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Transcripts done by CJ Clougherty, @PadfootPGH
Dianna: Hello, and welcome to The Spoonie Author’s Podcast: a podcast where we explore a different disabled author’s stories each week. I am your host, Dianna Gunn, and joining us today is Dr, Rebecca Gibson. Dr. Rebecca Gibson is a bio-anthropology PHD, corset scholar, and robot sex analyst. Her first book, Desire in the Age of Robots and AI: An Investigation in Science Fiction and Fact is available now. Hello, Rebecca! I’m so excited that you’re joining us, I’m very excited to talk to you. I’m very excited to talk about your books. Tell us a lot about Desire in the Age of Robots and AI: An Investigation in Science Fiction and Fact.
Rebecca: So this is actually my hobby research. This is something I just did for fun. And I was approached by the very nice people at Palgrave MacMillian to turn it into a book project. And, uh, it looks at the Bladerunner mythos, so the novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Bladerunner and Bladerunner 2049 and kind of unpacks our desire for robot companionship and robot sex and looks at the ethical and physical implications and how we all sort of embody cyborg mentality, especially those of us spoonies, or have chronic illnesses, or disabled aspects of things.
Dianna: *laughing* Okay, can we replace these faulty body parts?
Rebecca: Oh, seriously! I got interested in this in a large part because, um, I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, so all of my collagen is faulty. So I do things like I have a cane (which has a skull head, which is really awesome) and I wear these braces on my hands. But you can’t be an invisible disabled person when you’re doing these things. So I wanted to look at like, where does – where is human enough? When is the advent of this technology a little less human, when is it a little more human, where is that intersection of the biological and the mechanical, and specifically how science fiction sort of drives that and reinforces that.
Dianna: Fascinating. So I guess at this point, you know every line of Bladerunner from beginning to end. *laughs*
Rebecca: Basically, yes. I’ve watched the movie beginning to end dozens of times, I’ve read the book dozens of times. I think the second movie was better, and I’m going to get a lot of flack from that. Also something I’m going to get a lot of flack from: in no way was Deckard a replicant. No. *laughs*
Rebecca: I have thrown down the gauntlet!
Dianna: Sometimes it just needs to be done. Uh, I’ve been doing these interviews in bulk, and yesterday I did an interview and we ended up ranting about, um, certain popular series of fiction, and how sometimes fanfiction is better. Sometimes the series breaks our hearts. You know, sometimes you’ve got to throw out an opinion and nor care how much crap you’re going to get.
Dianna: I must say I just noticed your skull earring, and it’s adorable. I have something similar to that actually.
Rebecca: Oh, thank you! I also have an anatomical heart pin as well.
Dianna: Oooh, fancy! I like it! So what inspired you to actually start this project? Why did you begin this research?
Rebecca: Um, well there was a call through papers. And And it just sort of spiraled from there. I also, um, I’ve always been fascinated with what is human and what is not human, and a lot of the question we ask is: what it means to be human. And so when you look at the Bladerunners, and you look at the replicants, you can see that there’s this real divide between the two. You have a biochemical machine, and you have a human machine, and you have these questions and, um, if you add sex into the mix, it really catches everyone’s interest.
Dianna: *laughs* Sex is good at catching most people’s interest.
Rebecca: Yes, indeed. Um, so, I wanted to write something that would explore this connection we feel with the robots in our lives. We’re moving in that direction. We’re moving towards a better integration of the cyborg into the human body, and we’re moving into a better acceptance of robot companionship. So like with Siri and Alexa and all of that stuff (I don’t know if you want to mute those trademarked names in your podcast), but with the integration of these kinds of technology, we’re accepting robots or artificial intelligence as a more every day thing. And so ethically I wanted to look at this also because we need to be careful if we’re going to design something that could be sentient that could say “I love you” or could say “Stop this, you’re hurting me”we need to figure out how our relationship with those is going to be ethically sound going forward.
Dianna: Yeah, that’s a huge question that is facing us right now. And I think a lot of people don’t really think of Siri and Alexa as AI. They think of AI as the replicants from Bladerunner or as Data from Star Trek. They don’t really understand that what is happening in their phones is AI.
Dianna: And I think that’s actually scary that a lot of people aren’t realizing that. And the implications that that every day use has for the development of AI and the shift in our society.
Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. And the aspect of privacy. We often – um – I see so many people post on Facebook or Twitter “oh I was just talking about something, and suddenly I’m getting ads for it”, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature.
Rebecca: These companies are doing this on purpose. Um, and we have no reasonable expectation of privacy anymore when we’re so plugged into the electronics around us. Which is. Both good and bad.
Dianna: Well, it’s like the one meme that sometimes goes around about the 1960s, “we need to be careful, we’re talking on the phone, the government might be wiretapping us”, and then 2019 “Hey Wiretap how’s the – get me a coffee or something”
Rebecca: Yeah, get me a recipe for pancakes.
Dianna: Yeah. And I think that that is really scary. I understand that, you know, a lot of people don’t think about it. But as someone who is queer, who has – is poly, who has done things at various points that have been varying shades of illegal, I’m very aware of the ability of all those things to become illegal again. And having all of that technology…I refuse. I understand my smartphone is listening to me, that’s fine. There’s nothing I can do about that. I need my smartphone for work. But I refuse to have an Alexa or a Google Home. I don’t want those devices in my home. That’s really frightening to me.
Rebecca: Well, and it’s definitely moving further in that direction. Our technology is moving further in that direction. Um. I…I don’t know what I think about that. I like to do this more as a thought experiment. So far I’m relatively low tech. I do have a smartphone. I do have the computer. But I also am living on a contingent faculty salary, so high tech isn’t really in my future.
Dianna: So in other words, not much.
Rebecca: Not much at all.
Dianna: So we’ve talked a bit about the book broadly. What is one really interesting fact (I know there’s probably about a million) but what is one really interesting fact that you discovered during your research that you’re really would like to get out there and have be more broadly understood?
Rebecca: So I think that one really fascinating part of this is, um, the focus on emotive AI. So this idea that artificial intelligence, relatively soon, will be able to sense our emotions through video capture, through tone, through the word choices that we make, and respond in kind. And you see that in Bladerunner 2049 with the character of, um, Joi. She’s a pleasure hologram. She is a companion hologram. She is a main replicant character, and she, um, she is an emotional mimic for him. She really does what he needs her to do in terms of emotions. So one of the things that strikes me as I look through these data on human relations and why we choose the companions that we choose, is this idea that we want someone who is going to be able to give us what we need emotionally. You can’t guarantee that with humans.
Rebecca: That’s not a guarantee. You can, you know, you can work with your partner, you can collaborate with your partner, you can ask for what you need and refuse to stick around if you don’t get it. But you can’ t, like, choose that partner who’s going to give you all the things. So I think as we move closer to actual emotive AI, there’s going to be a huge market for companion bots: for robots that will fulfill those emotional needs. I’m not entirely sure, again, whether I think this is a good or bad, because on one hand it’s very important for people to get their emotional needs met, and sometimes that’s just not possible for human/human interaction. On the other hand, if you don’t have human/human interaction, if you don’t suffer disappointments, if you don’t learn to compromise, if you don’t have that give and take of somebody who is going to say no or stand up to you and assert their own emotional needs, you lose a lot of what it means to be a social human being. So, again, I’m really split. I like to write about, but maybe not so much to make decisions about it.
Dianna: That’s interesting, because I’ve never thought about it that way. When I think about the dangers of AI, I think “This thing’s going to be two tons of metal, it’s going to be way stronger than I am, if it goes haywire, if its emotions decide it wants to kill me, if it’s programming breaks”, that’s the way I’ve always thought about it. I’ve never actually considered it’s something that could stunt human growth, but you’re absolutely right.
Rebecca: Your concern is not out of line. Um, one of the points that I make in the book is regarding the movie Ex Machina.
Dianna: Oooh, I love that movie!
Rebecca: It is a brilliant movie! And there’s going to be spoilers in what I’m about to say. Through one scene where Caleb and Nathan are having a discussion, Kioko (who is a droid) is in the background cutting sushi with a very long sharp knife. And in a much later scene of the movie, way towards the end, she stabs Nathan in the back with the knife. Same knife. First of all, that’s a wonderful visual duplicating. The movie was beautifully done. But also you have to think that as he created her, presumably he thought about the programming that would instantiate the cutting of sushi very precisely. So when we design these AI, we really need to be conscientious of intended and unintended consequences.
Dianna: Absolutely. And let me just say: if anyone who is listening to or watching this has not watched Ex Machina, pause this podcast, go watch it, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It is phenomenal, it is visually stunning, it has a lot of things like that duplicate you mentioned, and incredible writing.
Rebecca: Yes! Oscar Issac’s in it in a role that is atypical for him, which I love.
Dianna: I could talk about that movie for the whole podcast. It’s so good *laughs* But I did want to move on, because you do other work that is really exciting to me. As a fantasy author and corset enthusiast. I actually debated putting on one of my corsets for this interview today. And then I decided that was too much. Ooh, very nice! See all of mine are full bust corsets. For listeners, Rebecca is wearing an underbust corset that looks very nice. Uh, so your other book that you’ve written is called The Corseted Skeleton: A Bio-archaeology of Binding. Can you tell us maybe a little bit about that book, and pull one interesting fact you’d love to share with listeners? .
Rebecca: Sure! So this book is my actual research, and comes out of my doctoral dissertation. Um, so I finished the dissertation and graduated in December 2017 and I got this book contract in October of 2018. I’ve finished writing all of it, I’m waiting on photo permissions and stuff to turn it into my publisher. Um, so the book is going to look at the ways that corseting changed the skeletal structure of women from the 1700s to the 1900s in, um, a church parish, St Bryant’s Parish in London. And I sort of do a massive biological and cultural smorgasbord of research in this. I look at the way women talked about corsets through the magazine discourse, so they would write into magazines and talk about their corseting experience. Um. I look at how doctors thought about corsets during the day. I look at how laymen looked at corsets during the day. I look at what women in St. Bryant’s Parish died of during this time period, and then I looked at the skeletons themselves. So I went to London and Paris and I looked at the skeletons, um, of women who died during this time period to see if there were changes to the skeletal structure.
The results are actually already out there in my preliminary paper, so I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the corset does indeed change the body. The ribcage is longer than it is deep, that’s why we have that ovoid shape that we do. And the corseting changes it to a more round structure. It also diverts the spinous processes, which if you run your fingers up your spine that’s what you’re feeling. It diverts the spinous processes downward and they start to overlap each other. So we are seeing distinct skeletal changes. What we’re not seeing – and this is the interesting part that you asked about – is we’re not seeing shortened lives. We’re not seeing an increase of the problems that you hear about when you hear the cultural connotations here in the 21st century. So you’re not seeing massive amounts of skeletal arthritis, you’re not seeing livers that are bisected or uteruses that are prolapsed in the causes of death. You’re not seeing women who have lived lives of pain and suffering through their own words. And in the causes of death I looked into 3,851 causes of death, and literally none of them had anything to do with corseting. Um, and this is not the idea you get from the discourse of the day where doctors were saying “this is a killer, this makes women fail to have babies, this is killing themselves for fashion”. We’re not seeing that in skeletal records, and we’re not seeing that in the archival records of what they died of. They also lived much much longer than we thought they did. So we hear the cultural construction of the corseted woman who lives a relatively short life, dying in her 30s, dying in childbirth, all of these things. In the population that I looked at, the St. Bryant’s Parish (which was a very representative London parish, this was your average middle class parish) I’m seeing women regularly living 45, 55, 65, 85, into their 90s. There’s much more chance that a woman from this parish, which can be extrapolated to the larger London population, is going to die past her 60th birthday than she is going to die in her 30s.
Dianna: What you’re telling me is that the doctors were just being alarmist pricks.
Rebecca: Absolutely. That’s one way of putting it. Women themselves didn’t see the corset as being patriarchally constructed,this undergarment that lasted 400 years. They did see men in their lives telling them how to use the garment.
Dianna: Typical. Same deal with today!
Rebecca: Yes, we do *laughs*
Dianna: So little has changed, and yet so much. That is really fascinating, thank you for sharing that. So – so did you actually look at that many skeletons?
Rebecca: Unfortunately, skeletal material is much thinner on the ground, so to speak. No pun intended there. I looked at about 150 skeletons total, and the women who we know would have corseted, so people of this class in this time period in a major metropolitan area like London, uniformly showed the corseting damage. Especially as they got older.
Dianna: Fascinating. Uh, so I’m going to bring this back to the topic of the podcast. What are some of the challenges you face as a disabled academic and author?
Rebecca: Sure. So the biggest two are energy level and, um, the fact that you can’t really…you have to make one of two choices. You have to be completely willing to hide your disability, or you have to really embrace it and be ready to out yourself right away. I am tired all the time *laughs* When you’re in academia, your emphasis is on publication. You need to show up to events and you need to make friends. You need to – to – be there and be present in the moment. And diseases that are degenerative and come with a huge fatigue aspect make that really really difficult. I have to choose very very carefully what events I attend at my department. Luckily my department here at Notre Dame is fantastic and accepting and everyone has been very supportive of whatever it is I need to do to keep myself going. But there are still certain expectations that you’re gonna go to cocktail hours, you’re gonna attend things early in the morning and late at night when my body is just like “No, we need to not be doing this, we need to be laying down”. So energy level is the biggest one. Um.
And then…I use a cane, I wear these braces, and I’m really pushing hard for the expantiation of a much more robust conversation on Notre Dame’s campus about disability and accommodation. Because I can, um, walk with a cane, and I’m in my 30s, and people might think it’s an affectation, like whatever, people do things like that. Or they may think it’s for a temporary disability or something. But the braces that I wear on my hands for the joint slipping that is a predominant symptom of Ehlers Danlos, um, they look like fancy jewelry. One person recently said they looked like bondage jewelry.
Rebecca: And I was like…well, I can see that.
Dianna: They’re not wrong!
Rebecca: They’re not wrong, but when you’re in an academic interview or you walk into an auditorium to give a talk, or you walk into a classroom and you talk a lot with your hands like I do, the first thing people see is that you’re not entirely appropriately dressed for a college campus. This has never particularly bothered me. First of all, being an anthropologist, we’re all a little weird. It’s sort of expected, I do my own thing, and everyone around is just going to have to adjust. But I immediately have to out myself. I don’t have the choice not to worry and wonder about if people are gonna interpret these the wrong way and think of me as somebody who doesn’t know how to be situationally appropriate. So it’s out yourself and own your disability, or stay quiet and be misinterpreted. And this is a very bad choice. This is not a choice we should have to make. We should have more discussion on how to make illness and disability more accepted and actually accomodated. Actual accommodations, instead of just lip service to them.
Dianna: Yeah. Uh, that is extremely important, and I hope you can push those discussions forward at your school. Because that really needs to happen. Um. So. part of the problem in stuff like this is that people tend to have a very specific image when they think of the word disability. Um, so I was wondering if you could touch on what you see in disability representation in the mainstream media, and how you would like to see that representation change in the coming years.
Rebecca: I would like to see, first of all, more diversity categories within the representation of disability. Um. Not all of us are white. Not all of us are pretty. Not all of us are inspirational. All of these things. One of the reasons disability is so stigmatized is we see it as something that happens to somebody else. We don’t see it as our own images being represented. In fact, there is this interesting intersection of disability and queerness that they both call for a lot more attention, and a lot more invisibility. And so I’d love to see better representation in those particular aspects.
And at the same time, I would really love to see normalization. We talk about this thing in disability studies, in the theoretical aspect of disability, about universal design. So the amount of design intent that goes into creating materials and structures (you can take that any way you want, actual buildings, or systematic structures) that just make it so every level of needed accessibility are already there, and people who neee\d them can just take advantage of it. And people who don’t need it can like, I don’t know, take the stairs to the 8th floor if they want. But we already have the super structure in place so that, um, the level of ability becomes less important than the other contributions. It’s just the normalization that some people are going to need elevators and ramps, and some people are not. All of this stuff, so whoever needs whatever, can have what they need.
Dianna: Yeah, that is definitely something that I’d like to see more of. And I think that that specifically is something that science fiction and fantasy authors should be looking at, because we’re building our own worlds. Why not build them with that concept in mind?
Rebecca: Exactly! I love world building. I’m teaching a class this semester called “Sex, Gender, and the Anthropology of the Graphic Novel”.
Dianna: Oh my goodness!
Rebecca: It’s – students are gonna write their own graphic novel for their final project.
Dianna: That’s amazing.
Rebecca: I’m trying to do right now, we’re in week 3, so right now I want them to think about the world that their characters are gonna inhabit, and what that world should look like, and how they can incorporate this intersectionality, these areas of privilege they can control, and areas of under privilege they see around them tat they can control in these worlds. And you’re right. We should work on this.
Dianna: Yeah, that course sounds amazing. I wish I could hop countries and take that course. *laughs*
Rebecca: Oh my god, where are you? I didn’t know.
Dianna: I am in Canada!
Rebecca: Cheers from the sunny south! Of Indiana. Which is not sunny at all at the moment.
Dianna: Oh well. Everything’s changing, weather doesn’t mean the same thing in places that it used to.
Dianna: You know winter here is not what winter used to be. Um, *laughs* unfortunately that is one of the many changes right now. The planet is literally changing around us, we can’t really count on –
Rebecca: That’s going to be interesting for accessibility in the next 10 – 20 years. Um. How it intersects with air conditioning and things like flood planes.
Dianna: That’s something that I haven’t actually thought about much either. Um. Probably because I’m just so terrified *laughs*
Rebecca: I’m an academic, we’re paid to think. *laughs* We overthink.
Dianna: Hey, I’m an anxious person. I would love to be paid to overthink! I’m already doing it! *laughs* Um. Yeah, so I think that really wraps it though. I mean I could chat to you forever, but this is only supposed to be so long. And I do have other interviews today. So I am going to bring us to our last question: where can people go to find you?
Rebecca: So I’m on Twitter @rgibsongirl . I have a Facebook page that I update pretty regularly: it’s facebook.com/thecorsetedskeleton. And my primary email address is email@example.com
Dianna: And do you have an expectation for when The Corseted Skeleton will come out?
Rebecca: September or October this year. I’m super excited
Dianna: I look forward to it greatly.
Rebecca: Thank you!
Dianna: Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights, it has been a delight.
Rebecca: It’s been a pleasure, thanks so much.
Dianna: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Spoonie Author’s Podcast. Spoonie Author’s Podcast is part of The Spoonie Author’s Network: a community initiative devoted to sharing the stories of disabled authors, and educating abled people about what life is like for disabled creatives. Transcripts are also available on the Spoonie Author’s Network. To find out more or become a contributor, visit spoonieauthorsnetwork.blog. And of course, if you enjoyed this podcast, make sure to leave a 5 star review on your podcast streaming platform.