I've written before here about David Gunkel's research and thoughts on the social rights of robots. He's now summed up the many arguments for and against — and contributed his own, based on the philosophy of Levinas — in a new book, Robot Rights, from MIT Press. I jumped at the chance to review it, and it's finally published online.
And, hey, Gunkel referred to my review as "positively brilliant"!
Early in their experience, journalists — most of them, I believe, probably naively — often experience something of a reckoning. After some time assembling different combinations of the five w’s (who, what, where, when, and why) and sometimes the extra h (how), newspaper reporters realize that much of their work is not writing at all, not in any literary sense. They begin “trying to understand why the conventional newspaper story … fail[s] to capture the essential truth of the experience.” Because when you’re on a beat, you’re a short-order cook, slingin’ hash. There may be eight million stories in the naked city, but a cops reporter isn’t weaving narratives as often as she’s simply stringing together just the facts, man, and in less than 300 words, please.
This epiphany can be positive or negative. It can lead to a change of career or a visit to the editor’s office to ask not for a monetary raise but an elevation in scope, opportunities with a bit more depth of narrative and space on the page. In the mid-20th century, a bevy of writers experienced a similar revelation at around the same time. Parallel to challenges to other social mores, these writers sought to break down and break out of the rigid AP pyramid standard for story structure. Novels had so many techniques, journalism so few: why not cross-pollinate? New and reimagined magazines, from Esquire to Rolling Stone, welcomed the experimentation. History classified their collective efforts as the New Journalism — and Tom Wolfe was the best of the lot.
Science for the People was an organization of scientists and science workers who banded together around the turn of the ’70s to express concerns about the commercialization, industrialization, and militarization of science. The group raised awareness of a multitude of issues, organized and balanced public debates (which sometimes included disrupting establishment conferences), and published a spiffy magazine for nearly a decade. Worried about how science was being used against people, SftP advocated for.
In 2014, a conference was organized at UMass-Amherst to examine the group’s legacy. At the close of the event, several attending students and scholars from across the country met to discuss ways to continue the examination, even ways to revive and evolve the mission of SftP. I was fortunate to be among this group, and the result of our decision has finally been realized in a new book: Science for the People: Documents From America’s Movement of Radical Scientists, now available.
My research focuses on technologies that bring digital projections of dead people “to life,” in a sense (or several). Part of my historical work tracks particular reasons the word “hologram” has been so easily applied to resurrected performances of, for example, Tupac and Michael Jackson, despite these presentations and their apparatuses having nearly nothing in common with actual holography. That is, they are not precisely related technically. The spectral imagery produced by both, however — the life-sized human bodies and parts of bodies that are there but not there — are part of a lengthy project in certain corners of human culture. Holograms and “holograms,” as well as the Pepper’s ghost stage illusion, certain representational concepts on either side of Renaissance art, on back to occasional practices at the Delphic oracle — these are technical presentations that both reckon with the dead and create a media effect I call “holopresence.”
So the new film Marjorie Prime — a chamber drama about four characters swapping their mortal bodies for posthumous digital “holograms” — was, you might imagine, a must-see.
(Spoilers to follow)
“What year is this?”
It was an extraordinary last line for a wide variety of reasons. Aside from those relevant to the narrative, it’s a question I hear asked often of pop cultural events. Like: “Nintendo is releasing a mini NES? What year is this?” “Billy Idol is opening for Morrissey? What year is this?” Even and maybe especially: “A new season of Twin Peaks? What year is this?”
Sunday night’s anticipated finale of Twin Peaks: The Return capped an extraordinary run of television. That certain chunks of this 18-hour avant-garde odyssey are out there in the stream now — for everyday channel surfers to just stumble upon — blows my happy mind.
This post is not a review of the show — there are plenty of good ones out there now — but just a quick knocking together of some thoughts about the series’ intriguing engagement with representational technologies and death. (And it does contain spoilers!)
Attending San Diego’s famous annual Comic Con is a breeze — when you’re an STS grad student, at least. The lines for the Netflix trailers and movie sneak-peeks and TV cast conversations? Long, like crazy-long. The lines for the science panels? What lines?
I think I possess the very opposite of a macabre personality, but I’m thinking a lot today — in grave detail, shall we say — about my father’s corpse.
Jimmy LaFave left Oklahoma as a young man — just like one of his biggest heroes, Woody Guthrie — then lived an entire life continually inspired by the red dirt he left behind, haunted by his homestate histories, and consistently pressed into service as an ambassador for its culture.
He didn’t seem to mind. “There’s something about that part of the earth that sticks with you,” he told the Tulsa World nearly 15 years ago. “I have to go back there from time to time to soak up some energy and inspiration. I plan to end up back there myself one day.”
I don’t know if he’s ultimately ending up back in Oklahoma, but I’d always been convinced he never actually left.
Throughout my life I’ve been a student of Christopher Isherwood. The avocation ranks as one of my supreme personal joys. Post-election, however — certainly post-inauguration — I find his subjective ruminations on Germany in the ’30s less abstract, starker, unsettling, more palpable. I’m beginning to recognize his texts in the world around me.
This should be a book lover’s joy. Not this time.
Writing about Facebook profiles as memorials to the dead, Patrick Stokes notes that “our social identities are not necessarily coextensive with the biological life of the individual human organism with which they are associated, and thus it is not the memory of the dead person that is being honored and sustained through this form of memorialization, but some dimension or extension of the dead person themselves” (367). This is part of a growing body of literature that has coalesced around the agency of the dead — an agency facilitated specifically through durable, mediated representations of formerly living bodies.
My research is rooted in a sizable patch of this, but I’m commenting on some of it here because of a couple of nifty examples encountered just this week — mediated, shared, and hyped performances by two public figures who are no longer alive. (Warning: a few minor “Rogue One” spoilers lie ahead.)
People think I don’t like Leon Russell, and nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s my own fault. On the way out the door as pop music critic for the Tulsa World newspaper back in 2002, I reviewed one of his shows and kinda let him have it.
In a welcome break from election trauma, the usual Trump v. Clinton opining across my social-media feeds has been balanced this week by a different argument: “It’s high time Bob Dylan won the Nobel” v. “It’s a travesty Bob Dylan won the Nobel.”
Even amid my curation of friends and followers — heavily weighted as each set is with fellow folks and folkies in the orbit of the Woody Guthrie Center and that same city's new Bob Dylan Archive — the split has been nearly half and half. Like the presidential polls, such overall ambivalence is surprising, particularly because this particular box of Pandora’s has been wide open for some time. What’s been especially astonishing to me, anyway, is the vehemence with which some fans — of literature, not necessarily of Bob — cling to an outmoded compartmentalization of mediated experience.
The movie about Trump’s rise to power — his steamrolling of typical political strategies, his wielding of entertainment and emotion over policy and fact, his irascible irresistibility in the face of plodding traditionalism — was made more than 20 years ago. It’s called “Bob Roberts.”
It’s a great “mockumentary,” but, like “Idiocracy,” it’s no longer very funny now that real life in America seems to be taking the gag seriously.
I’ve been trying to define what kind of scholar I am for five years now. My answer remains fluid — a bit more like Silly Putty now, but not yet firm like concrete — perhaps to the dismay of my current adviser. The journey of discovery is a more finely honed process than initially expected. Arriving in grad school, I simply thought I’d be trained to become a scholar — you know, like every other scholar. Of course, I quickly learned that this involved a game of Twister, placing hands and feet on established fields, theoretical perspectives, and myriad schools of thought, as well as playing tug-of-war with my own critical insights, situated knowledges, and bees in various bonnets. Thankfully, my first cohort (at UI-Chicago) happened to be one that landed in front of Kevin Barnhurst for class one, semester one: Philosophy of Communication.
The Shadow, a vigilante crime fighter in an eponymous early 20th-century radio drama, foiled evildoers by using his supernatural power to cloud others’ minds to mask his own physical and psychological presence. Each program began with the narrator’s tagline: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
The characters in “Noon at Dusk” — a new chamber opera by composer Stephen Lewis and librettist Yi Hong Sim (a colleague of mine at UCSD), recently premiered at UC-San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Music Center Experimental Theater — possess little criminal or evil intent, yet they likewise struggle against shadows and cloudy judgment. Across an inventive narrative arc and shot through with unsettling music, two couples face shadows of themselves and must consider precisely what lurks within their own hearts.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.