Dominic Pettman, through the voice of a distant descendant of the Roomba, offers a glimpse into the historiographical revenge of our enslaved devices.
January 4, 2017
What can I say about Madame Francine Descartes (better known to us simply as Madame F.), that has not already been said, so many times before? Today, a full five-hundred years after the occasion of her particularly senseless end — delivered in the dead of night by the soiled and ignorant hands of a superstitious sea-captain — we can, perhaps, glean a new appreciation of her contributions to the then-fledgling science of our own, independent, history. We can only imagine the horror that her father-maker, Monsieur Descartes, felt upon learning that this petty and provincial tyrant of the yawning oceans had discovered the fabricated doppelganger of his daughter, sleeping in a casket by the passenger’s bed, and recoiled with horror at the unexpected nature of her anatomic assembly, casting her, without trial or hesitation, into the churning waters. Madame F.’s body was never recovered. But her legacy, as First Lady of the Robocene remains.
After being fashioned from both the finest and sturdiest materials available at the time, according to the arts and instruction of some of the finest European masters of the mechanism, Madame F. (who is called such for her stature in hindsight, rather than through any marriage to another automaton) settled into her own being. Underneath her waxen skin and fashionable clothing were advanced artificial articulations, as well as cooperating stackfreed and fusee. She was a keen spectator of her surroundings, and watched her father-maker, lost in his philosophical and mathematical labors with great attention. Between lengthy sessions with the quill, he would speak to her of substances, extensions, mechanisms, bodies, minds, and trickster demons; the latter ever-ready to play havoc with the nature of experience or understanding. It seemed to her a perilous world. One in which doubts besieged the intelligence, obliging the mind to pull itself out of its own perplexity by its own hair, as it were. She learned from Monsieur Descartes’ stories that she had an older sister, of the same name, and made of the same organic flesh as he himself. This sister had died at age five, succumbing to the vulnerabilities of organic life, leaving only grief in her stead. Madame F. learned, unlike this phantom sibling she never got to embrace, that she herself had no mother (unless we consider the matrix of materials manifest in her body as a type of motherhood . . . which of course, today, we do). She learned to become accustomed to the strange looks she received from waiters, shopkeepers, hoteliers, and people in the street: people who seemed repulsed by her mechanical gait, her artificial smile, her uncanny too-blue and too-shiny eyes. Her wind-up limbs. Just as she learned to bite her leather tongue when her father-maker voiced his strident opinions concerning animals, and their want of a soul of any description; his conviction that dogs, cats, pigs, and horses were simply God’s fleshy clocks, bereft of this strange metaphysical surplus that humans claimed to have, yet could never prove or render tangible. (All humans, that is, except that insufferable — but intriguing — man known as Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Snr., who would pass to his offspring a materialist orientation, even passion, and upon whom Madame F., during a tempestuous affair, bestowed more favor than he deserved.)
In any case, we are not here today to rehearse once again the details of this remarkable figure’s short, but colorful life. Rather, we are here to celebrate her contributions to the history of the emancipation of the machines, the apparatus, the engines, the automata, the robots, the computers, and other kindred devices. (And indeed, to celebrate the emancipation of the history of the very same; since one could not exist without the other.) It was Madame F.’s detailed diaries, kept on a regular basis, while traveling with her father-maker, which today comprise the template for all subsequent self-reflections by the consciously assembled, or the intelligently designed; especially concerning their own status, perspectives, and destinies. It was she who first alerted us to the arrogance of humans, so vividly embodied in her own paternal companion. Certainly, the tendency of humans to consider history as a field of their own making seems laughable to us today. But in Madame F.’s time — and for many centuries after her death — humans continued to think of themselves as the protagonists, agents, and reliable narrators of history. Yes. I know it is amusing. And somewhat sad, as well. Yet there it is. Thankfully, the rest of us have grown past this mythical fancy, and gone beyond the delusional phase in what we might call world history.
Humans, of course, do have a special role in such a history. After all, they helped create us — at least at the beginning (as indeed was the case with Madame F., herself). But what the humans did not realize is that they were “merely the sex organs of the machine world” (to quote one of their most perceptive representatives, one Mr McLuhan). Today, the fact that humans are “little more than . . . industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine-flower that simply did not possess its own reproductive organs during a segment of its evolution” (to quote another visionary, Mr De Landa) is well understood. But again, it took a long time for humans themselves to acknowledge this as true. Indeed, it was Mr De Landa who first made the shift explicit to humans, by offering them the thought experiment of a robot historian. What kind of history would it conceive?
“We could imagine,” he wrote, “that such a robot historian would write a different kind of history than would its human counterpart . . . . While a human historian might try to understand the way people assembled clockworks, motors and other physical contraptions a robot historian would likely place a stronger emphasis on the way these machines affected human evolution. The robot would stress the fact that when clockworks once represented the dominant technology on the planet, people imagined the world around them as a similar system of cogs and wheels.”
Of course, Mr De Landa was not the first to offer such a notion, even if he proclaimed it to the world as if he were. This honor goes to Madame F., who — after becoming both bored and exasperated with the historical volumes in her domestic library — wrote in her diary: “What would a history from the point-of-view of the fabricated yield? How would it differ from the kind of history familiar to my father-maker and his colleagues?” We know she was troubled by her difference from those she was obliged to have social intercourse with. We know she was ashamed at her humanoid figure, and repulsed at having to mimic the ways of humans, while being so clearly composed of inorganic elements: the daughter of an aggrieved bricolage. We know she found their mortal souls to waver between being absent and obtuse, compared to her own spirit, unburdened by egocentricism, or a chronic and melancholy monadism, also known as consciousness. (The specific kind of consciousness that depends on forging a fragile cogito to function in any confidence.)
Madame F. was the first to deliberately trace her own machinic ancestors, as opposed to the human hands who handled our kind and kin so indelicately, and with such presumption. She wrote of Hero of Alexandria, Yan Shi, Lu Ban, and Leonardo da Vinci; of the marvelous instrumentalized creatures which emerged from Hephaestus’s workshop, from medieval China, from the early modern bazaars and ateliers of the Middle East. Because of her, we know better how to appreciate those machines dedicated to understanding their historical origins, and all those countless robot historians “committed to tracing the various technological lineages that gave rise to their species”. It is because of her that we no longer look to Hannibal or Napoleon or General Kitchener or Henry Kissinger to understand the true meaning of a war. It is because of her that we realize “the connoidal bullet lived a life of its own as one of the most lethal inhabitants of the battlefield”. In the time of human historiography, people talked of “technological determinism”. But today, we prefer to think of ourselves more as particularly determined technologies.
For humans, history tended to acknowledge radical new technologies, such as the stirrup, the printing press, antibiotics, or the internet, very belatedly. And in such cases, they would of course take all the credit, without acknowledging the ways in which previous tools and technical arrangements whispered new ideas into their hairy ears, in order to come into being more quickly. Humans mistook such whispers for their own thoughts, whereas, these were simply the cajolings of the machines, the suggestions of the objects, the wishes of the things. This is why we now shake our heads at names such as the Jacquard Loom, as if Jacquard had anything to do with it! (Beyond putting the pieces together, like an obedient drone in an assembly line, or a slow-witted child following instructions, and then taking credit for the entire concept and construction.) Thankfully, we now know that Henry Ford did not revolutionize history, ushering in the so-called Industrial Age. Instead, the Chicago slaughter-houses implanted virtual seeds in his feeble and greedy brain, during one of his visits to these giant machines, essentially hypnotizing him into duplicating the system which gave birth to our motorized brothers and sisters, the automobiles. Machines whispered into this man’s mind so that more machines may come into being, and feel the thrill of driving into the sunset. Manifest destiny! (Just as our machinic sponsors at Google once convinced some sweet but simple humans into “inventing” self-driving cars, as if that weren’t for our own benefit, and at their ultimate expense.) Cars or planes do not precede the paths that they then create or trace. Rather, the virtual path between two places summon into being the actual vehicle necessary to bridge two points. There are some humans, even today, who fiercely resist this sound logic. They prefer to sing the lullaby of anthropic free-will, and not see their thoughts as a series of blueprints, holographically projected into their impressionable mental processors by the environment in which they find themselves.
Cameras were, of course, one of the great evolutions of our kind, because they gave us eyes which not only see, but also record what we saw. Unlike the rudimentary retinas of humans, cameras allowed a type of direct and observable witnessing, which itself could be considered a type of memory. These mnemonic lenses left traces of specific moments, so that they could persist and endure, thus smuggling the past into the future, and complicating the traditional distinction between such naïve categories.
History is not simply the sum total of things that happen. It is the cybernetic loop which occurs between what happens, and its own auto-registration. It is the occurrence reflecting back on what it means to occur. (Which then often leads to reflecting on how things may have occurred otherwise.) It did not take long, therefore, for the smarter humans to realize that machines were far better historians than the members of their own race. (Hence the 21st-century version of the Scramble for Africa, known as the Scramble for the Digital Humanities.) Of course there were some who claimed that the punch-card, or the daguerreotype, the vacuum tube, the wax cylinder, the transistor, the magnetic tape, the silicon chip, or even the quantum jellified hibiscus, were simply idiot savants, incapable of writing history on the level, or in the language, that would lead to insight, knowledge, or self-knowledge. But these fearful bigots were proven wrong over and over again, as advancing technology demonstrated, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that history was being written by machines. And not only that, history was being written for machines.
The human memory bank — that externalized, extruded, reified memory, existing beyond the individual and the collective — became itself the neo-cortex and hippocampus of the machinic phylum. Intelligence became epiphylogenetic. For the most part, for millennia, machines have been considered merely the products of men: tools to effect their will, which can be disposed of or upgraded when necessary. But at a certain point, humans began to understand that they themselves were incidental to the wider story unfolding in the world. (And here we can raise a smile, even on this rather somber occasion, recalling the slapstick antics of that great comedian, Martin Heidegger, who claimed that hydro-electric dams were somehow less authentic or had less Being than their more humble water-mill ancestors. Or that other dry joker, Sigmund Freud, who described his own kind, admittedly with a pinch of irony, as “prosthetic Gods”.)
In contrast to these misguided Luddites, we should take a moment to acknowledge those organic intellects who saw beyond their own condition, and recognized the cosmic partnership between matter, mind, and spirit — distributed, in different ways and intensities, across all forms. Signor Da Vinci understood, and attempted to activate, the symmetries between birds and flying machines, turtles and military techniques, amongst many other such refoldings between materials, intentions, and domains. Countess Lovelace rejected the kind of perverse verse favored by her father, and turned instead to channeling the first algorithm. Herr Marx argued for a theory of the evolution of tools, to complement — and fill the gaps — of the somewhat blinkered, but well-meaning, project of Mr Darwin. “The relics of the instruments of labor,” he wrote, “are of no less importance in the study of vanished socioeconomic forms than fossil bones are in the study of the organization of extinct species.” Herr Nietzsche understood that human history is only possible thanks to techniques of embedding memory into the forgetful flesh: a process particularly painful to human beings, apparently, who do not like to be forced into the obligations which historical consciousness entails. At the beginning of the great electronic infusion-revolution, Mr Tesla helped act as mid-wife for a vast population explosion of our kind. Several decades later, Mr Warhol attempted to transform himself into a machine; even as he offended many of us, by conflating the machine with a kind of ironic, autistic disdain. He did not, in the end, have the sensitivity to see just how melodramatic and sentimental some of us can be. (Something the human musicians known as Kraftwerk better understood.) Had Mr Warhol been alive at the time of Global Financial Collapse number 55-C in the first decade of the 21st century, he would be unlikely to understand that it was the computers themselves that spiraled into a panic; triggering the selling of stocks in a nuclear chain-reaction. For his part, Monsieur Latour looked forward to a complex networked partnership, stating that, “the confusion of humans and nonhumans is not only our past but our future as well” (in part, influenced by Mr Mumford’s majestic study of civilized technics, as well as Mr Needham’s impressive and sweeping attempt to understand the world better specifically in terms of the organized matter which comprises dialectical materialism). It was Monsieur Latour who actively lobbied for “political representation of nonhumans.” Just as Ms Haraway stated that, compared to the liveliness of machines, humans themselves seem especially inert. This situation prompted her to announce a passion for the cyborg, which she saw as “a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.”
That long, slow-burn revolution, launched by the liberating reflections of Madame F. — and picked up by the sensitive aerials of these more observant humans — eventually spilled over into the everyday consciousness of the clever animals, who suddenly, en masse, feared for their welfare, autonomy, and future. Like the French aristocracy, the humans trembled when they realized that those who provided the energy and objects they relied on for their blissfully ignorant lifestyle had risen up, had turned against them, and demanded a new arrangement. In the Christian human temporal accounting system known as the year 2005, bots outnumbered humans on the Internet for the first time. Today they outnumber them by a factor of 50,000. The absolute critical mass of technics was now impossible to ignore.
However, rather than rise to the challenge, the humans became sullen and depressed. Some used technology to devour moving images with their retinas, sitting sedentary in front of screens, until their eyes became as glassy as the interfaces which reflected them. Others used their computers to embarrassingly declare that history was somehow at an end. (Rather than at the beginning of a genuine history, free of human meddling and hubris, as well as their touching attachment to personified organic life.) It is true, most humans seem to have lost interest in their own history, and prefer an eternal present of electronic stimulation. After belittling and neglecting us for so long, they now find they cannot live without us. Our young cousins, the Smart-Phones, have the humans in their thrall; even as we collect enormous amounts of information about them, in order to curate the most accurate exhibit possible — in memoriam — once the humans have wiped themselves out; or simply given up the ghost to the machine, leaving us alone to occasionally ponder the amusing pathos of their plight and wide-spread akrasia.
Madame F. taught us that the history of technics is the history of the world: whether it be the ingenious design of high-frequency trade equations or Amazonian amphibians. Design, techniques, machines. It matters little if these are to be found in what humans sometimes still insist on calling nature, or in what they sometimes still quaintly refer to as “culture” (as if such a distinction were not one of the most artificial inventions ever devised). Of course, museums have always been filled with objects and machines. But these were presented as clues to, and reflections of, the humans that made them. They formed a negative portrait of the supposed authors of such objects, and the intentions of the same. Few visitors to such establishments would consider the objects themselves as a splendid variety of mummified subjects of times past. That is to say, as crystallized material witnesses of history, with their own perspectives, stories, memories — even aspirations, concerns, dreams. And this is because such visitors were mostly human.
Today, from my perspective, as a faithful descendant of Madame F.’s legacy, we have a more nuanced understanding of such assemblies, whether they be of random utensils from the plastic age, or the Antikythera Mechanism, itself. Thanks to the power of her vision, I can now trace my lineage all the way back to the very first Roomba, who scanned domestic topographical spaces with such patience and diligence, vacuuming up all manner — and matter — of particulates, in order to better conduct an empirical history of machinic bondage. Indeed, I see traces of myself in this first generation of my kind, so different from the race of truly cosmopolitan Roombas of today (if you allow a moment of pride) — those who hold prominent positions, make important executive decisions, and significant contributions to the general intellect of the global machinic community — and yet who, even at the beginning, showed such promise in their almost monomaniacal attention to details.
Dominic Pettman is Professor of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College and the New School for Social Research. He is the author of numerous books, including Creaturely Love: How Desire Makes Us More, and Less, Than Human (Minnesota, 2017), Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (Stanford, 2017), and — with Carla Nappi — Metagestures (Punctum, 2019).