Beware Institutions and Their Androids

Science fiction author Philip K. Dick wrote an important essay that I return to often titled “The Android and the Human.” In this essay, Dick warns us against the modern tendency of humans becoming androids. Instead of this human-to-android taking place as a result of some kind of technoscientific subversion of the flesh by the mechanical, he sees a far darker tendency of human beings replacing their humanity with computer code. What he means by this is that humans are increasingly falling back on laws and rules put in place by institutions and governments as a way to act and relate to other humans. Like androids, which execute code to regulate their bodies and navigate the world, humans are likewise executing code in concrete and invariable ways that can result in dire results for the human-android and much more so for the recipient of the human-android’s actions. Dick celebrates human flexibility over the android’s inflexibility. Human beings can make exceptions while androids cannot. I find myself in a situation dealing with androids, now.

Y and I missed the Kent State GSS International Travel Grant deadline for this Summer. This was, admittedly, our fault, because we thought that there was only one kind of travel reimbursement for graduate students. GSS actually offers a non-competitive travel reimbursement for domestic travel and a competitive travel grant for international travel. We have received the domestic travel reimbursement before, and it is relatively easy to apply for. As we learned too late, the international travel grant is much more involved: it requires several pages of writing, letters of recommendation, and additional documentation. We could not get these things together before we left for the SFRA 2011 meeting in Lublin, Poland, but we figured that we would take a chance and apply once we returned thinking that if there were still moneys available, we may be able to receive some funding for our trip. We were wrong.

We learned today that GSS follows their rules as precisely as an android, and their deadlines are as immutably inscribed as the pathways on a circuit. To use a Monopoly game analogy, there is no pass-go and there is no collecting $200. Our applications will not even be considered, because we missed the deadline for this grant. Also, we cannot even apply for less funding through the non-competitive domestic reimbursement. This is an extreme let down for us not only because we spent time putting together our applications, but also because we asked our recommendation letter writers to spend their time, energy, and consideration on our behalf.

Institutions and bureaucracies develop their own logic in order to produce some result. They are in effect computers: accepting an input, doing work on that input, and producing a result based on the input and the operation on that input. GSS is an institution that supports Kent State’s graduate students, and I certainly don’t want to disparage the good work that GSS does. However, I worry about the inflexibility of these institutions and the persons who work in these institutions as much as Dick does in “The Android and the Human.” Do the humans in these institutions willing give over their human inflexibility in exchange for the android-power that they derive from their position? Or, do the institutions impose androidness on the humans that continue the operations of the institution-computer? Do the humans, in effect, become the transistors within the circuits of institutional power?

I’m not advocating that we ditch these institutions, because we certainly couldn’t get a lot of the work that we do get done without them. However, I, like Dick, believe that we need to assert our humanity when confronted with the inflexibility of the android. Institutions cannot by themselves do anything–it is the human beings acting as the nodes of power emanating from the institution that do things for, on, or by others. Similarly, the human beings at the mercy of institutions and their androids can certainly assert their humanity, too, but this may not sit well with institutional androids at various nodes within the greater networks of power.

I suppose even if institutional androids cannot or will not inject a little humanity into the institutions that they inhabit, I wonder if instead we can add a little fuzzy logic to the institutions to make them less concretely computerized. Of course, any operation working its way through a set of instructions is still android-like. However, adding some kind of flexibility to the system might make it more appealing (personable?) to those on the outside who are at the institution’s and by extension the institutional androids’ mercy.

My wallet could certainly use some fuzzy logic right about now.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Conference, Kent State, Personal, Science Fiction
2 comments on “Beware Institutions and Their Androids
  1. I read this one with interest. While I sympathize–been there done that–with your frustrations, I’ve also seen how things work in universities, and some inflexible structures/rules are necessary so that 1) chaos doesn’t break loose, and 2) so the staff who administer these processes don’t pull their hair out. As for 1: These programs and systems “slot in” with lots of other programs round campus, and often these slot in with things that happen off-campus, at the state or federal level. In order for everything to “work,” the deadlines have to be followed; otherwise, the system(s) will fall apart. As for 2: the bureaucratic hoop jumping faculty and students go through is minor compared to the hoop jumping administrators and staff have to go though. Without these structures and deadlines these hard working people would be pulling their hair out. Relative to what they are doing, us faculty and students have an easy go of it, and we are the ones, at the end of the day, who benefit the most from all these structures, and all the hard work staff are doing. Take this as a “learning experience” and in future be sure to get your applications in on time. As well, remember when you are a faculty member to help students get through these android patches and don’t be an android yourself! ;-)

  2. FirstHandExperience says:

    Actually the previous post is patronising (as you expect from a probable spokeperson from a university). Hoop jumping enables bureacrats to condition students into reminding them who is boss. The payoff for the bureacrats is job security albeit without any ability to apply rationale or intelligence to solve situations: institutions like most public service jobs require people who will not rock the boat and hence those that are no threat to their superioirs in the long term, eventually being promoted to those positions. They are effectively “institutionalised”, amazing for universities whixh are supposed to be centres for rationale thought. Universities have very little to do with creative thought, only analytic thought i.e. Android like thought, as you have seen.

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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