Does Technology Help Us Define “Human”?

28 Feb

When I first started writing this blog, my plan was to discuss how the pulp science fictions each highlighted specific differences between human and machine, which I will still give some thought to; however, the stories also deal with how such a strict binary is problematic. C.L. Moore’s story, “No Woman Born” is probably the best example of this complication in the mechanical body and human mind of Deirdre. Rather than straightforward manifestos on technology’s obvious lack of human characteristics and the loss we will suffer from the penetration of it more and more into our daily lives, there seems to be a paranoia of how we can imagine a gray area between man and machine that is much more unsettling.

Campbell’s story, “Twilight,” gives the story of a hitchhiker and time traveler who tells about his adventure in America seven million years in the future. Abandoned cities go on functioning because of machines that “didn’t know how to die” (29). Campbell’s lament about humans losing their curiosity provides his moment of warning about mechanization (37), but the hitchhiker’s walk through the city of machines also suggests some paranoia. He wanders around and “because there was motion, and that pseudo-mechanical life, I felt less alone” (29). Motion is confused with life, and the hitchhiker is comforted. He also personifies the machines, describing them as “knowing” or not “forgetting.” The machines in “Twilight” have taken on the role of companions, even preferable ones to the humans he encounters who have lost the instinct of curiosity.

Companions in both “Helen O’Loy” and “No Woman Born” illustrate paranoia of the merging of humans and technology. In “Helen O’Loy,” a machine is tweaked to imitate human emotions, while in “No Woman Born” a human brain is outfitted in a mechanical body. Both instances attempting to bridge the gap between man and machine enter the space of hybrid, which ends very differently in each story but produces the same anxiety. The endocrinologist narrator of “Helen O’Loy” works with his friend, a robot repairman, to give emotions to Helen: “The more we talked, the less sure I grew about the impossibility of homo mechanensis as the perfect type” (43). This line is echoed in “No Woman Born” when Dierdre says, “You made a perfect machine, Maltzer. More perfect than you knew” (32). She continues, “I suppose…that I’m superhuman” (33), which is perhaps what Phil and Dave meant by homo mechanensis. The hybrid of man and machine (both notably explored as women) portray the difficulty in maintaining the binary of technology and the human. Installing artificial emotions won’t make Helen a woman, just as Dierdre will sooner or later forget human experience, but both hybrids are unsettling to their human companions because they appear so life-like. This paranoia about technology’s possibility to create life is as old as Frankenstein, which is so aptly alluded to in Moore’s story.

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