Entries in Clarkesworld (2)


The Problem with Today's Art ...

It's a problem otherwise known as 'plus ça change plus c'est la même chose'.  Two recent articles make the point very well.  One, by Nancy Fulda at Clarkesworld ("Nothing This Fun Could Be Good For You"), compares current worries over videogame violence with past worries over ballet and the waltz.

Another piece, by Princeton professor Alexander Nehamas ("Plato's pop culture problem, and ours"), also raises the specter of videogame violence and the mass media.  It delves farther back into history, noting Plato's disdain for literature in virtually any of its forms, because of its corrupting influence on the citizenry.  It both misled them as to what was real and what false, and titillated them with depraved role models.

Although much of the talk nowadays centers around videogames, the new kid on the block, one could just as easily make the same points with scenes from the Bible and the Iliad, not to mention in operas like Berg's Lulu, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (condemned -- perhaps by Stalin himself -- in an anonymous editorial in Pravda), or a score of others.

That said, nowadays most cultural liberals are less concerned with moral prurience in artwork, so long as it's kept to the appropriate age group.  But Plato's problem is larger.  His real problem is that people are not very good at distinguishing truth from falsehood, particularly when provided a compelling narrative.  A beautiful lie is often preferred over an inconvenient or unhappy truth.

Plato was entirely right about that, and his problem encompasses all the fictional arts, as Nehamas points out.  

Can anything be done about it?


Robots and Free Will

It's a common trope in SF that robots and other artificial lifeforms don't have free will. Or if they have free will, somehow their ability to act is constrained in a way that ours is not. Think, for example, of the film The Matrix (one I enjoyed a great deal), where Neo is able to assimilate and act within the Matrix in a way that none of the other constructs there can.

All this makes sense if the construct is simple and therefore has a restricted suite of behaviors that are, for all intents and purposes, hardwired and not plastic. But as the construct becomes more complex, the trope becomes less persuasive. Eventually it breaks down completely.

For we ourselves are 'constructs' of a sort: we are biological machines. Biological machines are simply very complex chemical machines, which are themselves physical machines. We're every bit as much machines as are any of the robots in SF; we're just much more complex and hence we have open to us a much greater repertoire of behaviors and a much greater range of plasticity and adaptability.

Much of the distinction between the human mind and the robot comes from a romantic vitalism that says there's something special about life, in particular about human life, that can never be copied in a construct. There's something "authentic" in us that goes beyond our physical makeup.

Unfortunately this is only a fantasy, exploded by science.

And so robots can have free will just as much as we can, if they are complex enough in the right ways.