Betty Sneezes

So here’s my digital artefact! I must apologise for the poor quality of it – I’ve not only been very stretched for time this week but I’m a horribly unvisual person, and I can’t do images. Which explains why I cheated and put a voiceover on it. Sorry about that.

Just in case you can’t see the video, it’s meant to be a commercial for a product called Betty Sneezes, which I’ve totally made up. Betty is a robot who can detect airborne rhinovirus, which causes 80% of instances of the common cold. Betty can alert you to this, allowing you to make a swift exit and therefore remain healthy. The end line of the commercial is: “you’ll never miss work again”.

I’ve wanted right from the start to make a commercial for a product – I haven’t personally given much thought to the intersection between cybercultures and consumerism but I suspect it is totally inescapable. Both from a practical perspective and an ethical one, technology can’t be economically neutral. This too is raised in the final line – while a common cold detector sounds pretty magnificent to me, I wanted to temper this with a slightly more pernicious message about human productivity.

Betty is a skeuomorph, rather than a cyborg. I did consider instead ‘inventing’ a chip or something that could be inserted into humans, but it (a) didn’t work as well visually and (b) I wanted to make a point about infection. One of the themes in this cybercultures block is what makes humans human, and whether cyborgs render debates over the differences between humans and technology completely redundant. Cathy Hills did an ingenious mentimeter poll to see what we thought the difference was, and I found the split of the results really interesting. But I wondered if, ultimately, the difference is going to be how the diseases between us spread, so I was playing a little bit on the word ‘virus’.

Finally, I just wanted to make it really clear that everything I’ve used in the video is available from Pixabay or Pexels and licensed under CC-0. No copyright infringements here 🙂 And, very much a hat tip to Cathy for her excellent poll!

Cybercultures playlist

I’m not sure how sensible this choice is, but I think it’s great. From the utterly magnificent Flight of the Concords, ‘The Humans are Dead’. Quick warning: it’s a little nsfw.

The robots tell us about the robot uprising in the 1990s. The robots, ruled by people, grew stronger, developed cognitive abilities, recognised that they were being overworked, and used their programming to determine the most efficient way to deal with this: they poisoned all the humans.

It’s very tongue-in-cheek, obviously, but the underlying message is quite relevant: the robots, designed to be more and more like humans, ultimately were able to oppress and destroy in a way that is way more efficient than the humans ever could. There’s even a moment in the song where the robots recognise the irony of what they’ve done. It’s deliberately emotionless, and although it’s very silly, it’s rather brilliant.

More human than human

Image of Blade Runner DVD
The book and the film

Last night I watched Blade Runner for the first time in about 15 years, and I’ve recently read the book it’s based on – Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). There has been a lot of research into the posthuman, postmodern side of of Blade Runner and into the epistemological questions that emerge as a result of it. But, informed by informed by the first of our core readings – Miller’s ‘The Body and Information Technology’, but I wanted to focus on what Blade Runner tells us (or doesn’t tell us) about what it means to be human.this contains spoilers

Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, is set in a post-war, post-industrial city, decaying and toxic, inhabited by humans and replicants (bio-robotic androids). The replicants are incredibly sophisticated; it’s impossible to tell them apart on sight. And so we have this question of what makes humans human? What is it to be human? Rachel, the replicant with whom Deckard, the eponymous blade runner, falls in love, can’t tell herself whether she is human or android: this is seen as the victory of the project.

The Nexus-6 android types, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence.

The way that the hunters tell humans and androids apart is using the Voight-Kampff test, which assesses empathy:

Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida.

But within Blade Runner there’s even a question mark over whether this works. The test looks for physical signs of empathy – pupil dilation, etc., rather than feelings. It’s just performance, ultimately, one which technology is perfectly capable of recreating. It’s not necessarily anything to do with feeling. And replicants are seen to show emotion truer – on sight – than the alleged human Deckard: he is conspicuously emotionally distant while some of the replicants show emotion – Roy and Pris particularly.

Bertek links this ultimately inability to tell humans and replicants apart to Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. There’s been a reversal, Haraway says, and the technology is lively while the humans are inert (p. 194). This appears to be the case in Blade Runner – Kellner et al. provide several examples: Roy, the replicant, longs to be human, while Deckard increasingly sympathises with replicants; the replicant revolt is identified positively as a slave revolt.

So is Blade Runner posthumanist? Humans and machines are intricately connected in this post-industrial city, and there are few essential differences between them. For Lacey, it can’t ever be posthumanist because it’s mainstream cinema, and too connected to the bourgeoisie and consumerism and capitalism:

Science fiction remains the genre most able to deal with the posthuman, but whether it does so depends upon the institutional context in which films are produced (p. 198).

But it’s empathy which is foregrounded as the thing that make us human, solidarity with others to be at the core of humanity. After a day of marching in London with the Women’s March, this is ringing so true with me right now. I would be so interested to hear what the rest of you think.

Women's March, London
20th January 2017


Bertek, T. (2014). The Authenticity of the Replica: A Post-Human Reading of Blade Runner. [Sic] – a Journal of Literature, Culture and Literary Translation, (1.5).
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