Cyborg Theology and An Anthropology of Robots and AI

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Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology and Kathleen Richardson’s An Anthropology of Robots and AI both trace histories of technology and human-machine interactions, and both make use of fictional narratives as well as other theoretical techniques. The goal of Midson’s book is to put forward a new understanding of what it means to be human, an understanding to supplant the myth of a perfect “Edenic” state and the various disciplines’ dichotomous oppositions of “human” and “other.” This new understanding, Midson says, exists at the intersection of technological, theological, and ecological contexts,and he argues that an understanding of the conceptual category of the cyborg can allow us to understand this assemblage in a new way.

That is, all of the categories of “human,” “animal,” “technological,” “natural,” and more are far more porous than people tend to admit and their boundaries should be challenged; this understanding of the cyborg gives us the tools to do so. Richardson, on the other hand, seeks to argue that what it means to be human has been devalued by the drive to render human capacities and likenesses into machines, and that this drive arises from the male-dominated and otherwise socialized spaces in which these systems are created. The more we elide the distinction between the human and the machine, the more we will harm human beings and human relationships.

Midson’s training is in theology and religious studies, and so it’s no real surprise that he primarily uses theological exegesis (and specifically an exegesis of Genesis creation stories), but he also deploys the tools of cyborg anthropology (specifically Donna Haraway’s 1991 work on cyborgs), sociology, anthropology, and comparative religious studies. He engages in interdisciplinary narrative analysis and comparison,exploring the themes from several pieces of speculative fiction media and the writings of multiple theorists from several disciplines.

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Richardson uses methods from anthropology (specifically ethnographic methods), sociological and psychological analysis, Marxist historical and labour analysis, and literary narrative analysis. Richardson did participant observations at MIT’s AI and Robotics Lab and, much like Midson, she brings in and analyzes several pieces of speculative fiction media in light of this, to lend weight to her overall argument.

[Image of the front cover of Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology: Humans, Technology, and God; white text above what appears to be a mechanical hinge and socket joint in the center of a background of concentric circles in different shades of green, dark at the outside, to very light inside]

While Cyborg Theology and An Anthropology of Robots and AI share a few similarities in terms of themes and texts analyzed, they each go in radically different directions, in regards to arguments and recommendations. For Midson, the point of understanding the history of human-machine entanglements, through both fictional and nonfictional narrative, is to understand what it is that humans have been trying to do, and what has been done, instead. Midson is fundamentally arguing that while the way we have done things has caused sociocultural and ecological harm, that harm has come in the form of a disconnection from the world and everything in it.

Midson’s goal is to take this notion—the cyborg—and use it to rehabilitate this breakage, to ensure that humans understand themselves as having always been apart of the wider enmeshment or assemblage of the world. Richardson, however, sees the project of human-machine interaction as forfeit, on its face, in that she believes it fundamentally misunderstands what humans derive from human relationships, and in trying to replicate in a machine that which it doesn’t understand, it degrades the capacity of humans to relate to each other, let alone anything else.

One element this might have helped each of these authors is more time spent with disability studies. For his part, Midson makes three nods towards disability studies throughout the text, but almost always in the sense of saying that more could be said, in that space. Further, in the context of disability and biotechnological human intervention, Midson makes what I consider to be a rather unfortunate reference to Steve Fuller, a social epistemologist who has, quite recently, been a publicly vocal supporter of eugenics.
There were many elements of Richardson’s book, however, that I found deeply problematic, on a number of levels, including ableist constructions of communication which preference vision and sightedness, essentialist constructions of gender, what seemed to be a great deal of the very anthropocentrism she claimed to be arguing against, and the strangely glaring lack of several pieces of SFF media. But all of that pales in comparison to my problems with how she discusses autistic people and theory of mind, saying, essentially, that autists are fundamentally wounded and broken, and using this as the basis of some rather paternalistic views about how they should be treated and regarded. This could have very easily been solved by asking autistic people about their lived experiences, rather than using studies and models developed by authors and theorists which were all severely outdated well before Richardson’s book was published in 2014.

Both Cyborg Theology and An Anthropology of Robots and AI seek to explore the historical framing of human-machine intersections and to discuss the ways that fictional narratives and cultural constructions have always been entangled in the co-creative process of what we do and what we build. From that point, their paths diverge and Midson works to show how we can use that history to interrogate and inform the future toward an understanding of “humanness” which doesn’t predicate itself on some essential distinction and separateness from the rest of the universe.

Richardson’s path takes her to a place where she seeks to disentangle the human from the machine and reinforce a wide array of categorical distinctions, on the claim that to not do so would harm human relationships. Where Midson wants to explore the implications of creating and being created in a responsible, co-constitutive, relational entanglement with the rest of nature, Richardson wants to set humanness and the relations among them as special, delicate, and apart. On the whole, Midson’s argument is by far the stronger of the two.

The post Cyborg Theology and An Anthropology of Robots and AI appeared first on Technoccult.

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