[Currently reading Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination (Harvard UP, 2011).]
Human beings groove on creating things in which they can see themselves. Mirrors, of course – but also cave paintings, sculptures, plays, poems, music, and robots. Each creation brings on an out-of-body experience, as we can see our lives from some outside perspective, one that makes what’s ordinary suddenly seem bewildering, beautiful, or tragic. This ability to step outside ourselves in order to see ourselves is the magic jewel of human consciousness.
Lately I have been reading about the stunning automata created in the 17th and 18th centuries. From the hydraulic moving statues of gods and monsters found in the garden at the royal château of Saint-Germain-en-Lay – which inspired Descartes’s musings on human physiology – to the notorious chess-playing Turk built by Wolfgang von Kempelen, automata have presented ourselves to ourselves in manners both charming and frightening. One of the greatest early machinists of the era, Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-82), created a flute-playing robotic maiden who really played an actual flute, blowing into the mouthpiece and fingering the valves. He also constructed a duck that would eat and poop, to everyone’s great amusement, though he exaggerated when he claimed that the duck was engaging in true digestion. But most amazing of all, Vaucanson’s contemporary, the Swiss watch-maker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, fabricated a little boy who could be programmed to write anything you please in a perfectly lovely script, pausing occasionally to dip his quill in ink, and scanning the page with his beautiful blue eyes. The boy was entirely self-contained, meaning the machinery was all within his body – rather like our own.
At first, these wondrous automata demonstrated that there could be a mechanical explanation of human behavior, and that engineers and plumbers might be more useful than alchemist doctors in diagnosing and treating human ills. It was a vindication of the mechanical philosophy over magical thinking. But before long these same demonstrations brought on more worrisome ways to picture ourselves. Are we all just machines? Are our lives nothing but what plays out from a stack of well-crafted cams and springs? And to what extent are our lives just working components enslaved to even greater machines – political systems, cultural engines, the dynamo of the world?
In 1793, the revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre called the recently beheaded king “that crowned automaton called Louis XVI” (166). People began to see their rulers – and, eventually, themselves – as robots mindlessly performing the rituals commanded by society. The historian Minsoo Kang neatly recounts the vivid stories of E. T. A. Hoffman (1776-1822), stories planted in the hazy “no-man’s land” between humans and automata –
For this purpose, the narrative device he used to great effect was that of uncertainty, centering on a series of questions that crop up repeatedly: whether a particular automaton is nothing but a mechanical construct or some unknown force is at work in it; whether the perception that there is indeed something otherworldly about an automaton is based on reality or a misunderstanding or, in extreme cases, the madness of the viewer; and whether the feeling of the uncanny that is aroused by the automaton emanates from the object itself or from the mind of the perceiver who finds its operation difficult to assimilate into the worldview based on the categories of ordinary reality. (Sublime Dreams of Living Machines, p. 207)
That feeling of the uncanny – both troubling and thrilling – was the secret behind the wild success of von Kempelen’s chess-playing Turk. The Turk sat behind a wooden desk on which was positioned a chessboard. Kempelen would open panels in the desk so all could see the machinery displayed within. A wide range of people, from Ben Franklin to Napoleon, played chess against the Turk, whose left hand would extend in clunky mechanical fashion over the board, pick up a piece, and deposit it on a legal square. And the Turk’s game was very good; he could even complete a knight’s tour, which means moving a knight around the board so that it visits every square exactly once. Everyone knew the Turk wasn’t just a machine – no machine could be that clever! – but no one could figure out how Kempelen’s trick was being played. Years later, it was discovered that the desk in fact could hide within itself a full-sized human being, who could track the game and control the Turk’s arm and head. But this revelation only deepens the weirdness: for, as the historian Simon Schaffer observes, here was a man, pretending to be a machine, pretending to be a man.
We can’t help but see our faces in our children. When we started making clocks, we started wondering whether we were clocks; and the story repeats itself as we invented automata, steam engines, computers, and video games. Our latest self-reflective device is Ultron, the newest villain in the “Marvel universe”: he’s “got no strings,” meaning first that he has no sentimental attachment to any meaty thing – but also that he requires no necessary connection to any individual robot body: he can live in the cloud. We movie-goers carry our cell phones into the theater, alerting social media to where we are, what we’re doing, and how much we like it; and these posts and tweets become the cloud-based ingredients of our lives. Do we live in the cloud? Are our connections only virtual? The uncomfortable fact that the Marvel universe itself, as a media dynasty, shares the same cloudspace with our social lives suggests that Ultron does not live in any alternate universe – we are his cloudmates, and we too have no strings.