Tool Being

I listened on-line to the lecture about Flawed Humans by Martina Heßler. At the start it was explained that this was work-in-progress toward a new book about the topic of humans and machines.

She started with a look at some claims made in current media about the advance of technology. Propositions about autonomous driving vehicles, automated factories, killer drones, and artificial receptionists, all tending toward the idea that humans are “the last bug in the system”. This leads in to her topic: modern ideas about humans being judged inferior to benchmarks of performance achieved by mechanical devices.

Humans have been comparing themselves to many things for a very long time, and she set a limitation on the topic: this is concerned with modern comparison with machines. She acknowledged the earlier religious notions of humans as flawed in their capacity for moral error, and also philosophical discussion of humans in comparison to animals. Man is clearly not the strongest creature nor possessed of in-grown lethal advantages such as fangs or poison-sacs; so his distinction in the natural order lies in the mental capacities, and the ability to reason and adapt surroundings with cultural products. It was when a large number of a new kind of invention became prominent from the late 18th century that a new kind of thinking was possible: not Man’s place in Nature, but his place next to his own creations.

Heßler said that she had looked at the different kinds of failure ascribed to humans in comparison to machine: their limited power and mobility, their lack of precision or reliability, their tendency to idleness and disagreement. She noted little evidence of differentiation between categories of human in this scale, according to race or gender (though we could expect that distinctions would have been made in payscales for workers with less alternative employment available).

Early British observers of the possibilities of mechanisation would include Charles Babbage, whose work on calculating machines allowed the demonstration that so many existing books of mathematical tables were inaccurate; also Andrew Ure’s Philosophy Of Manufactures (1835). We should not forget that Babbage was a failure in his own lifetime, as he simply could not get the parts for the Difference Engine machined to the precision necessary. His machines were abstract ideas that could not be materialised at the time available.

Heßler cited the notion of the “mängelwesen”, although it was not immediately clear that this term was only coined by Arnold Gehlen in 1940. But her concern is not for the academic genealogy of ideas but in the practical manifestation, in the industrial culture of technical management and engineering. This then raises different comparative questions, about how far these attitudes take hold in other economies. Different structures and ownership models, different training and educational backgrounds, and different degrees of development could all be significant.

In the 20th century we got a series of quotes from the 30s through to the 70s from various anonymous voices declaring humans too slow, careless, or just not physically in shape to fit in the devices that now do the real work for them. It seems that mechanism and repeatability has become the standard, and there was an “obsession with order”, according to Zygmunt Bauman, who saw it as the hallmark of modernity. The advance of technology gives rise to new kinds of errors for humans to make. But it does also find new ways for them to be indispensible. Someone has to calibrate all the settings and define them in the first place; someone has to need and want and buy all the gadgets cascading off the ends of the assembly lines.

The machines are seen as enforcing rules and predictability on the hapless flesh-mounds. This is itself a shift from an earlier, different comparison: for Kant and Schopenhauer and others, the distinction between human and animal was in the capacity of the rational will to will according to rules, rather than ephemeral instincts or distractions. The culture of mechanisation described by Heßler was promoted in engineering journals, and the obvious question is how it relates to attitudes in the wider culture that derogate “robotic” behaviour. Is that a mark of a cultural split, or rather that some kinds of worker regard themselves as specially different and not to be judged by the same standards as the mere drudges? Heßler said that when the managers and engineers were threatened with obsolescence they showed that they regarded themselves as an “elite” apart. Yet their own work would have been the replication and methodical adaptation of accepted models; there is not much scope for wild local variation inside corporate manufacturing. One other topic not mentioned here that affected German industry was the scandal about emissions testing, which of course was a case of the machines being fixed to make the humans look better.

There were a few ironic moments when the sound and images went off, showing that on-line lectures are not yet as reliable as the traditional version. At the end she mentioned the “posthumanist” idea of a world after humans, at least as we are familiar with them now, but that will be a long time to come. An unexplored area would be the imagery of “mechanical” people as stigma/metaphor in mental health.

The picture in the banner is Leibniz’s Calculating Machine. The Early Moderns had their own debates about the meaning and possibilities of machines as well.

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