Humans and machines Essay
Humans and machines
The interesting feature about discussing the interactions of humans and machines is the inadequacy of language describing these interactions or the ambiguity of the connections between humans and machines. What is really at the center of the debate is how society should view the place of machines or non-human elements within human society.
In addition, the application of the technological use of non-human elements in the modern machinery of war exposes the problem of how humans have changed the practice of warfare starting in WWI and how it made war evolve from a “human” experience to an “inhuman” experience instead of a “non-human” experience. The scope of this paper is to analyze the relationships of humans and machines in general as well as in the context of war. Discussion What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be non-human?
According to Casper, the human identity is not a natural state of “being”, rather it is a constructed identity in relation to the context that society gives it. (Casper, 1994) In fact, the recognition of human social identity and the positions or functions attached to it are based on our interpretation of where these elements should be placed, for example, in order to understand or define something, we place it in ‘mental boxes’ that simplify our recognition of identity and function within society. However, Casper argues that we cannot fully justify why we assign human identities to non-human elements or vice-versa.
(Casper, 1994) In order to illustrate the lack of consistency as to what we call human or non-human, she uses the example of the fetus that is considered alive for surgery, “a potential human” with human qualities but also a non-human agent for medical research using fetal tissue (p. 843). Casper mentions The Actor Network Agency (ANT) movement who finds that we should do away with natural/technical and social/cultural labels, which confuses our notions of what is human and what is not. However, this “analytical symmetry” treatment forgets to explain how we interpret the identities of agents and assign labels.
Understanding how and why we label humans and non-humans may help diffuse the confusion over agent identities that bother sociologists and society so much since they cannot seem to make sense of it, for example, some people talk to their car like it was a person but a car is not a person but why do some people have the need to anthropomorphize their car whereas they would call their dog “it”? Some people would insist that animals are living beings therefore that they deserve to be referred to as he or she.
(Casper, 1994) Another example in our technological society is the factory worker who gets laid off and replaced by a robot. The worker knows that he or she is better than a robot. Yet, the robot does his or her job consistently, faster, and without breaks. So, is the worker a sophisticated robot or is the robot a sophisticated worker? Bruno Latour would agree on that ambiguity because of our inadequate handling of situations in which non-human entities are mixed with human agents, especially from the perspective of sociologists.
(Latour, 1988) Latour deals with this debate skillfully using an illustration to make his points: the door in a wall, opening and closing thanks to hinges (non-human element) and a human door keeper who has been assigned to close the door each time it is opened. He argues that ‘the hinge always does its work’, precise and consistent while at some time, the human doorkeeper may falter. So, the door keeper could be replaced by a non-human element the ‘door keeper number 2’ to prevent the faltering.
The fact that we call the non-human element the door keeper even though it is not human, shows that we do not have ascribed what Latour calls “a coherent vocabulary” to distinguish humans from non-humans. Thus, his conclusion (p. 310) is that the reason why we have not done that is because “the delegation of competences and our social interactions imply the participation of non-humans. ” The confusion is that non-humans exist within a context of figurative/non-figurative speech, not a human/non-human context.
In essence, that is why we anthropomorphize our car. (Latour, 1988) Consequently, it seems that our lives are intimately intertwined with the use of technology, machines, and other tools, including robots as well as computers that all are non-human agents indispensable to our way of life. In fact, one particular illustration of such a reasonable conclusion can be found with computer hackers who, for the most part, are not considered part of ‘normal functioning society. ’ Sherry Turckle investigated MIT A. I. lab students who also are considered hackers.
The main recurring idea among these students (almost exclusively male) is the fear of social interactions with other people due to a lack of trust or understanding of social interactions. Hackers are known to be loners and self-admittedly feel in control of their computer and its actions. In fact, on p. 212, this one student states: “computers have become an extension of my mind. ” (Turckle, ) Their self-esteem, their existence become defined only through their medium, resulting in a gradual elimination of life experiences that paralyze them, adding to their needs to mask their personal fears of the world that exists beyond their machine.
(p. 208) In contrast, there are people who even today cannot use a computer because they are afraid of revealing to others their lack of computer knowledge that has become essential in our modern society. Some may get help to improve their computer skills whereas others become so angry with the machine, taking their anger, originating from their own lack of confidence in learning new things, onto this ‘stupid’ machine; some may even become technophobic. Unfortunately for our society, science and technology have been used for warfare. Historically, wars always needed improvement in their methods of killing.
As a consequence, the development of technology became a part of warfare while its propaganda glorified science and technology as the agents of victory. (Virillio, 1988) (Delanda, ) This became especially true as scientific knowledge evolved in physics, engineering, and chemistry. When WWI broke out in 1914, the weapons available then were the first of their kinds, the most inhuman of their kinds, killing many soldiers remotely: either gassing soldiers with the deadly gas phosgene or using machine guns or canons with an extended range to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible.
(Visvanathan, ) In WWII, planes, tanks, and ships became more and more sophisticated with technological advances like radar and sonar. The advent of using nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki horrified the scientists who naively believed that their work would be used to deter, not to destroy. (Kaempffert, 1941) “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” were dropped on these two Japanese cities; ironically, these two deadly bombs were named as if they were human themselves.
To the Japanese, the nuclear catastrophe and its aftermath on the population promoted the creation of the character “Godzilla”, a pre-historic mutant monster. With the Cold War, more weapons gradually became stealth weapons instead of ‘front’ weapons. Nowadays, machines have turned into non-human extensions of their makers or rather their military masters, for example, long-range surveying equipment on satellites allowing spying activities on neighboring nations.
Yet, is it appropriate to say ‘non-human’ when modern weapons like continental missiles can kill so horribly and from the comfort of a military base on the other side of the world? The military is relying on technology more than ever by using computers, artificial intelligence research, simulation modules that mimic a battlefield or even war video games whose graphics have been rendered so life-like that video gamers who are soldiers may not know reality from fiction, killing enemy soldiers without any care, as if they were video game characters, non-human or human?
In conclusion, the relationship between human and non-human agents is complex but not impossible to characterize if the realization is made that non-human agents are part of our environment and society. In fact, they occupy a greater place today than 10 years ago (computer technology, for example). The key to their seamless integration in our society is the figure/non-figurative reference style proposed by Latour as it is already used unconsciously by many of us.
References Casper, M. (1994).Reframing and grounding non-human agency: what makes a fetus an agent? The American Behavioral Scientist, 37(6): 839-856. Delanda, Latour, B. (1988). Mixing humans and non-humans together: the sociology of a door-closer. Social Problems, 35(3): 298-310. Kaempffert, W. (1941). War and Technology. The American Journal of Sociology, 46(4): 431-444. Turckle, S. (n. d. ) The new computer cultures: the mechanization of the mind. Book? , publisher, year? Virillio, P. (1988). War and Cinema. Visvanathan.