Friday, July 27, 2012

Thoughts and Dreams about Machines: The New Robot Economist Pop-up Theatre

In his Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (2002), Philip Mirowski "dragooned" a short story by Steven Millhauser, "The New Automaton Theater" to serve as a metaphorical outline of his his own book.
[Millhauser] imagines a town where the artful creation of lifelike miniature automata has been carried far beyond the original ambitions of Vaucanson's Duck or even Deep Blue -- the machine that defeated Gary Kasparov. These automata are not 'just' toys, but have become the repositories of meaning for the inhabitants of the town:
So pronounced is our devotion, which some call an obsession, that common wisdom distinguishes four separate phases. In childhood we are said to be attracted by the color and movement of these little creatures, in adolescence by the intricate clockwork mechanisms that give them the illusion of life, in adulthood by the truth and beauty of the dramas they enact, and in old age by the timeless perfection of an art that lifts us above the cares of mortality and gives meaning to our lives... No one ever outgrows the automaton theatre.
Every so often in the history of the town there would appear a genius who excels at the art, capturing shades of human emotion never before inscribed in mechanism. Millhauser relates the story of one Heinrich Graum, who rapidly surpasses all others in the construction and staging of automata. Graum erects a Zaubertheatre where works of the most exquisite intricacies and uncanny intensity are displayed, which rival the masterpieces of the ages. In his early career Graum glided from one triumph to the next; but it was "as if his creatures strained at the very limits of the human, without leaving the human altogether; and the intensity of his figures seemed to promise some final vision, which we awaited with longing, and a little dread".

And then, at age thirty-six and without warning, Graum disbanded his Zaubertheatre and closed his workshop, embarking on a decade of total silence. Disappointment over this abrupt mute reproach eventually gave way to fascinations with other distractions and other artists in the town, although the memory of the old Zaubertheatre sometimes haunted apprentices and aesthetes alike. Life went on, and other stars of the Automata Theatre garnished attention and praise. Then after a long hiatus, and again without warning, Graum announced he would open a Neues Zaubertheatre in the town. The townsfolk had no clue what to expect from such an equally abrupt reappearance of a genius who had for all intents and purposes been relegated to history. The first performance of the Neues Zaubertheatre was a scandal, or as Millhauser puts it, "a knife flashed in the face of our art". Passionate disputes broke out over the seemliness or the legitimacy of such a new automaton theatre.
Those who do not share our love of the automaton theatre may find our passions difficult to understand; but for us it was as if everything had suddenly been thrown into question. Even we who have been won over are disturbed by these performances, which trouble us like forbidden pleasures, secret crimes... In one stroke his Neues Zaubertheatre stood history on its head. The new automatons can only be described as clumsy. By this I mean that the smoothness of motion so characteristic of our classic figures has been replaced by the jerky abrupt motions of amateur automatons.... They do not strike us as human. Indeed it must be said that the new automatons strike us first of all as automatons... In the classic automaton theatre we are asked to share the emotions of human beings, whom in reality we know to be miniature automatons. In the new automaton theatre we are asked to share the emotions of the automatons themselves... They live lives that are parallel to ours, but are not to be confused with ours. Their struggles are clockwork struggles, their suffering is the suffering of automatons.
Although the townsfolk publicly rushed to denounce the new theatre, over time they found themselves growing impatient and distracted with the older mimetic art. Many experience tortured ambivalence as they sneak off to view the latest production of the Neues Zaubertheatre. What was once an affront imperceptibly became a point of universal reference. The new theatre slowly and inexorably insinuates itself into the very consciousness of the town.

It has become a standard practice in modern academic books to provide the impatient modern reader with a quick outline of the argument of the entire book in the first chapter, providing the analogue of fast food for the marketplace of ideas. Here, Millhauser's story can be dragooned for that purpose. In sum, the story of this book is the story of the New Automaton Theatre: the town is the American profession of academic economics, the classic automaton theatre is neoclassical economic theory, and the Neues Zaubertheatre is the introduction of the cyborg sciences into economics. And Heinrich Graum -- well, Graum is John von Neumann. The only thing missing from Millhauser's parable would a proviso where the military would have acted to fund and manage the apprenticeships and workshops of the masters of automata, and Graum's revival stage-managed at their behest.
The Sandwichman is always curious to find out what happens if one takes a metaphor such as Mirowski's a little too literally. What if we think of academic economics as literally an automaton theatre? And what if, instead of confining our fable to the academic economics of the 20th century, we extend the scope back to the pioneering episodes of integrating thoughts on the use of machines into the analysis of political economy? This idle curiosity impelled me to build crude pantin puppets depicting as robots Paul Samuelson, Paul Krugman, Richard Layard, Lawrence Katz, David Autor, Jonathan Portes and three current or former Economist magazine contributors, Matthew Bishop, Ryan Avent and Clive Crook.

After I made the physical puppets, I video recorded them. My rirst reaction to the results was disappointment. The videos were jerky and limited in their movement. I can get a better effect with still photos and photo manipulation on the computer. But I've come to realize that 'clumsiness' and 'jerkiness' were precisely the characteristics of the automatons in the fictional Heinrich Graum's Neues Zaubertheatre. One might even say that there is a element of Brechtian alienation or estrangement about it (as there is in the fictional Neues Zaubertheatre) although I'm not really sure that is necessary at a time such ss this when estrangement, rather than empathy, has become the default.

It is important to keep in mind that the word "robot" was adapted by Karel Capek from a Slavic word for chore, "robota" and it earlier referred to the forced labor required of serfs by the land-owning aristocracy. That is to say, the word has embedded in it an implication of exploitation and class struggle. A 19th century account of the practice observed:
Another evil of the robot is the ill-will it begets between the masters and the workmen: their whole lives seem to be a constant effort, on the one hand, to see how much can be pressed out of the reluctant peasant; and, on the other, how little can be done to satisfy the terms of agreement, and escape punishment. Mutual injury becomes a mutual profit; suspicion and ill-will are the natural results.
That constant effort found its echo throughout the 19th century -- and beyond -- in the chronic complaints of employers and business journalists about 'shirking' and the restriction of output by union regulations.

Addendum: Oh, I almost forgot. There's another source that figures heavily in my imagining of these jerky robots: Walter Benjamin's "Some Motifs in Baudelaire." In it, Benjamin mentioned the photographer Nadar's description of Baudelaire's "jerky gait." Later in the essay, Benjamin wrote, "The invention of the match around the middle of the nineteenth century brought forth a number of innovations which have one thing in common: one abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps." He then goes on to list the telephone and the camera as examples of the principle. "Thus technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training. [...] That which determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the basis of the rhythm of reception in the film." And further down the page, citing Marx, "Every kind of capitalist production... has this in common, that it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman. But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality." "In working with machines," Benjamin continued, "workers learn to coordinate their own 'movements to the uniform and unceasing motion of an automaton'."

Benjamin concluded this line of speculation with some observations on the connection between factory work, commercial amusements and unemployment:
The unskilled worker is the one most deeply degraded by the drill of the machines. His work has been sealed off from experience; practice counts for nothing there. What the fun fair achieves with its dodgem cars and other similar amusements is noting but a taste of the drill to which the unskilled labourer is subjected in the factory -- a sample which at times was for him the entire menu; for the art of being a clown, in which the little man could acquire training in places like the fun fair, flourished concomitantly with unemployment.

No comments:

Post a Comment