Matt Perryman

Our silent war with the androids

Are we stalked by inhuman machines living among us? A prescient science fiction author thought so.

By Matt Perryman

Philip K. Dick once gave a speech later printed as the essay “The Android and the Human”, bearing the curious subtitle “The Contrast between the Authentic Person and the Reflex Machine”.

In an interview a few years later, PKD offered the following reflection:

I tried to define the real person, because there are people among us who are biologically human but who are androids in the metaphoric sense. I wanted to draw the line so I could define the positive primary goal of stipulating what was human. Computers are becoming more and more like sensitive cogitative creatures, but at the same time human beings are becoming dehumanized. As I wrote the speech I sensed in it the need for people who were human to reinforce other people’s humanness. And because of this it would be necessary to rebel against an inhuman or android society.

That’s a theme close to my own interests, what with many articles here touching on the convergence of humans and our machines.

The central idea motivating much of this writing could be put in a single sentence:

The more our machines become life-like, the less life-like we seem to ourselves and each other.

Quite the paradox.

Which is why this short bit of chan-text caught my attention:

The silent war of our time.

This being a 4chan post with the usual array of disclaimers attached, it’s important not to read the wrong things into it.

What we have here is not a statement of facts to absorb as literal truth.

This is a provocation meant to stimulate thinking along new and unexplored paths.

PKD, who had no shortage of paranoid and schizoid tendencies, identified a category of people who look like people, who are human beings in all the essentials, but they’re not quite right.

Their not-rightness places them in the uncanny valley not due to their appearance, but because of their behaviors. Strange habits of speech, unusual reactions and overreactions, inappropriate emotions or bizarre physical movements all trigger that instinctive revulsion as sure as a creepy plastic doll.

This was in the 1970s when techno-dystopia was in its early days. Imagine what he’d say now about our hall of funhouse mirrors and the bloodless overseers in charge of it.

Von Neumann’s hall of mirrors

Consider that most of the population is not wired to notice these android skinsuits. The 4chan post says that normies — that’s average folks living life near the median of every graph — aren’t good at picking up on psychopaths.

This is true. Social interactions tend to the skin-deep. Plus, most people are not good at reading other people, or even their own feelings and responses to things for that matter.

If we were surrounded by a kind of predator hiding in plain sight, how would that look? If you wanted to prey on humans, there’d be no better way than to look and act like the real thing. Mythic monsters and the “uncanny valley” effect are still with us for a reason.

Sleep tight.

How can you tell the difference?

When asked about the difference between a machine in human clothing and a real person, PKD gave a simple answer:

[T]he capacity to say no when what one was told to do was wrong. Someone saying, “No, I won’t kill. I won’t bomb.” A balking.

The ethical power to refuse a command is the highest expression of human freedom and the defining mark of an authentic human person.

A machine cannot say “No” to an order. It does exactly as it’s told without hesitation.

When you say “No” in the face of a wicked command, acting from a deeply held conviction, you are taking a step into your human-being. You’re a little less mechanical, a little more authentic.

Now, with the hysterics about AI supposedly eating up everything uniquely human, there’s reason enough to be in your human uniqueness. Think and feel and imagine from what you are, instead of getting lost in all this manufactured fakeness.

But there’s another and more concerning layer of weirdness that’s come to the forefront in recent years.

Interactions with people that are just off in ways hard to express in words.

People flying off the handle, and I mean totally losing it, over things that seem trivial or overblown.

A widespread lack of emotional continence visible online and in analog-land.

Then there’s the now-unmentionable mass-conformity of c. 2020-2022 when a whole lot of androids received new OS updates, now being safely shoveled down the memory-hole.

That this happened should be a phenomenon of intense interest to anyone wondering how social movements pull otherwise normal-seeming people into the undertow of horrific mechanical behaviors. Instead it’s met with a “meh”, a shrug, and “You still talking about that?”

Machines, indeed.

Maybe we aren’t surrounded by skinsuits preying on our life-force. But if the schizoid personality serves as an early-warning system for psychopathic characters, maybe they’re on to something important.

Thanks for reading, as always.

Matt Perryman

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