A Requiem for Aibo


This Aibo listens to Nipper. Photograph by pt at Flickr.

The mystical theme of the space age is this: The world, as we know it, is coming to an end. The world as the centre of the universe, the world divided from the heavens, the world bound by horizons in which love is reserved for members of the in-group: That is the world that is passing away. Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end. Our divided, schizophrenic world view, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious, that is what is coming to an end. The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth, that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the Kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbours, in our enemies, in all of us.

Joseph Campbell. New York Times Magazine. Circa 1977.

An entire cyle of myth played itself out, from beginning to end starting with the Apollo 8 crew’s photograph of earthrise, the view back to earth from the moon’s orbit that showed us that we are one group of humans living within one habitat, undivided, and ended with a series of exquisitely beautiful Bergdorf Goodman advertisements photographed by Sheila Metzner and published in the New York Times Magazine towards the end of 1999, which showed a woman on a barren planet — perhaps Mars — living in something like Richard Neutra’s Kaufman House with only Sony’s robot dog AIBO, “man’s next friend” as a companion. The computer age ended with symbols of glamorous desolation that aligned with the wasteland identified by T.S. Eliot in the 1920’s, and that Arthur Schlesinger recognised as still existing in the middle of the century. “Western man in the middle of the 20th century is tense, uncertain, adrift,” he wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1948. “We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”

Joseph Campbell died in 1987. In 1988 his series of conversations with Bill Moyers, recorded at George Lucas’s Skywalker Studio, The Power of Myth, was shown on public television in America and was an enormous hit, they reignited a public thirst for mythology but in the series Joseph Campbell noted that an era was ending and he had no clear idea where the new context for mythological stories would be found. The idealism of the civil rights era and the ambition that sent humans to the moon had passed and the falling of the Berlin Wall was bringing the curtain down on the cold war. The dot.com boom that would become a frenzy in the decade after Campbell died would bring about some powerful social and cultural advancements: the internet would remain free and owned by no-one, but what would largely be remembered was a hunger for ridiculous amounts of money tied to goofily improbable schemes.

Movies were carrying forward some mythological messages, Campbell noted in The Power of Myth. George Lucas had drawn heavily from Campbell’s writings that connected up myths across cultures and through time for his Star Wars movies. Campbell’s response to the movies was that: “It’s what Goethe said in Faust but which Lucas has dressed in modern idiom — the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being.” Campbell died before the introduction of the internet, but he’d owned a computer. He likened it to an Old Testament God that was “all rules and no mercy.”

The myths for a new century, a new time, look beyond the computer to what remains human. In his 1999 novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, William Gibson predicted that as the millennium turned the world would end and no-one would notice. What ended was any sense of the divine being something outside ourselves. We’d travelled outside of ourselves to look back with God’s eye at our world when we put humans into orbit. We’d cloned animals (and perhaps humans) and in our dominion over nature had all but destroyed our world. The invention of the atom bomb gave us the power to wipe out the world. The novel ends with time symbolically beginning again: the last few chapters are truly poetic and inexpressible in logical terms. But these things happen: the entirely synthetic creature, the idoru, Rei Toi becomes organically human, an Eve for a new age made entirely from shards of our knowledge. Humans find themselves again within authentic stories: symbolised by the struggle between Cody Harwood, the media baron who manufactures abstracted existences around celebrities and Rydell, whose exquisite sensitivity to patterns in data recognises the aimlessness and inhumanity of the data stream. And the innocent, damaged boy Silencio, with the idiot savant’s ability to recognise patterns watches time being remade. And the bridge burns. This made me think of the Buddhist parable that the raft is not the shore, when we arrive at the other side we don’t drag the boat along behind us, it was merely a vehicle to deliver us to a new shore. We’ve arrived somewhere beyond the computer: it’s useful, but not Godlike, it serves us not the other way round. The perspective for this new mythology was introduced in Nick Cave’s 2001 song As I Sat Sadly By Her Side, the co-ordinates given are universal and global. Two beings sit beside one another and describe what they see through the window and in their own hearts: it’s a dialogue between Nick and his wife, Nick and the listener, Nick and himself, Nick and God. It’s a new age: the song vaguely references the final book of the New Testament, Revelations, where Jesus is the bridegroom of humankind, wiping away our tears now that the former things have passed away. It’s a call to action and has the rhythm of an engaged heartbeat. It seems to be a conversation recalled while Nick is walking out into the world. A couple of years later William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition would outline the mythological system for this new age, finding connections, human connections, that are meaningful: the only technology in the book was what was already on the market, an Apple cube, a regular powerbook, a mobile phone.   

His novels have become the defining myths of the digital tele-communications section of the computer age. He’s truly a Joseph Campbell figure for this new age. The Sony Walkman had helped define William Gibson’s concept of virtual reality. He wrote of walking through the streets of Vancouver with the “bleak majesty” of a Joy Division album playing within his thoughts, adding to his experience of the city. It was a bridge between the analogue and digital worlds. Gibson was also inspired by adolescents being absorbed into the abstract visual worlds of early arcade video games, the musicians of Nick Cave’s generation constructing elaborate mental worlds within the broken parts of cities worldwide, Ridley Scott’s movie Bladerunner, and the first personal computer, all of which happened circa the significant science fiction date of 1984.

The Bladerunner legacy is the one that’s most obvious to identify. Humans destroyed the landscape and all living creatures and had to relocate to Mars. On earth they’d created robotic animals to replace the real wildlife that had become extinct. On Mars they created humanoid robots to be companions, but even the robots were lonely. The robots (replicants) turned to classical Jules Verne and H.G. Wells science fiction to make their existence bearable, stories that represented Mars as a verdant paradise. The rogue replicants escape to earth, determined to have an authentic, meaningful existence, whatever the hardships and however broken the landscape, since they’d be a part of a genuine community.

AIBO, a Japanese word meaning companion, and a clumsy acronym for an artificial intelligence robot seemed to be the beginning of a breed of smart creatures that might, one day, be capable of becoming genuinely independently intelligent, lifelike. It’s possible that, like the Walkman, the AIBO represented the culmination of a technological system, as it was dying out, not the start of something new. Sony unwittingly symbolised the fulfillment of the Bladerunner prophecy. A version of AIBO, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity were robot dogs traversing Mars. One of them landed, rolled into place on the surface of the planet and began playing (Sony recording artist) Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born To Run”. A melancholy book about Sony, by John Nathan, ended with a chapter entitled “Idei the Heretic” in which the then Chief Executive suspected Sony as we knew it then would have to die. He was right. He was removed from the job. AIBO was discontinued, and the Qualia range, something as bizarrely perfectly unreal, like a Victorian naturalist’s specimens remains only as high-priced range in America. Qualia suggested that electronics would create heady new sensations, comparable with the joy of savouring a $400 glass of wine, or a perfect leaf plucked from a rainforest. Qualia stores were exclusive tombs, with their own scent and concierges clad in Yohji Yamamoto costumes demonstrating electronics to potential customers. The Qualia operation reminded me of the Tyrell Corporation’s perfect Frank Lloyd Wright headquarters with its all but real owl, and the nearly human Rachel.

The part of us that hears

needs to be heard

The part of us that sees

Yearns to be observed

The part of us that touches

Wants to be engaged

The part of us that feels

Needs to be nurtured

It’s the part of us that gives shape and meaning to sensory experiences – to Qualia.

Sony brochure.

The last decade of the twentieth century was heady. It was as if perfectly sane businesses began reading William Gibson’s novels and considering them urban planning documents and manufacturing schematics for technological devices. Gibson’s symbolic inference that all life would pass through the computer screen and find a truer existence there was taken as a bald fact. There were business plans that chased this notion that were patently absurd and unworkable and fell apart almost immediately. There were those that were sinister, like Enron’s befuddling commodities trading leaving a wake of environmental and human suffering in India, a couple of dimly lit years in California, and denuded pension plans of its employees. But there were those that were market dreams as fine and valuable as myths, that allowed people to do things for themselves: to market their own products directly to one another (e-Bay) with an escrow payment system that kept their financial details secure (PayPal), a search engine that was (then) unmuddied by advertising (Google). Google maps allowed us to view our world any way we wanted. And alongside these commercial ventures, the internet remained free and a community: with its backbone universally available (the World Wide Web), a system for sharing and collaborating through several sets of copyright tiers (Creative Commons), an operating system that re-invents itself through collective labours (Linux), and now the hyperlocal phenomenon of Placeblogging through Outside.in .