Same As It Ever Was: The Familiar Future of Software

Steve Cook


No program we can write and control acts like human software. Humans can't write bopper programs...they had to let them evolve. And a bopper can't write a human program. It works both ways. We need you guys. What we're working towards is a human-bopper fusion, a single great mind. (142)


Software is a book based around long-standing prejudice: not just the typically "middle-aged straight white male" prejudice that John Crews (correctly) identified in his essay, but also a less disturbing set of beliefs. Rudy Rucker's thought-experiments often dazzled me, but Rucker continually assumes that what we have now is the way it must be.

Consider self-awareness. Cobb Anderson's underlying evolutionary goals are, to me, the most fascinating thing about Software; Rucker's shift in emphasis in the second and third books of the series disappointed me. Anderson created Ralph Numbers not through programming but through evolution; he set up iterations of programs until he came up with one that was both self-aware and free. The Big Boppers are the bad guys in Software because they are somehow understood to limit this freedom; individual personalities are subsumed into a greater whole. I understand completely Rucker's bias in favor of individual freedom, individual thought, individual consciousness, but who is to say that these factors are evolutionarily successful?

The science-fiction (and cyberpunk) author Walter Jon Williams wrote a chilling short story in the 1980s called "Dinosaurs" about the human race hundreds of thousands of years in the future. The race has fragmented into dozens of subraces, each with its own area of expertise. (Williams' model seems to be hive insects like termites and ants.) Self-awareness has basically ceased to exist. Instead, the new humanity operates under a very complex series of Skinneresque stimulus-response patterns. Williams doesn't come down in favor of the new system. When humanity meets with a race of aliens very much like contemporary humanity, it dooms them to annihilation, and a member of the Diplomat subrace cannot even explain why. Instead, Williams is merely pointing out that the dinosaurs "ruled the earth" far longer than humanity has; only prejudice makes us think that our way--individual, self-aware--is better.

Rucker briefly seems to consider the larger implications of the Big Boppers, saying that the Big Boppers seem remarkably similar to ISDN, his megacorp. (It's an apt and interesting comparison.) But, except for this one instance, he seems largely dismissive. Corporations have been amazingly successful in their evolutionary niche for the last two hundred years. Why should bopper society mimic humanity?


Rucker's failure of imagination is even more pronounced when it comes to gender matters. Science fiction writers like Johanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., or John Varley (to choose a few well-known examples) have been writing stories examining the meaning of gender for decades. Rucker seems uninterested in the whole matter.

Varley wrote a series of stories and books (the "Nine Worlds" series) in which changing one's gender was as simple as changing one's hair color and envisioned all the changes this would bring about in human society. Software, Hardware, and Freeware, in contrast, assume that the boppers will be content to assign themselves to simple male and female identities. Why should it be that one bopper decides to be female and quotes Poe while another chooses to be male and speaks like a Beat poet? Why are these roles permanent?

If "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" and Patchwork Girl are about anything, they are about the ways in which gender identity (and identity as a whole) can be made flexible. Haraway's theories hint at how technology can nullify the deterministic chromosomes that spell out gender. Jesse's MOO is a concrete example of this technological genderbending. While sexual reproduction may well be the best way to produce evolution, why limit it to just two sexes? Why not four? Or six? The boppers' two genders simply serve to make their sexuality more identifiable, more similar to humans. That's not how evolution works. More to the point, where's the fun in it? Giving Rucker a chance to fetishize the Other is all well and good, but I want something in my science fiction that will make me sit up and take notice. The boppers are a new form of life. Why make them mimic the old?


Finally, the boppers' economics seem every-so-slightly out of kilter with Anderson's stated goal. I'm not going to argue that cooperation, rather than competition, produces the maximum evolutionary benefit; I'm not sure that I agree, for one thing, and it seems like a valid assumption for Rucker to make. However, in any environment, Darwinian tooth-and-claw evolution is going to produce a species well-suited for that environment. (The long necks of giraffes are useful for plucking folliage of trees, but would be worse than useless in the desert or the tundra.) The artificial scarcity of chips in the society that Anderson set up has created a form of life well-suited for interacting with humans and earning money/chips. Like so much else in Software, I found myself asking whether that's all there was to it.

If bopper programming is so complex that humans can't do it, why get involved at all. The very word "evolution" implies a path taken towards a course. It's a perfectly sensible way to achieve, say, a robot that can throw off its Asimov circuitry. It seems much less sensible as a motivating force in the direction of a species. The human species--and life on earth in general--is the outgrowth of millions of years of responses to an environment that was under no one's control. However, by the very form he imposed, Anderson is influencing the bopper's environments. I find it hard to believe that humans are the pinacle of "evolution," and I find it even harder to believe that a freely evolved society outside human control would appear as human as bopper society does. Someone, be it Rucker or Anderson, has suffered a crisis of imagination. In Software, to misquote a line from "Pogo," "We has met the enemy and they is just like us." The aliens (human-created, but aliens nonetheless) aren't really alien at all, and that is Software's great failure.

[To other discussions of Rudy Rucker's - Ware trilogy (Software, Wetware, and Freeware) by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]