate wish to prove God unnecessary and meaningless. Young Rossum is the modern scientist, untroubled by metaphysical ideas; for him, scientific experiment is the road to industrial production; he is not concerned about proving, but rather manufacturing. To create a homunculus is a medieval idea; to bring it in line with the present century, this creation must be undertaken on the principle of mass production. We are in the grip of industrialism; this terrible machinery must not stop, for if it does it would destroy the lives of thousands. It must, on the contrary, go on faster and faster, even though in the process it destroys thousands and thousands of lives . . . A product of the human brain has at last escaped from the control of human hands. This is the comedy of science.4
What was interesting in his statement is an early connection to the notion of accelerationism: “To create a homunculus is a medieval idea; to bring it in line with the present century, this creation must be undertaken on the principle of mass production. We are in the grip of industrialism; this terrible machinery must not stop, for if it does it would destroy the lives of thousands. It must, on the contrary, go on faster and faster, even though in the process it destroys thousands and thousands of lives…”
This notion that the terrible machinery must not stop but go on faster and faster or it might destroy us and our civilization is eerily prescient of so much later philosophical thought about modernity, futurism, et. al. … There was more to his commentary:
And now for my second idea, the comedy about truth. General director Domin tries to prove in the play that technical developments liberate man from heavy physical labor, and he is right. Alquist, the Tolstoyan architect, believes on the contrary that technical developments demoralize man, and I think that he is right, too. Busman thinks that only industrialism is capable of meeting modern needs; he is right. Helena instinctively fears all this human machinery, and she is quite right. And finally, the Robots themselves revolt against all these idealisms, and it seems that they are right as well.
We don’t need to look for names for all these various antithetical idealisms. What I want to stress is that no matter whether these people are conservatives or socialists, yellow or red, all of them are right in a simple moral sense of the word. All of them have the most serious of motives, material and spiritual, for their beliefs, and according to their nature look for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of their fellows. I ask myself: isn’t it possible to see in the contemporary social conflicts taking place in the world an analogous struggle between two, three or five equally serious and noble idealisms? I believe that it is possible. The most dramatic element in modern civilization is the fact that one human truth stands against a truth no less human, one ideal against another ideal, one positive value against a value no less positive, and that the conflict does not represent, as we are often told, a struggle between a noble truth and vile, selfish evil. (ibid.)
That each of his characters is caught up in some illusionary ideological blind man’s bluff is akin to what Zizek has detailed out in his early work The Sublime Object of Ideology:
‘The fundamental level of ideology is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way – one of many ways – to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironic distance, we are still doing them’ (See Zizek here)
As Ivan Klima in the introduction to this work by Capek concluded: “The destruction that in R.U.R. finally struck the representatives of humanity was not an expression of the will of gods, but the result of a human revolt against the laws of nature, against tradition, against human fate. Nevertheless, it was just as absolute, just as inescapable, just as fateful.” (ibid.) Reading much lately on the accelerationist movement on the Left and Right I wonder if their Prometheanism doesn’t tend toward this kind of revolt against the natural order, a playing into the hand of technocapitalism – the technological power within that system as it seeks to overthrow human evolution itself and produce a new being, a transhuman or technological singularity that collapses some inhuman intelligence from the future into our already dark timeworld. Will our sociopaths welcome it’s inhuman gaze with an equally smiling murderousness? Just one happy machine to another… is this the Dark Enlightenment we’ve all been waiting for?
1. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction (Routledge Key Guides)
2. Kotsko, Adam (2012-04-27). Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (p. 2). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
3. Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002); Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).
4. Capek, Karel (2004-03-30). R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (Penguin Classics) (Kindle Locations 157-165). Penguin Classics. Kindle Edition.