Early last century, an employee of a Philadelphia
museum opened a box and pulled out a mechanical wonder from another
age: the figure of a
writer sitting with pen poised at a desk. It was dirty, dishevelled,
and broken. Nobody knew who made it or when, but when they repaired the
automaton, dressed it, and gave it a piece of paper, it told them. “I
am,” or rather “Je suis,” it wrote, “the automaton
of Maillardet.” Like other writers, it recognized itself on the
A machine, writing.
The makers of early automata made wonders of many kinds, but they returned again and again to a project that was at first glance ill-suited to their art: to make a machine that thought. Or, failing that, produced the signs of thought: drew pictures, played chess, wrote, spoke. Machines move repetitively, that is what they do best (chopping wood is no problem), but the toymakers labored to make machines that moved scarcely at all, but subtly and in complex, changing patterns—machines that mimicked our moments of inwardness, our productive reveries. They wanted to see a machine thinking. These automata were fashioned with great tenderness. Our ambitions have not changed that much since 1779, when the Academy of Sciences of St Petersburg sponsored a competition to design a machine that could speak, but we have lost some of this tenderness since we acquired scientific objectivity and fell in love with the lab coat and the big shiny box. We developed sheepish sentimental attachments to a few machines (R2D2) but at the same time our sentimental fears ran amok. We are afraid of our computers, in fact. We seem to think that if we hand the new automaton a pencil, it will not only refuse to write, but turn the eraser end against all the books we love. The backers of books against hypertext (a Siamese twin boxing match: nobody really wins) don’t so much hate the idea of linked text or the writing itself as the fact that to read it the way real readers read, and you know what I mean by that, you have to let a computer see you naked. The hypertext is a bit like the monstrous android of sci-fi fame: if you give your heart to it, you might find yourself living in a world in which nothing is real anymore.
This fear isn’t new. In the mid-1800s John
Murray Spear, a famous spiritualist, became interested in mating machines
with men. He was persuaded
that the spirits favored technology: he had already raised the ghost
of Benjamin Franklin to help him invent a perpetual motion machine, an
electric ship, an intercontinental telepathic network, and a new and
improved sewing machine. But his New Motor was more than just a machine.
He went so far as to suggest it was a sort of second coming.
Science fiction writers spent the last half of the 20th century drafting
versions of our relationship to the machine, and worrying in images about
the real, the fake, the real in the fake, and the fake in the real. And
none of them worried more than Philip Dick.
A machine is a machine because its entire being is given over to a purpose.
It is an object, but it is an object with an idea, and in that sense
it is different from other objects that may yield themselves to our meanings
and intentions with the grace of inanition, but are innocent of motive.
A machine does one thing very well; that it also does other things, like
take up space, make noise, shake, or pollute the air, is unconcealed
but not relevant.
When I call toys insincere, I don’t mean that they’re
duplicitous. A fake thing that is honest about being fake may be more
real than anything
that pleads its authenticity.
Some birds kept in solitary never find their voices. Toy canaries are sometimes employed to teach real canaries how to sing.
In Jonathan Swift’s A Project for Improving Speculative Knowledge a professor creates a machine by which “the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write both in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.” He describes this machine as follows:
The Superficies was composed of several bits of Wood, about the bigness of a Dye, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These bits of Wood were covered on every Square with Paper pasted on them, and on these Papers were written all the Words of their Language in their several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without any Order. The Professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his Engine at Work. The Pupils at his Command took each of them hold of an Iron Handle, whereof there were fourty fixed round the Edges of the Frame, and giving them a sudden turn, the whole Disposition of the Words was entirely changed. He then commanded six and thirty of the Lads to read the several lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame; and where they found three or four Words together that might make part of a Sentence, they dictated to the four remaining Boys who were Scribes.
Language has long been compared to a machine (some would like to exploit
the resemblance, others lament it), but it is a machine with a guilty
conscience, because unlike other machines in history, language is sometimes
embarrassed about its accidents of physicality, and would be pure intention
if it could. But language too shakes and makes noise.
And literature is definitely a toy. True, literature
too sometimes aspires or pretends to be a machine—just consider
the mainstream American standard of good writing, where style is only
the byproduct of being
perfectly functional. No furbelows on the bulldozers, thanks.
One of my stories, which bears the same name as this
essay, concerns a little mechanical man (the latest invention of a
team of “genius
girls”) who does a lot of worrying about not being human. The figure
of Pinocchio capers around behind the text of my “Musée
Mécanique” like its maniac guardian angel. But my puppet
belongs to another era and will never become a real little boy.
The dream of the book is Pinocchio’s dream, but the hypertext needs a new dream. The guardian angel has flown, and even the humans would like a guarantee that they are real boys and girls. I am not saying goodbye Pinocchio, but I have translated him for a world in which the difference between the puppet and the man no longer seems guaranteed in heaven.
I have had a collaborator in this translation. My
name is Faulkner Kennett. He, or rather it, is the voice recognition
software my sister uses. Faulkner Kennett is the name it gave itself,
when she described it in the first e-mail she wrote with its help. Faulkner
is a machine. Like all machines, he is sincere, orderly, and ignorant.
Used according to the instruction manual, he is as invisible a collaborator
as his makers could contrive: the ghost writer in the machine, though
it has proved impossible to teach him not to assiduously transcribe laughter
as “ketchup” or “ticket.” But a machine used
with invention becomes a toy.
Here is a section from Faulkner’s translation of Pinocchio:
Up pen and trot on! Accost a detective press, a stupid old glee; harness the essay pose, a high-end hot Lear. Off of the car, a key door keynote yields to old-growth keynote. “Channel may be but too real?” Be saying fraught CD, say. “Novel. Yo! Geometry code Pinocchio. The guests don’t know: may be pork era for tuna. Oh go, clueless key, go to school; a nun from media in terra deep. A teeny key: Pinocchio is a padre, Pinocchio’s some entree into the key era trustee, a dirty sale of course, a funnel. Play, you appeal, recode the laurel chip, in the less than most scene two.”
Now, this may not be a work of genius, though it has a certain flair. But it is literature of a sort, and not just because it is Pinocchio in disguise. Language as machine is meant to be completely transparent: it is summed up by what we like to call its “content.” Literature is language that flaunts its extraneous features. Faulkner Kennett is a machine: he is designed to be a completely transparent medium. When he is used in a way that is at odds with his proper use, however, what he produces is language that consists almost entirely of its accidental features, of its music.
In the 20th century, we were often compared to the
cogs of giant machines or soulless automata working the production
line. Machines with a guilty
conscience, we would like to stop the wheel and leap into the void of
pure thought. But we are not very much like machines, even when we try
to be. There is too much accidental motion, eccentric gestures, inefficient
behaviors. Too much “personality.” We are much more like
toys: our real purpose is often not the visible purpose of our activity
(“hunting the bear,” “feeding the geese,” “clicking
the mouse”) but some tragicomic ritual. We are all in the position
of Pinocchio, wannabe humans with the secret conviction that we’re
really something else—phonies, jokes, wind-up toys.
How does an automaton write? The simple ones trace
a metal template. The subtler ones require two cams, irregular disks
along whose edges
two rods travel, which transmit every bump and jiggle to the writing
hand. One cam controls the hand’s vertical movement, one the horizontal.
When they are coordinated, the jiggle becomes writing.
“I am the automaton of Maillardet.”
What it writes may no longer look much like a book.
It might be more like one of those awkward Victorian toys, lithographed
printed slogans and moving parts (two clerics by the fireside hoisting
the foaming brew), or the Talking Picture Book made in Germany in 1895: “[W]hen
the cover is opened, one reads a verse about a cow, sees a picture of
it, and follows an arrow pointing to a string. When the string is pulled,
a realistic moo sounds out.”
The earliest mechanical toys were priceless wonders designed to amuse princes, but most of us have a far less reverential attitude to the toy. Maybe some of us were taught that books were not to be chewed on or thrown across the room, that they were objects of a special sort and easily hurt. But toys were another matter, remember? They were yours. You could do whatever you liked with them, and often that meant inventing whole new ways to make them work. What their makers had in mind for them was only the beginning. You could turn your bike upside down and pedal it with your hands and pretend that you were working a pancake-making machine. You could put a mustache on a baby doll and feature her as Barbie’s gigantic Papa. You could hold the propeller still and let the plane spin round and round. We were casual with our toys, and friendly with them, and we smashed them when we needed to for the purposes of our games. Toymakers have to accept these eventualities, and even celebrate them. What kind of toy is it that you have to put on gloves to touch? The toy is not an endpoint, but a beginning: the starting point of playing. That’s what toys are made for, so that the world will play.
So Jesus goes up to heaven. There’s an old guy waiting at the
gate. Jesus thinks he recognizes him. So he asks the old guy, “Are
you waiting for your son?”
Shelley Jackson was born in the Philippines, grew up in Berkeley, studied art at Stanford and writing at Brown, and now lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of the hypertext novel Patchwork Girl (Eastgate, 1995) and the story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy (Anchor, 2002).
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (Fall 2002)