Losing Data Earth: Technological Obsolescence and Extinction in The Lifecycle of Software Objects
satte001 [at] ucr [dot] edu
UC Riverside, Department of English
(Published April 17, 2017)
Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects explores the relationship between digital and biological life in a near future where virtual technologies radically change human relationships with the environment. In the novella, digital creatures called “digients” are endangered by the technological obsolescence of their platform.This struggle is explicitly compared to biological mass extinction events, emphasizing the endangeredness of both biological and digital species. Digital representations of animals become more prevalent and more important as our connections to biological animal species are disappearing, and these representations are often seen as a kind of technological memorial to these vanishing species. By bringing the idea of technological obsolescence into this discussion, Chiang’s work suggests a way of seeing digital and biological animals as part of a similar process of species endangerment and extinction, instead of seeing digital animals as merely reflecting or replacing biological animals. Digital life is hypervulnerable compared to the slower cycles of animal death found in extinction and climate change. Digital lifeforms can be easily replicated and transferred, and they are more vulnerable to sudden shifts in the market—they have more bodies to lose, and they lose them more quickly. The hypervulnerability of the digients challenges the idea that digital animals should be seen as memorials or replacements for biological life, instead drawing attention to the complex networks of shared kinship and endangerment between biological and digital life.
Do researchers consider the safety of their lab animals before uploading animal consciousness into a digital environment? The character Jax in Ted Chiang’s novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects does not receive any satisfying answers when he asks about an experiment he saw online, where a lab mouse was flash frozen and vaporized before being imported into a virtual world. Jax is concerned for the mouse, who died violently from the shock of becoming a digital creature, but Jax’s concern is also personal. Jax is a digient—an artificial intelligence (AI) designed and marketed as a digital pet in a near future where many biological animals have already gone extinct—and as such he also regularly negotiates the risks of moving back and forth between endangered digital and physical spaces. These risks are exacerbated by the technological and economic shifts occurring around digital pets in the novella. At the point Jax asks about the mouse test subject, the digients are themeselves also at risk of losing their lives as the digital environment they depend on faces its own extinction event through the planned obsolescence of the marketplace.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects was written in reaction to what Chiang saw as a lack of innovation in science fiction stories about AI and robotics, associating technological obsolescence with biological extinction as part of this critique. In an interview with Locus Magazine, Chiang argues that science fiction stories often fail to take technological obsolescence into account when imagining AI, not “acknowledging how short product lifecycles are now” (n.p.). The Lifecycle of Software Objects addresses this oversight in a number of ways. As virtual pets, the digients reference fads like Tamogatchi or Neopets; although, as Joan Gordon points out in a piece for The LA Review of Books, the digients also resemble lab animals and food animals, since “the digients are products, owned by others, as much as lab rats and pigs bred for particular research processes are products” (n.p.). As the novella progresses, the digients begin to resemble children as much as animals, but their ability to thrive in their virtual environment is still closely tied to their perceived value within a system of capital. As interest in digital pets wanes, the digients are forced to market themselves within an exploitative system while trying not to sacrifice their individuality or their relationships with their human companions.
I read this conflict in relation to the planned obsolescence of the market and the rapidity of technological development, although it speaks as much to the novella’s careful consideration of cognitive development and AI. As Steven Shaviro has recently argued in his book Discognition, the digients are a good example of intelligence that is “heuristic; which also means that it is always finite, situational, and embodied” (85). The digients learn through observation and participation within their virtual environment, and they have well-developed “overall sensibility” and emotional intelligence rather than “any particular collection of skills, dispositions, and items of knowledge” (Shaviro 82). This emergent sensibility differentiates the digients from other representations of AI. Even within their own universe, a new genome of task-oriented and asocial digital creatures called “Sophonce” begin to take over the market because they adhere more to the operational model for AI that people expect. By emphasizing sensibility as a potential property of AI, the novella questions the distinction between sentience and sapience. The digients may be capable of passing a Turing Test or other conventional markers of AI, but contrasting the digients with a more conventional depiction of task-oriented AI and situating them alongside animals and children suggests that the ability to give the appearance of human intelligence is not the point.1 Instead, Chiang suggests that the ways we distinguish between different forms of intelligence and sentience are less important than the exploitative economic systems that instrumentalize and monetize both humans and nonhumans.
In Chiang’s novella, the digital creatures and the humans who care for them struggle to cope with a disinterested market and the technological obsolescence of their digital platform, and this struggle is explicitly compared to biological mass extinction events, emphasizing the endangeredness of both biological and digital species. Digital representations of animals become more prevalent and more important as our connections to biological animal species are disappearing and are often seen as a kind of technological memorial to these vanishing species.2 By bringing the idea of technological obsolescence into this discussion, Chiang’s work suggests a way of seeing digital and biological animals as part of a similar process of species endangerment and extinction, instead of seeing digital animals as merely reflecting or replacing biological animals. In fact, as Jax’s anxiety about his disappearing digital platform suggests, digital life might be hypervulnerable compared to the slower cycles of animal death found in extinction and climate change. Digital lifeforms can be easily replicated and transferred and are more vulnerable to sudden shifts in the market—they have more copies of their bodies to lose and lose them more quickly. The hypervulnerability of the digients challenges the idea that digital animals should be seen as memorials or replacements for biological life; instead, it draws attention to the complex networks of shared kinship and endangerment between biological and digital life.
While obsolescence and extinction both indicate a type of loss, these two concepts work very differently. Extinction is typically thought of in global terms. Claire Colebrook argues in her collection Death of the PostHuman that extinction as a concept operates within a bounded milieu of global climate (10). This sense of a bounded global climate is, according to Colebrook, “catastrophic for the human imaginary” because humans are “at once thrown into a situation of urgent interconnectedness, aware that the smallest events contribute to global mutations, at the same time as we come up against a complex multiplicity of diverging forces and timelines that exceed any manageable point of view” (10-11). The result is often a deadening of affect in the face of global catastrophe as we attempt to reconcile the micro- and macro-events leading to extinction.
Technological obsolescence, on the other hand, is often experienced as a much more intimate form of loss, despite operating at a similarly global level. When a product becomes incompatible with new hardware or software, I feel both frustration and loss as an object that had become an intimate part of my daily life slowly loses all of its functionality until it must be replaced. This feeling of personal loss is only exacerbated by the marketing of these technologies as intensely personalized status symbols. My feeling of attachment to a particular device is temporary, but it produces different sensations from the deadened affect of extinction, since I think of my devices as individual personalized objects instead of as part of a larger “population” of obsolete technologies. Jussi Parikka has recently argued that media theory should grapple with the “deep time” of media waste, focusing on the larger geology of media developed around mineral extraction, infrastructure, and waste (37). The intimate feelings of loss and nostalgia for obsolete media often obscure this larger media geology. When the intimate loss of obsolescence is enacted through Chiang’s animal-like digients, however, the combination of these two categories of obsolescence and extinction challenges the idea that either organic or digital life could be easily replaceable. As obsolete media, the digients evoke a very personal sense of loss that counters the affective fatigue of extinction, and as lively endangered creatures, the digients draw attention to the larger geology of obsolete media, emphasizing the ways that extinction and climate change are imbricated in the technologies of global capital.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects brings technological obsolescence together with climate change and extinction, initially framing the digients as a digital replacement for the relationships humans had with now extinct species before questioning whether digital and biological life can be so easily exchanged. The first character we meet, the human Ana Alvarado, is desperately trying to find a job in software development after the zoo she worked at closed down (5). As Ana describes it, her “career trajectory” shows “the diminution of the natural world writ small,” as she initially went to graduate school to study animal behaviorism and communication to fulfill her childhood “[dream] of following Fossey and Goodall to Africa,” but “by the time she got out of grad school there were so few apes left that her best option was to work in a zoo; now she’s looking at a job as a trainer of virtual pets” (5-6). Ana’s expertise in animal behaviorism, which finally lands her the job working with the digients and other AI, represents an almost lost skill set that becomes economically useful again in this new digital Earth. She is a character well-situated to negotiate between the micro- and macro-scales of extinction and obsolescence, since she has experienced species extinction directly impacting her career and relationships. Ana’s frequent comparisons between the digients and biological animals connect the digients’ endangered virtual ecosystem to previous struggles for environmental preservation. Additionally, Ana’s experiences emphasize how “wildlife” is used as a concept within contemporary conservation movements that frame extinction and endangerment through the language of wilderness and vanishing populations of untamed animals.3 The shift from extinction to obsolescence as a form of vanishing moves this discussion beyond romanticized wild animals to include pets or farm animals that are not often conceived of as endangered by human action in quite the same way.
This sense that an animal companion, particularly a technological animal companion, might be part of an endangered population is something that Ursula K. Heise explores in her essay “From Extinction to Electronics: Dead Frogs, Live Dinosaurs, and Electric Sheep.” Heise argues that many contemporary depictions of artificial animals implicitly or explicitly respond to mass species extinction (60). She traces the relationship between extinction and the impetus to create artificial animals in both science fiction and actual experiments with AI, finding that some artificial animals are used to mitigate fears of species extinction, while other artificial animals draw attention to the lives and deaths of biological animals. Ultimately, Heise argues that digital animals can lead us to consider the lives of biological animals more complexly. Drawing on Donna Haraway’s figure of the cyborg, she suggests that in order for a digital animal to function as an animal cyborg, it must be represented as Other—it cannot be fully understood or controlled by its creator or owner. Animal cyborgs need to be surprising and disconcerting. Heise argues that these “animal [cyborgs] can take us, through the discovery of otherness in our own technological creations, to the recognition of and respect for the nonhuman others we did not make” (75). This sense of unpredictability and otherness allows artificial lifeforms like the digients to find kinship with both their human companions and other forms of biological life.
Heise’s examples suggest that these digital and artificial animals are not just connected to narratives of species extinction and environmental crisis but are also being developed in particular economic contexts, although this is not the focus of her essay. As I have argued elsewhere, digital animals are often enmeshed in the same economic frameworks that impact biological animals, both because animal capital is an important part of the history of digital technologies and because texts featuring digital animals often depict biopolitical and bioeconomic relationships of animal training, pet keeping, and population management.4 This idea is most clearly developed in Nicole Shukin’s book Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, which offers the concept of ”rendering” as a way of accounting for the material traces of animal flesh in media technologies. As Shukin points out, animal bodies are at the center of the very earliest technological innovations involving electricity, film, and long distance communication, and these associations affect later incarnations of animals in media technologies. Her term ”rendering” brings together ”economies of representation (the ’rendering’ of an object on page, canvas, screen, etc.) and resource economies trafficking in animal remains (the business of recycling animal trimmings, bones, offal, and blood back into market metabolisms)” (Shukin 21-22). Bringing together the rendering of animal gelatin in the creation of early film stock with the spatial similarities between the abattoir and the auto assembly line, Shukin points out that these processes of representation and dismemberment are often interconnected such that an image of an animal, like the famous filmed execution of Topsy the elephant, harbors multiple material traces of animal sacrifice.
When Nicole Shukin explores animal capital in the context of digital technologies, she emphasizes the larger history of associating animal life with electricity. As she argues, from “Galvani’s belief that animal flesh is a natural conductor of electricity” through the presence of a “metaphysical current of ‘animal spirits’” to the contemporary tendency to prominently feature images of animals in media like advertising, particularly advertising for communication technologies, such as phones and computers, digital animals have been used to “fetishistically articulate technological mobility…through animals’ ostensibly innate capacity for a sympathetic, even telepathic, communication of affect” (Shukin 132). Shukin uses the term “telemobility” to refer to this belief in animals’ innate affective communication. Telemobility most often plays an uncritical role in animal media—Shukin develops this term in the context of an ad campaign for the Canadian corporation Telus Mobility—but The Lifecycle of Software Objects uses this concept to develop affective experiences of human-animal kinship and vulnerability, a form of telemobility that works to transform digital animals into disconcerting animal companions. Chiang repurposes the digients’ telemobility by making this affective communication central to their status as animal cyborgs.
Animal rendering and telemobility are associated with questions of realism and affect in the novella. Ana and the other point of view character, Derek Brooks, who works as a digital artist and designs the digient’s avatars, disagree about the extent to which the digients should resemble extinct animal species. Derek enjoys the challenge of designing digital creatures to look like lions or pandas, finding the right balance between cuteness and verisimilitude so that owners will relate to their new digital pets. Derek is introduced while struggling with some of the contradictions inherent to his design work. On the one hand, Derek needs to design an avatar that fits the corporate mandates of Blue Gamma and “manifests the digients’ gestures in a way that people can relate to… everything about the digients has to be appealing” (6-7). The digients must be adorable and telemobile. In order to express the kind of telemobile affect that will draw in customers, the digient avatars “need to be cute. . .but [Derek] can’t simply give the digients enormous eyes and short noses. If they look like cartoons, no one will take them seriously. Conversely, if they look too much like real animals, their facial expressions and ability to speak become disconcerting” (7). On the other hand, Derek sees his work, even when he is operating within the confines of marketability, as a way of “helping a new lifeform express itself” (7). He emphasizes that his work differs from typical digital animation projects as attributes like the digients’ ”gait and gestures” are ”emergent properties of the genome” rather than elements that he has direct control over (6). Derek believes himself to be helping the digients express their innate telemobile affect by designing avatars that fit their movements and their developing personalities, but his descriptions of this process betray the ways their “innate” affect is caught up with corporate interests.
Ana has spent enough time around animals to be skeptical of Derek’s carefully designed emotive avatars. She tries to explain to him that the digients have a ”non-animal quality to them,” such that ”it feels like we’re dressing them in circus costumes when we try to make them look like monkeys or pandas” (10). Ana’s observation is not a criticism of the digients so much as a reflection on the disconcerting incongruity between their cuteness and their more complex behavior. As Gordon points out, the digients are very unsettling because their close resemblance to lab animals, pets, children, and toys, and the strangeness of these contradictory identities "reflects back on our own troubled relationships with other animals" (n.p.). Even though they were carefully designed to be emotive and affective in ways that would not challenge their owners to think too carefully about whether the digients should be treated as toys, pets, or people, their telemobility backfires on the corporation as the combination of cuteness with unpredictable animal and human-like behavior limits their marketability as a simple novelty product that can be used and discarded. Their telemobility both contributes to the digients’ unmarketability and obsolescence as well as makes this threat of obsolescence more of a crisis for the digients and their human companions.
The digients constantly challenge their owners and trainers to rethink the ethics of digital petkeeping. For instance, just before their release date, the digients that Ana had been training needed to have three days of their memories deleted, because they have picked up profanity from one of the other trainers, and hearing “Eeh, eeh, eeh… fuck” coming out of an animated lion cub would turn off potential customers (14). Ana is saddened that this three day memory wipe will destroy an important memory for the young digients: the first time they rolled down a hill. The emergent behaviors of the digients’ genome—which include facility with language learning—are sacrificed to make the digients seem less unpredictable. After the release date, Ana and Derek keep track of Blue Gamma’s customer forums to see how the digients are being treated, and find that many customers are frustrated when their digients are sullen or “naughty,” displaying behaviors more similar to either a child or a pet rather than a toy (19-20). Derek muses that “a digient is not a videogame that you replay until you get a perfect score” as he and Ana try to encourage new owners to adjust their behavior to the digients instead of assuming a digient will always unthinkingly follow human commands (20).
The customer who is most dismissive of Derek and Ana’s advice refuses to change his avatar, an abstract animation of falling gold coins, just because his digient has trouble recognizing and responding to it (19). This particular incident reveals one of the biggest problem with the digients from a marketing standpoint: they demand that humans also consider how they are engaging affectively and telemobily through technology. As a digital animal trainer, Ana experiences the most extreme version of this technologized human affect. Her work with the digients was very rewarding, and she ultimately adopts Jax, one of the first digients she trained. After the initial digient fad fades and more customers begin to suspend their accounts, however, Ana must consider a new job offer to work with less engaging AI creatures. A new group of digients are designed by a rival company focusing on functionality instead of interactivity (66). These Sophonce digients are obsessive and unemotional, and if Ana is to train them, she is required by the company to take “InstantRapport,” a new drug that will force her to react affectionately toward the unlikable Sophance digients by dosing herself with oxytocin and opioids (104). Although Ana does not accept the job, this incident reveals the ways she is similarly required to show only non-disconcerting forms of telemobility as an animal trainer, a corporate employee, and woman whose decision to devote her life to caring for an AI is frequently dismissed as an ineffectual replacement for a human child. Ana and Jax are both endangered animal cyborgs, although Jax is the only one whose entire species is being threatened with extinction.
As the novella progresses, the digients are placed closer in relation to extinct and endangered species as a series of corporate buy-outs and economic catastrophes leave the digients stranded on an abandoned server, which the novella portrays as a kind of extinction. The Blue Gamma company that developed and marketed the digients, as well as provided the digients with necessary software updates, goes out of business. Later, the company that developed the “Data Earth” platform that the digients live on merges with a rival company “Real Space” during an economic recession (86). While this merger is insignificant for most users, many of whom can transfer their account to the new platform, the “Neuroblast engine” which the digients run on is not compatible with the Real Space platform. The Blue Gamma company that developed the Neuroblast engine went out of business before the Real Space virtual environment was created, and the Real Space developers saw no reason to include data for an older engine in their new server (87). This means that “there’s no way for a digient with a Neuroblast engine/genome to enter the Real Space environment,” so this merger “essentially means the end of the world” (87).
At this point in the novel, the digients are as vulnerable as the extinct apes that Ana wished she could study. As Data Earth becomes a shrinking wildlife refuge that digient owners do not have the economic and technological resources to permanently maintain, they are, however, able to mock up a version of the Data Earth platform (without many of the features of that world) so that the digients are not immediately suspended. It is important that the ecological catastrophe that the digients and their owners are dealing with is not just the result of technological advancements—there is no indication that Real Space operates any faster or more efficiently than the Data Earth platform—but is a market-driven form of technological obsolescence. This emphasis on market obsolescence is one of the important interventions that Chiang makes in the novella, as it creates new complications for thinking about the relationship between extinction, animal capital, and media technologies. The hypervulnerability of the digients is a direct result of their telemobility and cuteness, their difficulty existing within the market that created them, and their creation as “replacement” animals in response to global extinction events.
The threat of extinction forces the digients and their human companions to decide what they are willing to sacrifice to pay to transfer all of the digients into Real Space, and whether the sacrifice will be worth it when this new platform may soon become obsolete. In addition to Ana’s job offer taking pharmaceuticals to train the unemotive Sophance digital creatures to be personal assistants, her small digient community considers the following: crowdfunding the port to the new platform by generating “a story that generates sympathy for the digients themselves [in] the way some zoos pay for things like surgeries on elephants” (94), paying legal fees to register their digients as corporations to give them legal rights and recognition, and selling the digients to a company that would rewrite their code and remarket them as sexual and romantic companions. All of these solutions seek to solve the fundamental problem that the digients are too telemobile to serve as AI but too disconcerting and unpredictable to fit easily into any one category for a toy or a pet. They are poised at a point when they could become dependent children, protected zoo animals, intelligent corporations, or slowly maturing sexual adults.
Several of these potential solutions rely on the contradictory fact that the digients are manipulable digital creatures whose genetic coding can be easily rewritten and who can be taken in and out of stasis at their owners’ will, although they still seem to be at risk of losing their bodies and their world. There is no reason for the digients, whose “genome” is a line of computer code and whose “bodies” are digital avatars, to behave as if they are embodied creatures, but the novella continually returns to the idea that the digients, even when they are living in a virtual world, have bodies and that these bodies are especially vulnerable. This emphasis on vulnerability is markedly different from typical depictions of AI and virtual reality in science fiction or explored as a scientific possibility. AI experiments are not typically perceived as able to die, even when they are ascribed a form of life or liveliness. As Sarah Kember points out in her book Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life, artificial life “may be lifelike without being fully three-dimensionally alive, they may cease to exist but never truly die” (72). Claus Emmeche expresses a similar sentiment in The Garden in the Machine: The Emerging Science of Artificial Life, stating “artificial life is life without death” (137). When artificial lifeforms are associated with immortality, their obsolescence and vulnerability are rendered invisible.
These approaches to artificial life are informed by discussions of disembodiment and technology coming out of N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway’s posthumanist theories, among others. Hayles extends her influential critique of posthumanist forms emerging from transhumanism that sees digital technologies as a means to “fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality” (5) into her discussion of simulated environments. In her chapter “Narratives of Artificial Life,” she argues that the disembodied technologies of artificial life in software and virtual reality rely on narrative and design to link their creations to biological lifeforms. The computer code itself does not function as an embodied biological creature or environment. Projects like Thomas Ray’s artificial world Tierra depend on terminology like “mother cell,” “daughter cell,” “parasite,” and “ancestor,” as well as narratives of evolution and mutation to create associations between his software and living beings (Hayles 226-27). Ray and other AI researchers must also pay close attention to the visual design of their artificial creatures, suggesting, through what Hayles refers to as “biomorphized” images of artificial life, that their creatures have similar embodiment and sociality to the insect life that they resemble. In actuality, however, there is no particular reason Ray’s creatures should resemble insects or any other biological species (Hayles 229-30).
In response to these concerns, Hayles turns to artificial life research involving wetware and hardware, particularly the work of roboticist Rodney Brooks, whose robots are designed to interact closely with their environment and display a more embodied form of AI. She ultimately privileges hardware and wetware over software as more ethically promising forms of artificial life. Haraway similarly turns to embodiment when theorizing posthumanity, arguing that the transgressive boundaries between humans, animals, and machines that she introduces in her “Cyborg Manifesto” and develops in When Species Meet must incorporate “infoldings of the flesh,” a term she develops from Merleu-Ponty to replace the more disembodied term “interface” (Species 263). These fleshy infoldings “can occur only in the fleshy detail of situated, material-semiotic beings” (263) and require the involvement of an animal who is “mundanely present” and not a “fantasy projection of [a human] self” (221). Haraway’s fleshy infoldings are not strictly confined to material technologies, but they tend to privilege materiality over virtuality.
However, digital life does seem capable of producing powerful affective connections between humans and AI in Chiang’s work, despite the novella’s focus on virtual spaces over biotechnology and robotics. These affective bonds are often mediated through movement and sensation. The digients express a visceral enjoyment of their digital embodiment, particularly relating to movement—they play at rolling down hills, crawling on the digital ground as ants, and the digient Jax takes up dance and joins an Indonesian hip hop group. Digients are also programmed to experience pleasure and sometimes pain. The digients are initially equipped with “pain circuit-breakers” so they can’t be abused by their owners, but these circuit breakers are hacked by a group called the Information Freedom Front, who steal the genetic code of popular digient models and allow these hacks to be distributed to digient torture enthusiast websites (53-4). Digients also have a “reward map” that can be programmed so that they respond favorably to specific stimuli, and individual digients can be programmed to have personal preferences. These reward maps can be edited, but they are not arbitrary. So even though the digients do not have the full range of sensory data that a biological animal would have and do not have a number of important bodily functions—the unofficial employee slogan for the digients is “all the fun of monkeys, with none of the poop-throwing” (4). They value and take pleasure in having a body, and even before the digients become endangered their bodies are continually made vulnerable to various other forms of assault.
The digients’ sense of their embodiment becomes more complicated by the fact that they actually have two bodies they can choose between. When the digients were still a popular product, a company specializing in robotics designed a rentable robot body that the digient engine could be downloaded into, so that their owners could interact with them physically. This robot body allows the digients to experience sensations that their digital bodies lacked, particularly touch. The digital world of Data Earth provides the digients with a wealth of visual detail from their environment and simulates friction and movement, but there are limits to what the digients can experience through touch. Digients are consequentially fascinated by the textures of the material world (29). However, even though having a material body is fun for the digients and interacting with the digients in a material body is more rewarding for their owners, especially for Ana, who is reminded of how important touch was to her work with biological animals, the digients do not see a hardware body as a satisfying replacement for their software bodies. They would ideally prefer to have one of each. The digients miss the mobility of their digital bodies, declaring “outside world dumb” when they realize they can’t instantaneously travel anywhere they wish (31), and Jax in particular misses the flexibility of his digital body as well as the social environment of Data Earth. Dancing with his Indonesian hip hop dance troop in Data Earth is more rewarding than dancing in his robot body on his own, and when he tries to dance on his own, he ends up breaking the robot body, which is too unwieldy and heavy to perform the cartwheels he attempts (88). While the digients have an unusual degree of flexibility in adjusting to different types of bodies, they still see themselves as ideally needing a digital environment. Even after Data Earth turns into a shrinking wildlife refuge for the digients, leaving their software bodies behind and just becoming a hardware AI is not a solution for Jax or the other digients. Jax is forced to download into the robot body so he can sit at Ana’s computer and use her avatar to log in to Real Space, a solution that is described as “a miserable substitute for being there, as unsatisfying as a jungle videogame would be to a chimpanzee taken from the Congo” (90).
The digients’ sense that their software body is both valuable and vulnerable becomes an important consideration when the digients and their owners are debating what to do to prevent the digients from full extinction. The emotional and economic stakes of this transition from Data Earth to Real Space are high: either Ana or the digients might have their emotions re-engineered by a corporation, the digients might be increasingly vulnerable to hackers like the Information Freedom Front, and the new Real Space platform might be as short lived as its predecessors. The digients, however, also need to think about what happens to their bodies when their accounts are suspended and reactivated. To return to my initial example, near the end of the novella, Jax and Ana discuss what it would mean if they were able to raise enough money to upload Jax into the new Real Space platform. Jax is anxious about this change and suggests that his digital body needs to be situated in the now defunct Data Earth network and, perhaps, cannot be transferred to Real Space without doing him some harm. He describes this upload of his genome software as analogous to the experiment where a mouse had its biological body scanned and uploaded into a virtual environment (100).
Jax articulates an interesting sense of kinship with this lab mouse. He worries that he will die if he is ported over into a new virtual environment and leads Ana to rethink the ethics of the mouse experiment (an early test for a technology designed for human use), questioning the assumption that animal life has less value than human life. Jax’s questions to Ana, Will I also die? Did the experimenters run test suites to make sure their test would be safe for the mouse?, create a discomforting network of shared bodily vulnerability between digital and organic life that extends beyond Jax and the mouse to include Ana as a vulnerable corporate employee and possibly even the non-sentient test suites that Ana would run to ensure Jax’s safety during the upload to a new virtual environment. As an example of a digital animal, Jax and the other digients are not disembodied and immortal, but are embodied and hypervulnerable, placing them alongside other human-animal-robot bodies that are at risk in the intersection of consumer culture and media technology.
Ted Chiang’s novella is wildly successful at rethinking AI and artificial life in an age of digital technologies. The digients’ sense of virtual embodiment suggests that we might not be able to imagine forms of new digital life without turning to analogous forms of embodied social relations. The shared vulnerability that the novella creates between digital and biological animals complicates many of the conventional divisions between the software, hardware, and wetware of artificial life research. The Lifecycle of Software Objects takes up the question of whether virtual technologies and AI can develop immortality and answers, unequivocally, that it will not. Instead, the novella portrays digital technologies as hypervulnerable to many of the same forms of exploitation that impact the lives of animals, children, and corporate employees. The complex kinship networks that Chiang develops between these human and nonhuman subjects shows how applicable extinction is as a concept for understanding technological developments, allowing us to pay attention to technology loss and how it impacts our environment as well as how obsolescence can similarly by applied to human-animal relationships, drawing attention to the ways animal death function within global capital. As a thought experiment, the novella is a chilling reminder that these issues are already an ongoing feature of our relationships with biological animals, and that our window of time for articulating this digital-biological animal relationship is shrinking.
1. The Lifecycle of Software Objects does reference Turing, even though Chiang doesn’t focus on the Turing Test in the narrative, as the frontispiece quotes Turing’s claim that “Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best [for developing AI]. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense of organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child… I think both approaches should be tried” (n.p.).
2. See, for example, Akira Mizuta Lippit’s work in Electric Animal, which contends that technology, particularly the technologies involved in film production, communication, transportation, and electricity, ”began to serve as virtual shelters for displaced animals” such that ”technology and ultimately the cinema came to determine a vast mausoleum for animal being” (187).
3. Carrie Friese’s book Cloning Wild Life: Zoos, Captivity, and the Future of Endangered Animals also looks at the ways “wildness” as a concept is used to give legitimacy to biotechnological experiments with cloning, arguing that “different cloned endangered animals embody different imaginaries regarding the future of wildlife on a planet that is increasingly (understood as) shaped by human presence” (2).
4. Attebery, “Coshaping Digital and Biological Animals: Companion Species Encounters and Biopower in the Video Games Pikmin and Pokémon.”
Attebery, Stina. “Coshaping Digital and Biological Animals: Companion Species Encounters and Biopower in the Video Games Pikmin and Pokémon.” Humanimalia vol. 6, no. 2, 2015, 56-84.
Chiang, Ted. The Lifecycle of Software Objects. Subterranean Press, 2010.
Colebrook, Claire. Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Vol. 1. Open Humanities Press, 2014.
Emmeche, Claus. The Garden in the Machine: The Emerging Science of Artificial Life. Princeton UP, 1994.
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