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Robots Are Everywhere

By Annalee Newitz

DIESEL IS CURRENTLY advertising its clothes with sexy robot zombie models. I shit you not--check out their latest ads in the fashion magazines. Each ad features beautiful, young things dressed in Diesel, their eyes glassy, their faces made up to look like soft plastic. Beneath each model are the words "Save yourself," followed by a brief explanation of how this particular person managed to keep his or her looks for over a hundred years. One says, "Save yourself: don't think"; the advice is followed by a quote from "Graham Barnsworth, born 1890," who says, "I realized that the most intelligent people are old and unattractive. So I stopped using my brain. I may have the IQ of a hairbrush but I'm still as smooth as a 17-year-old."

My favorite of the ads features a computer, of course. "Charles Thackeray, born 1899," looks a little like Jude Law's monstrously compelling sex mecha from A.I. His head is connected by wires to what looks like an oscilloscope, and he's quoted as saying, "Computers revived me. Now I can stay beautiful forever, as long as no one pulls the plug."

These ads remind me that everybody wants a sex robot--you know, something gorgeous and mechanical, with a body that never ages and a brain that's always willing. Oh yeah, these boys are willing. They're posed with legs spread, their faces blank and suggestible. It's all very Atomic Cafe. Then again, perhaps this Diesel campaign is all about how everybody wants to become a robot. Being permanently hooked up to a computer would be worth it if you never aged beyond the point of being a sex object, right?

I'm not sure, but I think that's also the moral of Wayne Wang's movie Center of the World, which is all about a dotcom robot who has sex with a stripper robot in the mechanical wonderland of Las Vegas. Having recently made the mistake of renting Wang's movie, I feel like my entire cultural landscape right now is being populated with Diesel robots. Perhaps it's all fallout from the web revolution, which made the phrase "I work with computers" even more ubiquitous than it ever was. The dotcoms are dead, but our lives (and livelihoods) are more bound up with computers than ever before.

But why do people like Wang assume that working with computers will turn everyone into versions of the iMac? You know, pretty but possessing the personality of a desk lamp? I think the idea that we're becoming more like computers comes from people who buy into the one of the computer myths that started in the anti-tech 1960s. Back then, the human/computer divide was an us/them dichotomy. We were flesh and blood; they were metal and silicon. We could communicate with feeling; they had no emotional capacities. We could have flashes of insight and intuition; they could only carry out rote commands and follow directions.

And from these simplistic--and, at this point in the development of artificial intelligence, outdated--assumptions, we've come to believe that a life among machines is more of a living death. Working with computers supposedly makes us mechanical, passionless. It makes us into versions of the dotcommer protagonist in Center of the World, whose robotlike mind and pocket full of IPO cash inspire him to pay a stripper to be his girlfriend for a weekend. Wang, like so many people who misunderstand machines, blames dotcom boy's obsession with computers for his lack of social skills and infantile desires. But what really robs our hero--a virtual everygeek--of his ability to relate to other people as humans? Is it machines, or is it the mindless work he's asked to do with them?

Although we realize machines are, at this point, incapable of "making" us do anything, people like to blame computers for the dehumanizing ways we treat each other. When our bosses force us to work zillions of hours with machines, then it seems obvious that our social skills diminish--not because we're hacking code or writing columns or whatever, but because we're not being social. We're working. Any worker who was forced to labor without respite, even if her or his work involved plants or puppies, would become an automaton after a while.

Looking at those Diesel ads again, I think maybe they're a form of wishful thinking. If only it were pleasurable to be a robot, or to have relationships with robots, then our jobs would be a lot easier.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who likes AIs better than you.

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From the January 31-February 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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