Roboprof

(Hadeel Ibrahim/AQ)
(Hadeel Ibrahim/AQ)

When Rodger Wilkie was a child, he dropped nails into the lamp sockets of his childhood home in Windsor, Ont. The St. Thomas professor was a curious child with an empirical mind. He noticed whenever he did this there would be a blue flash and his house would go dark. Eventually, his curiosity led him to stick his thumb in the socket to see what would happen.

“It hurt my kidneys a bit,” Wilkie said of the experiment he never conducted again. “I found out afterwards that my dad had come within one more blackout of having the entire house re-wired.”

Wilkie has always been fascinated with the relationship between man and technology. He teaches in the English and the Great Books programs but has published about cybernetics – the merging of human body and technology to extend abilities beyond what a normal human could do – and the classical heroes’ relationships with their technology.

Talking to Wilkie, even briefly, reveals his scientific mind. He covers all bases, meticulously making sure any generalization has a footnote to clarify. His voice moves from a soft but serious tone to a sudden expansion of laughter in seconds. Wilkie may not be a cyborg, but he’s the sum of seemingly conflicting parts: teacher and poet, Western science and Eastern philosophy, books and the wired world. But it’s paradox of mind and body that he’s most comfortable with and perplexed by.

One of the tensions within Wilkie is the war between his academic side and his creative writing. He released two books last year: one about his time tree planting and another about a travel writer who journeys through a portal into another world. But Wilkie still worries that his life in academia limited him from doing what he loves.

“My understanding of literary scholarship is always, always that it is absolutely secondary to creative writing. The makers of culture are always more important than the people who study it. This leaves me on the outs with the majority, I think, of the people in my profession in literature studies.”

Because of that conflict he dropped out during his PhD studies at UNB in the late ‘90s for a few years, eventually heading to Korea.

For a man who loves hard science and cybernetics so much it might seem odd that Wilkie has been reading different Eastern philosophies since he was 12.

“To me, they make perfect sense [together]. They resonate well,” Wilkie said. “Daoism challenges any sort of fixed identity.”

He and his wife taught English as a second language for four years in Korea, made good money, travelled and became accepted within the small farming village they lived in. Wilkie became particularly close with the family of one man whom he helped with farm work. He remembers being at a feast in remembrance of the man’s mother’s death and pouring the wine, which was the symbolic role of the son. Before he left Korea, Wilkie helped bury that man he saw as a sort of father figure.

“I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have other obligations right now,” said Wilkie. “Probably travelling.”

Those obligations are mostly to family, his daughter in particular. Becoming a father has changed him; he realizes he has to be more responsible. Wilkie had to admit to himself that he suffered from a hereditary depression and needed to seek help.

“What did it for me is it was affecting my relationship with my daughter and I had to seek help. It became immoral not to seek help when I took her well-being into account,” said Wilkie.

This depression has a direct relationship to Wilkie’s love of cybernetics. He sees the Western world as having a harmful distinction between mind and body when really they are one.

“It’s kind of like judging a person with a broken leg by the standards of normal person with two working legs. ‘Why are you limping? Why can’t you walk? Just get up and walk, it’s all in your head,’” Wilkie said. “Well fine, and a broken leg is all in your leg, big fucking deal.”

When people think of cyborgs they think of Darth Vader or Robocop, but for Wilkie, cyborgs are not a modern invention.

He remembers reading the story of Cethern mac Fintain from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. After being destroyed in battle, Cethern lets a doctor stitch him to his chariot, using pieces of the vehicle to replace his ribs and returns to battle to slay many more men before dying. It was cool stories like that which drew Wilkie towards cybernetics as a young adult.

“The actual heroic identity isn’t located just in the body of the human being. It’s some configuration of biology and technology,” Wilkie said.

We have always been connected to our tools and for Wilkie, the two are largely inseparable. Humankind has always been one with the high technology, whether that’s a robotic arm or a sword of legends.

Wilkie sees the modern age as largely being defined by the technologies we use and to ignore how computer technologies are shaping our human identity is a mistake.

“People who are not studying liberal arts are taking this stuff very, very seriously, and we who value the humanities to the point of dedicating our lives to it need to be aware of that or we will be left behind,” Wilkie said. “If we don’t understand it, it will pass us by. And in cases of many people it, quiet frankly, has already passed them by.

“It will pass me by as well. That’s the nice thing about death. It clears the way for new people with new ideas. I have no problem with it. People become obsolete just as technologies do.”

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