21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Androids in the Academy

Zara Dinnen

 

There is something uncomfortable about David, the android from Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus. This is partly due to the various interpellations of the uncanny—and the uncanny valley—that arise from Michael Fassbender’s performance: an actor playing a machine, “playing” a human, queerly [1]. The layering of performances is reflexively implicated in the film’s narrative. David is shown to be an intelligent system—always learning behaviour, and playing with learned behaviour. Michael Wood, reviewing the film for the London Review of Books, gestures at this when he observes: ‘There is an android who makes cups of tea, learns ancient languages and models his diction and appearance on Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia […] Michael Fassbender plays David, the android, with terrific, elegant style, not as if he were Peter O’Toole but as if he liked Peter O’Toole—a fine distinction’. But the discomfort I refer to here is less about how human-like the robot is (after all an audience is fully aware that they are watching the actor Michael Fassbender rather than a robot or animation) than about the way this portrayal resounds with the means by which we humanise technology more generally. In this article I discuss the relationship between David and Apple’s recent software release, ‘Siri’—an “intelligent” personal assistant for the iPhone 4S. The resonances between the conceptual discourses that surround these two figures is instructive; potentially enabling us, as scholars and critics of the contemporary, to think about some of the ways we use fiction to defer and suppress the material facts of digital technology in—and as—culture.

 

Prophecy or phenomenology? New digital and robotic technologies need to be studied in order to understand the immersive experiences they offer us [Image by Jiuguang Wang under a CC-BY-SA license]

 

In his book The Uncanny (2003) Nicholas Royle suggests that ‘the uncanny entails another thinking of beginning: the beginning is already haunted’ (Royle 1). The relationship between technology and its representation in Science Fiction (SF) has a complex genealogy. It is not the case that we can simply say SF extrapolates from technological reality, or that technological development follows a trajectory pre-imagined by SF. Rather, these two positions are at once both the case, and in addition, there is something in between, where our perceptions of the technology we use are shaped by, and contribute to, fictional accounts of the technologies themselves. In this way there are no easy origins for the encounters between technology and SF. They always-already haunt each other, and encounters with both in wider culture persistently unsettle their relationship in uncanny ways. Recent writing about technology, particularly about digital, networked technology, has begun to work against the grain of SF-influenced prophesising of where technologies might be “leading” us as humans. Instead it offers a close attention to the material facts of technology, and to the current ways in which the digital is active in, and activates, culture. [2] As Steven Johnson describes, in his introduction to The Best Technology Writing 2009 (2009), the approach being taken ‘is phenomenology not prophesy’; recent critical work ‘looks at the effects of new technology as a real-time, immersive experience, not as preview of coming attractions’ (1). Writers such as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Matthew Fuller, Alexander Galloway, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Adrian Mackenzie, all take up this approach. They use theory to discuss the nuts and bolts, or bits and bytes, of contemporary digital culture; and in the process, they complicate the representation of this technology in science fictions. This article will explore an example of the murky boundaries between technological fiction and fact, using a characterisation of an android in the 2012 film Prometheus, to think not about the future role of androids in daily life, but about some of the ways in which the cultural figure of a robotic companion is already embedded in the ubiquity of digital, networked communication. 

The film Prometheus is a prequel to Ridley Scott’s Aliens franchise. In the run up to the release date the studio, Twentieth Century Fox, commenced a viral marketing campaign that explicitly filled out the fictional premise of Prometheus—offering potential viewers contextual stories and tantalising glimpses of the film’s narrative and visual quality. Perhaps the most arresting of all the videos was “Happy Birthday David”: an advert for the ‘David 8’ android—the latest version of David (from the film, presumably the version we see in the film). The full characterisation of David raises interesting critical questions. In the film these questions pertain to the depth with which David is seen to be thinking (questions that cannot be answered by accepting the in-film premise that the David on board the ship is a custom built model). The android is played by Michael Fassbender as acting through will rather than protocol; responding with emotion that elides any kind of programming of binary formulas or triggers. In the “Happy Birthday” video these questions are reframed. The aesthetic of the video owes much to advertising campaigns for companion technologies that are increasingly ubiquitous in our everyday lives—particularly smartphones and tablets. Through this frame of reference the video calls into play a more concrete relation between the imagined technology of the fictional ‘Weyland Industries’ (David’s creators) and the actual ways in which consumers and users are encouraged to think of their personal digital devices today.

 

How do we think of our personal digital devices today? "Hapy Birthday David" presents androids as characters [Source] [Video used under fair dealing provisions]

 

In the “Happy Birthday” video Fassbender narrates a description of himself as ‘David 8’. The video opens with Fassbender asking: ‘What is it about robots that make them so robotic?’ Watching the video several times in close succession I wonder if this last word shouldn’t be ‘hypnotic’, as David’s even register manages to be liltingly mechanical. Rather than answering the question of the robotic, the video instead offers its audience a description of what it is about robots that makes them so useful to humans—its answer, that they are humans without a hardwired set of ethics: ‘I can carry out directives that my human counterparts might find, distressing’. The video very carefully plays with this distinction. When asked what makes “him” sad, David lists a familiar set of crises—‘poverty, cruelty, unnecessary violence’. But the audience is made aware that David does not actually “feel” these things, he states (through tears): ‘I understand human emotions although I do not feel them myself’. The video gestures at David’s technology—it opens with a sequence of a robot being unpacked, and there are shots of David standing amongst shelves of metal skulls—but it emphatically avoids any images of intricate circuitry in favour of tiny-tears waterworks, and David in situ (picking flowers, painting a toy model, sitting in the lotus position).

“Happy Birthday David” was circulating online at the same time that Apple was (fairly relentlessly) advertising their new ‘personal assistant’ for the iPhone, Siri. Apple’s software is a sophisticated language recognition programme; according to the Apple website, an ‘intelligent personal assistant that helps you get things done just by asking’ [3]. This line from Apple is eerily echoed in David’s sales pitch, ‘I can do almost anything that could possibly be asked of me’. The “David 8” video deploys a similar visual language and tone to the Apple adverts. Notably the soundtracks of both adverts move between the minimal electronic bleeps of digital aural culture, and an epically uplifting, familiar pop piano (something that begs more consideration—the way technology advertising, through the syncing of lo-fi pop tracks, uses piano and acoustic guitar to warm the digital marvels of shiny new devices). The “David 8” video clearly plays on the Apple video—perhaps not in direct reference to Siri, but certainly as a pastiche of the particular marketing framework associated with personal computing today [4].

 

Intelligent personal assistant: Apple's voice recognition software Siri presents technology as a companion rather than a tool [Source] [Video used under fair dealing provisions]

 

The common emphasis of both the David and Siri adverts is the idea of assistance, technology as aide. In its science fiction skewing of personal technology, the representation of David as a personal assistant—one that physically occupies the same space as a human assistant—highlights the way in which we are already marketed technology as a companion rather than a tool. In a related way to how David is represented as a robot that can pass for a human amongst humans—‘I can blend in with your workforce effortlessly’—Siri is represented as an app that can pass for a Personal Assistant; not the person who assists but that which serves to assist your person. In the full-length demo of the new iPhone 4S installed with Siri that Apple released on YouTube, a man jogging commands Siri to move a meeting to a different time in his schedule; Siri responds, ‘note that you already have a meeting about budgets at 12.30pm, shall I schedule this anyway?’ This exchange takes place as the jogger talks into his phone through headphones and a microphone. The scene explicitly constructs the exchange as a phone call. Implied in the performance is that the jogger is talking through the phone to someone—to Siri. Siri’s response is a disembodied voice but it marks an absent presence—the body of the personal assistant checking the boss’s diary. Here then Siri is represented not only as a tool but as an intuitive program that functions as a kind of avatar—standing in for the person(al). In the context of Prometheus the robot David is designed to make those who use him feel comfortable with the advanced technology he is—technology that may challenge anthropomorphic views is made palatable through an animated anthropomorphism. Thinking about this in relation to Siri we might note that whilst Siri is perhaps the inverse of David—a disembodied application—this does not mean to say Siri is, or has, no-body. The Apple advert markets Siri as an absent body (the personal assistant), naturalising the procedural logic of the technology through a performance of human to human interaction (voice to voice) rather than HCI (Human Computer Interaction).

 

Questioning the impact of digital culture: how are we presenting the human body in increasingly nonhuman and estranging forms? [Image by Mick Amato under a CC-BY license]

 

By considering the resonances between these two videos I hope to have gestured at some of the ways they reflect and refract each other’s systems of representation; I have done so to suggest that fiction, in its very act of estranging and abstracting the technological everyday, can offer us a way to pay greater attention to that everyday. The representation of technology as compromised companion in Prometheus critiques and skews a representation we already encounter in its prosaic form. Through the fictional premise of David 8, an audience is presented with one of the particular ways the technology of Siri is effaced through its representation as character. The figuring of Siri as a dis-embodied, but understanding, voice belies the mechanics of this composite recording and its processing functionality. This proximity is far from simply a critical move I have made; both videos circulate online through YouTube—the proximity is instantiated through the technological culture they represent, create and critique.

By approaching the characterisation and performance of David with a present-ness of attention, it is possible to draw out the uncanny resonances of that odd character beyond the world of the fiction. To push at an understanding of the type facts from our everyday encounters with technology that it plays on, and with. Questioning processes of estrangement, to think more carefully about what is being estranged, and what is already estranged from our own knowledge, is vital to approaching representations of technology in literature and film in a way that is productive—that is, that helps us see the systems of our daily lives. Beyond video games, electronic literature and hypertext, digital culture enables much contemporary culture. We must be careful not to isolate the study of digital culture, to unwittingly permit the digital as a separate, possibly gated, academic discipline for those who programme and engineer. Instead we can think about the weird, uncanny ways the digital emerges everyday; with or without our full attention.

 

CITATION: Zara Dinnen, "Androids in the Academy," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 5 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 October 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.5.03.

 

Zara Dinnen is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, researching representations of the digital in contemporary American culture. She is Co-Organiser of the Contemporary Fiction Seminar at the Institute of English Studies and Reviews Editor for the AHRC-funded journal Dandelion.

 

Notes:

[1] The ‘Uncanny Valley’ is a term referring to the way people react to robots that look like humans. The theory, first outlined by Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, suggests there is a point at which people become repelled by robots that look too life-like. See Mori, “The Uncanny Valley [From the Field]” (1970, trans. 2012); and an interview with Mori, “An Uncanny Mind” (2012). More recently the term has been applied to computer generated animation that approaches photographic quality, to which an audience responds negatively—see Steve Rose for the Guardian, “Tintin and the Uncanny Valley: when CGI gets too real”. In the context of Prometheus the uncanny valley might prove, inversely, the point at which Fassbender’s representation of the robot is “successful”: the point at which an audience is able to fully suppress the knowledge that it is a human playing a robot (playing a human) along the ambiguous lines of the “life-like”.

[2] Here I am using the term ‘fact’ to reference the physical material that enables the more discursive formulation ‘digital culture’. That said in using ‘fact’ I am also pursuing something (slight) of the argument laid out by Bruno Latour in “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, whereby it might be necessary to dig back through the unsettling of facts in order to think again about the processes that prevent us from paying attention to things as they are happening. 

[3]  “FAQs” on the Apple Inc. website: http://www.apple.com/ios/siri/siri-faq/.

[4] The iPhone demo discussed in the proceeding passages is no longer available to view online. But the way that this demo represents Siri is shared across all the online and TV adverts for the program. 

 

Works Cited:

Apple Inc. “Learn more about Siri (FAQs).” Online posting. Apple.com. Apple Inc., n.d. Web. 05 July 2012 [accessed 20 September 2012]: http://www.apple.com/ios/siri/siri-faq/.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “On “Sourcery,” or Code as Fetish.” Configurations 16.3 (Fall 2008): 299-324. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/con.0.0064

Fuller, Matthew. Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2005. Print.

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How control exists after decentralization. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2004. Print.

Johnson, Steven. ed. Introduction. The Best Technology Writing 2009. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. 1-8. Print. 

Kageki, N. “An Uncanny Mind [Turning Point].” Robotics & Automation Magazine. 19.2 (June 2012): 112-108. IEEE. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/MRA.2012.2192819.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew, G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2008. Print.

Latour, Bruno. "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern." Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 25-248. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/421123.

Mori, M.; MacDorman, K.F.; Kageki, N. “The Uncanny Valley [From the Field].” Robotics & Automation Magazine. 19.2 (June 2012): 98-100. IEEE. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/MRA.2012.2192811.

Rose, Steve. “Tintin and the Uncanny Valley: when CGI gets too real.” Guardian. Guardian, 27 October 2011. Web. 13 August 2012 [accessed 20 September 2012]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/27/tintin-uncanny-valley-computer-graphics.

Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. Print.

Wood, Michael. “At the Movies.” Review of Prometheus. London Review of Books 34.13 (05 July 2012): 39.

 

 

Please feel free to comment.

4 comments

  1. Hi Zara,
    Fabulous article – I love the way you connect the sinister David to Siri, to show the dangerous seductions of technology in the real world and the role fiction/film can play in raising our consciousness of them.
    Reading it reminded me of Herbert Dreyfus's argument that the real risk of AI is not the creation of superintelligent machines, but of subintelligent human beings. I wonder if you thought that this is something that Ridley Scott is also playing with in Prometheus? In the film not only is David subtle, seductive and soothing but the humans by contrast are blunt, unintelligent and brutal. Lots of people have criticised the cliched nature of the film, but I wonder if Scott is being ironic with respect to the human characters. The audience knows that the first law of a Ridley Scott alien film is that you shouldn't look into the eyes of the dancing snake-like thing…which of course they promptly go and do. So whilst David humanises himself by watching Lawrence of Arabia, the human characters are dehumanised by their equivalent lack of filmic self-consciousness and of the artifical roles they are playing, as seen from the point of view of the knowing audience.
    Do you think this is a plausible reading? Or does this credit Scott with an irony that's not actually there? If the former, this could be a balancing aspect to the representation of the android (and one could also observe something similar in relation to Siri, who seems to be our tool but actually, in the advert you cite, points out the error that the ignorant human operator has made, and which she gently corrects). More likely it's the latter, and the irony is inadvertent – but just thought I'd mention it as one possible view.
    Thanks again for a great piece,
    Alistair

  2. Zara Dinnen /

    …. as if by magic (or digital materialism…)
    Really good point on the way Siri corrects the jogger– had completely missed that. And yet somehow this is not a tchno-dystopia (is it because she is given the voice of a long suffering PA?)
    I'm not sure how much of the irony Scott aims for and yes, everyone seems deeply disappointed by how generic the film is [?!] but I like the way you frame this, it is true, in a way, that the biggest problem is the charcaters act as if they have never seen a Ridley Scott film. Accept for David. Who is schooled in cinema (and people's memories… so maybe schooled in life on screen). 
    I've also been thinking about the two adverts and the difference I haven't really dealt with is David's "I". Despite Aplle selling Siri as a character, the character has no agency– Apple talk for "her". I guess maybe this is where fact and fiction split. But not sure.
    Thanks for the comments!

    • Hi Zara,
      Thanks for the response – so almost certainly Scott is not being ironic about the human characters…but then again this is the guy who made Blade Runner, and packed the Alien film full of Freudian references to the "mother" computer. So it is possible to see David as part of an ongoing interest of his, even if the rest of the film doesn't live up to the rest of Scott's oeuvre.
      On Siri, have you seen <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2012/oct/05/siri-iphone-robot-answers-machine">this recent story</a> on Siri's filmic references? Now this is a bit uncanny. One almost wonders if she too had read your article…
      Alistair

      • Zara Dinnen /

        You mean if Siri had "read" my article?! That would be crazy. I think David does fit into that lineage of Scott's but also I think that putting him into that line, and also in general in the context of android-in-film history, immediately over-burdens him with very particular questions about SF and AI consciousness, which is fine, but not that productive for trying to think of Fassbender's performance as contemporary– and as you say, as one with humour (and humanity….?).

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