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Between an Animal and a Machine

Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia


Paweł Majewski

The subject of this book is the philosophy of Stanisław Lem. The first part contains an analysis and interpretation of one of his early works, The Dialogues. The author tries to show how Lem used the terminology of cybernetics to create a project of sociology and anthropology. The second part examines Lem’s essay Summa technologiae, which is considered as the project of human autoevolution. The term «autoevolution» is a neologism for the concept of humans taking control over their own biological evolution and form in order to improve the conditions of their being. In this interpretation, Summa is an example of a liberal utopia, based on the assumption that all human problems can be resolved by science. Various social theories, which can be linked to the project of autoevolution, are presented in the final part.

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14 Phantomatics


Stanisław Lem’s prophecies (or, simply, Lem’s Visions) are characterized by the fact that he himself does not take them in the least bit seriously, but NEVERTHELESS they come true completely within about a year. Dangerous, right?

Letter to Szymon Kobyliński, March 14, 1974

Lem brings up chapter six in ST, “Phantomology,” whenever he wants to prove how sharp a prophet he is. The chapter contains a description of something that, perhaps somewhat hastily, came to be identified with the so-called virtual reality (VR). I do not intend to compare Lem’s prediction with the contemporary state of VR technology. It would be doubly pointless: because of my ignorance with regard to technological details of VR, and because Lem’s prediction is less about technological aspects of phantomology and more about its psychological and social consequences. And they should be the object of interest here, again, as was the case with cybernetics, considering the science and the technology from the point of view of their cultural significance.

Why did Lem come up with phantomatics in the first place? What is its place within the structure of ST? The chapter starts with the following statements:

We are faced with the following problem: how do we create realities for the intelligent beings that exist in them, realities that are absolutely indistinguishable from the standard reality but that are subject to different laws? … We shall ask, Is it possible to create an artificial reality that is very similar to the actual one yet that cannot be distinguished from it in any way? The first topic focuses on the creation of worlds, the second on the creation of illusions. But we are talking about perfect illusions. I do not even know whether they can be called just illusions. Please, judge for yourselves. (191)

So for Lem phantomatics158 is an introduction to “pantocreatics,” “a stepping-stone to creative engineering” (191), something of a training ground to study ←119 | 120→people’s reactions to an “artificial–natural” reality. It is a rehearsal before the proper act of “second creation,” a rehearsal of an illusion of a “new world.” Lem describes the technical details of “phantomatic machine” and sensual experiences of a phantomatized person with utmost precision, and he introduces a distinction between peripheral and central phantomatics, as well as between teletaxy and phantoplication. We shall now look into the meaning of those terms.

Peripheral phantomatics involves stimulating senses externally – the contemporary VR is the closest to it, with its helmets and gloves sets. Central phantomatics involves stimulating directly the areas in the brain responsible for particular kinds of experiences. Interestingly, Lem, who is usually not keen to make excursions into the past, points to ecstatic shamanistic practices and strong intoxicants, such as drugs, as “prephantomatics” of the first type. The remark leads him to a conclusion, which he repeats a few times, that perhaps the real application of phantomatics will in fact be limited to pleasure. Given what an average Internet user and unprofessional user of VR technology is mostly interested in today, one has to admit that Lem was actually completely right in his predictions here, even though he was quite saddened by this particular achievement of his.159

“Central phantomatics,” with its capacity to provoke strong pleasure and pain by stimulating the brain directly, omitting the senses – something that has already been tested on animals – leads Lem to ask about the possibility of creating “artificial paradise and heaven.” It is a question of significant philosophical and sociological weight, but in this case Lem only flags the problem.

Lem’s dictionary includes also “cerebromatics,” which means “changes to the dynamic structure of the brain’s neural network,” so all actions connected with central phantomatics, with far-reaching psychological implications. Lem considers the possibility of a transformation of an individual identity that would not be “illusionary” (e.g., by placing a person in a phantomata simulating the court of Bonaparte with the phantomatized person cast as “Napoleon”), but real, transforming a personality so deeply that the person subjected to it would in fact become Napoleon, with all his biographical experience and all the personality traits the emperor of the French had. By discussing this possibility, Lem is unusually careful about the historical and temporal aspect of human identity. Emphasizing that identity is determined not only by psychological processes, but also by external circumstances in a broad historical and social context, he ←120 | 121→concludes that it is impossible to cerebromatically turn Mr. Smith into Napoleon. It is equally impossible in peripheral phantomatics as it only produces an illusion of surroundings, without the phantomatized person ever ceasing to be himself or herself. Lem rightly stresses that:

the more the character one wishes to impersonate differs in personality traits and historical period from his own, the more fictitious, naïve, or even primitive his behavior and the whole vision will be. Because, to be crowned a king or receive the Pope’s emissaries, one has to be familiar with the whole court protocol. (209)

We are dealing with the issue of artificiality here, but not the one that we encounter in the project of autoevolution, but a regular, primitive artificiality of a badly defined situation.160 It is the first argument supporting a thesis that phantomatics is actually incoherent. All these reflections resemble conversation between Hylas and Philonous about transmitting personal identity, except in Dialogues they referred to mechanical replication and teleportation of people, whereas here it is the issue of radical transformations of external reality. The continuity of this theme is a testimony not only to Lem’s long-lasting interest in the problem, but also to the inevitable influence of technological changes on conceptual standards regarding individual identity.

Phantomatization is generally risky for Lem from the social perspective. There is the issue of “yearning for authenticity” – the phantomatized individual is always aware that even the most perfect illusion is merely an illusion. He is then torn between the phantomatic reality and the authentic one; this duplicity cannot be avoided, as there is no way for a copy to become the original, which is particularly striking in case of Lebenswelt. Lem suggests, however, just as the Wachowski brothers (now sisters) do later on, in The Matrix, that phantomatized people could be purposefully misled about the status of the world they are in. He designs something resembling a “VR Turing test” and claims the only way to verify the “reality of the real” is through presence of material correlates of the most intimate content of one’s consciousness, such as damaged home appliances, which only the phantomatized person knows about – and he or she knows they are the only one who knows that. These complex and seemingly fantastic ideas actually resemble The Matrix plot, a film that became a manifesto of cyber-pop ←121 | 122→culture in 1999.161 Even here, however, Lem draws some very serious conclusions. A phantomatized person acts in isolation:

It is because any act of turning to other people for help is, or rather can actually be, an act of feeding the machine with strategically valuable information … This is why the person undergoing the experience cannot trust anyone but himself – which severely narrows down his options. He acts defensively to an extent, as he is surrounded from all sides. This also means that a phantomatic world is a world of total solitude. There cannot be more than one person in it at any one time, just as it is impossible for two real persons to find themselves in the same dream.

No civilization can become “fully phantomatized.” If all its members were to start experiencing phantomatic visions from a certain point on, the real world of this civilization would come to a halt and die out. (202)

The diagnosis is clear: complete “artificiality” of the surrounding world, with the exception of the “natural” human body and mind amounts to a suicide of a civilization. A moment later Lem states the same even more strongly:

Of course, it is possible to envisage some kind of omniplanetary “Superphantomat,” to which the inhabitants of a given planet have been connected “forever,” that is for as long as they have been alive, while their bodies’ vegetative processes are being supported by automatic devices … This civilization would only exist for the duration of one generation – the one that remains connected to the “Superphantomat.” This would thus be a peculiar form of euthanasia, a kind of pleasant suicide of a civilization. For this reason, we consider its implementation to be impossible. (202–203)

In the context of the project of autoevolution as it is presented in the whole of ST, the conclusion is as follows: phantomatics is but a half-measure, with harmful results, as it does not eliminate the Natural/Artificial dichotomy entirely, it only disrupts the ontology of Lebenswelt. Later in ST we shall see that only a reconstruction of the human species in its physicality, a shift in the category of transformation, which I discussed earlier, can in fact guarantee a coherent process of autoevolution.

This does not exhaust the subject matter of the chapter devoted to phantomatics, but before I proceed with that discussion, I want to briefly point to congruencies between phantomatics and some of the contemporary intellectual trends.

All things considered, phantomatics is flawed for Lem, as it either leads to cognitive dissonance or to extinction of the human species. Neither of these ←122 | 123→threats discouraged people from it though, as in the last decade of the 20th century they not only accepted phantomatization as a possibility, but also actually started to desire it, although in a shape that is somewhat different from what Lem described in ST.

When in the 1990s Internet was rapidly popularized globally, it immediately became clear how many human dreams and phantasms find their expression in the digital cyberspace. In February 1996 John Perry Barlow, one of the gurus of the IT world, published The Declaration of Independence of the Cyberspace – on the Internet, naturally. Here is a passage from it:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. … Cyberspace … is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions … Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live … Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here.162

The statement that cyberspace is an act of nature is of particular importance here – it fits perfectly in Lem’s project of autoevolution. Erik Davis, from whose book I quote Barlow, emphasizes rightly that the exuberant rhetoric of the text carries a clear ideological message: Internet is to become a sphere of unrestricted freedom. Such view fueled the “web anarchism” at the turn of the centuries and it still is a support for all those who react violently to any attempts at ordering or controlling the web, even after it became clear that the web functions, mostly thanks to big corporations and not selfless activists. Here, however, I’m interested not so much in analyzing social and political aspects of the cyberspace, but its role in the ideas of autoevolution.163

In the early 1990s there emerged a group in Los Angeles, which came to be known as “extropians.” They were enthusiastic about new technologies and drew ←123 | 124→bold visions of their further growth, which would help people acquire unlimited capacities. In their own, somewhat mystical way, they prophesied the same project of autoevolution and exceeding the limits of humanity that Lem presented in ST. It is particularly interesting that they also assumed that in the future people would move their brains from bodies to computer networks. Max More, the President of Extropy Institute, wrote:

Shrugging off the limits imposed on us by our natural heritage, we apply the evolutionary gift of our rational, empirical intelligence to surpass the confines of our humanity, crossing the threshold into the transhuman and posthuman stages that await us … When technology allows us to reconstitute ourselves physiologically, genetically, and neurologically, we who have become transhuman will be primed to transform ourselves into posthumans – persons of unprecedented physical, intellectual, and psychological capacity, self-programming, potentially immortal, unlimited individuals. (Quoted from: Davis, 143–145)

Which is exactly what Lem prophesies in ST. Stepping ahead of myself here a little, I will add that the same views are developed in the last chapter of ST and then, more than a decade later, in Golem XIV. Moreover, we encounter here words that remained foreign to Lem: “transhumanism” and “posthumanism,” to which I shall return later. At this point I just want to show that the cyberspace, which Lem and his commentators associated mostly with phantomatics, comes close to his thinking in other areas as well – or perhaps above all elsewhere. The passage I have quoted is a good example of the functions of the Internet and cyberspace in the culture of the early years of the 21st century. The heights of technology overlap with heights of mysticism. Davis invokes Nietzsche and his thesis about Übermensch as a result of rejecting the earlier model of humanity. I believe in the context of autoevolutionary projects this is only an intellectual convergence, but in Part Three I will try to search for a line that would connect these areas of Western thought more directly.

Extropians accuse the human kind of the same things as Stanisław Lem and in the same way, with the same justifications. I will try to show that the solutions offered to human problems are also largely similar in these two cases.

The thesis about moving human brains to computer networks is not just a sci-fi idea. It is one of those elements of contemporary thought, in which it is hard to distinguish between what is scientifically and technologically viable and ←124 | 125→what is but wishful thinking emerging from cultural anxieties. “The presence of myth” in science, which Leszek Kołakowski sought deep underneath the positivist paradigm is very clear now, and not only in computer technologies, but also in physics and biology, for example. Authors such as Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec – widely respected in the area of AI and IT – were very interested in the idea, even though clearly it is completely unrealistic at this point.164 (It is only different from Lem’s phantomatics in that Lem does not allow for rejecting the body, which by the way, as I have pointed out earlier, is an internal contradiction of phantomatics as part of the autoevolution project. This idea, however, highly resembles Lem’s “cosmogonic engineering,” which will be discussed later.) It is again a certain concept, less scientific or technological than resulting from many people’s state of mind at the beginning of the 21st century.

Another important cultural correlate of cyberspace would be cyberpunk. It is a literary genre inaugurated by a novel by a Canadian, William Gibson, titled Neuromancer (1984), which is often quoted and analyzed by media theorists. The novel is set largely in virtual space generated by computer systems. By now the motif has been largely exhausted, but taking into account that Gibson published Neuromancer when personal computers were still a technological novelty, one cannot help but admire his pioneering position. Cyberpunk is a literary genre in its own right now, with hundreds of works. Cyberpunk novels are usually set in environments dominated by computer systems, very much like the world outlined by Lem in ST, especially in the chapter I am currently discussing here. In Poland the most eminent representative of cyberpunk is certainly Jacek Dukaj (born in 1974). There are formal similarities between his works and Lem’s novels insofar as both contain numerous descriptions of alien (“inhuman”) worlds (such as VR or other planets), and those descriptions equal Lem’s best ones from Eden and Solaris in how vivid and powerful they are.165

Taking into account the length and the subject matter of my book, I have to limit my discussion of the cultural role of the Internet and cyberspace to these few side notes. Let us return to Lem’s phantomatics now.

I have mentioned “teletaxy” and “phantoplication” earlier. Having discussed the psychological and social consequences of phantomatics, Lem then remarks:←125 | 126→

The categorical statement with which we closed the previous section – that it is only possible to be either oneself or nobody – does not contravene phantomatics’ potential … We mentioned earlier that this lack of authenticity in a phantomatic vision, the fact that it represents a biotechnologically executed escapism, is a big problem. Cybernetics offers two ways of overcoming such inauthenticity of experience … we shall call them teletaxy and phantoplication. (217–218)

“Teletaxy” means “connecting someone to a machine that only functions as a link between him and the real world … Teletaxy connects a person to a randomly chosen fragment of reality, as a result of which he experiences the reality as if he were really placed inside it” (218). The machine would be a “remote-I,” connected with the senses of the person steering it. Lem points to an astronomical telescope as a prototype of such a teletactor.

“Phantoplication” means something very similar, with the one difference that instead of a machine remote-I there is a real person. Specifically, it is about

connecting one person’s neural pathways to those of another person. Thanks to this procedure … a thousand people can simultaneously “take part” in a marathon … However, this method only involves a unidirectional information transfer, since those “connected” to the runner are not all able to command his movements. (219)

Lem only devotes one paragraph to each of these ideas, after which he again returns to the issue of personality in the context of phantomology, which, as we already know, he finds extremely fascinating.166 Earlier, he described personality problems caused by phantomatics, and now, in the penultimate section of the chapter (“Personality and Information”) he focuses on paradoxes of “multiplied identities.”

Before I proceed to discuss them, I need to point to one more aspect of phantomatics, or, more precisely, a lack thereof. In his analyses Lem pays very little attention to phenomenological approaches to perception. He implicitly accepts that human consciousness and the external world are strictly separated, ←126 | 127→and the transfer of data via the body (or sensual impulses) is clear. Such approach is obviously reductive, but perhaps it was necessary to accept it in order to speak of phantomatics as a technology, and not just a vague idea.

In “Personality and Information” Lem takes up a theme of “multiplied identity,” which came up earlier in Dialogues; this time it is connected to the issue of teleportation. Lem is considering a possibility of framing human personality in terms of theory of information, and accepts implicitly that “personality” can be fully reduced to physiological and mathematical data. Such assumption is necessary in order to meaningfully discuss teleportation at all.167 The attempts to explicate the notion of personality in terms of cybernetics again lead him into paradoxes we saw earlier in Dialogues, all the more complicated by the fact that in ST there is the additional element of genetics (identity as a derivate of phenotype). Here again from his complex argument Lem draws a conclusion that a “copied” or “telegraphed” individual would not be identical with the “original,” even if it had the same atomic structure (that disregarding the influence of quantum uncertainty). To explain this surprising lack of identity, Lem vaguely refers to extraphysical factors, while also stressing it has nothing to do with spiritualism.

I believe this issue could have been a bit clearer, if arguments about the historicity of our existence were used. Lem nearly always disregards history, cultural tradition and those ways of thinking about people, which take into account the past, such as hermeneutics. In light of his autoevolutionary projects in ST it is understandable, because autoevolution – to which I will return in Part Three – means, among other things, rejecting historicity. But there are points in Lem’s thinking that would benefit from including history in the view. This is one of such moments. In order to explain the nonidentity between the “copied” man (just as the nonidentity of a clone) and the “original,” it is enough to explain clearly that each human being is unique due to its own history and – in a broader context – due to how differently every human is affected by the history of culture. Even the “way of creation” of a human – be it conception, artificial insemination, ←127 | 128→“copying” or cloning – is, of course, an element of one’s biography and as such it influences individual identity, shaping it in ways very different from any other individual. The “artificial” methods are perhaps not as different from the “natural” ones as Lem and contemporary commentators of the issue of cloning claim – and this is what leads them to engage in a heated discussion of the question of identity. Is the difference between a clone and a human born “naturally” bigger than between a Wall Street broker and an Indian pariah? (I need to point here again to Lem’s obliteration of the Natural/Artificial distinction.) We are all equal in face of history in a sense that it shapes each of us differently than everyone else. The problem of copying people, and cloning, is telling in a sense that it juxtaposes – and violently, too – the presence of the historical dimension of culture and the absence of it in technology. Perhaps the problem of the individual identity of clones can be reduced to that juxtaposition. Such a juxtaposition would also be a symptom of a major breakthrough in the history of our species, which ST describes, I believe. It describes a shift from history to autoevolution, transgressing the limits of humanity.

Lem would disapprove of such an approach to the issue mainly because it presents human identity as dependent not on eternal, or at least unambiguous laws of Nature, but on something as appallingly random and incoherent as history and culture. Given the mutual influence of culture and technology within “the technologies of producing people,” one could also ask whether a human (a person) has a humanistic coefficient. Florian Znaniecki applied the notion only to objects in human environment. But autoevolution, with its obliteration of the distinction between the Natural and the Artificial, allows us to ask it also about human – because for Lem we become our own products, and not in a “spiritual” sense, as it had been earlier, but in a material sense, as we produce and modify our bodies. It seems to me though that Lem would respond in a negative, assuming he would even see the question as valid. However, I would claim that at the current stage in our civilization’s development (before autoevolution) the only way to avoid the paradox of “multiplied identities” is by assuming that every member of our species, no matter how he or she was created, has an individual, unique humanistic coefficient – a set of meanings ascribed to him by others and him or herself. The incoherence of this solution within the project of autoevolution stems from the fact that “copying” people is just a half measure in light of this project, just as phantomatics is a half measure. Only a full autoevolution – a complete reconstruction of the human species, a full detachment from the form of humanity we have known so far – will allow us to avoid such incoherences or contradictions. Lem does not say that explicitly, but I believe it is a conclusion ←128 | 129→that can be drawn from ST as a whole; ST contains a lot of implicit assumptions, which I am trying to bring to light here.

A curious reader, still remembering some of the more recent intellectual trends, might ask what is the relationship between phantomatics and Baudrillard’s simulacra. The answer is: there is none. For a very simple reason: Lem’s phantomatics is not only an element of the project of autoevolution, but it is also based on an intervention into the human sensorium. And Baudrillard’s metaphor of simulacra refers only to the internal circuits of culture; it has no links with issues of biotechnology. However, it is true that Baudrillard’s thought, whatever our judgment about its content and precision, does describe in its own way the same phenomenon that Lem focuses on in ST: the destruction of the Natural/Artificial opposition.168

158A terminological remark: the text of ST suggests that “phantomology” is a theory, and “phantomatics” – a practice of creating “illusionary worlds.” The distinction is not sharp as the entire ST – as a prediction and a manifesto of autoevolution – is a piece of purely theoretical discourse about phenomena that do not exist yet, and, moreover, if they ever occur, they will make the distinction between theory discourse and practice irrelevant.

159For an anthropologist, the identification of shamanistic practices with simple drug intoxication is a glaring simplification. It is a reflection of how little Lem cared about the past.

160Gruppenfuehrer Louis XVI in A Perfect Vacuum is a macabre version of this idea, in which Nazi refugees from Europe create a replica of Versailles in the Amazon Jungle. In light of these analyses, it seems ironical that Lem received an offer to film this story, which he mentions in his conversations with Stanisław Bereś.

161In some ways the plot of The Matrix reflects Lem’s description of phantomatics quite faithfully. It is based on the idea of machines dominating people – something that will never happen according to Lem and most other artificial intelligence (AI) theoreticians.

162Quoted from: Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (London: Serpents Tail, 2004), 132–133. This book, written by an IT specialist with some interest in the humanities, includes a lot of useful information about relationships between technology and magical or mystical thinking. However, it is extremely chaotic that makes it difficult to use it.

163A vast, panoramic view of global transformations of the last decade of the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the role of Internet, can be found in Manuel Castells’s trilogy: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, vol. 1: The Rise of the Network Society, vol. 2: The Power of Identity, vol. 3: End of Millennium (2nd ed; Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, XXIX+594, XV+461, XV+448). However, the level of detail of the book, combined with the pace of developments since its publication led to the work losing a lot of its relevance very quickly.

164Moravec, a professor in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, presented an operational vision of moving human personality into a machine in his book Mind Children (1988).

165On Dukaj, see more in Chapter 25.

166In a letter to Michael Kandel on October 19, 1974, he wrote: “As to PHILOSOPHY now, I am quite rational and fairly clear in gnosiology, but it is not the same with ontology, because I think there is an inexplicable mystery there: the Ego (I) – physics, biology and other empirical sciences can sufficiently explain the emergence and existence of “others”, i.e. “third parties”, but we can NEVER count on them to explain where I come from. There is no clear link between “they” and “I” at all in the natural sciences, because “I” is existentially a unique point through its “unleaveability” (you cannot “leave” your I, you cannot go beyond it) and HEREIN FOR ME LIES THE GREATEST MYSTERY OF BEING, while the rest are merely the consequences of IT… (Hence, the “amazement with being”, etc.).” (Listy…, 218–219)

167Teleportation is the means of transport of choice for the protagonists of the American sci-fi series Star Trek, which was one of the icons of the 1980s mass culture. It inspired a distinguished physicist Lawrence M. Krauss to write a book The Physics of Star Trek (1995), where he discusses the possibility of really implementing some of the “fantastic” technological solutions known from the series, including teleportation. However, as a physicist he pays little attention to the issue of personality and consciousness, which, apart from the technological issues, seems crucial to the question of human teleportation.

168Baudrillard locates the opposition inside culture as opposition between original and copy. See especially his description of replicas of prehistoric cave paintings in The Precession of Simulacra essay and the entire argument presented there. ←129 | 130→←130 | 131→