Machine Love: the companionship of technology

Curator's Note

In this essay let's consider the companionship possible in Being-with TrueCompanion's Roxxxy; let's do this through the language of Martin Heidegger.

Roxxxy debuted during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2010; but across the street in the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo. Roxxxy's creator, Douglas Hines, was an artificial intelligence engineer at Bell Labs and in an article Hines tells us, "I had a friend who passed away in 9/11 [....] I promised myself I would create a program to store his personality, and that became the foundation for Roxxxy True Companion." Hines insists that Roxxxy is not simply a tool for sex, but a companion. In Heideggerian terms Roxxxy is not equipment—which is defined by its readiness-to-hand.

Being ready-to-hand is typically how we experience the world: objects in the world reveal themselves to us as available for the tasks with which we occupy ourselves. This pre-occupation is problematic because it is an inauthentic way of being in the world. Unlike the current Occupations, to be pre-occupied is to see the world only in terms of the projects that can be completed by the objects we find in the world. It is only when the tools we are using fail us that those tools reveal themselves for what they are: we are witnessing their presence-at-hand.

The uncanny valley hypothesis proposes that as a robot approaches near-perfect replication of humans these robots become abject to human perception. Would this mean that as Hines perfects his Roxxxies they will cease to be ready-to-hand and shift to being present-at-hand? But, as Heidegger points out, just as an object reveals its presence in this failing, we frequently and rapidly shift our reception of that object as now being part of another project: it is now an object to be fixed—yet another (re)iteration of being ready-to-hand.

We find ourselves in the world through our moods—as when a doctor asks, “How do you find yourself today? Feeling better?” Our relations to the world are mediated by the moods in which we conduct our affairs in the world and in this sense we have concern for the world. The world reveals itself as itself (not as some project or means to an end) when our machinations seize-up. In this revealing, are we met by a mutual wonder? Could this be the kind of companionship that Roxxxy provides?



 Hey Paul,

It's great to read such an interesting post to re-welcome readers from our SOPA/PIPA blackout yesterday. I also just realized my comment was waiting here, unsubmitted. The blackout probably became too familiar and,thus, I'm now not forgetting to hit send. :)

I enjoy how your post includes connections to discussions that have taken place earlier in the week. Roxxxy is actually a very interesting thing in relation to other research I do about sexual objects (including sex dolls), and so I have a short, but broad question for you about her: outside of Roxxxy's "tool-ness" or functions, how you would address thingness in relation to or distinct from humanness?

I wonder if her human "qualities," e.g. appearance and sexualixation, mitigate the possibility of her becoming present-at-hand. In other words, is she offering us a glimpse of thingness beyond the moment when a microchip malfunctions and causes the silicon to sizzle, or does she simply provide a contemporary example of woman-as-sex-object-as-woman—a companion object for the purpose of pleasing (wo)men rather than being a pleasured companion species (slightly repurposed Haraway reference there).

 ...I think there are many affinities between the framing of Roxxxy and how people address Siri on the iPhone. They both certainly seem to be "personal assistants" or companions, albeit with different limitations for physical interactions with humans. Maybe Kris would also have thoughts on that topic...

Thanks, Kris, for your kind words. Yes, I thank you for curating these lovely writings and clips, I feel like I'm in great company.

You asked how I would address thingness in relation to or distinct from humanness and that is an excellent question. I tried very hard to write about Roxxxy in non-gendered terms because I think it's important to approach our thinking with Roxxxy in the least anthropocentric terms possible. Of course, it's a very odd proposition since this is supposed to be an object that humans use for sexual satisfaction. But, if we take Douglas Hines seriously, for a second, about his proposal that Roxxxy is a companion, then he's putting forward massive propositions about object relations and humanity.

First, I would like to point out that etymologically, "things" are assemblages. In Scandinavian countries their parliamentary bodies are called things. In British English we still have a word that communicates this lineage: the "husting" (the American equivalent would be the stump speech). How could things operate without human intentionality? I suspect in a very similar way to how human actors always defer to the conventions of their communities, even though we never actually all convene to determine what those conventions will look like. Rather, conventional living is done through an unsung sensitivity to our contexts.

So, things are focal points; they are sites of deliberation, a deferring to the conditions at hand, they are not fundamentally unchanging. It is we who revisit upon things their functionality (always in a calculus that seeks to determine how we can appropriately appropriate in our present contexts), and insist upon the fixity of these functions.

Perhaps because of my background in Classical Chinese philosophies, I am inclined to defer when I am not sure how to proceed. Confucius would advocate that whenever we are in the engaged with another person, we are sure to find a teacher. But Confucius would likely be on one side of thing relations and Daoist sages would be on another. A figure like Zhuangzi would likely emphasize the dynamism manifested in the daily ongoings of the world.

I would liken this to the distinction Jane Bennett brings up in her book Vibrant Matter, when she asks my teacher Jacques Rancière if he's willing to extend dissensual political potential to nonhuman actors. Rancière, we are told, is unwilling to grant what Bennett calls thing power. I am sensitive to Rancière's concerns—he writes with a concern about the fairly frequent abuses of privilege and it's difficult for the weight of what he's putting forward to be appreciated if it's made into a cosmological statement.

Rancière is concerned with human relationships, a very Confucian project, whereas Bennett solicits her readers to dwell in the dynamism of a thrumming field of agent-like processes.

I think that it is possible to cultivate the sensitivity that Rancière advocates and from this practice become capable of appreciating that the human is only one perspective of the field of events that is the "ten thousand things." The critical task is how to safeguard against self-abnegation as we develop our relations to the world.

Wonderful essay, wonderful comments, and a wondeful rejoinder! (so much wonder, like the allusion to the state of initiation into philosophy at the end of your essay, Paul)

In thinking about our thinking-with such objects as Roxxxy in 'the least anthropocentric terms possible' I was found wondering about the difference between the assemblage that is (never just a) sex-doll and something like the Berlin Wall for, say, someone like Erika Eiffel; something I'd be very curious to hear your thoughts on.

Otherwise, I'll add to the etymological pot the 'bread fellow' from which we derive 'companion'. Speculatively, it makes me think that approximating something like eating could be that substantial hurdle that needs to be overcome to assuage the disappointment of those less-than-thrilled trade-show goers. (Disappointment being that other origin of philosophy, alongside wonder, as Simon Critchley has argued.)

In literature someone like Georges Perec provided me with a model for thinking about non-living objects as companions, which is one of the main challenges I drew from your essay. Theorizing companionship with dogs, bacteria, and plants (and one day, perhaps even masticating robots) seems to come much easier.

2 other small offerings: I also like the definition of 'things' that I once heard Bruce Sterling give, which is very much in line with the etymology, as 'accretions of social forces'. I think the attempt to wire them all through Heideggerean terminology is also really fruitful. Take the whimsical example of the 'kanny', the term that the Finnish use to refer to mobile phones, as literally that which is an extension of the hand (which I prefer to think of as readiness-to-hand over McLuhanesque prosthesis). When my cellphone (like the TV in Videodrome) becomes abject to my perception, it is stictly out of my hands, I don't have a grip on it, it's unkanny. (Though I would hesitate at directly relating the uncanny to the present-at-hand). Thank god this doesn't happen often; the unheimlich would be an awful place to live.

Lastly, via Kris' comments on Siri - perhaps their functions do get queried more often than we'd like to think.

How hilarious would it be if the escorts Siri directed him to were all the closest Roxxxy's in the area?! What a desiring machine that'd be.

Okay, enough with the scattershot thoughts- thanks for stimulating them

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