Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

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Data and Baudrillard, by Franco La Polla

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Data and Baudrillard

by Franco La Polla

translated from the Italian by Alan N. Shapiro

This is a translation of one chapter of Franco La Polla’s book Star Trek: Foto di Gruppo con Astronave (Bologna: Editrice Punto Zero, 1996; pp.106-113). La Polla, a distinguished Professor of the History of North American Culture at the University of Bologna, Italy, has written and published at least 3 books on Star Trek. Almost all of the thousands of books published on Star Trek were written in a relatively thoughtless manner by their authors, put together in haste to make money. In contrast to them, La Polla’s books on Star Trek are rare precious gems of high intelligence.

I had coffee with Professor Franco La Polla in Bologna in the summer of 2006. The evening before, he had given a brilliant introductory lecture to James Dean’s Rebel without a Cause in front of hundreds of people in Piazza Maggiore, before the showing of that classic film. During our coffee, he told me that he regarded my book Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance as now being the definitive academic and post-academic work in the field of Science Fiction Studies. And science fiction film and TV are the literature of today. He gave me copies of two of his Star Trek books. Since Editrice Punto Zero has gone out of business, Professor La Polla owns the copyrights to both books. He said that he trusts me to use the material however I deem appropriate as a “good communicator.” He gave me free license. My feeling is that it is artful to intersperse passages from my book on Star Trek with passages from one of Professor La Polla’s books on Star Trek.

* * * *

What characterizes Star Trek: The Next Generation is the fact that we feel and experience more deeply and more often the problem of identity of the android Data, and not the situation of any other living being on the starship. On more than one occasion – for example, in the very beautiful episode “The Measure of a Man” – the show expresses clearly the allusion from Data to Pinocchio.

In the amphitheater-like courtroom, Riker begins the trial by making a brilliant case, based largely on Data’s own deposition, that his dear friend is nothing but a machine. Sitting in the witness chair with his hand over the identification scanner, NFN NMI (no first name, no middle initial) Data testifies that he has a maximum storage capacity of 800 quadrillion bits, and a total linear computational speed of 60 trillion operations per second. He can effortlessly bend a plasteel rod packing a tensile strength of 40 kilobars with his bare hands. Commander Riker dispassionately removes Data’s left hand and forearm from his body to show their internal electro-mechanical composition. With this action, Riker symbolically robs Data of the appearance of human subjectivity. “Its responses are dictated by an elaborate software written by a man, its hardware built by a man, and now a man will shut it off,” the prosecutor proclaims.

Riker flips a switch in Data’s back, just below his right shoulder blade, and the android collapses into unconsciousness. “Pinocchio is broken, its strings have been cut.”

Data lives – if this is the accurate term for it – in the desire and in the curiosity of one day being able to be human. He has his own Geppetto in the figure of Dr. Noonien Soong Khan, the unorthodox scientist who created him, and with whom he has at least one meeting, just before the latter’s death, in The Next Generation episode “Brothers.”

In the year 2367, in the episode Brothers, Dr. Soong summons his “son” Data to visit him in his hidden skunkworks by activating an “encoded homing circuit” in the sublogic controller of the Enterprise-D Second Officer’s positronic brain. Soong then operates the android via remote control. Data commandeers the starship, which is en route to Starbase 416 to secure help for a medical emergency, while in a trancelike state. He plots a navigational course to Soong’s Planet, increases speed to warp factor 9.3, locks out Picard’s command authorization by speaking in the Captain’s perfectly duplicated voice to the computer, and beams down to join his father in the elderly scientist’s secluded tropical home.

Unforeseen by Dr. Soong, the homing circuitry of Data’s evil twin brother Lore also responds to the electronic signal. The more volatile artificial sibling shows up at Soong’s secret doorstep not long after Data. Since Soong believed Lore to be long dead, he did not pay any heed to the fact that the Brothers are nearly identical in their hardware specification and transmission conduit channels. Lore participates in the extraordinary three-way conversation that ensues among the reunited immediate family members, with all parts played by the versatile Brent Spiner.

The balding, white-haired Dr. Soong confides to Data and Lore that he is soon going to die.

In a certain sense, Data’s problem is that of feeling and experiencing himself as being the realization of the dream of a man, whereas his own dream is to realize himself as a man. But the problem is larger than what he himself thinks: in the very moment when Data seems to have reached his goal, the thing reveals unforeseen and downright dangerous aspects. If in “Data’s Day” the android was able to gloriously assert,

“If being human is not simply a matter of being born flesh and blood, if it is instead a way of thinking, acting and feeling, then I am hopeful that one day I will discover my own humanity. Until then, Commander Maddox, I will continue learning, changing, growing and trying to become more than what I am.”

then in the two-part episode “Descent,” when Data finally succeeds in gaining possession (but only in a partial way) of the chip that should make him complete, implanting in him the capacity to experience feelings, the effects provoked by the chip turn out to be very troubling, starting from the moment when the first feeling ever felt by Data has a negative character. Which is better, the “good” robot of the Isaac Asimov tradition, or the much more evolved robot [who is not one] – able to identify himself with the human – that this segment of this Star Trek: The Next Generation episode shows? The answer is obvious. Moreover, as his friend Geordi LaForge reminds him, perhaps it is only a question of postponing the actualization of one’s own desire. To destroy the emotion chip would not serve anyone’s interest. Once all the glitches have been removed and the code fully debugged, the chip will be able to provide to Data exactly what he dreams of, and without any danger. It is obvious that behind these words is hidden another hope, the hope that not an android, but men, human beings, will one day be capable of receiving and utilizing both the oldest and the newest conquests of technology without these monumental achievements entailing any danger.

But can emotions exist without danger? Having emotions puts you at risk for pain and loss as well as joy. That’s part of what it means to be human.

It is significant that Data, in the episode “The Most Toys,” does not kill his treacherous and miserable kidnapper-would-be-executioner, although he leaves us with the shadow of the suspicion that he might have committed that act. We feel the android to be superior to the wretched collector Fajo all the more if we perceive that Data could have avenged himself on Fajo but in fact did not do so.

The uncertainty regarding the ultimate humanity of Data is a historical-existential necessity for us human viewers at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Paradoxically, Data’s condition mirrors our own radical uncertainty today in nearly losing yet trying to regain the ability to truly place ourselves in the psychological condition of feeling oneself as human. What is so interesting about the android condition of Lt. Commander Data is that it discloses the extreme difficulty of the human condition as it really is today under hyper-corporate-capitalism. More than merely the search for humanity, it is the challenge which all of us now face in an obligatory confrontation with ourselves that we can no longer evade.

Data is also well aware of being, in the final account, an object which is not only scientific, but aesthetic. Faced with the evil twin brother Lore, the first thought that occurs to Data is the insight that Lore’ s return brings him to awareness of the meaning of his life. Data knows that he is that which remains of a genius mind, the mind of Dr. Noonien Soong, the man who created him. He is Soong’s work of art. In “The Measure of a Man,” Data replies to another scientist, Dr. Bruce Maddox, who would like to dismantle him in order to analyze him in depth: “When Dr. Soong created me, he added something to the substance of the universe.” To destroy the android, therefore, would mean that “something unique, something marvelous, would be lost.” Here one sees very well exactly how we are one step beyond the theorization of the Asimovian robot, even if Data’s “ethical program” is the equivalent of the famous Three Laws of Robotics, an ethics which enables him to be “good” from the moment that he is capable of distinguishing good from evil. This, it is necessary to admit, cannot as easily be said of Pinocchio. But the connection between Data and the famous puppet is undeniable. Even in his appearance, the android has something of the look of theatrical make-up composed of collodian. That round face of artificial color, those big eyes of his, and that prominent nose — features which all marry themselves perfectly to the lightly mechanical gestures of his head.

Brent Spiner has done an extraordinary acting work on this character, softening the squeak of every possible tension between what Data is and what he would like to be. It is difficult for anyone who has seen “Brothers” to forget the final close-up frame of Data who, with his admirable facial mimic, responds to the remark of Dr. Beverly Crusher (“brothers always forgive each other”). The beauty of Spiner’s interpretation lies in his capacity to render each assertion, each trait, each human “information” into a source of interest and even, at times, of wonderment through small gestures, minute details in the movement of the face and of the head. It is there, more than in the literalness with which he takes in and adopts language, that the character of Data expresses the best of himself. The question is not so much one of form and of screenwriting, as it is one of superior acting capabilities which have made his character the most original and probably the most beloved of the entire Next Generation.

Even beyond Star Trek, in Data is crystallized and emblematized an important moment in the development of the whole terrain of science fiction. To the spaceships and the amazing technologies which characterized a good part of the early days of science fiction (especially in the 1950s) what later arose as extension is a reflection that went beyond the old vision of social progress, taking into consideration the possible negative implications of the progress, or its uses in terms of deprivation: in brief, technological advancements as opposed to human and civil advancements (or if one wants, positivism against humanism). It was this development which unleashed, starting in the 1960s, the apocalyptic elaboration warning of ecological catastrophe. But then the computer revolution intervened to complicate the picture. Its consequences have been (1) the roboticization of science fiction in terms infinitely more perfected than in the past: in other words, in relation to the by now old technologies of special effects; (2) the accentuation of the bizarre, comic book-style, and even horrific elements as an alternative path to high-tech.

In turn, the consequences lead to other consequences. The detailed and photographic-representational creation of a perfect and superior technological body led to a true and proper analytics of the body. Jean Baudrillard, in his iconic work Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), subdivides the “characters” of contemporary times into animal, corpse, robot and mannequin.

In certain “body art,” observed closely, the body loses its distinctive elements, becomes confused with its replicas, as Ridley Scott teaches in an exemplary way in Blade Runner, or is proposed as a perfect functionality, a substitution of roles (Terminator, Robocop). Such a strict nearness implies a cancellation of time since it proposes the body as an imperishable, indestructible factor: a function that once upon a time was partly a state of nature – tarantulas, mantisi, ants – or the unknown and the alien. Today, on the contrary, the body is an artefact, often mutant (at times in terms which touch on ontology: see The Thing by John Carpenter). And here we arrive at a rather important point, the subject of change, of metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is the distinctive sign of the era of the absence of the subject, of special effects, of fragmentation. Science fiction cinematography is replete with films like Total Recall by Paul Verhoeven and The Abyss by James Cameron. Metamorphosis, sign of that particular and largely autonomous robotic form which is the mutant, appears often as a threat, but is also dialectically connected to a stability, to an unattainable certainty. In a certain sense, it is a factor which denounces nostalgia: any return to certainties, to the securities of identity, to an order which is no longer. Metamorphosis in science fiction is equivalent to (or corresponds to) television zapping: the incapacity in our times to identify oneself with a form – fleeing continuously from definition and, hence, from comprehension. In other words, from completeness and order.

The theme of metamorphosis appears several times in both the first and the second Star Trek series. In The Original Series, it appears in “Metamorphosis,” “Whom Gods Destroy,” “The Deadly Years,” “Catspaw,” “Errand of Mercy,” “Mudd’s Women,” and “The Cage / The Menagerie.” In The Next Generation, it appears in “Identity Crisis,” “The Best of Both Worlds,” “The Dauphin,” “Unnatural Selection,” “Transfigurations,” and “Future Imperfect.” In The Original Series, metamorphosis was rarely an issue for the crew of the Enterprise, except sometimes as a figure of age, conditioning and mutating the body in the difficult process of growing old. In The Next Generation, metamorphosis presents itself as a danger and threat imposed from the outside on a few of the Starfleet officers (Captain Picard, Geordi LaForge). The nature of metamorphosis seems to vary, propelling them into an alternative dimension, transforming them, into animals (Geordi and Susanna Leitjen in “Identity Crisis”) or into cybernetic organisms (Picard in “The Best of Both Worlds”), consistent with the Baudrillardian categorization mentioned above.

It is precisely in these cases that the spectator feels very strongly the gap that the new condition indicates: not a death, a complete cancellation, an absolute loss, but rather a transformation that triggers a mechanism of fear and apprehension and, above all, of nostalgia for the familiar and usual images of the characters concerned. All of science fiction cinema of recent years has gotten us used to the acceptance of the robotic, and in particular to an aesthetic dimension of its image. From the moment that it is not intelligence – an undeniable component of robotics – that is suggesting a possible link between robot and human, then it is left up to aesthetics to function as the connection. In films like Blade Runner or D.A.R.Y.L., the most recent androids exhibit a poetic and/or poietic capability the importance of which, once again, was glimpsed by Asimov in Bicentennial Man, where the main title character makes works of art with the intention of earning his freedom through the creative act, realizing in this way his dream of becoming human. Obviously this is only a dream: when Data dedicates himself to art, he succeeds better in its technical aspects, in the arts of performance: dance in “Data’s Day,” chamber music (Chopin) in “Lessons,” or even in painting, in which he becomes very expert (to the point of harshly criticizing Captain Picard in “A Matter of Perspective”). But none of this actually makes him into an artist. At poetry he is no good at all (the ridiculous “Ode to Spot” in “Schisms”). His true work of art, in any case, Data fails at it – and in the saddest and most suffering way – in “The Offspring”: the creation of a daughter, Lal, who lives for little more than two weeks. Superior illusion of a credential qualifying him for humanity, the idea of giving a body to a creature as if she were a biological conquest is the most absurd yet the most human among Data’s discoveries.

Data does not realize that all of his attempts to identify himself with the human are the best proof of his contiguity – if not of his very identity – with what he is searching for. Each of his desires is more human than any realization of them. Each of his failures is more human than any success. Yet even this humanity, which is obvious to us, is related to in the mode of conquest, demonstration, defense. In the exemplary “The Measure of a Man” – a Shakespearean title which is beautifully consistent with the premise of the episode, related to “The Merchant of Venice” – Data must confront not so much the accusation as the beliefs of Commander Maddox, the powerful institutional scientist, and also the convictions of many others. According to them, he does not have human rights, he is just an android. With these beliefs, the others negate an individuality, a uniqueness, and in the end the very right to life of the cybernetic being. The problem is not simple. For the Starfleet officers and Enterprise crew members (and for the viewers), used to Data’s presence, to his warmth, to his intelligence, to his reactions, to his very way of speaking, he is certainly comparable to a human being. But, in the final account, as perfect and as admirable as he may be, he is just a robot.

Only an historical era devastated by a dramatic crisis of the subject like that era which we call postmodern could pose this problem to itself. The terms of the problem are the same as in the past, but the emphasis now is different. Data speaks of an “ineffable quality of memory” which conserves “the flavor of the moment.” In this subtlety, the android succeeds in the aesthetic operation to which he was not able to give embodiment even in creating a daughter (let us not speak of his poetry…): the comprehension of that which connects the past and the present individual, which, at the same time, characterizes and makes unique the experience of the subject. This is precisely what makes Data succeed in becoming a subject, in becoming something not different from a human being. The removal of his arm by Commander Riker, named as prosecuting attorney in a trial which is not a trial, cannot be understood as a purely technical and neutral act. Riker apologizes a bassa voce to Data, ashamed of himself for an act that he, like us, feels to be an offense to humanity as the violation of an individual. An individual made of circuits? It is the sage Guinan who provides the solution to a dejected and demoralized Captain Picard, Data’s defense attorney, while he is taking a short break in Ten-Forward.

Sitting together late at night in the deserted recreation room, Guinan hints to the Captain that the real issue of the trial is slavery. The hearing’s true significance is the imminent danger of long-term subjugation by the United Federation of Planets of a race of expendable creatures who would do society’s “dirty work” and menial tasks. If the arrogant Maddox and his kind have their way, the black-skinned El-Aurian sage suggests, the harrowing outcome will be “an army of Datas, all disposable. You don’t have to think about their welfare. You don’t have to think about how they feel — whole generations of disposable people.”

Captain Picard suddenly recognizes that Guinan is talking about the rebirth of slavery. If he loses, the decision made at this hearing will establish the precedent of all future Soong-class androids being regarded as nothing but property. It is not just about Commander Maddox being granted authorization to carry out his disassembly procedure. It is about the fate of all the future Datas that Starfleet will build should Maddox or some other robotics scientist succeed. It is about the act of humanity degrading itself by treating its humanoid technological creation in such an instrumental way. Slavery, says Picard, is “not a word we want back in our vocabulary.”

Picard returns to the courtroom and his place next to Data. Inspired by Guinan’s insight, he magnificently turns around the basic issues of the trial. He opens up searching questions about the nature of the Federation and ourselves. What would declaring Data to be property say about us? What kind of beings would we be if we define androids in this condescending manner? How will we be “judged as a species” if we behave towards our creation in this way? “If they’re expendable, disposable, aren’t we?”

Picard calls Dr. Maddox to the stand as a hostile witness. “Do you know what he is?” the Captain rhetorically asks the Commander several times in setting forth his turnabout reasoning. “I do not know,” says Picard. “I do not know what I am.”

“Commander, prove to the court that I am sentient!” Picard coaxes Maddox into admitting that the eminent cognitive scientist does not know how to define his own self-awareness. He can only manage the circular, self-referential tautology that “I am conscious of my existence and actions, aware of myself and my own ego.” Data, on the other hand, is “a piece of outstanding engineering and programming.” In a classic metaphysical binary opposition, it is as if this “technical status” assigned to Data excluded him from taking part in human and cultural life. But, Picard points out, Data seems “pragmatically” just as self-aware as Maddox. “Am I property or person?” Data responds when Picard asks him to describe what is at stake in the legal hearing in which Data is currently participating. “My rights. My status. My right to choose. My life.”

Maddox finally admits that he does not know what Data is. Picard has made clear that what we think about Data will “reveal the kind of a people we are.”

Robotics, to return to where we started, is not to be read as a search for perfection, but rather as a nostalgia for it (Roy Batty of Blade Runner being probably the highest and most intense image of this). Even if this perfection is attained, it will never coincide again with the original (and from this stems the connection with the threat and the danger that at times its image and its figure represent). Data, the perfect android of the positronic brain, incarnates precisely the awareness of this impossibility. Humanity, in its obvious contradictions, identifies itself with the ultimate stage of perfection to which it aspires. Data is one of the masks of the contemporary imagination, the true human of THE BIG PICTURE precisely due to his search for humanity, to his identity that is constantly subjected to rejection, to an inadequacy, to a question.

In “Legacy,” Data explains to Ishara that, even though he is not able to experience feelings or emotions, created within himself is a sort of familiarity with certain people which can lead to the desire for the “input” of their presence when absent, to a desire for their closeness. Here Data attributes to himself, in a substantially Pavlovian mode, an instinctual model of an animal type, placing himself on a further step on the stairway that leads to his personal heaven. Yet Ishara, whom he desires as a friend and who professes friendship towards him, betrays him. The final scene of this episode signals the true triumph of the android, more human than most self-styled and professed human beings: Ishara, by now ready to be teletransported to Turkana IV, pleads with Data to believe her that he was the closest thing to a friend that she ever had. His face serious and without passion, he opens his mouth to say dryly: “Energize.” He beams her out. Ishara could not have had a worse punishment: rejected by an android for being humanly much inferior to him. The entire episode, for the rest, is a festival of unfulfilled desires, of personal projections onto an inadequate individual (Ishara), a magnificent illustration of how our affection desires to pin itself onto someone, and how very often we elaborate fantasies to this end. The episode is an elucidation of how, to say it most succinctly in three words, thank God, we are human. Ishara, on the contrary, the sister of a very beloved human being who has been lost, is not human (umana non è). She is mistaken for human only in virtue of the humanity of others. Including an android.

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