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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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16 Putting Pieces Together

16Putting Pieces Together

The plethora of themes in ST may confuse – and it does confuse the general meaning of the work, which I wanted to bring out here. So I will now summarize it briefly.

Summa Technologiae develops the kind of thinking about the role of technology in the human world, which Lem started to work on in Dialogues. Just as in Dialogues his discourse can be accused of being somewhat chaotic – he put in it everything he was interested in at the time. Even if that is the case, it has no bearing on my analyses. I believe ST is a global prediction of how our civilization will develop technologically, and it includes an elaborate project of autoevolution of our species, based on a set of assumptions pertinent to philosophy, anthropology and social practice. Some of these assumptions have already been discussed in this part of my book. These are, above all: eliminating the opposition between the Natural and the Artificial and the conviction about the progressive character of autoevolution and about its independence from social processes running parallel to it.

I have been trying to show to what extent the stylistic and formal devices Lem used in ST affect the overall shape of his project, especially the fact he does not differentiate between a scientific text and an informal essay. Lem’s thinking in ST develops as follows: first, he considers the possibility of existence of intelligent forms of life different from us, treating it as an initial point of departure for the autoevolutionary project. He then moves on to what is now known as Artificial Intelligence. Its potential can be a step in acquiring control over production and distribution of information and knowledge, and it has the side effect of making “mechanical social control” possible. In the fifth out of eight chapters, he presents a metatheoretical discussion of the scope and methods of the Designer’s actions – in ST it is a symbolic figure representing the human technological potential, which can be used in autoevolution. He talks about “phantomology,” the “early version” of reality subjected to radical technological transformation. In the penultimate chapter, Lem offers a project of “information farming,” which is to be a response to chaotic increase in knowledge, allowing for practical fulfillment of far-reaching autoevolutionary plans presented in the last chapter, which shall be the subject of my analysis on the following pages.

As its final result autoevolution is to lead to rejecting the earlier form of human existence, both its spiritual and physical aspects. The totalizing character of the autoevolutionary projects and Lem’s partially concealed meliorist anthropology ←143 | 144→give utopian qualities to the whole idea. From a humanist’s point of view, its most striking feature is complete rejection of human historicity and neglecting the impact of social processes on technological evolution and autoevolution. Yet those features are justified given other premises Lem accepts. In his vision, technology replaces culture in its function of a reservoir of symbolic meanings and values and thus technology interferes with every sphere of life, completely permeating human material environment – it becomes what philosophers used to call Lebenswelt.

This summary makes the structure of ST seem fairly clear, but Lem’s argument is constantly interrupted with dozens of digressions and side notes, which may give an impression of the whole being quite chaotic, especially to a reader unaccustomed to this kind of broad intellectual gestures that are so typical for this particular author. Moreover, he himself is frequently skeptical about his arguments and interrupts himself with self-commentaries, doubts or methodological remarks. As a result ST is a very layered text that renders itself very easily to diverging interpretations. By no means am I claiming that the attempt at interpretation that I am presenting here is the final one. ←144 | 145→