Monday, August 27, 2012

Why Machines Will Always Suck More Than You Want Them To, or The Cyberclunk of Bad Technology

Adaptation in nature is slow, but the whole species is its own test and control group. It naturally favors the most effective way to function. Still, it doesn’t function perfectly, and you have numerous competitive species working at cross purposes. Nature never achieves complete equilibrium. Species have to survive both in conjunction with, and in spite of other species, always in flux, constantly in a state of resonance and dissonance. Evolution is not progressive by nature. Even if it has to chuck everything and start again, it continues to function, and many effective species are able to survive for millions of years. They’re not better or worse. They’re simply effective at survival. It’s not nature’s purpose but its tendency. Sometimes it leans towards greater complexity, sometimes towards greater simplicity.

The idea of progressiveness is a human invention. The idea that we must move forward, that technology is an improvement, that industrialization is an improvement. The idea of improvement itself is an invention of societies of industry. Industrial societies are destructive on a mass scale. Pre-industrial societies tend to achieve greater equilibrium with their environment. That doesn’t mean they’re not in their own way destructive, but the ones that endure—and many aboriginal cultures have endured for centuries with little change— have tended to be more effective at survival than industrial societies, not in terms of individual life spans, but in terms of the survival of the society as a whole. Industrial societies, the societies that are eclipsing these smaller communities, are young by comparison. Again: this does not mean that survival is progressive, or of greater or lesser value. Outside of humanities measurement of progress, a species that survives is not a better species, it’s just more effective at surviving. A species that is equally effective at dying has its own function, sometimes to facilitate a more effective species, one with greater equilibrium with other species. In this definition, effective survival is about time, with the assumption that a species that survives over a longer span of time is more effective. A species that achieves greater complexity over a shorter period of time and is more destructive could be considered more effective by a different measurement. These are arbitrary judgments, but the difference between effective survival and short term complexity is that survival effectiveness is about a smooth running machine, a system that has evolved to do whatever has allowed it to survive better than those that have failed to survive. In this way, nature is the most successful inventor and manufacturer.

Technology models itself after nature, but can’t compete with nature’s effectiveness at either survival or the functions of survival. Hearts are very effective at pumping blood. It’s what they do best because it is a trait that has had millions of years to evolve. Technology develops at a rapid pace, and because of this, cannot mimic the slow gradual evolution that allows nature to effectively adapt. Our technological development can’t pinpoint the path of least resistance in such a short period of evolution. Instead it constantly meets with resistance on every front, and with each new imagined innovation, a new set of obstacles present themselves. But at such a rapid pace of development, the consequences are huge. Nature is a constant process of destruction and adaptation, and the rapid pace of technology amplifies both. The more it adapts, the more its destructive power.

Technology and Science Fiction

Because of this speedy evolution, the flaws in this process are more visible and prevalent. This is why technology never quite works how you want it to. This is why your computer, instead of running with the crystalline efficiency of the technology in a science fiction story, is constantly screwing up or on the verge of screwing up. Your car breaks down. A drug meant to treat your heart makes your face puff up. A house rots at its foundation.

In other words: technology will never work the way we want it to. It’s the nature of machines. But most science fiction ignores this. Science fiction presents the big moral and practical problems suggested by technology while ignoring the everyday messiness of it. Instead, it often romanticizes technology that works. If a dystopian future is presented as lacking, it’s because of the lack of better technology, or because of the consequences of technology poorly employed. But in science fiction, technology maintains its essential logical positivism: technology works. It’s all in how you use it, not the technology itself. It’s about human hubris, not the nature of technology as a whole.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as Cyberclunk.

The theme of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is about not tempting fate or nature or god by trying to emulate what nature does best. It is, as its subtitle suggests, a modern Prometheus story. This moral has become a very essential aspect of many science fiction stories, the acknowledgement of this problem, and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is in many ways, a lesson in Cyberclunk. Technology doesn’t work the way Doctor Frankenstein wants it to because technology can’t be anything but flawed.

But the way technology is typically portrayed in contemporary science fiction contradicts this idea. It’s about the perfection of innovation, the romance of discovery. Everything about the technology as it’s presented sends a profoundly mixed message—technology may lead to hubris, but it’s the most beautiful and fantastic thing in all creation, smooth as glass, and miraculous as magic. It’s a powerful and seductive idea. Technology isn’t inherently bad anymore than it’s inherently good, but it is inherently inelegant. It doesn’t work very well. It is always, always flawed. Not only the most high tech and progressive technology, but all of it.

This is the aesthetic of Cyberclunk. Cyberclunk presents a world of flawed and inelegant technology that betrays us because of its nature. Because a toaster doesn’t work, my burnt toast pisses me off. But more importantly, the toaster doesn’t work because it’s a machine and machines don’t do what they’re supposed to do. No toaster will always make the toast you want it to. Nature is just as flawed, but nowhere near as inconsistent. Technology is like the caveman in a cartoon, carving a square wheel out of stone. He’s got the general idea, but the execution is obviously shitty. And this is what we do. This is technology. We carve hearts out of stone and expect them to work like hearts in nature. We expect that we can get to that point of perfection where we will be able to make a heart that works just like a natural heart. But artifice itself, by definition, will always fall short of nature.

No comments:

Post a Comment