Of Robots, Sex and Good Intentions (Warning: Here be libertarianism!)

robots-of-dawn-isaac-asimovI’m currently re-visiting an old favorite, untouched on my shelf since I received it as a Christmas gift the year it was published, 1983. The Robots of Dawn is a sequel to The Caves of Steel, which I’ve reviewed previously, and The Naked Sun. These are the first three of Isaac Asimov’s “robot novels,” which eventually became precursors to his more famous Foundation series. This particular novel was written some 25 years after the books it sequelizes. Times had become more liberal, allowing Asimov to openly discuss topics in human-robot interactions that he hadn’t been able to visit within the confines of 1950s SF. Specifically, The Robots of Dawn prominently features the complications which result when a human woman marries a robot. Lots of author before had probably speculated on robot sex, and many have since; but this was speculation on robot sex by the master of the robot story.

This isn’t a review of the whole work, which, indeed, I’m still in the middle of. It’s some thoughts stimulated by one particular passage. One of the cool things about good books is that, even on re-reading, they can lead you to discover new ideas, or new ways of looking at things. The passage in question comes when detective Elijah Baley is interviewing Gladia, the lady who’s been married to the robot. The speaker is Gladia, and she’s talking about the sexually liberal climate of her adopted home world:

“… everything is accepted where sex is concerned–everything that is voluntary, that gives mutual satisfaction, and that does no physical harm to anyone. What conceivable difference would it make to anyone else how an individual or any combination of individuals found satisfaction? Would anyone worry about which books I viewed, what food I ate, what hour I went to sleep or awoke, whether I was fond of cats or disliked roses? Sex, too, is a matter of indifference–on Aurora.”

Now Asimov was a liberal guy. I’m told by a reliable source that the late Robert A. Heinlein (not a liberal, in the modern sense) once said of him, “Isaac is a patriot–a Russian patriot,” meaning, of course, that RAH considered his celebrated colleague to be a bit of a socialist, if not an outright communist. But even Heinlein was a liberal in the area Asimov is describing here, the area of human sexuality. Many, probably most, science fiction writers are. We think a lot about the future, after all, and what thinking is there less futuristic than thinking that arbitrary rules written thousands of years ago by people who didn’t even know the earth orbited the sun should continue to control how humans have sex?

200px-The-robots-of-dawn-doubleday-coverBut Dr. Asimov, sadly, was also echoing a fairly common morality of his time. in the 1980s, a gentle philosophy had not yet been drowned out by the chest-beating of the masses as they began to worship Rambo movies, or the roar of the congregation in what has since become the American United Church of Football, or the repeated lamentation that we just need to kick some ass and everything will be all right that seemed to catch on after the tragic events of  September 11, 2001. This gentle philosophy, with which I grew up, said that it was okay to be different, that people should be free to love each other, that tolerance was one of the greatest virtues, and that peace was to be sought, treasured and nurtured. This spirit, I believe, informed the words of Gladia herein. As we moved toward the future after the love-ins of the 1960s and the decade of popular entertainment that preached a philosophy of peace and tolerance (M*A*S*H, All in the Family, etc), it was reasonable to assume that people were going to become more enlightened, that things were going to get better. Most of Dr. Asimov’s readers were probably thinking, “That’s right. She’s right. No one would worry about those other things, and no one should worry about other peoples’ sex lives.”

But thirty years has changed our culture a bit, and now we would have to answer Gladia’s questions differently than a reader of 1983 would. ‘Cause… well… yeah. People in 2013 in the United States (and a lot of other countries) would worry about what you ate, might worry about what time you went to bed, and… okay, yeah, people have always worried about what books other people are reading. That will never change.

Why? Why do I say our answers have changed? Because somewhere along the line we accepted responsibility for the health and well-being of everyone around us. We decided that they need to be taken care of, that they can’t make their own decisions, and that we need laws to regulate these matters. Don’t believe me? Try to buy a Big Gulp Mountain Dew in New York City. Come to my own place of residence and discover that, in government-owned and operated buildings, there are restrictions on the sugar content of the items sold in the vending machines. And (here I go, diving in the deep end. Goodbye, liberal friends, it was nice knowing you. I will be likely be dead to you after this next line) take a good look at Obamacare.

When someone agrees to pay your bills for you, they are assuming a stakeholder’s interest in any aspect of your life which might have an influence on the total amout of those bills. For example, my homeowner’s insurance company inspects my house now and then. I consider this a violation of my privacy. They say they do it so they can accurately gauge the cost of materials should my home need to be replaced outright. But, because I consider it a violation of my privacy, I asked them up front, “Are you also going to take note of aspects of my lifestyle that you think might present you with a liability, and might you ask me to change my lifestyle upon penalty of losing my insurance?”

Yeah, I’m a suspicious cuss.

And rightly so, for their answer was, “Oh, absolutely! It’s our money, after all.”

I don’t care what allegedly objective “fact checkers” have said in response to concerns about this legislation that’s threatening to shut down our government. (And most of the “fact-checks” have struck me as superficial and biased.) The fact is, whether the legislation comes right out and says, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” kids, he who pays the piper does call the tune. Whether or not mandatory home inspections by federal agents in the name of my good health are explicitly mandated by this set of laws, the concern still exists that they might provide the legal basis for such activities. Whether or not there are plans now to dictate what I’m allowed to eat or how many hours I’m allowed to sleep, the fact is that, by allowing someone else to pay or help me pay for my medical care, I’m giving them an interest in doing just that. And when you give someone an interest in doing something, it stands to reason they’re gonna try to do it sooner or later, especially when they’re one of the most powerful governments planet Earth has ever known.

So I’m afraid Dr. Asimov’s optimism was, well, overly optimistic. I think that, while we’ve become more sexually liberal world-wide since 1983, we’ve also developed an unhealthy interest in other areas of other people’s lives, and that interest is going to grow, not diminish, as the years pass on from here.

Now, I’ve already acknowledged that I just stuck my foot in a hornet’s nest. I’ve seen lots of passionate editorials, Facebook posts, tweets and the like, supporting Obamacare and calling anyone who disagrees with it or questions its noble intent a liar, a fool and a villain. Its supporters are not in the mood for dissent, and many of them seem ready to go to battle with anyone who might be an opponent. So I expect I’ll take some flack. Before you begin to, uh, flack off, a few last points:

  • I know that Obamacare does not propose to pay everyone’s medical bills for them. It’s attempted to leverage the free market. Problem for me is, I don’t think the government can successfully leverage the free market.
  • I am aware that the high cost of medical care is a problem. I’d love to see a solution. I just don’t think forcing everyone in the country to buy the product being sold by one industry (that being the insurance industry) is a solution that’s going to work. For one thing, if the goal is to guarantee access to health care, why are we only guaranteeing access to health insurance?
  • I’ve already read dozens of “What you need to know” and “Fact Check” sites. You may share your links, but I’ve probably already seen them, and I doubt they’ll change my mind.
  • If you post something that I think makes you look foolish (like you making personal attacks on me because I disagree with your opinion) here on my blog feed, I will delete it. After all, I don’t want people to think that fools read my blog. That affects my reputation, and, after all, I pay for this space. I want it to make me look good. (He who pays the piper, nyet?)

Good intentions are wonderful things, but good intentions and government can be a dangerous combination. EB White noted this, in a wonderful scene in one of the most wonderful books in the English language, Stuart Little. Stuart, taking a one-day job as a substitute teacher, leads a class of youngsters in a discussion about what they would do if they ruled the world. They shout out many ideas for laws that would make the world a better place, and Stuart repeatedly asks that they stop, think things through, and consider that their law would apply to everyone, not just the good people they’re trying to help or the bad people they’re trying to stop. Their law would have unintended consequences. American politicians seem never to have read Stuart Little, nor to have heard that the road to a place called Hell is paved with good intentions. They pass well-intended laws all the time, or try to, the consequences of which they haven’t considered, assuming they’ve even read the laws they’re passing, which, sadly, they often have not. To give my liberal friends something to like about me, I’ll point out that the Patriot Act is a glaring example of such a law. I think Obamacare will be another.

Stuart LittleStuart and his charges did come up with one law they decided didn’t have any gotchas: “Absolutely no being mean.” So, if you’re thinking about commenting herein, remember Stuart’s Law.

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