Biology, Computers, and You

Ian Jones

In reading the Ware trilogy, I was struck by Rucker's use of biological systems to reflect computer life. Not only do the capitalist buy-(an update)-or-die- schemes equate the evolutionary schemes of the boppers mirror a ultra-harsh survival of the fittest, but the smaller details of the boppers' existences match those of simple biological structures. The boopers desire a mimicked sexual reproduction. They are harmed almost pathogenically by "chipmold." When Ralph Numbers mentions to Cobb Andersen that he had "exchanged various subprograms with others," and thus was not completely the same individual as he originally was, I was reminded of my immunology class discussions of bacterial transformation and exchange of antibiotic resistance.

These biologic expressions serve to impress upon the reader the living-ness or soulfulness of the boppers and other machines. What interests me is the appearances of similar modes of thinking about computers in current popular culture. Computers can have viruses. Computers on networks are often "in communication with each other" rather than operating in conjunction. Thus, computers are assigned not just body like presence, but also a kind of spiritual presence.

This is further emphasized by people's response to such primitive artificial intelligence programs such as Eliza, where a the computer acts as a psychologist and discusses a person's problems with them in a somewhat realistic manner. Faced with Eliza, people will get mad at the computer-run doctor, attempt to elicit answers from it, and generally communicate with it as if it was another human being. An even more straightforward example would be the simple computer games in which a person competes with a comuter-simulated player. How often have you gotten mad at your computer for beating you in Chess, or Othello, or Gin Rummy? Unlike the suspension of disbelief required from passively watching a television show or movie (this isn't real but I am going to pretend it is for thirty minutes), this human-computer interraction seems to require an additional level of recognition of a sentience within the computer similar to one's own. Once I am able to predict and take advantage of a computer opponent, I swiftly move on to a game or a level which I can still experience the computer as a mental force to be reckoned with. It is in the level at which I am convinced and pursuaded of the computer's self that I value the machine.

This has further implications when we consider the new roles which computers are swiftly being utilized for: teaching, training, editing, etc. With each additional "human " tasks the computers take over,we place additional faith in them to respond as well or better than people doing the job. My computer teaches me to type faster, corrects my spelling, plays any number of strategic games with me (and often wins), wishes me a happy birthday (two weeks ago), delivers mail for me, smiles when it gets up, and any number of other potentially complicated and or human activities. Thus, it is not surprising that sometimes my computer runs a little slow (it gets tired when I multitask), gets confused (system error, poor li'l thing), gets sick or get mad (and beeps).

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

Rucker's -Ware
Trilogy Course Website Cyborg