Robot history

by craigepplin

Any incentive to write is a good thing for me. So, as I said before, I’m planning to keep up with my students in my current class on new media culture in Latin America, posting at the same rhythm I’m asking of them: at least once a week. We’re a week into the new quarter, about to discuss “The Aleph” and then Pablo Katchadjian’s expanded version of it. But before talking about that, I want to share some thoughts on the impetus behind the course.

Putting together the syllabus, one concept that I had in the back of my mind was Manuel De Landa’s idea of the robot historian, discussed in the introduction to War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. De Landa first describes the most advanced “smart” military technologies of his moment (which was over twenty years ago). He contrasts the reality of these technologies with the science-fiction role imagined for them. He claims that the killer robots of the future–the drones of the present–will likely not correspond to the anthropomorphized images we have conceived for them. Rather, they will have evolved along different lines and will understand—to the extent that it makes sense to use this verb—themselves in different ways.

De Landa thus asks us to replace one fiction, the humanoid killer robot, with another, the robot historian. This substitution is convenient, he suggests, because of evidence that intelligent machines “think” quite differently from their human counterparts. The example of war games provides a case in point. In simulations of nuclear war, De Landa notes, human commanders hesitate, negotiate, and in general demonstrate great reticence about pulling the trigger. Their robotic stand-ins (still named, in those times of the waning Cold War, SAM and IVAN), however, have fewer qualms. In other words, the intelligent machine understands the consequences of war quite different from the human. To extrapolate from this example, it stands to reason that it also understands its own path of development differently.

The robot historian imagined by De Landa fixates on formal similarities, not on motivations:

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. The solar system, for instance, was pictured right up until the nineteenth century as just such a clockwork mechanism, that is, as a motorless system animated by God from the outside. Later, when motors came along, people began to realize that many natural systems behave more like motors: they run on an external reservoir of resources and exploit the labor performed by circulating flows of matter and energy.

He goes on to give concrete examples of military machines whose deployment conforms precisely to such patterns: The armies of Frederick the Great work like clocks, while Napoleon’s run on a “reservoir of populations and national feelings.”

One consequence of this view is that human decision-making is deemphasized. Will is less important than extra-human momentum, and personality gives way to the impetus of technological evolution: “technological development may be said to possess its own momentum, for clearly it is not always guided by human needs.” Evolution overflows the limits of what we normally call life, as history comes to be understood as the gradual assemblage and disaggregation of organic and inorganic materials.

Why does this matter for a course on new media and its cultural manifestations in Latin America? Because the premise I’d like to start from is the idea that the relationship between message and medium–indeed, between message and media ecology–acquires great importance in moments of technological transition–moments like the present. We can and should still read narratives and poems and other forms, but we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the fact that the containers in which they arrive to us have been vastly transformed by technological and economic forces. Even a plain paperback book is not the same sort of object once its media ecology has been transformed by Amazon and others.

De Landa’s concept of robot history can help us think about this relationship. From the perspective of his hypothetical robot historian, what matters is less the will and consciousness of various innovators, but rather broad trends that exceed human agency. I think that we can draw a parallel with contemporary aesthetic production, for much of it is increasingly housed within sprawling, machine-like entities (like Amazon) that, similarly, care little for the details. Rather, their evolution owes to other factors and serves other interests.

That’s not to say that we should only pay attention to the movements of the machine, only to say that it makes good sense, particularly today, to read individual works in conversation with the broader media ecology in which they are ensconced. Exercising that sort of reading practice is one of my aims for this term.