Monday, February 18, 2019

My Battery is Low and it's Getting Dark

"There's a little black spot on the sun today,
that's my soul up there
- The Police, "King of Pain."

"My battery is low and it's getting dark."

Of course, these were not the actual last words of the Opportunity Rover, which sent its last transmission February 13th -- a routine status report that was not quite as poetic or existentially charged as its anthropomorphic translation. What set it apart was only that it was the last report Opportunity would ever send.

When I wrote Posthuman Suffering, I was thinking of exactly this kind of relationship between human beings and machines. And the momentary poignancy as this virally flashes across a social media landscape shows us exactly the dynamic I tried to elucidate: we want our machines -- our technological systems -- to legitimize and validate our own pain: in this instance, the pain of existential dread.

This object -- an only semi-autonomous planetary rover -- was designed to last 90 Martian days (a martian day is about 30 minutes longer than one on earth). It dutifully lasted over 5,000, spending its final moments in a valley, enshrouded by the dark of a major planetary dust storm. Its "dedication," coupled with the finality of its message, affects us on a deep emotional level. It "dies" alone. Its last status message is transformed into a last fulfillment of duty -- calling out to earth, noting the encroaching darkness and its own dwindling power supply. We are often fascinated by these real and fictional moments, whether it is the HAL 9000's halting rendition of "Daisy, Daisy," or Roy Batty's "tears in rain" speech from Blade Runner,  we feel a certain empathy as these fictional and real machines sputter and die.

Where most believed that we were simply projecting ourselves (and our fears) onto our machines, I took it a step further. This wasn't mere projection; it was a characteristic of a deeper, more ontological relationship we had with these machines. Yes, we are sad and lonely because we see our own existential loneliness in the dust-covered rover now sitting, dead, in a distant valley of Mars. But, more importantly, we're satisfied by it. Satisfied not due to any inherent sadism or misanthropy; quite the opposite: we're satisfied because it keeps us company in that solitude.

If you've ever pulled our your smart phone to take a picture in low light, and it gave you a low-battery warning, you received pretty much an analogous message that Opportunity sent back to NASA. Yet, in that moment, you're more likely to be angry with your phone rather than want to cradle it in your arms and serenade it with David Bowie or Imogen Heap.

But this -- this object that was 54.6 million kilometers away.

And it was alone.

And it was dying.

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why NASA would "translate" Opportunity's final transmission in such a way (a way to "humanize" science, or perhaps even authentic, heartfelt emotion for a fifteen-year mission that was incredibly successful and coming to an end). Regardless, the reaction on social media, however fleeting it may be (or may have been), falls somewhere between empathy and solidarity.

The object sitting alone on Mars, made by human hands, the product of human ingenuity, partakes in a broader, deeper loneliness in which humans partake. Yet, there is no way to share such loneliness except metaphorically. And in this case, it's the humans who make the metaphors. If anything is being extended here, it's not humanity, it's metaphor. The mistake many cultural theorists make is to present this dynamic as simple anthropomorphization: we're personifying "Oppy" (interestingly enough, quite often as female: "she's sent her last message"). But that's not exactly what's happening. We're re-creating Opportunity into something else: through metaphor we are making it into a unique, autonomous, metaphorical entity that can and does feel.

In this posthuman suffering we were extending our autonomy, and all the suffering that goes along with that autonomy. We imagine ourselves sitting alone, reaching out, texting into the dark, hoping for some kind of response; posting on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram because it's not socially acceptable to say "I'm lonely and need someone to speak to and also I know someday I will die and that makes me feel even more lonely and I need some kind of contact."

So we post or text, and wait for authentication and validation.

In many ways, Opportunity rover is us, alone, in the dark, posting on social media and hoping for some kind of response to tell us we're not alone.

I've often said in my classes that every social media post -- no matter what the content -- is simply a Cartesian expression and can be translated into "I exist."

I say less often in my classes that there's always an existential codicil to these posts:

"I exist and I'm afraid of death."

But now, as I make a turn in my philosophy, I realize that the existentialist in me was too dazzled by the idea of our own, consciousness-based fear of death: a survival instinct complexified by a cerebral cortex which weaves narratives as a means of information processing. And when I thought about this in light of technological artifacts and systems of their use, I was too focused on the relationship between human and object rather than on the human and the objects in and of  themselves. In other words, I was being a good cultural theorist, but a middling philosopher.

The Opportunity rover is "up there," alone, amid rocks and dust. On the same planet are the non-functional husks of its predecessors and distant relatives. It was unique; the last of its kind. We imagine it in the desolation. We weave its narrative as one of solitary, but dedicated duty, amid rocks and dust. When we think about Opportunity, or any of the other human-made objects sitting on the moon, other planets, asteroids, and now hurtling through interstellar space (alone), the affect that occurs isn't a simple projection of human-like qualities onto an object. In the apprehension of the object, we become a new object, an Opportunity/human aggregate that is also constituted by the layers of sense-data, memories, emotions, experiences, and platforms through which much of that phenomena is brought into awareness. Metaphor isn't a thing we create or project, it is the phenomena of a distributed awareness.

To paraphrase "King of Pain," the speaker's soul is many things:
A little black spot on the sun today.
A black hat caught in a high tree top.
A flag pole rag and and the wind wont's stop.
A fossil that's trapped in a high cliff wall.
A dead salmon frozen in a waterfall.
A blue whale beached by a spring tide's ebb.
A butterfly trapped in a spider's web.
A red fox torn by a huntsman's pack.
A black winged gull with a broken back.
And, in the context of the song, there are other objects existing that aren't necessarily in the awareness of the speaker:
There's a king on a throne with his eyes torn out
There's a blind man looking for a shadow of doubt
There's a rich man sleeping on a golden bed
There's a skeleton choking on a crust of bread
The first group of objects (black spot, black hat, rag, etc.) are directly equated with the speaker's soul. But the second are not. They are just objects that frame the broader existence of the speaker, embedding them and all other objects in a broader world of objects, distributing the "pain" via the images invoked. The poignancy of the song comes with the extensive and Apollonian list of things, things that aren't necessarily solitary, sad, or tragic in and of themselves, but come to be so when folded into a broader aggregate that just happens to include a human being who is capable of understanding the above lyrics.

Whereas most would say that it's the reader that is lending the affective qualities to these objects, we need to look at the objects themselves and how -- as solitary objects embedded in a given situation, whether "real," "sensed," "imagined," "called to mind," etc. -- these objects create the "reader."

Getting back to our solitary rover, the pathos we feel for it comes from the images we see, our broader knowledge of Mars, our basic understanding of distance, the objects on the desks around us or the bed we're sitting on, the lack of any messages (or a particular message) on our phone, the dissonance between the expected amount of likes, loves, retweets,  comments on our last social media posts and the actual number of aforementioned interactions, the memories of when some caregiver may have forgotten to pick us up after karate practice, the dying valentine flower on our nightstand, the dreaming dog at our feet, etc., etc.

We feel for it not as a separate subjectivity witnessing something; we feel for it as an aggregate of the "objects" (loosely defined) which constitute our broader awareness. This is, perhaps, why on some level, for some particular people, at some particular moments, we are more moved by this object on a distant planet than we are from seeing suffering first-hand by a stranger or by the larger tragedy of our own dying planet. Certain aspects of this object, plus the objects around us, plus the "objects" of our thoughts, come together in a particular way creating a particularly emotional response.

It feels like the world is "turning circles, running 'round [our] brain[s]," because our brains are constituted by the "world" itself, even if that world includes a planet that we've only actually seen via pictures on the internet ...

... and a small robot, dying alone in the dark.