Sunday, March 25, 2007

Reading on Trains

Trains are far superior to cars as far as being able to read on them is concerned. Today I rode Amtrak up to Sacramento from San Jose, about a 3 hour ride. While the train that I take is sadly lacking in wifi, I had the foresight to stock up on ebooks before I left. I read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick on this trip. Packaged in a convenient PDF this story is a bit short at some 87 pages, but it definitely is a good read. Most people are familiar with the movie version of this book, "Blade Runner", which is also outstanding in its own right. Both of them address issues that arise when you create self-aware systems, however Electric Sheep addresses social consciousness far more than "Blade Runner" with Mercerism and Buster Friendly.
The near worship of animals as a status symbol and a means to create empathy is pretty disturbing when counterpointed with the lack of empathy people in general display in the the novel, as well as the view of androids as unpeople. There is likely a compelling argument to be made about the effect of forced empathy with the Mercer figure and the lack of empathy elsewhere in the book. Is technology a driving factor behind the apathy of our current time, or is there a more deep seated social issue? It also brings up the question of humanity, as emoting is a sign of humanity in the book, however the Penfield can regulate one's emotions.
Humanity was far easier to define in times when having most of your bits in the right places was the important part. But even that broke down quickly, as many cultures have very old myths pertaining to monsters in the shape of men, or witches, and other foul beings lurking in our midst. Was this response evolved as social qualities became more important to survival? If a link between development of that myth and the rise of an organized culture could be made it would be very interesting. If its not as widespread as I think it is, then perhaps it is just a persistent meme in some cultures; in either case it would be interesting to learn more.
Robert Alverson


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