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IEET > Rights > Personhood > Vision > Bioculture > J. Hughes

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The Intelligent Other in Science, Fantasy and Horror Fiction, 1895 to the Present


J. Hughes
By J. Hughes
Ethical Technology

Posted: Aug 2, 1999

Images of non-human intelligence in popular culture reflect our attitudes about the desirability and feasibility of a liberal democratic society. This study tests for a trend toward more positive depictions of non-human intelligence in popular culture, reflecting the gradual expansion of rights and inclusiveness of American liberal democracy. A second, more pessimistic, hypothesis of growing misanthropy also suggests there will be a positive trend in depictions.

Examples of depictions of non-human intelligence are collected from the best-selling novels 1895-1994, the top grossing films 1947-1997, and the top-rated television shows 1950-1997. Five categories of non-human intelligence are coded: (1) aliens; (2) machine minds; (3) animals modified for intelligence; (4) post-humans; and (5) other intelligent races on Earth. Each instance is coded from very positive portrayals, to very negative portrayals.

Depictions of non-human intelligence have been increasing rapidly, in number and popularity, in fiction, TV and film since the 1970s, and the majority of depictions have been positive. There appears to be no statistically significant linear trend, positive or negative, in the depictions in any media, with the exception of a strong negative trend for film aliens. There is also evidence of a twelve-year cycle, with the periods of most negative portrayal of non-humans during the periods 1968-1973, 1980-1985, and 1992-1997. Thus the hypothesis of a positive linear trend is disconfirmed. I conclude with some discussion of the methodological issues raised by the study, and directions for further research.

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James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)
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The IEET is a 501(c)3 non-profit, tax-exempt organization registered in the State of Connecticut in the United States.

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