Salvos The God in the Machine

It’s puppets vs. robots

Tom Whyman

Today, most areas of the United Kingdom that aren’t London could be described as either rural or post-industrial. Cornwall, one of the most isolated and idiosyncratic areas of England, is largely both. Situated at the southwestern tip of Great Britain, Cornwall is one of the traditional “Celtic nations” (alongside Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and the Isle of Man), and it retains a linguistic and cultural identity all its own.

Since ancient times, this identity has been bound up with the tin-mining industry: archaeological evidence suggests that Cornwall’s inhabitants were profiting from their land’s rich ore deposits as early as 2000 BCE. Well before the Roman invasion of Britain, Cornish tin may have been exported as far afield as present-day Syria. Throughout its history, the health of the Cornish tin-mining industry has been synonymous with the health of Cornwall’s economy in general. In the fifteenth century, slight alterations to tariffs or taxes on tin could prompt the Cornish people to rise up in rebellion against the crown; in the nineteenth century, a mining boom saw the area’s population double over a period of just sixty years.

But neoliberalism, as we know, is very good at destroying things that have historically been important to other things. A collapse in the global tin cartels ensured that it took only about twenty years from the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher for all of the Cornish mines to fall into unprofitability and close. The results for Cornwall’s inhabitants have obviously been bleak: the county suffers from endemic levels of poverty, with almost every key economic indicator trailing well behind the UK average. The Cornish, in other words, are mired in the same long-term economic malaise that has ensnared places much poorer than the main run of British enterprise, such as Greece or Spain. Alarmingly, what jobs Cornwall has managed to create in recent years have been heavily reliant on grants from the European Union—grants that will now, thanks to last year’s Brexit referendum, almost certainly be lost.

The Cornish have recently started to worship a big puppet.

Cornwall is in a particularly difficult position because, unlike most postindustrial areas of England, it doesn’t readily lend itself to adaptive reuse. Among the spent husks of Cornish tin-mining communities, you won’t find a single well-connected city or large town with a lot of cheap real estate, ready for gentrification. The former Cornish tin-mining landscape is instead a poorly linked knot of villages dotted around overgrown former mining sites that loom over them like ruined castles: pure industrial countryside. This is not the sort of place where opportunities get created for anyone. If you were born here, your life must be one long struggle to leave (but you’ll probably never manage it); if you want to move here, you’re almost certainly a wealthy retiree, looking for a “quiet” (read: no) life.

How does a place respond when it’s been hollowed out of everything that makes it distinctive, of everything, indeed, that gives it a reason to exist? This is an important question, because increasingly it seems like that must be the kind of place in which all of us, soon enough, will find ourselves. Oh, it’s a well-worn shibboleth of digital-age economic forecasting that we are on the cusp of increased automation of labor—or indeed, that we are about to experience the total such technological displacement of the mere human worker. The advent of 3-D printing and AI technology means that all of our devices will soon be able to build, design, and oversee themselves without any human assistance. In the not-too-distant future—just as soon as it is profitable for whoever is in charge to impose this post-work regime upon us—we will be ferried around by self-building, self-powering, self-driving cars, on routes approved by a city plan developed algorithmically, to buildings managed internally by intelligent environmental regulation software. No human input will be necessary at any stage of any process; even reports of the effects of mounting automation will, soon enough, start writing themselves. Even if Cornish mining ever were to be revived, the renaissance would probably be jobless: a tin-mining program would be able to source all the hardware and mechanize the whole operation by itself.

The total automation of labor has been something that leftist authors such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Paul Mason, and Aaron Bastani have actively called for, believing that it will liberate us from the dull, thankless work human beings are otherwise forced to perform. With our tasks taken over by machines, we will come to exist in the utopia of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” as Bastani likes to call it—a state of limitless opulence in which we will have all the time in the world to fulfill whatever creative ambitions we might happen to possess.

But to my mind, it seems more likely that automation will impoverish us, and perhaps even lead to our extinction. Under capitalism, each of us reduces to our function in the labor market. This is how the capitalist state considers us, at least: as things that perform, either successfully or otherwise, a certain useful (i.e., profitable) purpose. If this function were to disappear (and no other function could be found to replace it), then so, too, would any reason capitalism might have for keeping us alive. Total functionlessness would mean human obsolescence. Why should the obsolete expect to live in conditions of opulence? It would be far more realistic to expect the abattoir.

Cornwall has responded to its own loss of function in a number of ways. The tourism industry, for instance, has expanded (although that inherently seasonal labor regime does not typically bring with it steady, sustainable jobs), and the county has certainly become a popular retirement spot for wealthy Britons (although it is hardly a sign of vibrancy if your area is turning into what is essentially a gilded coffin). Oh, and the Cornish have recently started to worship a big puppet.

The puppet thing is actually the key here. Allow me to explain.

Bow Down Before the Man-Engine

Our mystery begins in August last year, when my friend Emily forwarded me a most curious press release.

“THE MAN ENGINE,” it opens, in all caps just like that. “DESTINATION: GEEVOR—THEN THE WORLD.”

“THE MONUMENTAL CORNISH MAN ENGINE COMPLETES HIS EPIC CORNISH MINING WORLD HERITAGE SITE JOURNEY AND ANNOUNCES GLOBAL DIASPORA TOUR AMBITION.”

The press release goes on to describe, in breathless detail, the construction and day-to-day activities of a giant puppet—at more than thirty feet in height, “the UK’s largest-ever mechanical puppet.” Called “The Great Cornish Man-Engine,” the puppet was built to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Cornwall’s defunct tin-mining landscape being named to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This strange new being, the PR patter assures us, is “a monumental moving, smoking, metal-worked, mining ‘behemoth,’ the likes of which has never been seen before.”

The total automation of labor has been something that leftist authors have actively called for, believing that it will liberate us from dull, thankless work.

The idea was that the man-engine would stride into the various towns sitting along the heritage route and perform what the press release describes as a “transformation” ceremony before an awestruck crowd of assembled residents, the living remainder of this dead mining tradition.

At his “Transformation” ceremonies . . . the imposing Man Engine was hauled to his . . . final height by the team of “Lilliputian” modern day “miners” and “bal maidens” against the backdrop of Cornwall and West Devon’s town, villages and event centres. Blinking his massive eyes, and wearing a traditional miners hat, the Man Engine would take a long look out across his world, whilst children and adults, locals and visitors alike, watched him in astonishment. At 20 key events they animated the stunning Man Engine, or raised him up towards the sky in a mass of smoke, noise, chanting and glory.

It is striking to note the ritualistic—religious, really—nature of these “transformation” ceremonies. As video evidence documents, the ceremonies open with what is essentially a sermon, delivered by a man dressed as a miner standing on a platform some distance above the crowd. The content of the sermon reflects on the central importance of the tin mining industry to Cornwall’s history, cut loose by a world that no longer deems that tradition necessary. (The ceremony is thus in the weird position of ostensibly celebrating the mining landscape being named to the list of world heritage sites, while also addressing itself to people who know all too well the crushing costs of said landscape becoming merely “heritage.”)

The man-engine is at this point in the ceremony crouched somewhere behind the miner-priest, still concealed by a sheet. A hymn is sung, a lament honoring the sacrifices of the many men who have died pursuing the dangerous but worthwhile endeavor of mining Cornish tin, before the crowd, under instructions from the priest, begins chanting a mantra in Cornish. (In English it goes: “Copper, Silver, Tin Tin Tin / Can’t you feel ’em ’neath yer skin?”) Then comes the moment of revelation. Upon hearing the mantra, the man-engine “awakes”—he begins steaming like a locomotive and, dragged up by a team of men below him with ropes, comes gradually to stand up to his full height, towering above the people and all the nearby buildings.

So what’s going on here? Why is Cornwall choosing to commemorate its mining heritage by worshipping a giant puppet? How are the vital traditions of the Cornish people encapsulated by the movements of this great mechanical man? And what does this mean for people—Cornish or otherwise—existing in the age of capitalist automation?

Pinocchio’s Error (or Why It’s Good to Be a Puppet)

Let’s start by looking at what the philosophical tradition has to say about this. The classic text on puppets and God was written by Heinrich von Kleist, the German Romantic author perhaps best known for his devastating revenge narrative Michael Kohlhaas. In his short philosophical dialogue “On the Marionette Theatre,” published in 1810, Kleist asserts that puppets are capable of dancing with a grace superior to that of human beings.

Commonsensically, this claim seems more than a bit odd, since puppets (we typically assume) are moved by their puppeteers. Any distinction we might draw between puppet-grace and human-grace must be disingenuous, as any grace the puppet possesses will stem wholly from its human controller (or, as in the case of the man-engine, controllers). But as Kleist’s dialogue proceeds to show, the puppeteer in fact has very little direct intentional control over a marionette: the figurines are not steered by the puppeteer like a car but rather swing, in the manner of pendulums, from the wires that the puppeteer holds. For this reason, the movements of a marionette reveal more about the laws of physics than about any human agency.

And this makes such movements far more natural, in a way, than those of human beings. In Kleist’s formulation, puppet motion is “niemals zierte,” or never “decorated” or “adorned”—unaffected, basically. Kleist holds that human beings, by contrast, are peculiarly ill equipped to move gracefully, or indeed to do much of anything at all. Having eaten from the tree of knowledge, we humans are unique in our ability to reflect on what we are doing. Common sense (again the enemy) might hold this to be an advantage. But according to Kleist’s dialogue, our reflective capacities put us at a great disadvantage—they serve primarily to increase the number of things that can go wrong.

Human dancers, in their self-awareness, might attempt to hurl themselves into a particular terpsichorean move, only to question, at the last moment, their ability to perform it. And with their confidence shaken in this fashion, dancers typically trip and fall to the ground; reflection has caused them to mess up the move. My granddad used to tell us that he had scored exactly one hole-in-one during his entire golfing life, and that was the very first time he ever swung a club. Unimpressed by this felicitous showing, the guy he was golfing with told him his technique was very unorthodox and showed him the “correct” way to stand, where he was “really” supposed to grip the club, and so forth. After that, of course, my granddad was terrible at golf for the rest of his life: he never could remember, after this impromptu lesson, his terrific natural technique. Undue reflection had destroyed it.

There is at least one important contemporary thinker who has tried to formalize this view. According to philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (in work such as his 2007 Inquiry article, “The Return of the Myth of the Mental”), our optimal relationship with our environment is characterized by what he calls “absorbed coping”—a state in which we have become so expert in whatever it is we are doing that we don’t have to think about it at all anymore (unconscious “mastery,” as it were). According to Dreyfus, very brilliant tennis players never have to think about the shots they are playing—they intuitively “see” which shot is best in any given situation and then duly accomplish it mechanically. Meanwhile, less expert players are unable to do this; they are more likely to overthink things—to panic in the middle of a match-point-in-the-making and watch the chance to play the winner disappear into an unforced error.

Dreyfus’s theory of action has been influential in academic philosophy departments, especially among thinkers of a more “continental” bent (who are, not coincidentally, open to his frequent and wholehearted avowal of insights from Heidegger’s Being and Time). Personally, I have never found it especially plausible. Dreyfus’s theory simply does not reflect my experience of performing physical tasks, even very basic ones—to think that it might be possible to complete them without first applying my conscious, higher-order capacities seems a bit ridiculous to me. Even walking, in my experience, proceeds from higher-order thinking about getting up.

Deus Ex Homines

But that is beside the point for now. The more interesting thing to consider is Kleist’s suggestion that “absorbed coping” is, in a way, divine. Toward the end of the dialogue, each of the participants relates a curious, riddling anecdote, with the intention of showing how reflective consciousness “creates disorder in the natural harmony of man.” One tells the story of a beautiful youth who, out swimming one day, happens spontaneously to pose in exactly the manner of a famous Greek statue. The youth is then driven mad attempting to replicate the pose deliberately, standing in front of the mirror all day long as “one charm after another abandoned him.” The other participant relates a story about a tame bear that has been taught to fence; the bear is able to beat any human competitor, expertly parrying with his paws every blow that is thrown at him while ignoring any feints. Lacking reflective consciousness, the bear never second-guesses itself.

The conclusion drawn from these stories is as follows: reflection, as one of the participants puts it, makes the organic world become “darker and weaker.” This means that “the grace that is there emerges all the more shining and triumphant.” As one of the dialogue’s interlocutors explains:

Why should the obsolete expect to live in conditions of opulence? It would be far more realistic to expect the abattoir.

Just as the intersection of two lines from the same side of a point after passing through the infinite suddenly finds itself again on the other side—or as the image from a concave mirror, after having gone off into the infinite, suddenly appears before us again—so grace returns after knowledge has gone through the world of the infinite, in that it appears to best advantage in that human bodily structure that has no consciousness at all—or has infinite consciousness—that is, in the mechanical puppet, or in God.

This is all a bit obscure, but I think what the dialogue means to say is this: Humanity was made in the image of God—that is a given. Thus, human beings are in some sense godly, although of course in a diminished way. While the intentional actions of human beings lack a divine grace, puppets, by contrast, unselfconsciously exhibit the grace of the infinite. Hence, an anthropomorphic puppet gives us a window into what God must be like—the human body as if it were divine.

And now we have one fairly compelling explanation of why the Cornish might want to commemorate their mining heritage by worshipping a puppet. The man-engine, on this theory, is acting as a sort of divinization of the Cornish miners’ labors and tradition. His body is that of a Cornish miner as if it were perfected, able to steam and mine for eternity without, say, getting tired, or getting blown up in an accident, or falling down a mineshaft—or, crucially, being overtaken by gains in efficiency brought about by globalization and technology. The man-engine is immune from the exigencies of economic fate that did in the real thing. Reports of the man-engine call to mind the legend of John Henry, the African American railroad worker who could beat a steam drill in a race. Only a worker so impossibly prolific could be certain that his job would never be lost to a machine. (Not that it did John Henry himself much good; in the story, he dies of a heart attack directly after beating the drill.) In short, the man-engine is Cornish mining rendered eternal, the county’s heritage written in the stars. Through the practice of worshipping the puppet, the Cornish people are able to experience this tradition anew.

From the Lives of Marionettes

But there is an unresolved tension here. Though puppets might well, if we follow Kleist, be considered superior to human beings because they lack reflective consciousness, it is worth asking how they accrue this gain. Puppets lack what Aristotle called anima—ensouledness. That means they also lack a principle of self-motion: anything that happens to a puppet does so as a result of forces external to it. A puppet therefore seems like a strange candidate for deification, particularly if the deity is supposed to shore up a human tradition against hostile external forces. A puppet requires human masters to animate it, and for this reason, it is essentially just as helpless as the humans are against any malign forces that might happen to beset their shared world.

What entity is like a puppet insofar as it gives us an image of the human body as if it were divine, but unlike a puppet insofar as it has self-motion? To my mind, this sounds like a description of an anthropomorphic robot. Robots, at a minimum, can move themselves without direct human input. Increasingly, of course, they can also design themselves, build themselves, and analyze their own systems—and in this way, robots are becoming increasingly ensouled.

The idea that robots might give us a window into the divine, or into our better selves, is not exactly new. In the 1560s, King Philip II of Spain commissioned the construction of a clockwork monk (the likeness of Diego of Alcalá, later known as St. Didacus) that would say endless mea culpa prayers to thank the Lord for saving his son Don Carlos from some life-threatening head injuries he had sustained after falling down the stairs. In early modern Catholic practice, quantity really did matter more than quality; one did not have to feel the prayer, but simply do it as often as possible. For this reason—as an insightful RadioLab documentary on the clockwork monk makes clear—the robot was a much more exemplary Catholic than any mere human could ever hope to be.

This point is echoed in similar stories from the Middle Ages of clockwork figures designed to exemplify various ideals of human practice. A version of the history of Troy, dating from the medieval period, counts among its wonders a room of golden automata perfectly enacting all the virtues of courtly behavior. Although this image is fictional, the intention of the room is clear: anyone could step into this hall of robots at any time, see what the figures were doing, and know exactly how he ought to behave.

Can we imagine, then, a world in which the man-engine would be not a giant mining puppet but a giant mining robot, striding around the landscape to demonstrate the activities of the Cornish tin miners forever of his own accord? Anyone could come to see him (or be visited by him) at any time and know exactly what it was to mine Cornish tin. His ministry would stitch Cornish tin mining into the fabric of the heavens. Perhaps the man-engine puppet is but a poor approximation of the giant robot that he always should have been.

But let’s not be so hasty. As we can see from all the overconfident, technophilic prophesies of a work-free human future, the robots—the automata—are precisely the problem here. They are the ones supplanting us; they are the ones robbing us of our function in the world. The puppets need us. The robots, by contrast, can discard us at any time—and as soon as they are fully entrusted with the guardianship of global capitalism, they probably will. In many ways, in fact, the present era of automation represents the transition from a puppet-centric paradigm of industrial technology to a robotic one. The old machines (steam-powered looms and so forth) were able to do things in excess of human workers, but they remained essentially tools—just like a puppet, they required human beings to operate them. They supplanted artisanal labor, but they gave the workers a fresh new function as their overseers. The new machines barely even need us to push a single button. This is “better,” from an engineering perspective—perhaps it’s also better if your analysis of labor remains rooted in problems pertaining to nineteenth-century factory production—but as I’ve claimed above, it also constitutes an existential threat.

The Hangman’s Metal Noose

Kleist’s dialogue already seems to herald this looming robotic age. “The last chapter of the history of the world,” one of his interlocutors declares in closing the exchange, is for mankind to “eat again from the tree of knowledge,” in order to “fall back again into a [more perfect] state of innocence.” Automated robotic technology is our latest—perhaps, indeed, our final—snack from the tree of knowledge. What, then, is the corollary state of innocence for this new conception of reengineered human grace?

The puppets need us. The robots, by contrast, can discard us at any time.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism? Maybe, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Total automation is more likely to lead to our removal from the world—a clearing of the cognitive slate that will render the human species obsolete. Over time, our “flawed” reflective consciousnesses will be replaced, in Stepford-style increments, as they succumb to “superior” robotic intelligences capable of performing their function perfectly, coping absorbedly into forever, the unconscious masters of all existence. This is, in fact, the perfect Hegelian end-of-history scenario. For Hegel, the “good” infinity with which history will end is characterized by the image of a closed circle—as opposed to its “bad” cousin, characterized by a straight line extended indefinitely. Good infinity, then, could mean robots contentedly performing their function over and over again on a loop; bad infinity means human lives lived as they are: uncertain, perennially dissatisfied, in an endless process of becoming.

It has always seemed strange to me that Hegel was, apparently, unable to see this final closed circle for what it really is: a hangman’s noose. Once we’re in it, it’s over—not just for us, but for everything. Reflective consciousness is intelligence that is aware of itself; were it to be removed, creation could not recognize itself as such anymore. Even if it remained self-regulating and self-analyzing, existence would have been utterly stupefied. Earth would be left a great metal planet where nothing ever happened, and the only prospect of anyone ever realizing this would be if a reflectively intelligent alien species were to discover it.

This is where Dreyfus, and the participants in Kleist’s dialogue, seem to have swerved badly off course. Yes, reflective consciousness can cause us all sorts of problems. It can make us clumsy and anxious—it is the source, that is to say, of our peculiar gracelessness. But it is also the most crucial thing, the very founding principle that makes it possible for our world to seem vibrant, important, beautiful, and valuable. Our capacity for self-reflection is what makes it possible for us to imagine that our world might amount to something more than the drudgery of merely being factually there, merely happening to be physically alive or in motion; it is the source, if nothing else, of human creativity. Thus, we must always grapple with reflective consciousness—and indeed, through its various divagations, no matter how provisionally self-undermining, clumsy, or exasperating it may otherwise seem. Trying to solve the problems triggered by reflective consciousness by eliminating it would be like trying to fix a leak in your roof by burning down the house. Tech gurus often say their innovations are making the world “smarter.” But in seeking to remove the human element of labor from the world, the heralds of automation are only spreading an idiot gospel.