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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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23 Cyborgs, Androids and Robots

23Cyborgs, Androids and Robots

Based on the contemporary use of the word “cyborg,” one could think it has always been a vague theoretical concept, a means of utopian and highly abstract musings. It would not be true, however. Before posthumanism was born, the word signified quite a concrete entity, albeit also theoretical.

As was said before, in the final part of ST, Lem mentions in passing an article about cyborgization of man, and he most likely means the founding text of the entire “cyborg studies.” It is a short, few-pages-long text penned by two American scholars, Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, published in an issue of the journal Astronautics from September 1960, under the title “Cyborgs and Space.” Referring to the laws of cybernetics (which was at its peak of popularity at the time, we should remember), the authors presented the possibility of transforming the body of an astronaut through surgery in a way that would allow him to function efficiently during space travel and on the surface of other planets. The means to that goal would be to perform surgeries to eliminate body parts, which could not function properly outside Earth (e.g., the respiratory system) and replace them with machines, which are “normally” outside the human organism. Other organs would only be supported mechanically. Let us look at this text in more detail now.

The first sentence goes as follows: “Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically but also spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part in his own biological evolution.” The similarity with Lem’s thinking on autoevolution is quite clear here, but in this case autoevolution happens for utilitarian reasons: it is to facilitate space travel rather than to improve human condition, as it is meant to do for Lem. Further on the authors offer a definition of a cyborg: “For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term ‘Cyborg.’” It is followed by an expert discussion of “psychophysiological problems,” such as the functioning of various senses and organs of a cyborg during space travel. These issues are largely pertinent to “normal” cosmonauts as well (long periods outside earthly gravity, psychoses, changing metabolism, etc.). There is no discussion of possible emotional changes in a cyborg, however. Interestingly enough, Lem does not ask that question either, even though the stories about Pirx the Pilot prove that he understood well the psyche of a cosmonaut exposed to loneliness in extreme conditions for long periods of time. Lem is very rarely interested in how a cyborg or any other form of “artificial life” may “feel in the world.” It ←193 | 194→may seem odd in the context of the autoevolutionary project, but I have already tried in Part Two to show that this is really a grand-scale project. And then, Lem is generally against psychologizing, even though there are a few important exceptions to this rule.

I will return later to questions raised by psychology of posthuman creatures. Here I will only add that they can generally be seen as the opposite of Turing test. We are (potentially) in direct contact with a creature about which we know for sure that it is self-aware and intelligent. But we cannot know what their profile will be like. It will certainly differ from humans more than individual human minds differ from each other. Therefore any known standards of psychology based on conventions derived from human interactions are bound to fail us.

Clynes and Kline’s article was written in the period of the highest enthusiasm about the “conquest of the universe,” which soon faded away. Therefore the text became an inspiration not for science and technology but for sci-fi literature and then, as we have seen, for posthumanist theories. The evolution of the thinking on cyborgs is an interesting example of how a strictly scientific idea, marginalized by the growth of science, can gain new vigor in literature and the humanities.220

“Cyborg” is not the same as “android” or “robot.” Cyborg, as is clear from above, is a creature combining elements of a biological organism and a machine system, and the machine part can consist of macroscopic servomechanisms or microchips. The word “cyborg” is a compound of “cybernetic organism.” “Android” on the other hand is a machine created in the image and likeness of humans – which means it is a peculiar type of “robot” – the term covering all machines capable of movements. The word “robot” was first used by Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. from 1920 – and the Czech neologism is now used all over the world, thanks to its pronunciation, which is easy for non-Slavs. Cyborgs, androids and robots crowd the worlds of sci-fi literature and films, but there is no need to go into detail in that regard here, even though their role in mass culture is huge and one could certainly investigate the links between them and the ←194 | 195→“serious” posthumanism, especially as the theoreticians of posthumanism are very often fans of science fiction.

Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus,221 clearly inspired by Clynes and Kline’s foundational text can serve as an example of the theme of “cyborg in literature.” The protagonist of the novel is subjected to cyborgization, which is to allow him to live freely on Mars, but which also turns him into a monster resembling the medieval ideas of the devil. It is a rare version – in most cases, when the aesthetic aspect of cyborgization is taken into account, it is presented in a vision of an elegant figure of chromed steel. There is a whole separate current of “cyborg art,” which draws on just such fetishizing imagery. Pohl, however, models his hero differently, as this allows him to emphasize the physical and psychological pain the transformation causes. The author’s ambition is to create a psychological portrait of a man turned into a cyborg. Given the difficulties it entails, he succeed to a significant degree, even though the main source of Roger Torraway’s internal conflicts lies in the fact that his wife is having an affair with his friend, who happens to be one of the people carrying out the project of cyborgization. In the end Torraway-cyborg adapts fully to the conditions on Mars and becomes its first settler, no longer missing Earth or people (Pohl hence admits that cyborg becomes a form essentially alien to man and vice versa). One interesting aspect of the novel is that it turns out that the whole plan to colonize Mars with cyborgs has been devised for people by computers, which became intelligent unnoticed, through cumulating of computing power and the growth of network. In terms of its literary value, Pohl’s novel does not differ much from most US sci-fi productions, but it is an important impulse to understand, how the idea of a cyborg functioned in the mass culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Soon after cyborgs would become big in films, mostly through Terminator and RoboCop. This, however, goes beyond the scope of my argument.222 ←195 | 196→

Some scholars differentiate between cyborg in a sense used here before and phenomena that we can today describe as cyborgization. If we assume that any kind of enhancement of human organism by installing external devices is a form of cyborgization (and Clynes and Kline’s definition allows that), then we should say every human with a pacemaker, prosthesis or even contact lenses is a cyborg. If we treat cyborgization as a form of Hall’s extension – and it is acceptable given the broad scope of the latter term – then any man wearing glasses or talking on a cell phone would be a cyborg. In order to avoid such absurd conclusions, in 1995 an American scholar Alexander Chislenko came up with a word “fyborg” (a compound of “functional cyborg”), different from a “real” cyborg, and signifying a person who uses technological devices extensively in order to increase their own psychological and physical capacities. Many technology aficionados embraced the term, declaring themselves as fyborgs.223

Let me finish this topic with a brief discussion of the connection between cyborgs and cyberspace. The two terms are frequently uttered together, most often by theoreticians and critics of art engaging the modern media, who are excited by the new possibilities in that domain. I believe, however, there is a vast difference between the theory and the practice of cyberspace and cyborg or somatic autoevolution. It lies primarily in the fact that cyberspace is not tactile. Speaking about it, we usually have in mind something resembling a Platonic idea224 rather than matter; it is res cogitans rather than extensa. The only material thing a cyberspace user comes in contact with, the only sensory experience is the keyboard and the interface of the computer, occasionally with other peripheral devices, and then, if he or she is in virtual reality, they may interact with a number of simulators. Cyborgization on the other hand involves transformations ←196 | 197→of the actual matter, not a simulated transformation. The degree of the subject’s autonomy is another issue here. In cyberspace “I” can be misled freely by whoever provides the simulation of reality. We could see intuitions about the process in Dick’s novels, the precise description in the chapter of ST on phantomatics, as well the cinema rendition of this in The Matrix.225 In cyborg utopia on the other hand it is the machine that is subordinated to man rather than the other way round, and ultimately man and machine are to form a harmonious one.

Given the above analysis of the two phenomena, cyberspace and cyborgization should, I believe, be carefully differentiated. The fact that all these more or less fantastic projects and ideas tend to get confused with each other comes from all of them somehow pertaining to people and having a radical transformation of man as their aim. And the most radical variant of autoevolution, which I have classified as mental autoevolution, suggests no less than to completely shift human mind into cyberspace. All these ideas are internally connected, but many authors seem unaware of the complexity of those connections and the huge intellectual difficulties they entail.

220A valuable summary of the history of the theme of cyborgs in science and art can be found, for example, in Craig M. Klugman’s article “From Cyborg Fiction to Medical Reality,” Literature and Medicine,” no. 1 (2001). The author points out to the importance of the idea of cyborgization for medicine, especially prosthetics. He also emphasizes that the notion of a cyborg in the philosophical discourse is “non-Cartesian,” which means that it is not subject to the duality of body and mind. This thesis, very popular among the posthumanists and those interested in cyborg studies, is a clever way to neutralize the “mind-body problem,” which, as I have pointed out many times earlier, is the main challenge to the entire intellectual field discussed here.

221Frederik Pohl, Man Plus (New York: Baen Publishing Enterprises, 1976).

222To complete the necessary information, I need to point out that the most famous androids of literature and cinema are the characters of Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and its film adaptation Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott, whereas the fullest picture of a robot was drawn by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation Series (1951–1953, and then continued in 1982–1986). In all these works the ethical, psychological and social issues connected with the existence of nonhuman protagonists are thoroughly investigated. These important texts of the late-20th-century mass culture featuring cyborgs, androids and robots call for an exhaustive discussion but it would fill a separate book. Between 1980 and 1990, cyborgs often come in military contexts, as enhanced soldiers.

223Kevin Warwick, a professor at Coventry University (UK), declared himself to be a real cyborg, as he had electronic chips implanted a number of times since 1998, allowing him to control some devices from a distance. Warwick became quite popular with the media and came to be an icon of cyborg studies, but his projects are often criticized as scientifically worthless tricks for publicity. His endeavors have little to do with theories discussed here. But they can contribute to progress in making the lives of people with various impairments easier.

224See, for example: Michael Heim, “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” in: idem: The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Heim’s thesis that cyberspace is “a practical incarnation” of the notion of idea in Plato’s thought can only be treated as a loose metaphor. In another text Heim claims that cyberspace fulfills Leibniz’s concept of monadology (strict separation of subjects, communicating solely through highly mediated codes).

225Slavoj Žižek offered an interesting philosophical interpretation of cyberspace in his essay The Matrix, or, the Two Sides of Perversion (1999). He sees it as a fulfillment of Malebranche’s idea of occasionalism: every act of will of a subject is mediated and carried out by computer software. This and the previous footnote are examples of how many philosophical associations the notion of cyberspace can produce. ←197 | 198→←198 | 199→