paranoid android

It’s almost always difficult to watch someone demonstrate a new bit of technology: the projector won’t cooperate with the laptop, there are glitches as the program is being shown. It gets uncomfortable to watch someone squirm, this is what makes The Office funny, the most awkward characters are the least aware of their awkwardness. But, really, some folks just aren’t born to make sales pitches. Douglas Hines, creator of Roxxxy the sexbot, is one of those folks.

Ceci sexxxy

And so, it is particularly difficult to watch Hines’ demonstration in part because he must not only surmount the problems usually encountered in presenting software, or in this case artificial intelligence, but he also has the double duty of convincing us he has a titillating selling point: pressure sensors in Roxxxy the sexbot’s three “inputs.”

And the stage directions would read here something like:
[DOUGLAS HINES, sweaty, eager to announce his new million dollar product, hovers above ROXXXY and begins inserting his fingers into its vagina so as to elicit a sultry, “Ooooh.”]

The Uncanny Valley Principle (courtesy of wikimedia)

Maybe it’s just that Roxxxy, bless her heart, is simply abject, the uncanny valley principle: Masahiro Mori coined the phrase in 1970 suggesting that the more closely robots begin to resemble actual human beings, the more revulsive and abject they become to the humans that interact with them. Who doesn’t want a pet robot? Sure, a Roomba’s pretty sweet; but it’s lacking something R2D2 and C3PO had. Yes, Threepio

Ceci n'est pas sexxxy

was annoying, but his prudish mannerisms aren’t as disturbing as Roxxxy. Is Roxxxy disturbing because it’s a sexbot and not a protocol droid?

Or maybe what’s awkward is the psychoanalytic vocabulary that Douglas Hines uses, “The True Companion Robot is a self-contained robot.”

“Containment” is a central term in the Object Relations Theory of psychoanalysis. It’s an extension of Melanie Klein‘s thinking on how the psyche operates. Klein, branching away from Freud, began studying how children develop relationships. The moment when a child is no longer allowed to breast feed, to Klein’s mind, is a traumatic moment. It’s the first in a long line of traumatic experiences. These traumatic experiences are revisited and relived in our minds over and over again. The net result of traumatic experiences can lead to suicide, homicide, all manner of psychological and physiological problems. The natural question becomes, of course, “how in the world is society possible if life is one traumatic event stacked on top of another?” Part of Klein’s answer is projection.

Projection allows us to map onto others the parts of ourselves we are disturbed by and this creates a safe distance between the disgusting parts of ourselves, now ascribed to others. It’s important to emphasize that projection, then, is an act rooted in a fear of being attacked, a lived paranoia that something bad is out there because, curiously, this is a central theme in the development of Roxxxy the sexbot. Containment, developed by Wilfred Bion, extends the projection concept by asking, “if there is identity projection, where does it go?” Bion’s container is an object, perhaps a fetishized object*** or an outgroup, but it is also can be the goal of the psycho-analytic process to become self-contained.

How to achieve a Parallax View

***Last summer, Slavoj Žižek told us a funny story about a fetishized hamster: A colleague’s wife had recently past-away, and his ability to cope with the loss many in the department found remarkable – he seemed unphased. The couple had children and their children had a hamster. The man became very much obsessed with this hamster, carrying it around, and generally maintaining a very close proximity to the rodent. Then, as Nature would have it, one day the little hamster died. This was a devastating loss for the man and it was at this point that all of his grief came gushing forth (you can watch the story at my personal blog, here.)***

Wait, rewind the tape.

Cindy Sherman's Untitled 255 (1992)

Did Doug Hines, after fingerbanging that droid in front of us, just tell us that he developed Roxxxy in response to 9/11?

Yes.He.Did.

In Douglas Hines’ own words, “I had a friend who passed away in 9/11…I promised myself I would create a program to store his personality, and that became the foundation for Roxxxy True Companion.” Is Roxxxy, then, quite literally Douglas Hines’ container? Is Roxxxy supposed to be understood, at least in part, as more than sexbot? Should we see Roxxxy as a therapeutic exercise.

We are faced with a similar question in Atom Egoyan’s film Adoration. Simon is a Canadian youth living with his uncle after the death of his parents. While living with his uncle, Simon attempts to make sense of the conflicting stories of who his father really was. Simon’s grandfather minces no terms: Simon’s father was a killer and he killed Simon’s mother. But Simon’s teacher encourages Simon to elaborate and develop a narrative where his father has gone missing after attempting to detonate a bomb he has planted in Simon’s mother’s handbag while on a flight to Israel.

Unexpectedly, Simon’s narrative of an attempted bombing spreads to unintended audiences via the internet. Now the passengers of that flight argue over the trauma of that moment, they illustrate what Hal Foster in his essay “Obscene Abject Trauma” called the lingua trauma.

Atom Egoyan's Adoration

The passengers of Egoyan’s fictional flight discuss amongst themselves the possibility that the traumatic is perhaps, “Whether it is real or fictional, once we imagine it we must deal with it,” states one man. “I don’t understand what is so seductive about being a victim,” replies a woman, “we embrace this sense of being a victim almost to the extent that it blinds us to the pain of others…” Passenger David, who, always on the verge of exploding himself, announces:

DAVID: It’s not like I was such a great person to begin with. I think that I am the guy who was blown to smithereens…
[OTHER PASSENGER: “what?”]
DAVID: …okay? In a terrorist attack. And, I’ve come back from the dead, to rage against these fucking assholes. Who. Believe. That killing yourself for an idea is something that’s, that’s, that’s, viable.
[….]
OTHER PASSENGER: But you weren’t, in fact, blown to smithereens. I don’t understand why you say…
DAVID: Did you hear what I said? “I am the guy who came back from the dead.” I am speaking for them.

Perhaps we’ve gotten used to the invocation of September 11 in our daily affairs; but doesn’t it get absurd at some point to do this?

Adoration poses the problem well: politics is today consumed in one of two forms: as absurd theater a la Jon Stewart and The Daily Show***; or as pornography, where the purpose is not to participate in the sex you are watching but to derive pleasure from the simulated act.

***Recall that watershed moment for American society in 2006 when Stewart was featured on CNN’s Crossfire? Stewart’s central thesis was that CNN and the Mainstream Media are lacking integrity, but The Daily Show (and we must assume The Colbert Report) are immune from this criticism because their shows exist solely to illuminate “the absurdity of it all.” See Cynthia Willett’s Irony in the Age of Empire.***

Are Douglas Hines and Roxxxy part of some performance art piece? This may not be an unreasonable question, after all, ABC News reports Roxxxy was designed after a fine arts student. Is Roxxxy modeled after a particular artist? Or is there something about artists that is inherently sexy?

This invocation of September 11 potentially serves as a moment of obscenity in the Roxxxy story, Hal Foster asks in a footnote, “Can there be an obscene representation that is not pornographic?” For Foster the difference between obscenity as potentially artistic and simple pornographic representation is

Still from Andrea Fraser's Untitled (2003)

determined in the staging of the event. This seems to be the inspiration for Andrea Fraser‘s Untitled (2003). Fraser struck-out onto (and at) the art world in 1989 with her performance Museum Highlights wherein she dressed as a docent and led groups around the museum explaining the art and the structure of the museum itself (including a public water fountain’s “economy and monumentality”). With her 2003 piece, Fraser asked a gallery to negotiate a commission from a private collector that would pay $20,000 for the first edition (of five) DVDs. The disc would lack audio but would feature the video of the collector and Fraser having sex in a hotel room.

It would seem that in order for Roxxxy to be considered more than simply a sex object the audience will have to encounter Roxxxy in a situation that André Breton requires of all beauty: the beautiful must be convulsive. Beauty will reveal, in a meaning-full way, the terrifying reality that all of this is impermanent. This quality of the Beautiful is necessary because convulsing is movement, a kinetic life, active engagement. The alternative to this reading is that Douglas Hines really wished he could have had sex with his now-dead friend, and seemingly at the crowded, geeked-out Consumer Electronics Showcase. I’d prefer to think of Roxxxy as a farewell to a dear friend, but I guess I’m a hopeless romantic.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “paranoid android

  1. Danteschool

    Problematic. The robot isn’t alive in any real sense so I guess you can project any kind of fantasy/trauma onto it and find it healing in a sense – why this has to be sexual is another question.
    But to me, because the robot isn’t alive in any meaningful sense, there’s no possibility of a reciprocal relationship. So ultimately this leads to a kind of masturbatory solipsism and probably a kind of insanity.
    The machinery is – not yet anyway – conscious and able to give consent and mutually enjoy the experience.
    Nietszche said if you stare too long into the abyss the abyss stares back. Similarly with technology. … See More
    You’ve got to be careful with this kind of stuff.

    • @Danteschool: Thanks for reading! We probably get more in this situation from Heidegger’s thinking on technology than from Nietzsche. The abyss in the Nietzsche you’re referencing is less illustrative of a relationship with technology and more the fundamental interrelatedness of reality. “Tat tvam asi” – thou art that – in the Upanishads.

      Heidegger, similarly, states that our Dasein can be revealed in an attunement of profound boredom. Not that I am bored and from this discover my richest possibilities as a person, but that the universe itself is capable of being completely disinterested in my project because the universe itself is busy with its own project.

      But, we should be really clear that Heidegger’s thinking on technology was really, really critical to understanding his oeuvre. A primary concern for Heidegger was that modernity in Western Europe, and the Colonies, had facilitated conditions wherein how we related to one another and to the universe at large was completely alienated. We were not only alienated from the products of our labor, as Marx stated, we are alienated from each other to the extent that we don’t even understand morality, as Nietzsche stated, but we are also fundamentally alien to ourselves, as Freud stated. Heidegger, as the inheritor of these thinkers, takes this in and says that among the attitudes driving these modes of alienation is also our societies’ zealous absorption of efficiency-seeking technology.

      If we pursue the most efficient path for too long, we find ourselves, the grossly inefficient things that we are, no longer fit to operate in that context.

      Now, if you reread what I wrote you’ll see that there is no need for a fetishized object to be alive (although I suspect Nietzsche and I are agreeance that everything is alive if we are just willing to extend ourselves toward it). A fetishized object is simply a relationship. We have relationships with everything thus the Abyss is able to stare back at us. Not anthropomorphized, but, uncannily, we see that Abyss that we’ve taken for granted and now we realize that it’s ubiquitous presence and thrumming life has proceeded without my attention. It’s like realizing one day that you’ve never noticed how many stairs are in your house, or that there has been a bit of graffiti on your bedroom closet wall for years and you never saw it. The Abyss staring back at us, in this moment from Nietzsche, reveals not only that the Abyss (all that empty, unexamined space in our lives) is actually full of life, but that this unexamined and intensely living space is integral to my being.

      You’re right to ask, why must it be sexualized? That’s why I wrote that essay. My response to the question is to ask, generously, if, maybe, in the wake of the tragic loss of a friend Douglas Hines grasped at any and all straws to find a container for his deceased friend. That’s what he said he was doing, at least. So, if Roxxxy is supposed to serve as a container, the next question must be, is it appropriate for me, as an outsider, to only see Roxxxy as a sexualized object – shouldn’t I also consider Roxxxy as something more than that?

      I mean, shouldn’t all people, regardless of gender (and let’s extend it to all reality), be thought of as more than sex objects – that’s why I included the Cindy Sherman and Andrea Fraser photographs. I look at those “art objects” which, in any other context would be see as only sex objects, and I suddenly have something like that Abyss moment: the world has become much larger than I previously thought it was. The world is much more interesting than I previously suspected, and shame on me for having assumed I have the only proper measure of the world, thus reducing the world to it.

      Never mind the thorny problems of consciousness and the moral calculus that you seem to suggest in insisting that whatever we might have sex with must meet this requirement of enjoying it as much as me. I’m not saying that sexual encounters shouldn’t be enjoyable, but I am saying that if when I’m having sex I’m wondering if the other person is enjoying it as much as me then I am probably entertaining a fantasy.

      That is the problem of sex, isn’t it? It’s supposed to be this moment of dissolution between two people, where we are obliterated in bliss, but sometimes you might find yourself, opening your eyes and saying, “My God, I look like an idiot, this is not sexy.” Ridiculous, right? That even when we are engaged in the sex act we would still say that this is not sexy. I refer you to Žižek on this particular matter, here’s another good place to start.

  2. The unstoppable flow towards post biology. My iPhone is an arc reactor.

    Either way. Welcome.

  3. A fetishized object IS simply a relationship, albeit a difficult one to comprehend as an outside observer. Isn’t every relationship sort of impossible to grasp if we don’t happen to be in it? Shame on us, indeed, for trying to fit anything we encounter into neat little boxes as being artistic, sexy, moving, or comical.

    Here is a another robot for you. http://www.pleoworld.com/Home.aspx?gclid=CNTD3amun58CFdx05QodUkGLfw

    Welcome the family, fellow hopeless romantic.

    • Thanks, Rachel! I’m stoked to be here.
      I think you’re absolutely right: every relationship is potentially so enigmatic as to solicit our commitment to learning about it for as long as we live.
      Emmanuel Levinas wrote that justice isn’t possible until there is a third (outside) person observing the relationship.
      Now, as for that tiny dinobot…I now want to watch Jeff Goldblum.

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  7. Danteschool

    Paul,
    You’re right my thinking on technology draws directly from Heidegger. As Herr Heidegger himself might have put it – perhaps more eloquently: the problem with computers is they don’t give a damn.
    Nothing matters to them. To be human is to derive your experience out of mood out of the experience of things mattering. That’s basic existentialism. I just don’t see how you can engage in anything resembling a relationship with a machine that doesn’t care. (Big C and little c.)
    Cheers,
    Danteschool

    • Hey Danteschool,
      Thanks for reading and responding!
      Of course we can have relationships with anything. Actually, the etymology of the word “thing” already betrays this fundamental relationality of all matter.
      But you are asking a very good question and I thank you for bringing it up: how to understand relationships that seem to possess no element of reciprocity in them? This was the fundamental problem for Heidegger’s relationships to Hannah Arendt and to Karl Jaspers. Arendt, as you may know, was once Heidegger’s student and as his pupil became his lover. Jaspers was Heidegger’s colleague but was always second fiddle to Heidegger during the pre-War years until Nazism was defeated. Heidegger didn’t really show much respect to either of these folks during their lifetimes. Were it not for the very active advocacy of Jaspers and Arendt on behalf of Heidegger, however, it’s very likely Heidegger would never have been allowed to teach again in Germany (because the Allies had set up these Nazi-hunting programs to ferret-out the former enemies and keep them form assuming power again in Germany).
      It’s a great question, how do we understand relationships that are inherently without reciprocity? It would seem you and I agree that everyone must at one point or another not only be the beneficiary but also the benefactor. Without this reciprocity that relationship seems likely to only lead to exploitation.
      Yr Pal Paul

  8. Danteschool

    Paul,
    I honor your concern about exploitation and agree that at some point we must become the benefactor rather than the beneficiary – those sentiments seem moral and just to me. I would add a caveat though that all relationships are inevitably about power, especially sexual relationships. This idea is attested to in a number of writers and thinkers notably Sade, Nietszche and Freud. It’s a function of our evolutionary biology – the will to dominate. Yet as a Christian I don’t think it’s the whole story. The quest for love is just as important as the quest for power and ultimately can’t be achieved without faith, in my opinion.
    That said, I do think you miss my essential point that I derive from an excellent book – Heidegger’s Temporal Idealism by William Blattner. The point is that Heidegger went counter to most Western thinking at least since Descartes that placed man thinking – the cogito – at the center of all philosophical effort.
    For Heidegger, the human is not separate from the world he encounters (a separate cogito). He is always Being-in-the-Word (the title of another excellent book on Heidegger by Hubert Dreyfus). And the human encounters this world not so much through thinking initially as through the experience of care – of things mattering. This is pre-objective rational thought. So mood is key for Heidegger. Mood assails us, we have no control over it and yet it is how we encounter the world. And for Heidegger even indifference is a mood. So perhaps I was initially wrong to say the problem with computers is that they don’t give a damn. They neither give a damn, nor don’t give a damn. The experience of giving a damn (mood) is completely foreign to them. So, it’s ultimately not so much about exploiting the computer or it exploiting us, as about the problem of anthropomorphizing an object that is completely unlike us. It does not experience the world in the way that we do, so to create it in an image of ourselves and equiping it with the semblance of human appendages is ultimately an exercise in futility. It is fundamentally not a woman (a human) and so can not relate to a man in any fundamental way akin to that of a human. This for me is where the danger lies, in creating something that looks like a woman and trying to have some kind of human (i.e. sexual experience with it). It can’t be done and leads to a kind of solipsism that will result in madness, in my opinion.
    As for Heidegger’s relationships with Jaspers and Arendt,you are right that there were tragic acts of betrayal on Heidegger’s part which I refer you to an excellent book by Rudiger Safranski Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil. I will say that Jaspers as far as I know did not come to Heidegger’s defense after the war – quite the contrary. Heidegger had broken off relations with Japsers in 1936, most probably because Jaspers wife was Jewish. This royally pissed off Jaspers and after the war when Heidegger asked Jaspers to write a letter recommending him to the de-nazification committee to reinstate his academic credentials, Jaspers responded with a blistering attack.”Heidegger’s mode of thinking, which seems to me to be fundamentally unfree, dictatorial and uncommunicative , would have very damaging effect on students at this time,” to quote briefly.
    Ultimately you have to decide for yourself whether Heidegger’s involvement in the Nazi party is relevant to his thinking. Zizek thinks Heidegger took the right step in the wrong direction. Heidegger himself seemed to learn a philosophical lesson about not being seduced by the will to power in the future and his later philosophy is concerned with the notion of non-willing namely Gelassenheit. Anyway, this will probably be my last post on this particular subject as I find the notion of what this man did as simply wrong on many levels. I will let you have the last word. Thanks for engaging me about Heidegger, don’t have much chance to discuss my fascination with German thinkers. My general idea on these guys is you can’t go wrong with German music, cars, philosophy or women. Keep on thinking. Denken ist schwer.
    -Danteschool

    • Again, Danteschool, many thanks for your comments, I benefit greatly from these.
      I’m not sure that I feel comfortable saying that all relationships are about power – that just doesn’t square well with my marriage or the dozen years I’ve shared with my dog. Sure, there exists a power dynamic, but to suggest that my dog and I interrelate as we do fundamentally as a contest of wills between us leaves us wanting a better heuristic for reading the profound lack of power struggle between us.

      In fact, were biological systems about power relations then we’re left wondering why dogs haven’t been known the world over for getting close and then, in the middle of the night, eating the throats of their human companions? We’d also wonder why so much of life itself is a matter of mutual exchange and why there is such a strong emphasis on interrelatedness rather than domination present throughout the entire biosphere. Of course, maintain your faith as you might; but it is possible to love without dominating.

      Befindlichkeit – how do we find ourselves, as the doctor asks when meeting the patient, “How do you find yourself today, Mr. Boshears?”
      Heidegger’s got this great bit about profound boredom being a fundamental attunement from which we are able to awaken to our being in the world; it’s not that we’re bored by the world but that the world itself is profoundly uninterested in us: es ist einem langweilig “It is boring for one” it here being the same it we refer to when we say “it is raining” an impersonal state of how the world simply is being at that moment. The world has its own agency, we come to find through the experience of this profound boredom, and thus it is possible for us to realize our utmost Dasein by consummately performing our relations with the world. This is where his poetic turn starts to make sense.

      Yes, Jaspers wrote that letter, but he also recommended Heidegger continue to draw a salary and publish as he wanted, and that ultimately Heidegger should return to teaching in Germany so in effect Jaspers called for an academic time-out for Heidegger. Jaspers also began writing letters to Heidegger again in 1949, addressing “the darkness” that had fallen between them. They, in fact, enjoyed many exchanges that year forward, Jaspers reading Heidegger’s essays and offering his feedback (perhaps not unlike what we’re doing here).

      You are right, we’ve gotten sidetracked on Heidegger. I joke that Heidegger is a gaseous giant, like Jupiter: Jupiter serves a role as vacuum cleaner, sucking up all these objects that might otherwise nail Earth and the other interior planets – Heidegger is that also. He’s out there, with his massive gravitational pull, ready to absorb lesser minds, such that they are consumed only by his thinking. As he said, “Most thought-provoking, in these thought provoking times, is that we are still not thinking.”

      I hope I continue to have the good fortune of having such an engaged reader as yourself in the future.

  9. Danteschool

    Paul,
    Just one final thought, then I promise to let you have the last word. Just to take it out of the realm of German speculative philosophy for a moment. What this guy needs is a girlfriend. Or a good therapist. Preferably both. He is a human being and needs human companionship, in my opinion – not a gadget. You know the old adage about pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. That’s the category that the imagery you’re disseminating here falls into, in my opinion. You’re not doing this guy a service by promulgating this obscenity. It’s denying him his dignity and privacy – essential elements in a sense of self worth.

    Cheers,
    Danteschool

  10. Hey Danteschool,

    Y’know – I really hope there won’t be a last word, and certainly not a last word between us. I thank you for your considered comments.

    I certainly hope that my piece here doesn’t come off as exploitative: in writing this my aim is to invite the reader to reconsider exactly the sorts of positions that can’t be defined but can be identified. You raise a great conundrum, though: this exhibition was not just public, but was a call to the viewer to support the relationship and to even bring Roxxxy into the viewer’s home as a special relationship. He himself stated that this was a strategy for honoring a lost friend. But, as you say, an understanding of dignity might be called into question by people less than generous in their listening to what he said.

    This writing is about generously listening, and rather than hermeneutical skepticism I try to trust what the subject is saying. Trust that the words that come to him at this moment are good enough to work with or if they appear to conflict with later words then I try to identify strategies for reconciling the seeming contradictions.

    I certainly don’t want to diminish anyone’s self worth in this writing. I don’t know that I can enhance it, but if I were able to present this writing to Mr. Hines, I would hope that he understood that I write this as a testament to his process of healing. My writing here is not about insulting Doug Hines, rather, I want to understand the world that has lead to my learning of Hines’ loss in this manner (through a post on a friend’s Facebook page, taken from a news service, written by a journalist in NV).

    Again, I hope that there won’t be a last word on this matter and certainly not a last word between you and I, Danteschool. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  11. Danteschool

    Paul,
    I’m sure we’ll continue to have many fruitful and interesting discussions. Thanks for the kind words.

    -Danteschool

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