I am reading a book about the Habsburgs at the moment. There’s a chapter which starts with a discussion of the Mechanical Turk (as pictured above). A table-sized robot that successfully played chess. It was demonstrated at the court of Theresa Maria in Vienna and then across Europe. This automata showed how what appeared to be human-only skills could be automated. This seems relevant to the modern obsession with digital technologies and, particularly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems like ChatGPT.
The Mechanical Turk was a con trick. There was a human inside all the time. I was reminded of this too when it announced the AI George Carlin event was itself a fake. The script was written by a person not a programme.
Automata, like the Mechanical Turk, in the 18th Century did something more than a parlour trick tho.
They were boundary objects for scientific ideas becoming socio-political ideas.
As Martin Rady (the Habsburg historian) notes the success of the automata symbolised how humans and human societies could be viewed as mechanical systems. If a Mechanical Turk could be designed to play and defeat humans then all human knowledge and skills must be possible to be analysed, systematised and automated. Humans stopped being creatures of God and became complex machines.
This led to the ‘clockwork state’ ideal of the Enlightenment. Society organised and regulated as a machine. Knowing the appropriate pedals and switches and understanding the level of force or effort might enable an Emperor and their government to run an entire society effectively and efficiently.
The ideal was perhaps fine (a better life for all citizens) but it was based on a lie. The automata proved that machines could act like humans and thus humans were like machines and could be regulated like them.
Still it was all fake. The automata could not match human capacities. Humans remained extraordinarily more than their technologies. Yet people with power and privilege allowed the idea that humans were equivalent to machines and, maybe, less capable than machines to become a commonplace for designing and building states and their new bureaucracies.
That 18th century poison runs thru our modern societies. It is a Technological Contamination.
The interchangeability of machines and humans, the mechanisation of human capacities and the belief that automation is always superior to human action.
Worse still, no one seems to care anymore that this fakery is fake.
Fake is fine
Modern digital technology companies have knowingly faked new product demonstrations during announcements
The first public iPhone demonstration was a parlour trick of swapping three iPhones to show a seamless interaction. The magic of Apple depended on literal trickery.
This ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to both hardware and software (starting in the 1980's, with the term vaporware) from technology companies that have become successful and powerful affects us all.
Over-confidence is a metacognitive act we all try. Being more sure of ourselves and our capacities to achieve some hard task. For most people, it’s a blip. A courageous moment to do something that seemed impossible. However, for modern digital companies and, thru technological contamination, our political systems it has become typical.
The impossible and extraordinary demonstrated to all as a future that will be delivered. The product promise and the political manifesto dependent on fakery in the present and a desperate dream that a solution will happen: once enough money and time has been applied and alternatives have been defunded or shut down.
18th century Automata and 21st century AI both sit on foundations of fakery. Both push for new societies based on new technologies which place humans as lesser than the machineries.
The difference is that now both politicians and business people seem more willing to accept that the technologies are fake in order to gain greater control and profits. Their time and money is spent cutting away other plausible futures to enable the one they invest in. This is why Uber and its ilk act more like political lobbying organisations than commercial companies. It is about eliminating regulations that prevent their success and pushing ideas as ‘business models’ to reduce social alternatives.
Instead of learning to be wary of great technological promises, we have become wary of questioning those who make and profit from those promises.
We cannot fake our way to better societies. This approach will only lead to social failure.