Search View Archive

Robot Nation

Photo by Mark Crooks.
Photo by Mark Crooks.

America’s national pastime is not really baseball but football. Unlike baseball, which is equally popular in Japan, Taiwan and many Latin American countries, no one else shares America’s pigskin passion, a sport in which collective rage is ritualized and celebrated, a colorful spectacle of cool violence, an American specialty.

There are 246 foreign born players in Major League Baseball, compared to only a handful in the NFL. This is appropriate in a country that invented the assembly line. Of all team sports, football conforms most closely to Henry Ford’s model. Every player is a specialist, with specific skills not shared by his teammates. Only kickers kick field goals, only punters punt, only centers snap the ball—there are even long-snap specialists. In basketball, all five positions share similar skills, albeit with different emphases. They are all expected to shoot, dribble and pass, although the point guard’s primary job is to pass, the center’s main task is to rebound. In football, an offensive lineman is not required to run with the football, like the running back, or catch a pass, like a wide receiver or tight end. (Defensive lineman William “Refrigerator” Perry’s rushing and receiving exploits are freakish exceptions to the rules.) In all other team sports, the participants are expected to play both offense and defense, to press forward and retreat, but not football, where two-way players are only seen at the lowest levels. If baseball were organized like football, the fielders would just field, the batters just bat. There would be nine designated hitters.

Streamlining the production of objects, the assembly line also systematized and homogenized the behaviors of men, turned them into seething robots. Manning an assembly line at Boeing, Frank Perdue or McDonald’s, a person becomes just as uniform as the jet engines, drum sticks or freedom fries he’s cranking out. If stockholders had their wishes, he could be switched off after his shift, given a cursory wipe and a pat on the head, then flipped back on the next morning, the costs of his daily upkeep automatically deducted from his debit card. Fuck healthcare.

With his steel head, invisible face and angular, padded shoulders, a football player resembles nothing so much as a robot, a hulking steel humanoid, impervious to pain yet eager to dispense it. Knights in armor also appeared robot-like, but that was only cosplay for the elites. Only the Ringo Starrs and Elton Johns of their days were allowed to dress up like proto-robots. Not so, football players. Even the lowest American could aspire to become a tackling, blocking robot, provided he’s not a wussified, pencil-necked, tanka-composing creep, with barely enough facial hair to not shave.

Like cars, robots are super cool. Tom Brady and LaDainian Tomlinson are also cool. Cool is where it’s at. Americans who lose their cool must do it online, in the dark or out of sight, preferably in another country, while on vacation or in uniform. Criminals or trash, they’re only shown on TV to be ridiculed. Real Americans keep their cool. Stay cool, keep cool, be cool, act cool, even as one is suffering or inflicting pain. It’s only shock and awe, y’all. All football players are cool.

I’d be very surprised to learn of another language that uses cool as a blanket substitute for all positive qualities. Hot also appears frequently in American English, but not nearly as often as cool. Hot’s not really American. Yankees are cool, Latinos hot. If you’re an American man, don’t even think of blurting in public that LaDainian Tomlinson is hot, for example. Humans are supposed to be warm, machines cool. Americans are definitely cool.

Cyborgs, androids, gynoids, American fictional robots include the Six Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Woman, Star Trek’s Data and many, many more. The ultimate American robot is the Terminator, an indestructible killing machine that stops at nothing. Outside of his role, Arnold Schwarzenegger also projects a machine-like hardness and coolness. No reflections, no irony, no moods. No method actor, Schwarzenegger.

The ultimate self-made immigrant, Arnold Schwarzenegger governs the most mythologized state of the union, brightly lit, plastic, hardly real, a self-parody, with San Francisco a foggy aberration. Don’t ever confuse him with that other beef jerky, Sylvester Stallone. Arnold would never consent to mouth such a lame-ass question as “Do we get to win this time?” Sylvester sounded like a hurt little boy asking his mom if he could go outside and play. That’s not American, dipshit. What’s next, approval from Congress?! Just kick ass, like Schwarzenegger. Instead of asking stupid questions, the Terminator just threatened, promised, “I’ll be back,” like General McArthur, the last American with truly depleted uranium gonads.

If only America had a mile-long assembly line to crank out millions of Schwarzeneggers, its army wouldn’t be short of robotic soldiers. That day is not too far off. In the meantime, the army is desperately accepting foreigners, middle-aged fatsos, drug addicts, Aryan Nation, Blood, Crip, Latin King and Tiny Rascal members, not to mention borderline retards. One overzealous recruiter even crossed into Mexico, to track down two potential suckers in a Tijuana high school. A female soldier has to be 28-weeks pregnant before they send her home. On May 23, 2003, a 33 year-old Marine even gave birth to a baby boy on the USS Boxer, deployed near Kuwait.

The Pentagon thought it had landed a poster robot in Pat Tillman, a square-jawed football player who turned down three million bucks to go zap terrorists. It would have been payback time, except that Tillman actually had a brain and a heart. Sent to Afghanistan, then Iraq, he said to a fellow soldier as they witnessed the bombing of a town, “You know, this war is so fuckin’ illegal.” He urged other soldiers to vote against Bush and even asked his mother to arrange a meeting with Noam Chomsky, of all people. No robot, Tillman was morphing into a fire-breathing dissident in front of his handlers’ eyes, so they had three shots blasted into his forehead from ten yards away, then declared him a hero. Case closed. Even after the criminal details had leaked out, the mainstream, corporate media gave this sensational story only a cursory glance, leaving his family and the alternative press to pick through the sordid facts. In the absurd funhouse that’s contemporary America, Ellen DeGeneres’ dog is more newsworthy.

Robotic soldiers are only a stopgap measure until real robots can be perfected. Although they may not be as well-spoken as Arnold Schwarzenegger, they won’t feel pain, hunger and fatigue. Israel already employs bulldozer robots and, on the border with Gaza, a series of wall-mounted machine guns remote-controlled by female soldiers. South Korea uses SGR-A1 robots along its border with North Korea. According to Samsung, the robots’ manufacturer, “the system is designed to replace human-oriented guards, overcoming their limitation of discontinuous guarding mission due to its severe weather condition or fatigue, so that the perfect guarding operation is guaranteed.” Leading the field is the U.S., of course, with 5,000 robots deployed in Iraq alone. These include everything from a nine-pound Dragon Runner, a “throwbot” that can be tossed over a wall, out of a three-story window or up a flight of stairs, to the Special Weapons Observation Remote Reconnaissance Direct Action System (SWORDS), armed with an M249 rifle. All these systems are still controlled by a human, but that will soon change. Noel Sharkey wrote recently in the Guardian:

[F]ully autonomous robots that make their own decisions about lethality are high on the US military agenda. The U.S. National Research Council advises “aggressively exploiting the considerable warfighting benefits offered by autonomous vehicles.” They are cheap to manufacture, require less personnel and, according to the navy, perform better in complex missions. One battlefield soldier could start a large-scale robot attack in the air and on the ground.

This is dangerous new territory for warfare, yet there are no new ethical codes or guidelines in place. I have worked in artificial intelligence for decades and the idea of a robot making decisions about human termination is terrifying.

The Pentagon is taking its cue from a 1995 dystopian movie, Screamers, which features a fighting robot called Autonomous Mobile Sword. A self-replicating crawling machine, it tracks a living pulse, then leaps to dismember its target. A small problem: it cannot distinguish between friends or foes, civilians or soldiers, men, women or children, primary or collateral damages. It sounds like we’re already there. Cool!


Linh Dinh

LINH DINH is the author of a collection of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press, 2000), and three chapbooks of poems. He is the editor and translator of Three Vietnamese Poets.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 07-JAN 08

All Issues