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Welcome back to the reading club!

Last week Jane C. Hu reported on next-gen prosthetics and exoskeletons (and their prohibitive cost), but some news just broke that we couldn’t get into the episode on time. (Well…some “news” “broke,” to be fair.) The news in question is this battle between two giant robots that’s going to be livestreamed this week. At 02:00UCT in fact, on this Twitch channel, so it’s either today or tomorrow depending on where you are in the world.

OK, it’s not, strictly speaking, about exoskeletons or prosthetics. There are no humans inside these giant robots. But they’re part of the same wave; a part of the cutting edge in big, powerful machines that can move and lift and punch and smash. Exoskeletons for the consumer are still a few years from becoming a truly mainstream thing — from your average person working on a production line in a factory using them, for example — but we are, just, at an advanced-enough stage to contemplate televised robo-sports. This is exactly the kind of thing that needs to happen for life to feel like “the future.”

I put drone racing into the same category — it’s unashamedly techno-futuristic, but already here, right now, and not merely a bit of world-building playing on a TV in a bar in a movie set 30 years in the future:
GoPro Awards: Epic Drone Race at Night
I just saw the new Blade Runner, by the way, which is why all this is on my brain, because that original movie’s greatest strength was in exactly that kind of world-building. Like, these four extras are on screen for only a few seconds in the first one, but the juxtaposition of people and place alone is enough to inspire all kinds of dreams of futuristic crypto-punks and neo-sects in the Los Angeles of that far-off, impossible year, 2019. Blade Runner 2049, in contrast, is a fine movie, but its focus is more on the high-concept “what does it mean to be human?” questions of the franchise, rather than the background detail. (Even the sex worker AI that is so heavy-handedly central to the plot, without spoiling too much, only seems to be available in one model—and there's no examination of the systems the produced it.)

This left me a little unsatisfied. I wanted to feel the world of 2049, not just see it. I wanted to know what their version of drone racing or fighting robots was, but Ryan Gosling’s apartment was as sterile in this one as Harrison Ford’s was full of dirt and life in the original. There is too little indication of what existence is like for the average non-protagonist.

The Human Machine, like a replicant, will only be around for so long — there are two more episodes to go. But I hope that the stories we’ve included have begun to fill in a little of the detail of what the world will be like to live in for the next generation, and especially the textures of those lives.

This week’s reading club links are, in that vein, about what comes next. New kinds of life, new kinds of death, all things that contribute to the texture of existing alongside the technology that we create. 

Here’s what’s on the agenda:
  • READ: James Vlahos’ story about how he recorded hours and hours—nearly a hundred thousand words’ worth—of his father speaking. When his father died, he tried to rebuild him as a chatbot. It’s a story about where life ends and technology begins, and it is beautiful:

    “I sit down next to him and open a laptop computer. Since it would be strange—as if anything could be stranger than this whole exercise is already—for my dad to have a conversation with his virtual self, my plan is for him to watch while my mother and the Dadbot exchange text messages. The Dadbot and my mom start by trading hellos. My mom turns to me. I can say anything? she asks. Turning back to the computer, she types, I am your sweet wife, Martha.

    My dear wife. How goes it with you?

    Just fine, my mom replies.

    That’s not true, says my real dad, knowing how stressed my mother has been due to his illness.”
     
  • READ: Quinn Norton’s “50 Years of Cyborgs: I Have Not The Words,” which is a kind of capstone for Tim Maly’s 50 Years of Cyborgs project that we’ve looked at a few times now:

    I don’t think we’ll ever notice the age of cyborgs, because we do these things one at a time. We roll them out in small ways, and increment them across society. We quietly piece together a know-everything machine, make its connections invisible, then put it in a small box we built as a talk-to-anyone-machine, and carry it around with us. (The first and ultimate prosthetic of the species being community, and so our most powerful magics will always be incantations to one another.) We hand out drugs to everyone that make them more ready for capitalism as a warm, tasty beverage. While we talk about powersuits and armies of robots, we get into metal boxes next to explosion chambers and extend our proprioception to their edges. We do this so that we can then hurtle down ribbons of death we’ve built all around the landscape at speeds not naturally found very often this side of celestial interaction. We call this commuting and consider it one of the most boring things humans do.”
     
  • READ: Olivia Laing’s thoughts on the future of loneliness in a connected world, and its digital twin, surveillance:

    “My own understanding of loneliness relied on a belief in solid, separate selves that he saw as hopelessly outmoded. In his worldview, everyone was perpetually slipping into each other, passing through ceaseless cycles of transformation; no longer separate, but interspersed. Perhaps he was right. We aren’t as solid as we once thought. We are embodied but we are also networks, living on inside machines and in other people’s heads; memories and data streams. We are being watched and we do not have control. We long for contact and it makes us afraid. But as long as we are still capable of feeling and expressing vulnerability, intimacy stands a chance.”

Come discuss these pieces and more in the Human Machine group on Facebook—I look forward to hearing from you.

Until next time,
Ian

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