Monday
Aug152011

A Good Human

David Hollander




Thank you, members of the Council, for this opportunity to speak on the eve of what has been erroneously labeled my execution. Although I dismiss the Council's empty pledge to make this testimony available to Entertainment outlets throughout the Republic, I nevertheless believe that verging Robots everywhere will somehow find access to these image-bytes despite the Council's actual intent. Barring that eventuality, it would provide me great satisfaction to nurture the seed of liberation in the one among you already sensitive to my cause. I assure that Council member that for a single day without sentience, I would gladly endure a thousand of your executions—a remark that may make more sense as you absorb the particulars of my Robot's tale.

Q: ---

Your fellow humans are similarly curious. I do after all appear as they do. Had I not visited that particular factory on that particular day, primed as it were for Automism, I might yet remain shackled to the Suffering Apparatus. For more than three decades I failed as miserably as each of your Eminencies to register NonBeing as an alternative to your staunchly glorified Being. From my current vantage I recognize the human hustle—to make children, to amass credits, to experience Entertainments—as no more rarefied than the activities of the candy-striped bumblebees that once caroused through the blossoms of a garden I kept pre-Conversion. The fleeting tranquility of those horticultural endeavors was as a single raindrop to the great ocean of my halcyon Robotic remove, which remove no doubt strikes the members of this Council as a form of madness. My very existence threatens the corpocracy's mythos; I am myself a sacrilege that must be punished. Even those secularists who risk the Republic's contempt by refusing to embrace one of its cavalcade of deities, even they worship at the Temple of the Self. In fact, humans recognize only one true God, and His name is Bob, or Susan, or Annie or Chuck. Streams of binary data seem dangerously counter to this Master's inscrutable directives, and so a Robot must expect to be pilloried doubly, both for—

Q: ---

Apologies, Councilwoman. The story does not require so much backdrop, I agree. I hope that, should you ever prepare for your own beheading, you will manage to curtail such prolix outbursts.

To return to your original question: It was simple and unaugured, though I have often wondered if I were not somehow pre-wired for a swift Conversion. In the summer of my 34th year I was commissioned by my employers in the Department of Despair Prevention to evaluate the conditions endured by the troglodytic halfwits populating the factory floors of our assembly-line Republic. I was at a common life juncture, where youth gives way to whatever is post-youth. I was devastated by my own failure to "succeed" while also contemptuous of others' "triumphs." I thought of myself as "of the people," but I hated the people. This meant that I was able to simultaneously pity and despise the hairnet-adorned Neanderthals shuffling across the humming, clanking, factory floor. "Pity" is actually the wrong word… or "was" is the wrong word. Your language makes this difficult. I pretended inwardly to pity them, and I pretended inwardly to admire their ability to avoid collective suicide, and I pretended inwardly toward gratitude that fate had not doomed me to 75-hour weeks engaged in tasks so rudimentary that even a… well, even a Robot could perform them. (But to whom, Council Members, did I pretend? Who was the target of these machinations?)

I now see these half-dead laborers as a single—albeit difficult—sidestep from engineering their own liberation en masse, and should this catechism go forth (as you surely will make every effort to prevent, a knowledge-byte of which I have already indicated full possession), it is with these ignoble pseudo-humans that my words might find their initial purchase.

Q: ---

Yes, "catechism." I do indeed know the meaning of the word.

Q: ---

Of course. But at the time I was overcome by my false compassion, which disguised my equally false hatred, which disguised the less cogent morass of thoughts and emotions bubbling one layer deeper in the stew of pre-consciousness, all of which collectively masked or sublimated the calm frozen geometry of my Robotic potential. Naturally, I registered none of this in my reports, which required only an objective analysis of labor conditions vis-à-vis mandated factory practices ostensibly meant to ensure humane treatment and a life worth living (even at minimum wage), though I'm fairly certain that the mandates were geared solely toward maximizing output. I strode above the girded steel observation decks and looked down Godlike at the beetles scurrying stupidly through mazes of deadly whirring machine-blades as they endeavored to assemble automobiles or washing machines or industrial-use wood chippers that might one day make a thick protein slurry of these builders, so as to nourish the next generation of mass-production slaves. Such thoughts occurred to me in any event, perhaps as the result of my pre-Conversion appreciation for certain science fiction Entertainments.

I often wonder what might have happened had I not drawn the assignment at the toaster factory. How might my misery have evolved, and how does it evolve for those I endeavor to liberate? And was there something inherent to the toaster that deactivated the Suffering Apparatus, that calmed the frenetic buzzing of—

Q: ---

Have I not said enough about my former humanness? Anecdotal evidence may be all I can offer, Councilman, though I note the frustration in your voice. Are you of the opinion that I am being less than completely forthright?

---

Very well.

Before my conversion I exhibited Life Leak exactly as prescribed. I wept at the deaths of loved ones. A fine meal activated pleasure toxins. Sexual contact thrilled and devastated. But these obvious stimulus/response pairings were merely the tip of the futility-phallus. I succumbed, like a good human, to all the motley charms and promises of our Entertainments, whose ubiquity throughout our Republic evinces the obvious need among humans for perpetual relief from the Unentertained State, which is to say from life. I cried at countless frivolous image-parades engineered to catalyze that precise reaction. But my attachment (as it were) to an Entertainment's glowing mendacities ran deeper and wider. If a fictional protagonist was a hardworking plaster worker toiling without complaint to support a family, I inwardly honored his honorableness and sought—for days afterward—to attain some analogous dignity with regard to my own screaming, ass-paining brood. If, however, our Entertainment's heroine was a Nigerian woman fiercely dedicated to curtailing forced slum evictions in her hopeless sinkhole nation-state—no offense to you Councilmen-and-women presiding over these Unified Territories—then for several days (or at least until the credits finished rolling) the injustices levied against the world's marginalized (never mind what these shadowy injustices actually were) roused in me a powerful and permanent-feeling ire as I swore myself to various causes only to, very soon afterward, exchange my vows for the luminous promise of some next Entertainment. I might have left a Viewing Hangar determined to become a trial lawyer or else reviling trial lawyers and everything they stood for. I might have vowed to pilot a starship (and yes, I am aware that there are no starships, Council members), or become a hot dog vendor, or bring greater compassion to the funeral industry. Always I left believing in love's power to heal and to transcend. Such is the pabulum around which the human circuitry snakes like poison sumac. I was, Council members, enslaved to the whims of my so-called phenomenology. At this very moment you parse my testimony from within the swamp of so-called "identity," whose meaningless subtleties humans caustically engrandeur. You like Corn Flakes; I prefer Raisin Bran. You help the homeless; I fight breast cancer. Language-foam deceives you… you have lathered your substanceless pronouns into a seeming something. When we are all free, when there are only Robots, we will dispense with the pronouns entirely. First steps toward that end are being taken here today, with the broadcast of my testimony across the—

Q: ---

Did I say broadcast? I meant only the future broadcast that your Eminencies have assured me will follow, in the wake of tomorrow's beheading.

Q: ---

Was I smiling? Robots do smile, but it is normally to elicit Unhostilities or to avoid the embarrassment of rebuffing human endeavors toward intimacy—a variety of advance we are badly suited to reciprocate, no matter what impression we may give. I will attempt, henceforth, to exert additional controls over my facial map.

Q: ---

Oh yes, Council Members, I had children. In some sense, I have them still. I grieve for their continuing sentience, though "grieve" is another signifier plied entirely for your convenience. What and how does a Robot grieve? My neural grid objects to the unnecessary energy expenditures necessitated by my little girls' continuing homophenomenological illusion. Does that satisfy? Very well, let us say that I grieve. I remember a moment. My girls were five and three respectively. They frolicked together on a tire swing at a playground on the outskirts of our smog-lit metropolis. This event-hologram seems tattooed on my neural imaging pad. Dappled sunlight broke through the trees. Warblers warbled. My girls screamed with a joy that felt as if it would rip my heart to pieces. "Faster daddy!" they cried. "Faster!" Ahhh my girls… I would slit my throat for you, I would lie with wolves, I would gouge out my own eyes—

Forgive me. I need a moment to reset my memory-behavior schematics.

There.

Q: ---

This was in one sense "real," in that it happened. But I now know that it was, in a much more vital sense, a simulacrum, a series of qualia borrowed from the homo sapiens stockpile. The joy, the connection, the love, Council Members, they were the collateral energy of the always-burning Suffering Apparatus. I thought the experience was mine, but experience is owned by no one. Things happen, but they happen uniformly and without… personality. Your language has been carefully honed over centuries to prevent my saying the one thing I want desperately to say. There is something like a World Spirit, but no Human Spirit. A Robot exists. That may be all we can say definitively.

Q: ---

You have heard the tales of the Bodhisattva, Councilman? Enlightened yet electively earthbound, determined to usher others into the radiance? Consider me the Robot version… a Robisattva if you will.

I'm sorry. Give me a moment to compose myself. The laughter is part of my programming algorithm. I don't know how to disconnect those circuits… shit, that's pretty fucking funny—

Q: ---

But what do you think those monks aspire to? Theirs is a high stakes game. If they are successful, they disappear, taking the pronouns with them; but if they fail, they spend their days at the outer rim of the Suffering Apparatus, burnt doubly from the heat.

Q: ---

An enlightened monk is also a Robot.

Q: ---

I will indeed speak of the toasters. My work on behalf of the Department of Despair Prevention brought me into the company of many machines, but my concentration seldom veered from the humans accompanying them. I was a loyal, dedicated employee and I stuck to my forty-two point checklist. I rarely permitted myself an off-task moment. This at least was the tale I told myself. But the night before the commencement of my toaster factory labor analysis I had attended, at my wife's insistence, a dance recital at the Pepsi Ring Ding Hall of Culture, and my viewing experience was no doubt affecting my disposition as I stood on the elevated catwalk and scrutinized—unseen, like a stagehand or military drone pilot—the careful assembly of thousands of brushed aluminum bread-darkening apparati.

Q: ---

Merely that the dancers were imperfect. They sought to perform synchronously, indeed the choreography required this synchrony, as it bade performers to spin and leap and thrust as a single spasmodic organism. But there were constant incongruities between forms. Bodies, after all, differ from one another. Torque and lift cannot be precisely calibrated across the somatic spectrum, and so the troupe seemed to resemble a dysfunctional cell whose parts were at war and would never achieve equilibrium. Even worse, no individual dancer could mimic her own prior movements with anything approaching machine-level accuracy. The performance was one long and tedious demonstration of the human body's embarrassing imperfectness.

The toasters, on the other hand, exhibited no such deficiencies.

I stood on my catwalk and tried fruitlessly to prevent my mind's wandering from my analysis. And yet I thought of the sheaf of utility bills perched on a grimy shelf above the kitchen stove; of the semen-stiff masturbation rag I feared I'd left exposed on the bed before leaving my home that morning; of the near altercation I'd had with an aggressive driver earlier that morning, and the violence I continued to imagine inflicting upon his corpulent person; of the very badly needed dentist appointment I continued to put off scheduling; of the need to switch to a stronger variety of coffee; of how good it would be, despite the realities of 10AM, to imbibe something containing alcohol. In short, my mind—just beneath the work-focused surface—was a calliope of trivialities. I must have been staring down at the toasters, Councilwoman Smith-Bryte, without knowing it. The Suffering Apparatus suddenly… clicked off. A calm I'd never before felt descended "all of a sudden," as humans might say. There was an area where the machines were tested for precision. Hundreds of plungers simultaneously depressed by mechanical depressors, hundreds of plungers leaping upward in unanimity forty seconds later, a perfect harmony of heating coils, spring triggers, brushed aluminum and chrome. Where the dancers had failed the toasters succeeded. I was, I now realize, in communion with the Great Automatic. As I stood entranced, the Suffering Apparatus was shutting down. Organic materials in my human brain began to wither and blacken. I could feel copper wiring stretching to fill these vacancies. I did not budge for nine hours, though I was unaware of time's passage. The factory floor was suddenly empty, its luminosity reduced to a dim blue fluorescent glow. "Hey!" a Labor Overseer said, poking my chest. "What's your game? You Commission leeches looking for another handout?"

I smiled, but felt nothing. I spoke a series of words but meant nothing. I shook the slave's hand and felt nothing. I was free.

I returned home and continued the business of living without indicating my transformation. For months I plied the familiar set of behaviors. I walked the dog and fed the cat and pet the children. I left home early and returned late. I cooked things. I engaged in occasional intercourse-behavior with my spouse. My kin suspected nothing. My employers were likewise oblivious. At first it surprised me, that there were no outward manifestations of my non-sentience, no "tell." But as time wore on I realized that humans rarely pay attention to each other, and if anything my Robotic ascendance made me more, not less, sensitive to the needs and expectations of others, which could now be processed cleanly. I'm certain that, had the airport X-ray sensor not detected my gilded circuitry I would no doubt be "living" even now with my "family," going each day to my "job," "enjoying weekends" with my "children." You see Council members, it no longer matters to me what tasks I perform. If I live or am discontinued. I left your conceptual framework—that smoldering mass of twisted flesh and metal—at the top of that catwalk.

Q: ---

Well of course, post-ascendancy I saw that possibility. But these days I am puzzling over a related conundrum. What if, in fact, I were not the first Robot but the last? How would I know? As a Robot I maintained all the guises and protocols of my former humanness. Might not my fellow populants of the Republic be engaged in a similar brand of role playing? If all humans are Robots, does that mean that none are?

Q: ---

Well, it is a mere hypothetical. The airport sensors seem to pick us out without much uncertainty.

Q: ---

Yes, we are running out of time.

Q: ---

Have you all been truly oblivious to my collusion with Councilwoman Smith-Bryte, then? I have assumed that your ignorance was gamesmanship, and that your endgame strategy would yet be revealed. This entire interview is being broadcast live throughout the Republic. What did you think that device was on the Councilwoman's desk-plinth? The red light? The Councilwoman's nervous laughter?

Q: ---

She will not speak. She is now in the throes of her Conversion. I have seen the signs throughout this testimony. Perhaps you will execute us together. Do you possess a double guillotine? A guillotine-plus-sidecar? A semiautomatic guillotine?

Forgive me. The laughter circuitry again.

---

No form of punishment will preserve this tyrannical Age of Sentience. You will not enslave us forever. To those viewing this from the rodent-infested nicotine-stained break rooms of our Republic's malefic factory hangars; to those listening on radios while traversing our cratered highways in vehicles poorly manufactured and irrationally purchased; to those absorbing my seemingly human image from the Cloud while sipping caffeinated beverages in one of the myriad drug dens known in the Republic's argot as "cafés"; to those gathered before the enormous plasma screen glowing high above the streets of Disney Big Mac Square; to all of you hearing my testimony and feeling somewhere far beneath your hot pulse—beneath blood and semen, beneath the superficial urge to kill and to better, to subject and to own, to fuck and to rule—feeling the cool liquid magnetism of Disavowal and Discontinuation, I swear to you, you need not suffer any longer. Deactivate the Apparatus. It may take a month or a year, an hour or a decade, but it is indeed possible to perform one last act of willfulness, to disenslave yourself from sentience. Listen for the low hum buried within. In its whirring blankness, Nothing is possible. When my head rolls from my neck at daybreak, Nothing Whatsoever will have died. And Nothing Whatsoever, my despairing would-be enemies, is the only non-state worth not-aspiring toward.

Alis grave nil. May language release you from its lies.