Plog Boast wk. 11: Much Ado about Data

“Emotion as the true measure of authentic personhood”

Title taken from Elaine Graham’s Representations of the Post/Human, p140, paragraph 2, line 1.

The absolute measure of humanity is a question that the students in Writing through Media are, by now, very familiar with. Luckily for us, Data the sentient android wrestles with this issue every waking moment of his life, and provides us with a wealth of characterizations and scenarios to analyze. Data, being the only fully sentient android in the known universe, is the object of much scientific scrutiny, as well as the subject of much  lamentation and struggle re his status as “non-human”. Data strives to be quintessentially human, but is shown throughout the series to fervently do battle with this goal. As Graham writes, “Human emotion is represented as a key measure of human distinctiveness – but a source of mystification, even danger, for Data.” (140) Sources of this danger include Lore, an android similar to Data but capable of human emotion.

But why is emotion so fundamental to our definition of what’s human? The obvious answer is that humans themselves usually experience it – whatever “it” is – and we can’t identify with a lifeform that doesn’t. Ironically, this exhibits a lack of the emotion of empathy on our part. A less obvious answer, though, is that we are completely incapable of understanding what a non-emotional, or a completely rational, sentient being thinks like. We cannot imagine the thought processes of such a mind, for multiple reasons:

1. “Reason” is itself a human invention. Or a discovery, depending on who you ask. The point is that it’s entirely possible that a being which neither uses emotion nor reason to determine its actions exists.

2. A completely rational sentient being has never been observed. We don’t know what one acts like. The character of Data is a nice attempt to create one such, but that’s what he ultimately is – speculation.

3. Finally, we don’t know if emotion is a byproduct of mere sentience, or a leftover of biological evolution. If the former’s true, then Data should be considered human. If the latter is, then Data, while obviously conscious, is unable to feel the “genuine” (biochemically influenced) emotion that humans experience.

It looks like “human” is itself a fundamentally flawed definition to use when examining the status of sentient beings. “Human” is, by default, entirely inclusive to members of Homo sapiens, whereas a word like “sentient” is much more forgiving with regard to origin, emotional capability, and so on. We shouldn’t be asking whether Data is human, because the answer is obviously no. But even though Data is himself a creation of humanity – both in the series and as a TV character – we  can agree that, within those restrictive bounds, he’s at least as much of a thinker as we are, and deserving of as much respect.

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4 thoughts on “Plog Boast wk. 11: Much Ado about Data

  1. […] student blog posts: close reading of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” // emotion and rationality in Star Trek’s Data // human nature in Frankenstein. Note: These were written for 1000 and 2000-level courses. As you […]

  2. […] examples of student blog posts: close reading of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” // emotion and rationality in Star Trek’s Data // human nature in […]

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