Today in my Science Fiction class, we had a discussion about robots. It went swimmingly. It always does. The question that generated the most discussion: What’s the definition of a robot?
The discussion even moved smoothly into my follow-up question: Should we pursue robot technology? Once again, they surprised me by expressing a majority opinion I wouldn’t have guessed. They mostly argued that we should not pursue robot technology, and they cited lots of valid economic and socio-cultural implications that I won’t go into.
Years ago, when the second Matrix movie came out, a colleague of mine said something along the lines of “I don’t understand how anyone can care.” Prior to teaching the class, I may have said the same thing. But when I did teach it, I discovered all sorts of interesting philosophical thought experiments — like the brain in the vat, Plato’s cave, communism, and the Garden of Eden — all of which were lurking between the lines of these sci-fi stories.
I’ve always been interested in philosophy, so the various thought experiments helped hook me. And then in classes, I’d sometimes sit back with amazement at how alarmingly well some of the discussions could go. At times, I felt like I was sitting in on a pizza lunch at a Sci-Fi convention; everyone had something to say, most everyone was enjoying themselves, and the vast majority were comfortable. Of course, the conversations would occasionally take a turn towards the absurd (like when someone asked whether or not a microwave that could automatically detect the size, weight, and chemical make-up of your food and heat it without human input would qualify as a robot), but for the most part, I enjoy the philosophical debates that spring up easily when a bunch of Sci-Fi fans are gathered together in one spot.
Not all my students feel the way I do. There are the occasional students — mostly seniors who have taken the class because they think it will be easier than their other options — who come into the class all snooty about Sci-Fi as a genre. They roll their eyes at the students who like being there; they complain about the stories we read; and around this time of year, they begin tuning out completely and/or skipping class altogether. There aren’t many of these types (all of whom chalk their disengagement up to “senioritis”), but they annoy me. They make me cynical. In a different class of mine, I had a pregnant student who recently dropped out. She had to fight to get re-enrolled in school at the beginning of the semester; and then I deal with these entitled seniors (all of whom are pretty well-off, and almost all of whom are going on to college next year), who turn their noses up at an otherwise engaging class.
It’s not that I’m now a proponent of Star Trek conventions; nor am I going to dress up like Neo when the fourth Matrix comes out; nor am I going to be the guy who says, “um, actually, there won’t ever be a fourth Matrix.” It’s just that I’m a little more tolerant of tastes that differ from mine.
On the other hand, it’s true that there won’t be a fourth Matrix. It was a trilogy from the start.