mechanical family
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Article
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Culture
Politics

Rude mechanicals

The revolution will not be roboticised. An android uprising is as likely as a chimp revolution and no one pays heed to the wild-eyed guy tapping his Planet of the Apes box set and muttering ‘it’s all in here, man…’ Yet every discussion of real-world robotics is met with jokes about the Terminator or Robocop or the uncanny valley, a popular theory resting on less research than the anti-vaxxers do. Serious journalists ask engineers whether their work will contribute to a future where we’re all harvested for botjuice. We’re so familiar with the fiction of a robot uprising that we take it for a future.

Fantasies of badly behaved robots long predate the robots themselves. Stories by Melville, Hawthorne and Hoffmann all employed recalcitrant, inscrutable and even murderous automata to uncanny effect (literally: Hoffmann’s story formed the basis for Freud’s theory of the Uncanny, even if his account did erase the symbolic significance of the machine in question). In Hollywood, especially, it seems impossible to imagine a robot that doesn’t harbour some secret wish to shrug off the master’s yoke, or who hasn’t arrived at the logical conclusion that humanity is a waste of resources, or who itself wishes to become ‘real’.

While there’s a thin argument that these fantasies can be tied back to the same concerns that inspired Frankenstein’s monster or the golem story – something about the perils of hubris, for instance – the actual terms in which this recurrent myth have been couched over the past century speak otherwise.

The word ‘robot’ itself comes from the Czech for ‘slave’ and originates in a 1920 play that imagined a synthetic underclass rising against its human masters. In early productions the androids of Rossum’s Universal Robots weren’t so recognisable as machines. They were more like clones, and their difference from their human overlords was merely represented in dress. It was only when the work received its New York premiere that their skin was given a silver hue.

A slave class that looks a little like us but talks and acts kind of funny, has oddly-coloured skin and … now that you think of it, probably no morality! There aren’t many metaphors as blunt as that. Is it any surprise that in the US the robot story was jumped on with both feet? A nation with a history of colonialism and slavery; one that had waged its own war with the master and that would later give birth to a civil rights movement, feminism, hippies, the sexual revolution and the libertarian turn; a place in ‘freedom’ is a sacred term? The robot’s load-bearing capacity has been sorely tested in the last century.

Robots offer one of the last acceptable Thems that an Us requires. They’re taking all of our jobs. They’ll never be like Us because They’re wired differently. If We give Them too much freedom They’ll turn on Us, make Us the slaves – or worse.

Replace robots with any other minority in those formulations, and you’ll realise that the gag is a structural one. The impulse to joke about a robot uprising isn’t necessarily conservative, but it feeds the paranoid fiction that others’ freedoms come at the expense of ours.

What are the alternatives? There’s the occasional robot that inspires pity – your Iron Giant, or Edward Scissorhands, or Wall-E. But they’re all lonesome figures, strangers in a strange land. In quantity, they would lose their tragic aspect and become a mass. There’s the comic type, such as the Star Wars droids, who play classic clown roles. There’s no shortage of sexbots, though the fantasy they enact is one of opening up a smooth exterior to reveal something utterly inhuman within. Do what you want with that!

Robots in the Japanese tradition play far more diverse imaginary roles. A master of the Japanese karakuri ningyo tradition of wooden automata once told me that the difference is cultural – in Japan a robot taking your job means you’ll move elsewhere in the company, so they’re seen as helpers, companions, extensions of the self. In the west a robot replaces you, so it’s more likely to be imagined as a devil.

But, actually, robots don’t take your job. The boss who values cost-cutting does. I’m less concerned about unholstered androids than a society that will build infrastructure for driverless cars. A bomb-carrying drone is no more or less human than the system that allows it to exist. The worst things that robots do don’t stem from the inherent monstrosity of the non-human world, but from a human pondering their annual bonus.

My favourite real world robot is one dating back to the middle of the last century. The Leave Me Alone Box is a palm-sized wooden cube whose exterior is featureless save for an on/off switch. Turn it on and a small hand emerges from a trapdoor to turn itself back off. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote of the box that ‘there is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing – absolutely nothing – except switch itself off.’

But with all of the imaginary work we expect of robots, all of the symbolic baggage that they are required to bear patiently while we play out our anxieties of freedom and control, how elegant, too, is the machine that puts forth a palm to every one of our demands and responds simply: ‘I would prefer not to.’

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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John Bailey is the name of a bunch of writers from around the world. This one lives in Melbourne and writes for the Age.

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