Thursday 21 March 2013

Who and what is Robot? Attachment, identity and the uncanniness of things

The following is an essay by Dr. Chris Groves and relates to the Robot and Frank sciSCREEN last night.

Why does Frank wipe Robot’s memory? This is a central question in a film which, in many ways, is about a man’s relationship with an ambiguous, even uncanny object – and therefore is a film that invites us to think about what philosophers might call the phenomenology of objects, that is, how objects of certain help to structure our conscious experience of the world, and their meaning within it.

Not long after meeting Robot for the first time, Frank says ‘I can’t believe I’m talking to an appliance’. It’s true we often talk to appliances, usually angrily. To some extent we tend to be a little animistic in our relationships with technological gadgets in particular, to the point where we may treat them as possessing a kind of autonomy. But Frank’s relationship with Robot develops far beyond this. By the midway point of the film, Frank has regaled Robot with tales of his past, tried to excuse his former life of crime to him (it’s the insurers who pay, he only took high value items from rich people), and has gone as far as exploiting his programming to use him as an accomplice. But he also comes to refer to Robot, while speaking to others, as ‘my friend’. After his daughter Madison has temporarily switched Robot off, Frank addresses him as ‘buddy’ while trying to wake him up. 

After this, Robot makes the entirely rational (from a certain perspective) point that Frank should just wipe Robot’s memory, so they can go on committing crimes without the risk of incriminating evidence.  If Robot were merely an appliance, would Frank hesitate? He refuses, however, as if there is something distasteful or repugnant about this idea. Is this because Robot is his friend? In what sense could Robot be a friend? In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described friendship as a kind of human relationship in which one has a desire to benefit the other person for his/her own sake. But what makes someone a friend in the first place is their character: we see something admirable in what they do, in the choices they make. They create projects that we see as worthwhile and wish to see flourish. This capacity to be source of novelty, to provide a unique ‘take’ on the world in which we see value and significance, was identified by the German philosopher Hannah Arendt as the source of human beings’ unique value. With human action ‘something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before’ (Arendt, The Human Condition, 1953[1998], pp. 177-178). 

For a while, Robot is undoubtedly something like a friend. Frank’s son Hunter buys Robot to take care of Frank’s material needs: check blood pressure, check nutrient intake, and to perform a variety of other utilitarian tasks. Yet Robot’s carrying out of these caring tasks also provides Frank with something else: Robot becomes for Frank another subject who can reflect back to him his life but also help him to see himself differently. Then he becomes an accomplice – a partner in a common enterprise, someone who shares with Frank a common fate. He helps Frank to go beyond the pointless repetition that populates his days at the beginning (stealing random objects from the candle shop), and to regain a sense of having a future that matters and that changes the meaning of the present. And this future also appears to matter to Robot: he is concerned with risks, with how things will turn out in the end, the kind of forward-looking concern that we would expect a friend to show.

Yet Frank still wipes his memory. Why? In his last conversation with Frank before his memory is wiped. Robot convinces Frank he should flick the switch. While Frank is wondering what to do, Robot relays back to him verbatim what Frank told Robot earlier about his criminal career – how only the insurers lose out, how only the big value items are worth taking, and so on. He simply mechanically repeats the words, making Frank realise that Robot is not an agent in his own right, capable of his own take on the world and capable of acting in ways which, as per Arendt, cannot be expected. This insight was prefigured in the earlier encounter between the two robots at the party: neither was able to start a conversation with the other. And so Frank realises that Robot cannot, ultimately, be his friend – that he can sacrifice him in order to escape the Sheriff and Jake. And yet... the gesture of flicking the switch is filmed to look like an embrace. Does Robot really revert, at this point, to being just an appliance for Frank? 

Our relationships with objects, especially technological ones, are often far more ambiguous than we sometimes allow. Robot is somewhat like a friend, with evident limitations. Yet he is far more than an appliance.  For Aristotle, friendship had a specific value: not instrumental, means-end value, but constitutive value. The friend is valued because she, by being an end in herself with her own ‘take’ or perspective on things, adds meaning to the world. The kind of value she has is constitutive value: her wellbeing is an ingredient in our wellbeing. Now, some things also have value in this sense. We often forget that the things around us are generally, ambiguous objects – not just utilitarian, purely instrumental things. Anthropologists and sociologists describe how, from indigenous cultures to post-industrial societies, objects always have symbolic functions as well as just use-value: exchanging and acquiring them is part of social processes that mark status distinctions, create fashions and so on. But the objects we live with are also participants within emotional, affective relationships as well as symbolic ones. The anthropologist Daniel Miller has described in his book The Comfort of Things (2009), how relationships with certain objects – as diverse as record collections, bicycles, and Christmas decorations – shape the meaningfulness of lives. Objects in this sense are not just objects, they are attachment objects. The throwaway statement that something has ‘only sentimental value’ hides a vital and sustaining connection between things and people.
Attachment in developmental psychology describes the emotional relationship between infants and their caregivers. Caregivers feed, change and settle babies for sleep. But this is more than just attending to their bodily needs. The emotional connection between them constructs, as the child develops and its needs grow and change, a ‘safe space’ from within which he or she can explore the world. The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott noted that significant objects in our lives act as 'transitional objects' – all the way from cuddly toys to religious artefacts and artworks. They extend the safe space from within which we can experience the world around us as trustworthy and reliable, and as a place we can meaningfully influence through our actions. Objects of attachment thus play a role that substitutes for caregivers. We can turn to them for reassurance about who we are and about how our actions have significance within the world. Like caregivers, we need them to fulfil various specific needs – a bike gets us to work, a record collection provides us with entertainment. But our need for them goes beyond our utilitarian needs. Objects of attachment have importance because they are a source of meaning, they are in a sense inexhaustible – we can keep coming back to them and each time they reassure us, confirm our perspective on the world, or enable us to make new sense of the world. We find in them a kind of constitutive value like that Aristotle finds in friendship. They sustain our sense of who we are and what we can do; as with friends, things can go worse or better for them; what happens to them has an effect on us. A trusted bike has to be cleaned, kept roadworthy, polished; the Xmas decorations we had when children and have inherited from our parents have to be kept safe in the attic. Damage to such constitutively valuable objects is felt as a blow against our self: as with friendship, what injures the attachment object injures the person who cares about and for it.

Frank’s conspiracy with Robot builds an attachment relationship with these kinds of features. Robot reawakens Frank’s former world, vivifying bodily memory and his use of old skills, like lock-picking. His relationships with his children change, he becomes more autonomous. In this way, Frank’s memories are seen to be embodied, not simply impressions which can be retrieved through mental acts. Doing things with Robot as part of their ‘conspiracy’ gives Frank back his sense of himself. And what happens to Robot therefore matters to Frank: what happens to him – and what he does – affects the meaning of Frank’s own life. Frank’s act of reformatting Robot’s memory (which, as I noted above, is filmed as a kind of embrace) is a breaking of attachment, done with regret and consciousness of loss, the end of a meaningful episode in his life.

Yet there is another twist in Frank’s relationship with Robot. Suppose that Robot were, indeed, a friend who loved Frank for his own sake and wanted him to remain free – a friend for whom an injury to Frank would be an injury to Robot. Wouldn’t Robot attempt to convince Frank that he is only an appliance, only capable of mindlessly reflecting Frank’s words back to him? Wouldn’t this be exactly what a true friend would do – an act of self-sacrifice? 

Perhaps this is what Frank is wondering when at the end of the film, as he returns to his room in the memory centre, another resident’s Robot glances at him, with what we could almost imagine is a look of recognition. The object of attachment is of value to us because it remains mysterious, somehow more than what it appears to be. It doesn’t simply fit into our plans as an instrument of our purposes, like objects which just have utilitarian value: it sticks out into the world. There is always something more to be said about it, it insists itself within our perspective on the world, makes demands on us. Although it is familiar, welcoming and comforting, there is something about it that reminds us of Freud’s concept of the Uncanny (Unheimlich) [PDF]. The German psychologist Ernst Jentsch, who influenced Freud’s thinking, wrote in 1906 that ‘one of the most reliable artistic devices for producing uncanny effects easily is to leave the reader in uncertainty as to whether he has a human person or rather an automaton before him in the case of a particular character’ (Jentsch, 1997, ‘On the psychology of the uncanny’ (1906) Angelaki, 2(1), pp. 7-16: p. 13). This feeling is what the end of Robot and Frank gently insinuates. Yet it is, I’d suggest, a special case of the ambiguity with which material objects of attachment in general surround us.

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