Fixing Broken Robots: First Reviews

"Fixing Broken Robots is a remarkably astute and inspiring exploration of systemically related causal links between people and technology. Many of these, by generally being unrecognized or ignored, are much like the proverbial 800 lb gorilla in the living room whose presence is essential to recognize and successfully deal with if we are to avoid utter cultural and ecological catastrophe. Because the book treats ideas from many different intellectual disciplines as well as those having no currently recognizable intellectual discipline at all—such as what author ‘Mark’ Bailey calls the trancewar—the book invites a type of careful reading that requires many stops along the way to simply reflect on and mentally integrate the provocatively penetrating insights being put forward.  It is a worthy extension of the equally provocative 1974 SRI report, published commercially in 1982 as Changing Images of Man, which it comments on in detail."

Oliver Markley, Emeritus Professor of Human Sciences and Studies of the Future, University of Houston-Clear Lake; project leader, SRI research on ‘The Societal Consequences of Changing Images of Man’

Review by Rashard Zanders:

1. A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by humans except where it would conflict with law #1.
3 A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection doesn't conflict with 1 and 2.

The three laws of robotics – Asimov

In the epigraph listed above, substitute the word 'robot' with 'technology'.

Among the myriad questions posited in Fixing Broken Robots – System + Trancewar Primer: a transliminal perspective on the changing relationship between people and technology, written over the course of five years by Twin Cities based artist/philosopher M. David Bailey asks “How can our society's relationship with technology be considered and talked about in ways that are meaningful and empowering?

Taking a multi-disciplinary approach, this relationship between tech and humanity is at the center of FBR. Bailey dissects several earlier studies and assumptions about technology's ubiquitous role in almost every aspect of human activity, and calls for a serious re-evaluation of those assumptions largely responsible for “business as usual” miasmas and inequities that mark modern America and the so called western world: “...Having maintained 'business as usual' despite ample warnings against doing so...we are now left to navigate myriad catastrophic social and environmental problems whilst simultaneously defending against both technologically empowered jerks and the increasingly intrusive onslaught of the 'friendly fascism' used by our control regime to further maintain a 'business as usual' societal trajectory against our best interests.” (pp 43)

The book at 79 pages is thin, though not a quick study: think tank references and academic terminology will challenge the reader to slowly digest the information Bailey is delivering. But one of his main points is clear and repeated throughout: that “Every person deserves a life, and access to a world that can be made to meet their fundamental needs. We have become technically capable of making this happen, and yet do not make this happen.” (p. 42)

So is the world hell-bent on avoiding best practices? Is it necessary to deny the necessities of life to some to enhance the quality of others'? Do we hold to customs and traditions that have in fact brought us to this state of inequality across the socioeconomic spectrum? And what kind of robots will there be if most programmers are sympathetic to the misogyny evidenced in the 'gamergate' controversy from just a few years ago? What kind of algorithms do people like that program their tech with? These are just some of the questions I formed as I went through FBR.

M. David Bailey has done a great service with FBR, which should rest on shelves as a type of prolegomena to any headlong rush into future technologies, and as an invitation to apply them for best practices, not 'business as usual'.

Rashard Zanders is a freelance writer living in the Twin Cities. He can be reached at rashard.zanders@gmail.com

Excerpt of a Review by Zachary Newell:

In Fixing Broken Robots, M. David Bailey adopts a multi-disciplinary approach to examine one of our society’s most definitive attributes: the relationship between human and technology. Bailey divides his work into two halves: “Volume One: SYSTEM,” describing our society’s movement into the postindustrial era, and “Volume Two: TRANCEWAR PRIMER,” which discusses how to reconsider our relationship with technology in the interest of producing a more equitable, environmentally-responsible postindustrial society. Throughout both, Bailey includes poignant illustrations and insightful diagrams helpful in elaborating the concepts introduced, with Bailey working throughout the text to synthesize an analytic model for examining our relationship to technology: for examining, in other words, the defining phenomenon of contemporary society.

However, even before the table of contents, Bailey provides a terminology explaining that, for him, “technology” refers to something more abstract than just what devices we can create and manipulate. Rather, he explains that in his use the term describes “any systemization of an art, as per the word’s origins, as well as to describe what products, methods, etc.” derive from such systemization.

In this sense, Bailey considers “technology” as not just electronic gadgets themselves, but also includes the scientific knowledge and productive capacity allowing for their manufacture. Accordingly, an analysis of the relationship between humanity and technology in this sense demands a scope beyond that available to a concrete discipline. Indeed: of what method guides his analysis, Bailey writes in the introduction that his method’s only consistent feature is its “requirement that increasingly more sense of the subject be made over time.”

Perhaps that requirement accounts for the dynamic variety of disciplinary fields from which Bailey assembles the “transliminal perspective” promised in the subtitle. Drawing on the research Michael Thalbourne (1955-2010), an Australian parapsychologist who worked at the University of Adelaide until three years before his death, Bailey describes “transliminality” as “a measure of sensitivity to psychological material (imagery, ideation, affect, and perception)” originating either in the unconscious or in the external environment.

The necessity of a transliminal perspective for examining the relationship between technology and humanity may become more apparent after reading Bailey’s short comments on the unconscious and on the external environment. For him, the unconscious “is not … subordinate to conscious awareness. Everything is assumed to be an environmental response here, but it is also assumed that there are dimensions of environment that are not and can not be noticed, described, or understood.”

With this in mind, we might suppose that, for Bailey, ‘the unconscious’ represents a response to dimensions of the external environment beyond notice, description, or understanding. Therefore, we may understand Fixing Broken Robots as analyzing the response of the collective unconsciousness to the conditions of technological advancement which have redefined its environment—an analysis which, of course, seems unimaginable in any form besides a multi-disciplinary.

After providing us a guide to his terminology, Bailey begins “SYSTEM” with an introduction discussing the complications that our relationship with technology has produced for contemporary society. In Bailey’s analysis, our technological advancements have, unfortunately, still not “immunize[d] against the myriad foolishnesses of our ancestors”—those being, the complementary historical tendencies to identify the events of their lifetime as possessing some hallmark significance revealing some hidden influence or conspiracy at work (perhaps linking these events to those described in the Book of Revelations, for example), and those who believe the virtues of their neighbors and their species to demonstrate an irrecoverable decline. Indeed, if one would enjoy the exercise, you may observe these complementary tendencies at play in the binary view of American politics, which functioned for several decades as a slow waltz between the ‘imminent-ized eschaton’ of the religious Republicans and the resigned acceptance of neoliberal economics among progressive Democrats.

Of course, such binary views—and the familiar narratives that accompany them—seem precisely what Bailey would like us to avoid when we consider our situation in all its complications, so that we might examine them with only the barest number of blinders... (Complete review is available here on Diaphora Magazine)

Zachary Newell is a co-founder and editor of Diaphora Magazine


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