This summer, incoming freshman and upperclass transfer students weren’t the only ones following the dystopian adventures of android bounty hunters. In addition to students, many other Ithaca residents were also immersed in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” this year’s New Student Reading Project and Ithaca Community Read selection.
The community program culminated in a lively dialogue Thursday as residents ranging from elementary students to senior citizens gathered at the Tompkins County Public Library to discuss the book with professors and activists from Cornell and Ithaca College.
The novel features machines — the “androids” of the title — that masquerade as human, raising questions of what actually differentiates humans and robots and how unfamiliar beings should be treated.
The discussion on Thursday centered around the theme of empathy, a unique human trait.
“In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a human,” deadpanned Gary Stewart, Cornell’s director of community relations, as he opened the event.
Presenters included Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication, who provided a simultaneously comic and chilling overview of the human fascination with robots, from a novelty automaton of decades ago that could reproduce human handwriting to a computer psychiatrist called ELIZA. Lewenstein recounted a conversation with ELIZA that degenerated into circular arguments and discussions of his supposed “fantasies” of smashing the computer.
Despite the novel’s dystopian vision, Anke Wessels of Cornell’s Center for Transformative Action expressed belief in humans’ inherent ability to feel for each other.
“Humans are hard-wired to be empathetic,” she reassured the audience, describing how such tendencies foster successful communities and resolve conflict.
After Ithaca College’s Peter Bardaglio linked empathy to compassionate, mindful interactions with the natural environment — and admitted his wish for an electric loon — the Ithaca residents were given a turn to express their thoughts and impressions of the work.
Though the focus remained on the idea of empathy, the discussion ranged from emoticons to racism and even included an impromptu poetry reading. As residents, many seemed most concerned about how to conduct their own lives and community in a more compassionate manner.
“I want to be kind to the environment, but I like to drive my car,” said one woman.
After the event’s conclusion, conversations continued as some participants descended on the refreshments and others spilled into the street. Many left eager for another debate over next year’s book.
Charles Elliott, a 40-year resident of Ithaca, has participated in such debate ever since he vigorously disagreed with the University’s selection of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in 2002. He said he was not satisfied with this year’s choice either, but was fascinated by the evening’s discussion nonetheless.
“I’m interested in things like empathy and reality and the difference between solipsistic view and the social view,” Elliott said.
Others were glad to stay engaged with the University, including Jean Rowley, MBA ’56, a retiree who reads each yearly selection with his wife. Rowley praised Cornell’s efforts to include the community in the reading project.
“I think that’s all super,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Gary Stewart’s position at Cornell. He is director of community relations.
Original Author: Eliza LaJoie