Masculinity in “The Age of Em”

Posted on

I have a new article out discussing masculinity in the context of “The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth” by Robin Hanson:

Robin Hanson’s recent book The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth is a fascinating exploration of what the world may look like once large numbers of computer-based brain emulations (the “em” of the title) are a reality, potentially at some point in the next century. The book should be of interest not just to people with a technical or philosophical interest in brain emulation because it paints a picture of a world that requires engagement from many other disciplines, such as architecture, engineering, finance and economics.

One discipline discussed in a relatively modest manner is gender and sexuality. Hanson sees a future where an em workforce mirrors the most useful and productive forms of workforce that we experience today. He notes that if we wanted to scan a particular type of person’s brain for emulation to create the basis of a workforce, we would therefore likely choose workaholic competitive types. Because such types tend to be male, Hanson imagines an em workforce that is disproportionately male (these workers also tend to rise early, work alone and use stimulants).

This disproportionately male workforce has implications for how sexuality manifests in em society. First, because the reproductive impetus of sex is erased in the world of ems, sexual desire will be seen as less compelling. In turn, this could lead to “mind tweaks” that have the effect of castration, thus lowering (if not removing) the impact of sexuality on the disproportionate number of males. Second, measures could be put in place to sexually accommodate these males. Such measures could include the greater cultural acceptance of non-hetero forms of sexual orientation, or software that make ems of the same sex appear as the opposite sex. A more old-fashioned scenario is also imagined: paying professional em sex workers.

It is important to note that Hanson does not argue that this is the way em society should look, rather how he imagines it will look by extrapolating what he identifies in society both today and through the arc of human history. So, if we can identify certain male traits that stretch back to the beginning of the agricultural era, we should also be able to locate those same traits in the em era. What might be missing in this methodology is a full application of exponential change. In other words, Hanson rightly notes how population, technology and so forth have evolved with increasing speed throughout history, yet does not apply that same speed of evolution to attitudes towards gender. Given how much perceptions around gender have changed in the past fifty years, if we accept a pattern of exponential development in such perceptions, the minds that are scanned for first generation ems will likely have a very different attitude towards gender than today, let alone thousands of years past.

There is a whole element of em society that is missing from the book, and which hopefully might be considered as the basis for a follow-up volume: how humans perceive and interact with ems. The above elements around gender alone provide some interesting food for thought (assuming perceptions around gender do indeed remain stable in the intervening years).

First, what would the feminist response to such an em society be? It is easy to imagine an amplified version of the split we currently see between what might be called Capitalist and Marxist feminism. In short, Capitalist feminists might be inclined to argue for a greater equality between male and female em workers, whereas Marxist feminists might be inclined to highlight that whatever the representation of females within em society, they were still being exploited as labor by a capitalist system. Similar arguments might be mobilized in regard to sex work: those who argue that female ems were being exploited by an abusive patriarchal system, and those who are more “sex-positive” who claim that sex workers have agency and choice.

Second, what would the response be from men? There may be some men who celebrate what they perceive to be the “natural order” or male superiority being replicated in em society. However, it is probably more likely that we again see an amplified version of an existing argument: that men’s predominance in the workforce treats men in a disposable manner, and that the privileges of patriarchy are something of a sleight of hand that stops men realizing that they are basically slaves to the system (which of course women are too, but via a different dynamic). Nor is it easy to imagine human men feeling happy about their em counterparts being digitally castrated, having to pretend that em males were em females before any em nooky, or outright having to pay for sex.

Of course, these considerations are based on the assumption that humans would actually care about what happens to ems. While it cannot be said with certainty, there is a good chance that such empathy would exist. At most, humans would see ems as having an equivalence to humans, and would therefore be concerned about their wellbeing in the same way as they are concerned for other groups of people whose destinies are in the hands of others. At least, humans would see ems as being a site where human gender politics are manifest and would critique them as such, in much the same way that many column inches are written about the gendered injustices experienced by characters on television.

But why should we care right now about these hypothetical and easily contestable scenarios? As Hanson notes at the beginning of the book, there are far more historians than futurists; however, the future matters more than the past, because we can influence it. If you are at all dissatisfied with how gender functions today, or how others predict it will function in years to come, you have only one choice: to become a futurist, and shape what is to come rather than leaving the task to others who may have an altogether different agenda.