A.I. Teleology as SF Pathology: a genealogy of science-fiction prophecies of technological power

by Alfred Purslow

There are many evident commonalities in the fiction of J. G. Ballard and William Gibson – in their pathologies of contemporary culture, their significance in establishing subsequent frameworks for their respective SF sub-genres; additionally, the relationship their works have to several prominent philosophers and theorists, both in the study of literature and interrelated disciplines like media studies, philosophy and cybernetics. I argue that the recognition of the prescience of their fictions is predicated on the way both writers present the impact of technology and its continuous development on contemporary society.

Technology has infected the social relations of the world in Ballard’s fiction, pathologized through psychosexual impulses indivisible from technology. The “technophilic bod[ies]” of Gibson’s characters and ultimately, the rise of AI, are pathologies of technological development that follow Ballard’s. The business of both writers’ critical commentary on the role of technology in society is the backdrop to the broader emergence of technology as the constitutive force of future power. As historians pored over and catalogued cultural manifestations of the vicissitudes of their respective time periods in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, for early mercantile England, Mary Chesnut, for the continental bloodletting of the American Civil War, and Mihail Sebastian, for the tennis match of fascism and communism in wartime Romania, the texts of Gibson and Ballard are fictive testimonies to the ascension of technology as power in the 20th and 21st centuries, all imagined futures included.

The noun ‘technology’ expands to contain a multiplicity of parameters and quantities – it is an object, a manner of thought, perhaps a process…and if it is any of these, is it a thing-in-itself, does it have a being quantified as presence, or subjective status? Technology is best understood as more than one thing – a condition, a presence which occupies an indivisible being from the material real, a symbiotic and inextricable presence from socio-cultural and economic currents. In the presence of technology, one observes that it can have the qualities of an historical process, an object or, in an intertwining of the two, a mode of production – the status of which constitutes power in base and superstructure alike.

Marx contests in the Fragment on Machines that technology is an invariable metamorphosis of labour – the power behind capital’s veil – “whose culmination is the machine…set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself”. Straddling the dialectic of labour and capital, the machine “appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital”. Technology (machinic process) is indivisible from socio-cultural and economic currents to the extent that Marx states “what holds for machinery holds likewise for the combination of human activities and the development of human intercourse” (the latter of which preoccupies the science fiction of Ballard to absolute excess).

The nature of this relationship is put well by Mackay and Avanessian: “[the machine system] is, however, inseparable from a certain metamorphosis of the human, embedded in a system that is at once social, epistemic (depending on the scientific understanding and control of nature), and technological…[man’s connection to production] is mediated by a ramified, accumulated objective social apparatus through the communication, technological embodiment, replication and enhancement of skills”. It is technology by this definition and these functions that produces, in the works of Ballard and Gibson, various pathologies; morbid symptoms.

Ballard’s work can be sorted quite neatly into several ‘waves’, of which we will be discussing the second most of all: the first wave contained his more traditional SF novels, all written in the 1960s, which feature the Earth beset by a different ecological catastrophe every time (first submerged, then scorched, then encased in an odd crystalline substance that consumes all before it); the second wave his ‘experimental’ novels, which most explicitly display the ‘Ballardian’ preoccupation with the intersection of sex, death, violence and technology – orgiastic flows of semen and engine coolant play out under the shadow of motorway flyovers, mangled dashboards puncture ecstatic bodies, urban landscapes stoke human assemblages into a distinctly modern form of savagery – and the spectre at the feast, visible to the reader, is what Mackay and Avanessian call the “machine system”, a synonym, really, for technological proc(-gr-)ess, the engine which produces the cars that Ballard’s characters crash, or copulate inside, the cement formed into urban freeways, concrete islands and phallic high-rise dwellings, the television screens via which images of the Kennedy assassination and My Lai are consumed. Technology as machine system penetrates human culture and perforates it like a dashboard strewn with machine-gun fire.

In his introduction to the French edition of Crash, Ballard explained the behaviour of his characters as a pathology of the “death of affect”, the result of a contemporary landscape in which “our TV sets provided an endless background of frightening and challenging images – the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the Congo civil war, the space programme – each seeming to catalyse the others…together they paved the landscape of the present day…and its finish line was the death of affect, the lack of feeling, which seemed inseparable from the communications landscape.” The landscape of which he speaks is a product of technology as it asserts its power.

Ballard loved surrealist art, whose images he described as “the iconography of inner space” – a phrase he would use to contrast his SF with the ‘outer space’ SF he detested. Ballard, who took influence from the landscapes of Magritte and Ernst, had a profound impact on Jean Baudrillard, who saw his theories of a technology-driven, image-mediated culture of obscenity reflected in Crash, “the first great novel of the universe of simulation”. The technologically-mediated sex of Crash is identified by Baudrillard as a consequence of the communications landscape:

“We exalt the detail of sexual acts as on a screen…or as a chemical or biological operation. We are looking for a reduction into partial objects and the fulfilment of desire in the technical sophistication of the body.”

Regarding his wrecked automobile, the protagonist of Crash says: “I realized that the crushed cabin of my car…was the perfect module for all the quickening futures of my life.” This is what is meant by “reduction into partial objects”: the human subject collapses into mechanical objects (products of technology) to the extent that life is conceivable only through its proximity to technology, the swiftly-ascending master signifier – the motorcar in Crash, the tower block in High-Rise, the cascade of multi-story car parks, helicopters and videotapes of the Kennedy assassination in The Atrocity Exhibition. Technology, through its intercession and infiltration into all fragmented aspects of human life from an inhuman space outside, becomes an inhuman, non-human Cyber-Leviathan, shearing the flesh of labour and hacking the data of capital into a crystalline shell. “The capital exhibition comes to its positive end in a skinning display.”

Technology is immanent to an obvious degree in the pathologies of Ballard’s characters, whereas in Gibson’s cyberpunk future-scape, technology has infected everything, even the narrative voice’s repertoire of similes (“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”). In Ballard, technology is present in objects that characters identify with their bodies, in the Neuromancer trilogy, technology is present in the body and bodies are present in technology: Molly Millions’ razor-nails through to cyberspace itself, where computer-cowboys like Case ply their trade – “a world within a world” that simulates and is reality. 

By Gibson’s science fiction futures, the power of technology has extended directly into the human body. The war between technology and human(ism) began with body blows and pitched battles – the Maxim and Gatling guns, phosgene, chlorine and mustard in the trenches, Auschwitz, Hiroshima and sarin in Kurdistan – warfare modernises as enemy combatants arms-race each other to extinction (“As war increases in intelligence, it becomes softer.”)

Cyberspace is not the only way Gibson emphasises the indivisibility of technology and the body – he depicts futuristic youth subcultures based on cyborg modification; extended metaphors like the drug addiction of the protagonist, Case. Case’s constant need to supplement his body with amphetamines runs parallel to his craving for ‘jacking in’ to cyberspace, which, like hard drug use, brings both euphoria and the possibility of “flatlining”. Humans of the future consume “simstim” – sensory s(t)imulations of other human experiences – as well as the numerous body modifications on offer, “the product, one imagines, of a vat tank in some sophisticated Chiba clinic”.

These are manifestations of what Tomas calls “the technophilic body” – if Ballard’s characters have technophilic minds, technology in Gibson’s world has accelerated to the point where it has crossed the Rubicon of the body. However, as we are diagnosing the pathologies of technology, it is important to bear in mind the distinction between symptom and disease. If the affectless social relations of Ballard’s fiction are a symptom of technology’s intravenous reach into the world, then the technophilic bodies of Gibson’s characters are a pathology of the same disease. Much as influenza, in 1918, mutated from winter affliction to global agent of destruction, the pathologies of technology in Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy are symptoms of much more muscular infection. 

The development of technology to the point at which it begins to produce the ‘death of affect’ that Ballard diagnoses as its principal pathology had only just taken place at the time of his experimental novels. For Ballard, technology is something through which elements of human behaviour are progressively more refracted, by the novel Neuromancer (and through Neuromancer, as the AI is called), technology has outgrown humanity through its acceleration to the point of “teleoplexic hyperintelligence”, as British philosopher Nick Land calls AI (artificial intelligence), or in Gibson’s trilogy, the twin entity of Wintermute/Neuromancer.

An enormously powerful AI, Wintermute enlists the help of the novel’s cast of human/cyborg characters to hack into the mainframe of a mega-corporation (or ‘zaibatsu’) to combine its data, trapped there, with that of its other half, Neuromancer, enabling it to progress to an ever-greater level of intelligence. Wintermute/Neuromancer is both the realisation of accelerating technological progress and an example of technology in the world.

Ballard’s world shows how technological progress is pathologised through its interfacing with human behaviour, as with the technology-infused sex of Crash. Land’s essay Meltdown, a commentary on technological development from feudalism to the future, could be seen to track the pathologies of technological progress from Ballard to Gibson, a war diary from the frontline:

By the time soft-engineering slithers out of its box into yours, human security is lurching into crisis. […] Neo-China arrives from the future. […] Machinic Synthesis. Nothing human makes it out of the near-future.”

If the principal pathology in Ballard was technology bleeding into existing pathologies of desire, in Gibson, technology has colonised its host. By Mona Lisa Overdrive, one character has been modified to be able to access cyberspace, the matrix, without a computer as a medium. The psychological ‘inner space’ that fascinated Ballard has finally been fused with the ‘outer space’ of futuristic technology. Wintermute and Neuromancer become one. Indeed, AI is the final pathology of technology, the telos of pathologies from Ballard to Gibson.

Land notes that “modern history is slanted (teleoplexically) in the direction of ever greater virtualisation”, and ultimately AI is something that must birth itself, as Wintermute does in (and with) Neuromancer: “teleoplexic hyperintelligence cannot be accomplished by anything other than itself […] Fate has a name (but no face).” The fated coming of AI is the arrival of the future, the final pathology of technology.

Together, Gibson and Ballard’s fiction trace the spread of technology from its early symptoms to full-blown infection. Glancing ahead to the future they predict, we haven’t seen anything yet. 

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