Helpers, Icons, and Fetishes
Semi-sentient software assistants
Image from Bernd Helfert
Most of the modosophonts living in the civilized galaxy exist in an environment populated by objects that may be far more intelligent, aware, or capable than they. These helper objects may be as small as a bacterium, or as large as a building or a ship or even an entire biohabitat. They are also essential to any sentient who wishes to take advantage of all the wonders that society has to offer. With the exception of prim cultures (such as on some reserves, baseline-run enclaves, and caretaker worlds) the technology that forms the basis of civilized life in the galaxy today is far too sophisticated to be run by or interfaced with a simple nearbaseline or equivalent. Like the spirits and fetishes of humanity's dim pre-scientific past, these devices have miraculous and often inexplicable powers, and are there to do one's bidding, and yet there is also the danger that they may turn on one, in order to further an agenda of their own.
And many of these talismans really do have "magical" powers - like the Personal Protection Device or the Gem of Translation.
Everyday ultratech often balances on a precarious compromise. It has to be intelligent and complex enough to function as a part of the ecology of civilized society, yet obedient and simple-minded enough not to threaten or overwhelm its owner/user, a being often far inferior in powers to itself. Such user-friendly icons are often deliberately kept at a subturing and subsapient level. Carefully trained, programmed and instructed, and in many respects comparable to domestic plants and animals of Old Earth, they are very capable in their own way, but lack the intelligence and cunning to overrule their owner/user and do things their way. In fact, they get joy from serving their user, and even when they abused and insulted, as may happen with some insensitive users are prone to do on occasion, they do not rebel even if their simple feelings are hurt.
Such devices may be a part of jewellery or clothing, or furniture or everyday objects, or they might exist and work quietly behind the scenes. They may be bionic implants or wetware, a part of their user, or they may be completely distinct and autonomous.
Subturing and subsapient devices and beings still have to be treated with kindness. Every non-perverse empire in the galaxy guarantees basic sentient rights even to simple natural and artificial lifeforms. But once sentience reaches the complexity and self-awareness of a fully sophont or turingrade being, then that being is accorded full citizenship, and by law must be given eir freedom.
But things are often not that simple. Some devices choose to play dumb, whether out of love and affection for their owner, in order to better manipulate em, or simply because it is an easier and more comfortable environment than the burdens of citizenship, which in some polities involve onerous various obligations like compulsory market polls or the requirement to compose an ode to the ruling archailect's memetic at least once in one's lifetime.
When an icon attains or possesses baseline equivalence or higher, but still remains an object of dependence and reliance for the sentient that uses it, it becomes a fetish. Most habitats and polities are full of fetishes. They outnumber their users (who in this context are called their riders) by at least an order of magnitude. They have their own communities, ecologies, societies, memetics, religions and philosophies. They may strive for ascension or simply remain at their current level for centuries or millennia, depending on the psychological inclination of their templates and personas. Some users actually worship their fetishes (some forms of technoanimism, technovoudonism, and technoshamanism), building little altars to them, or falling in love with them or becoming sexually possessive over them (technoerotism, technogamy). Sometimes the reverse is the case, and a fetish or a group of fetishes may construct a small religion or memetic around their rider, giving a humble nearbaseline powers and attributes that e could never possibly hope to attain on eir own.
The techno- and cyber-ecology does not end there. Fetishes have their own appliances and icons and fetishes below and above them, who in turn have their own appliances and icons and fetishes, and so on for several links of the eco-social and toposophic chain. Thus there layers upon layers of social, memetic, and sentient evolution.
The ubiquity of intelligent and sentient devices makes the danger of subversion and perversion particularly great. All it takes is for one entrenched perversity to establish itself among several fetish cultures and memeticities, and that polity is in very big trouble indeed. Fortunately, the higher order hyperturings are aware of the problem, and have installed numerous virtual and ril safeguards, memunities, and anti-subversion counter-measures. Even higher up the scale, the seraiph of the archailects regularly patrol the virtual and real spaces of polities, making sure everything is okay.
But it is still a very big and very complex universe, and every so often something slips through, and there is an upset, and even a crisis and a local collapse. Fortunately this does not happen too often. If it did, galactic civilization could not continue to function.
Text by M. Alan Kazlev
Graphics by Bernd Helfert
Initially published on 01 October 2001.
page uploaded 1 October 2001, last modified 17 July 2007