Sep 7, 2009


I just saw a middle-aged fat-cat-capitalist dawg driving down this leafy street. With his seat reclined, his right arm draped across the back of the passenger’s seat, his head tilted back as if to offer his chin to the gods, daring them to punch him . . . he had that familiar driving posture that proclaims, “I am somebody. Move over.”

I thought again about the facts of what we do when driving a car—piloting a few tons of metal, steering a weapon, mastering a robot.

Robots. In 2009 we already have foreign objects in our bodies: knees, hips, stents, metal plates, other people’s organs, mammals’ organs. What a lot of Self we are. Sometimes my Self weighs me down. But more often it’s all those other Selfs out there, wanting equal time.

Last Saturday in the hotel coffee shop, I once again met The Bacon Boys, my vegetarian breakfast group. Except for their fuddy-duddy New Cynicism about the astonishing will of the barnacle, his sexual strategies, and his design for survival (July 26, 2009), The Bacon Boys are pretty open-minded and well informed concerning science, so our conversations often drift to oddities of the human body, or geology, or the universe—a body trying to be as important as our own.

Saturday Oscar and Olivier chewed on dandelion stems and waited for their food. They are twins, slender red-heads, who at 42 could almost be our children. In fact, they are the children of M.I.T. physics profs who named them for Oscar Delaurentis and Laurence Olivier, in the hope that they’d abjure science and become something in the art world. Instead . . . well, we don’t know what they do, and we don’t press for answers.

You could say the twins contribute nothing, though inattentive silence is contribution of a kind. Slim Tim politely filibustered for their membership because his parents and theirs were close friends back in Cambridge, and how do you say no to Slim Tim?

Our founder and leader, Viggy, has called the twins our legacies. He’s also called them The Silencers—their blank stares can silence even Two-Stent Viggy, who, by his own admission is too ornery to have a healthy heart.

Last Saturday, he was serving up the latest info on computerized eyeballs. I envisioned hard-boiled eggs with miniature iPhones inserted in the dry yolks.

“I’m telling you, Banjo” said Viggy, “we’re just days away from body parts grown in the lab. Am I right, Tim?”

Slim Tim, who works in a pharmaceutical lab, had also heard about this organ business and was happy to agree. “Some day we’ll just stop in at Rite-Aid.”

“Why not?” said Viggy.

“In our lifetimes?” I asked.

“Why not?” said Viggy.

“A body-part garden,” I said. (I hadn’t slept well; I was cross). “Will tomatoes grow there too?"

Viggy said, "Is that your best shot, Fungus-Face?”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Takes one to know one, bouncer off rubber, sticker on glue.”


“Indefatigable narcissist.”

“Ontological nil. Unstrung banjo.”

“Plumber’s Helper—Wait! No! . . . Rotted Plumber’s Helper . . . Discarded oil can thingy.”

“You can’t think of the word, can you, you terminal zed. You can’t even come up with ‘dipstick.’ You are one skull full of air, boy.”

“Terminal zed is redundant.”

Slim Tim, having heard “fungus,” and wanting peace, started a narrative of his own about some spore that piggy-backs an ant and magically seizes the ant’s mind. The spore tells the ant where to go. The destination is a particular leaf 25 millimeters off the ground—precisely 25 millimeters. The plant is poison to the ant, yet he clings to it till his death in order to serve the spore that has somehow seized his mind and become his god.

After thinking about some kinds of religion, I thought of limousine drivers carrying CEOs toward their construction sites for new skyscrapers. The dirt and debris were full of bodies—ant cadavers. And Jimmy Hoffa.

I looked to Oscar and Olivier and said, “Hey guys. That ant? The limo?—What do you think—Lincoln or Mercedes?”

Blank stares. Viggy looked annoyed.

“Oscar,” I said, “how much of your body would you replace, in the name of survival?”

When you say “in the name of survival,” you know you sound deep, even if you’re talking to Oscar and Olivier. I paused for a moment, waiting to be absorbed.

Then I went on, looking at the twins, but speaking to Viggy and Tim—artful misdirection. “Let’s say the brain is sacrosanct—we know Viggy’s is. Especially compared to—oh, let's say a spleen. Without the brain, the robot named You keels over.” (That may or may not be true, given advances in computers. But they were letting me get away with it).

“Is every body part negotiable?” I went on. “In order to sidestep death, would you replace one fleshy item after another until you amounted to an original brain driving a piecemeal contraption down the avenue? Where’s the Self?”

I paused. I was getting into tender territory for Viggy. But I couldn’t stop. “Olivier, remember how Viggy said that wherever else your Self might be, it has to be in your brain? Well, you’ve got your brain, so what’s the problem?”

Olivier stared at me. Oscar squirted ketchup into his spoon.

“Oscar!” Viggy hissed. “This is a nice place! Behave.”

Oscar set the ketchup in the middle of the table. Olivier picked it up.

I said to everyone, but I suppose to Viggy in particuar, “You see yourself en route to copulation with that hot little Cookie Kindred, the blonde titanium floozy who’s being assembled just for you three miles down the road? Self claps its hands, says yummie.”

I looked up, expecting to be challenged. Nothing. Slim Tim put lemon in his coffee. The twins now chewed on their stems, which were now dry. Olivier dunked his stem in the ketchup on Oscar’s spoon.

Viggy said, “Oscar! You’re not in a cornield!”

I pressed on. “So your brain’s cradled in some metal palm thingy at the top of you—is that your head? Or just your top? Your apex, your zenith, your summit? It’s riding high up there. Would it feel the loss of anything important, once it’s accustomed to its new servants? Shiny metal and new leather sacs like little footballs? Your good old brain goes on giving orders—left, right, go, stop, go pee.”

Still nothing from the twins. Olivier was about to fall asleep with the dandelion stem in his nose. Oscar stared off in the way that sometimes made Viggy say, “Oscar, dammit, are you back to that virtual stalking thing you do? This is a nice place. I’m not gonna tell you again.”

Oscar’s eyes fell upon his napkin, and he fiddled with it. I'm pretty sure he was grinning, but with his face down, I wasn't sure.

“In this Old-Brain-New-Parts world," I went on, "where do you find your new Self? Or was it in your elbow all along? Would the You in you mourn the pleasures of your old six-pack bundle of youth?”

Long ago, Viggy had trained the silver-haired brow over his right eye to rise and curl into a snarl. Upon command. It stops adversaries in their tracks. The eyebrow was up. And it pointed at me, not the twins.

Yet I pressed on, a profile in courage. “Would robotified pleasures match the bliss of your apish raptures in days of old? Your primitive bliss? Your body a mobile, throbbing pack of hot
juice . . . .”

“Jeeeesus,” Viggy said. “Are you about finished?”

“I wasn’t . . . “

“Does anybody know what the hell Banjo’s talking about? Is there somebody here who agrees with Banjo that he’s some born-again poem. Oscar. . . ? Oscar!”

Slim Tim grinned. He liked that. He’s the nicest atheist you ever saw. He’s a good audience for Viggy.

Oscar and Olivier stared at their chewed stems, as if to wonder what had become of them, all chomped, dried and dented like that.

I was smelling defeat—or at least I was getting tired, which is the same thing. So I shifted gears. “Have you heard about the chimpanzee and the bonobo?”

“Banjo . . .” It was Slim Tim, a gentle voice, a voice that was a hand on the forearm. “Banjo, remember where the hotel’s washing machines are?”


“Banjo,” said Tim, “it’s time for a nap. Go down to the alcove by the washing machines. The thump-thump will put you to sleep.”

“Okee dokee,” I said. “Thump-thump good.”

I might have resisted if it were Viggy making me leave, but not Slim Tim. “But . . . Tim?” I said.


“What do you think other breakfast clubs talk about?”

* *
End note: -

* * *


Barbaro said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Banjo52 said...

from Barbaro
Barbaro said:

You talk about robots like they're a bad thing. To me they're a broken promise: when I was a kid we were told that within ten years, every household would have one, and vacuuming, laundry, other drudgery would become as quaint as shoveling coal. Ten years have come and gone more than once, but I'm still doing all my own chores.

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro, sorry I messed up my first attempt to post your comment.

Yes, I remember those promises, too--ditto a 30-hour work week. So much for prophets, eh?

But does your comment mean you'd be OK with strolling around as a cradled brain atop a toy from an erector set?

Why not, given the alternative? I guess . . . I'll have to introduce you to Viggy someday.

Karen said...

I'm with Barbaro. Bring on the robots.

But as for your conclusion, Banjo, that that means I'd be satisfied as a brain atop an erector set body, no. No, no, no. There's an ocean of middle ground there, isn't there? It makes me think of what you said the other day about beauty being the opposite of evil, perhaps, rather than good. And I started to think to myself that robots can't detect beauty, so maybe that impulse or concept is distinctly human... but then I remembered that there was research done about how people evaluate physical beauty and there were scientists who quantified it in a way after scanning images of faces along with aggregate estimations of attractiveness - they found that it was the most symmetrical faces that ranked the highest scores. If that's true, then I suspect computers & robots could reliably determine who's hot and who's not. Huh.

Not sure where that leaves us in the human vs. robot debate, but it's interesting, no?

Banjo52 said...

And from what I've heard about these studies, the value of symmetry and other "ingredients" of beauty cuts across cultures. As you say, it's "people" who value this, not just one group.

"Who's hot and who's not" . . . If you're gonna be that zippy, get your own blog.

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