Katrinko Must Die
Techno-Alterations and the Human Code
|“||The figure of the cyborg helps us see more specifically whether other central stories of our age are accurate or useful. Many of these stories are ancient, about gender and power, life love and death. But others, entwined with them, are themselves cyborg myths, attempts to understand the broader implications of human/machine co-evolution which . . . develop, critique, and rewrite as they learn to “speak” cyborg, without forgetting whatever human or machine languages they already might know.||”|
In the preface to The Age of Spiritual Machines, Raymond Kurzweil suggests that the most important question that we will face this century is how we define the "human." Presently, we are on the cusp of technological achievements made possible by the advancements in microprocessing technology. The rapidly growing fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics offer new promise for the growth and evolution of humanity; freedom from disease, bomb-proof mile-high cities, an end to famine, more leisure time, quick and safe space travel, and even potential immortality could be some of the benefits. Therefore, as Kurzweil suggests, how we define human must take center stage as our technology advances: just what aspects of ourselves are too important to change through our interaction with technology? We already see these debates on the world stage: what begins with cloning will only increase as we gain more understanding of our bodies and how to manipulate them through genetics and nanotechnology. When we can see the code that lies at the center of the human body, it will not be long before we can recode, just as simply as sitting down at a word processor to re-write an essay.
Before we begin to recode our bodies, we must have a clear understanding of the implications of those upgrades by considering the ideological and physical construction of human. Bill Joy’s April 2000 article for Wired, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” casts doubt on our ability to integrate ourselves and our environments with our increasingly smarter and more dangerous technologies. Joy sees that further research into genetics, nanotech, and robotics without knowing precisely the implications of that research could end in the extinction of humanity in its present form. He states: “If we could agree, as a species, what we wanted, where we were headed, and why, then we would make our future much less dangerous.” It seems to me that both Kurzweil and Joy call for the same thing: a definition of the human, or at least an articulation of those characteristics that seem important to us as a species. Obviously in my short time here, I cannot cover this topic in much depth, but I can make some observations based on my participation with humanity and with my discipline of the humanities. Finally, I will offer a cautionary reading of Bruce Sterling’s Chattanooga Trilogy, published as three related short stories in his 1999 collection A Good Old-Fashioned Future.
In thinking about the human question, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable, as many of us in the humanities are in a postmodern world. Even the signifier human is an exclusive club, privileging one community over another using arbitrary characteristics of superiority, like education, skin color, class, and sex. The idea of community seems inseparable from the idea of the human; after all, is one person alone a human? Humanity is created and fostered through a combination of cultural milieu and physical being, neither of which can take place outside a certain community.
Much of the history of human communities divides the human flock into hierarchical dualisms that privilege one identity as the cultured ideal for humanity, homo humanitas, and marginalizes the other as somehow less sophisticated and deserving of contempt, homo barbaritas. Yet, Enlightenment practices tried to reconcile these disparities with the myth of the Universal Man: a universal and pure central essence of the human shared by all, distinct from context. Today, under the microscope of poststructuralist critique, this essentialized human seems an unlikely and even dangerous myth that cannot account for historical atrocities, contemporary inequalities, and even continued lip service played to the idea of the human.
While science and common sense can see that all humans do not share similar looks or body processes, we seem to share certain drives that are encoded into our genetic programs. While some might be attributed to culture, like the desire to be thin, to have hair only in the right places, and to be sexually potent into our eighties, some may lie deeper in the code, like drives to eat, sleep, and have sex. Perhaps it’s these deep processes that humans seem to share that motivate our construction of the human? How much of what we do in our lives is based on eating and having sex? The cultural critics and biologists can argue about this, but what happens when our technology gives us the control of these deep processes? What happens when we attempt to control with the click of a mouse or the pop of a pill what evolution has spent millennia programming?
It seems to me, at least for the context of this paper, that two important aspects of the human are (1) a sense of community, and (2) the drive for sex. To see the importance of these two aspects, I’ll spend the rest of the time indulging in a short reading of Bruce Sterling’s Chattanooga Trilogy to see what could happen when our technology allows us to manipulate these seemingly fundamental aspects of humanity.
In the stories “Deep Eddy,” “The Bicycle Repairman,” and “Taklamakan,” Sterling imagines the changes in attitudes, especially about the body, that our relationships with technology might precipitate. Each story offers a unique view of the position of sex and community based on the physicality of the protagonists. In “Deep Eddy,” the young protagonist “Deep” Eddy Dertouzas, armed with his spex, travels to Europe to tilt with windmills; Lyle Schweik, “The Bicycle Repairman,” equipped with his wrench, isolates himself inside his shop in Chattanooga wanting only to learn about bikes; and Spider Pete and Katrinko attempt a covert mission to the “Taklamakan” in search of Asian Sphere secrets. The stories follow a linear sequence, from circa 2035 to 2043, and appear to present fairly straightforward images of sex and sexuality that have developed over 3000 years of human cultural history. However, while Sterling hardly ever explicitly addresses community and sex, they are central to the events and attitudes in each story.
Deep Eddy is a teenaged poseur with pretensions. Sent by his spex users group, CAPCLUG, to Düsseldorf as a cultural liaison to the Cultural Critic, Eddy offers shallow opinions and observations of his surroundings and is caught up in a cultural event that he does not understand. His mission becomes one in which he just wants to have sex with his guide and reality instructor, Sardelle. A teenager on his way to Europe for the first time Eddy dons his spex so that he can have a augmented view of his surroundings. His spex, equipped with translation programs and other “spexware” that gives him an informational advantage over others, heighten his male gaze of the skin, but do not allow Eddy to penetrate that surface to see anything deeper than his own teenaged desires for adventure, excitement, and sex. Eddy’s assisted view, and CAPCLUG’s by association, seems almost humanistically utopian, in that this technology will offer humans a chance to connect in a more efficient way, like computers networked into a similar database. Rather than making guesses about one’s personality, spex allow a hyperreal glimpse into a person’s public and private self. Yet, I would argue, this assumption is deceptive in that these biographies worn like auras are themselves products of cultural assumptions and commercialism, and give no more insight into one’s true self as would reading the brand name tags on a person’s jeans. Therefore, Eddy’s reliance on his spex keeps him isolated in his supercilious, romantic world even in the cultural diversity of Düsseldorf.
While attempting to deliver his package to the Cultural Critic, Eddy becomes smitten with his guide and protector, Sardelle, based on her physical features viewable through his spex. Since she is a covert operative, Eddy’s spex give him no additional information, so he romantically focuses on her appearance. Even after completing his mission, Eddy decides to stay, though his choice will likely get him killed, for the Moral Referee’s forces are attacking those of the Cultural Critic in a literal manifestation of a literary allegory, like something right out of Chaucer. After luckily saving Sardelle, Eddy begins a sexual relationship with her, not a typically physical one, but one through “virching.” An advanced form of cybersex, virching requires specialized equipment for it participants and a network connection. It does not, however, require the presence of both persons in the same room with one another. This sexual relationship exists as purely stimulation through simulation with none of that pesky talking afterward required. Safe are Eddy’s views of how the world operates, and he gets what all teenaged boys want in the end. Well, perhaps not all.
Lyle, the bicycle repairman, offers another glimpse of human community and sexuality on the middle of the 21st century. Lyle’s own virching sessions ostensibly have little to do with sex: he gets on his bicycle and rides a half hour in the 2033 Tour de France. However, we soon discover that Lyle is not only a proponent of the Sexual Deliberation movement, he participates by taking antilibidinals. He makes his position clear in a conversation to his mother:
“I had girlfriends back when I was racing. I’ve been there, Mom. I’ve done that. Unless you’re cooked to the gills with hormones, sex is a major waste of your time and attention. Sexual Deliberation is the greatest civil-liberties movement of modern times.”
“That’s really weird, Lyle. It’s just not natural.”
“Mom, forgive me, but you’re not the one to talk about natural, okay? You grew me from a zygote when you were fifty-five.” He shrugged. “I’m too busy for romance now. I just want to learn about bikes. . . . Mom, I’m not asking you for any favors. I don’t need any bosses, or any teachers, or any landlords, or any cops. It’s just me and my bike work down here. I know that people in authority can’t stand it that a twenty-four-year-old man lives an independent life and does exactly what he wants, but I’m being very quiet and discreet about it, so nobody needs to bother about me.”
The reader must infer the particulars of the Sexual Deliberation movement, but ostensibly it battles against not only traditional patriarchal attitudes toward gender and sexuality, but also the actual bodily desires for sexual fulfillment. By curbing the physical desires to have sex, those energies can be refocused in other areas — in Lyle’s case bicycles and his idea for an inertia break — and rupture the ideologies that keep humans enslaved to gender and sexual roles and attitudes, or at least the concomitant bodily desires. This is an issue of control and self-direction; think about it: when one isn’t concerned with having sexual relations, how much time and attention does that free from one’s day, especially those close to Lyle’s and Eddy’s age? A brief look a Lyle’s lifestyle might offer some of the consequences of technologically assisted sexual deliberation.
Lyle lives by himself in a squat: his bicycle shop hangs from the roof of a burnt out floor in an apartment building called “the Zone.” He is terrible with names; he has bad luck with roommates; and he has come to “proper terms with [his] microscopic flora”: i.e., he uses a bacteria that converts human sweat into the “reek rather like ripe bananas.” His use of antilibidinals makes Lyle not antisocial, but asocial in that he no longer cares about “human” activities involving coupling, so he withdraws into his shop wanting only to concentrate on learning about bicycles, effectively separating him from the rest of humanity and making him something perhaps other than human. Despite is efforts to keep to himself, Lyle meets a covert government agent, Kitty, after he receives an old cable box from the wayward Eddy. She attempts to finagle the box from Lyle with sexual advances, but gets nowhere because of Lyle’s antilibidinals. After an unsuccessful attempt to steal the box, she is told of this fact: “Kitty stared at Lyle bitterly, ‘I see,’ she said at last. ‘So that’s what you get, when you drain all the sex out of them. . . . a strange malodorous creature that spends all its time working in the garage.’” Lyle’s use of antilibidinals upsets Kitty’s strategy to win the cable box with sexual advances. Since heterosexual coupling is the ideologically supported norm (evidenced my Lyle’s mom’s attitude to his abstention), gender roles and heterosexuality might be viewed strategically in that they are often used as a commodity. Yet, when these positions are subverted physically by antilibidinals, sexual strategies will no longer work as the impetus for sexual power play or a glue that bonds a community.
The desire for social acceptance seems to be a driving force in “Taklamakan.” Spider Pete and Katrinko have come to the Taklamakan as spies. Here we see the return of spex, the injection of subcutaneous body fat for sustenance in the dessert, gel cameras, gel brains, and smart ropes — technologies that augment the physical human abilities of the two spiders to live and travel in almost any terrain. Hidden beneath the dessert is a dark cavern housing three star ships guarded by self-replicating, robotic beasties created from a vat of biotech no longer under human guidance. These oozing and shambling masses of mechanized protein seem to exist to keep the center of the experiment contained: three groups of people in three separate starships that have been buried in the ground and ostensibly forgotten, like some heavily financed experiment in space travel that never left the earth. Hundreds of people, then, by the whims of a government, live deceived, as if their generational ships are traveling to another star, but the space that surrounds them is nothing more but a chasm crawling with self-forming biotech that eat anything.
Like the first two stories in this trilogy, “Taklamakan” also offers a view of technologically altered sexuality and consequently, community. The fact that Katrinko is a physical neuter, written on its body, reminds the ideological majority of its dissention by its very presence, even in language. Her companion in the dessert, Spider Pete, has his own difficulty with the pronoun, and opts for the feminine; his discomfort, however, is not surprising. While Pete shows no uneasiness toward Lyle’s ingestion of antilibidinals, Katrinko’s recoded body causes him distress. Since Lyle could stop taking his antilibidinals at any time and probably return to his sexual desires, Katrinko has been reprogrammed, and the results of that recoding are evident on its body: there is no going back. As a man in his fifties, Pete is one sense a social revolutionary in his position as a City Spider who “preferred the company of seriously twisted people . . . who really cared about something. . . . People who looked for more out of life than mommy, daddy, money, and the grave.” But Pete has a family to care for, implicating him in a traditional phallo-logocentric ideologies and making him more “straight” than he might like to admit.
The fact of Katrinko’s neuter-ness separates it from its society both in reality and actuality, as if, in Pete’s words, it “lived rather closer to the future” than he did. One physical benefit, like that of Lyle’s antilibidinal consumption, is its “eight percent metabolic advantage from lacking sex organs.” Since its body has been recoded as asexual, the very fact of this physicality precipitates all aspects of its reality. As a neuter, Katrinko is shunned from military service making it, in its ironic words, a “total freak and . . . a free agent” and necessitates its choosing another path to walk. Katrinko’s technologically altered body makes it something other than human — a figuration that it has accepted, albeit with some bitterness. When Pete confronts it with a “human” moral obligation to help the imprisoned peoples, Katrinko does not share Pete’s concern:
|“||“Look, I’m not ‘people,’” Katrinko said calmly. “Maybe it’s because I’m a neuter, Pete, but I can tell you’re way off subject. These people are none of our business. Our business now is to return to our glider in an operational condition so that we can complete our assigned mission, and return to base with our data. Okay?”||”|
Katrinko’s socially ostracized position prompts its initial reluctance to indulge in human preoccupations, and bolsters its drive to prove something to those that find the neuter difficult to accept: “I’m looking for some professional validation, okay? . . . This is my chance at the big time.” The “big time,” here, would be the exposure of this government experiment, that would, Katrinko argues, also help these people. Yet, despite Katrinko’s argument for their escape, it and Pete break into two ships and help the occupants of one ships win their freedom. In the skirmish with the biotech sentinels, Katrinko loses its life, suggesting perhaps that it still cannot adapt as well as the evolutionarily programmed, sexualized and gendered Pete. At least in this view of the future, Katrinko must die.
I read Sterling’s trilogy as intriguing but cautionary: even though our technology may in the next fifty years advance to the point where we can recode certain body processes, our ideological perspectives may remain too rigid to keep up at least initially. If our minds don’t change along with our bodies through technology, then we should consider the words of futurists like Sterling and Joy very carefully before altering the human, or we could end up couch virchers, malodorous hermits, or dead neuters, victims of our own technological carelessness.
- Gray, Chris Hables; Mentor, Steven; Figueroa-Sarriera, Heidi J. (1995). "Introduction: Cyborgology: Constructing the Knowledge of Cybernetic Organisms". In Gray, Chris Hables. The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge. pp. 1–14.
- Joy, Bill (April 1, 2000). "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us". Wired. Ideas. Retrieved 2018-08-18.
- Kurzweil, Ray (1999). The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Viking.
- Sterling, Bruce (1999). A Good Old-fashioned Future. New York: Spectra.