Human/Machine: The Cultural Anxieties of Automation

Dr Jennifer Whitney is a Research Fellow with the Digital Cultures Research Centre. She is working on a project entitled ‘The Automation of Everyday Life’.  In January she gave an informal talk at the first meeting of the South West Futurists—the outline of this talk is below. Jennifer tweets @dcrcuk under #EverydayAutomation.

The talk focused on the cultural history of robots, automata, and androids, and how past anxieties about these human-like machines speak to current concerns around AI and automation.  What follows is an outline of that discussion.


Back to the Future: A Cultural History of Robots

In contemporary Western culture, we often trace our relationship with automation and robotics to the Industrial Revolution – or, more recently – to a kind of American futurism rooted in the 1950s. Wedged between these two moments of modernity we find the word ‘robot’, which came into usage in the 1920s.

'Pygmalion’ is an ancient Greek myth about a man who breathes life into a statue. 

‘Pygmalion’ is an ancient Greek myth about a man who breathes life into a statue.

But the idea of the robot is much, much older. Storytellers in ancient Greece, Egypt, and China conjured up many dazzling images of intelligent machines, automata, and artificial life.

Visions of forged bronze servants and beguiling living statues populated myth and legend for centuries, but the reality of such an invention remained out of reach.

It wasn’t until the 1700s and early 1800s that these fantasies began to take on actual mechanical features. During this period in the West – The Age of Enlightenment – there were great strides made in science and technology. Life-like machines and automata started to materialise, setting the stage for contemporary robotics.

One such automated (and still functional) invention is ‘The Dulcimer Player’ (Marie Antoinette), which can be seen below. Click on the link to watch a video of it in action!

‘The Dulcimer Player’ by David Roentgen & Peter Kinzing c. 1782-4


The Rise of the Robots: Technology and Cultural Anxieties

The 'Weird Hotel' is almost entirely run by robots.

The ‘Weird Hotel’ is almost entirely run by robots.

The infancy of 18th and 19th century automation anticipated the much more sophisticated robots, automata, and computers of the present day, such as the very clever and equally uncanny receptionist at Japan’s ‘Weird Hotel’. Alongside the echo of an antiquarian mechanistic dream, however, contemporary machines also carry with them similarly ancient anxieties.


‘Prometheus’ was punished for stealing fire from the gods.

The mythological tale of ‘Prometheus’ foregrounds how early cultural anxieties manifested. Upon stealing fire from the gods, the eponymous character harnesses it for the benefit of humanity. Because of this brazen act, he is chained to a rock, his liver eaten by an eagle. The tale of ‘Prometheus’ serves the cultural purpose of questioning the ethical and physical boundaries of scientific and technological inquiry, suggesting dangerous ramifications if such boundaries are crossed.

The ancient story of ‘Prometheus’ had lasting effects. It was particularly resonant during – and following – the automation craze of the 1700s. Indeed, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) even contains the subtitle The Modern Prometheus. Understood by many as the first science fiction novel, Shelley’s story takes up many similar themes. Frankenstein focuses upon a scientist who attempts to, and succeeds at, animating the inanimate, with dire consequences.


Invoked when what is considered to be ‘human’ is called into question, ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Frankenstein’ remain terms used to provide a name for many of our contemporary fears around technological advancement.


‘Franken food’ refers to crops produced with biotechnology.

Likewise ‘robot’ is frequently deployed to describe a person lacking in ‘independence, originality, vitality, and creativity’ (Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines).

So, then, the language we use today to describe our fears about automation and technology arose from the same cultural moments as our technological aspirations. And, because of this history, a contradiction exists in human/machine relationships. All at once, robots, automata, and androids are understood as innovative, dangerous, and boringly mechanical.

As the debates about the merits of technology rage on, only one thing is for certain: nothing seems as old as the fear of the new.

If you are interested in attending a South West Futurists event, details can be found here.


Comments are closed.