Academic journal article Style

Dead Technology

Academic journal article Style

Dead Technology

Article excerpt

For thousands of years, technology has been breaking.

I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind: I am like a broken vessel.

(Psalms 31:12)

Duke of Venice: Men do their broken weapons rather use

Than their bare hands.

(Shakespeare, Othello 1:3)

Corrections Officer (returning the possessions of Jake Blues on his release from Joliet Prison): One Timex digital watch--broken. One unused prophylactic. One soiled.

(Landis, The Blues Brothers)

For thousands of years, people have been dying.

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

(I Corinthians 15:22)

Lord Talbot: But kings and mightiest potentates must die

For that's the end of human misery.

(Shakespeare, Henry VI Part i, III.2)

Buffy: The world is what it is--we fight, we die. Wishing doesn't change that.

(Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Only recently, though, has technology begun to die.

Ferris (after his friend crashes his father's Ferrari): You killed the car.

(Hughes, Ferris Bueller's Day Off)

Chip Hazard (eulogizing a dead toy soldier): His battery is dead but his memory lives on.

(Dante, small soldiers)

My computer died last week.

If you think it's strange to talk about a computer dying, as if it were a living thing, that's probably because your computer is still alive. Mine's dead. Passed away. The Final Sign Off. Dragged to the Big Trash Can.

Tom McNichol, New York Times Service, Saturday, March 7, 1998

How can technology die? What is there about modern machines that causes them to deserve words usually reserved for living things? Do machines really die, or are we just saying that?

Common sense makes some clear distinctions in the areas of life and death. Something is either alive or it is not-alive. Among those things that are not-alive, any that used to be alive are called "dead." English has no clear word for the state of being neither alive nor dead ("inanimate" is about as close as it gets).

The role of machines in people's lives has evolved during this century. In 1921, Karel Capek coined the word "robot," derived from the Czech word for hard, menial labor, in his play R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots. In the 1950s, supercomputers were treated with the utmost respect by their white-lab-coated priesthood. These days, computers are commonplace and often take the place of companions as people sink vast quantities of time into computer games and the internet.

The words and metaphors that we use in referring to these machines reflect this shifting emphasis from menial labor to social acquaintance. When a laboring machine stops serving its purpose, it is broken. When a companion stops serving its purpose, it has died. Everybody knows that machines aren't alive. Nevertheless, modern machines interact with us on our own terms, by means of appropriate input and output devices and internal models of the world that resemble our own. Although they aren't alive, machines are now being endowed with the characteristics of living things to make them work more effectively in the service of human societies. As they become more familiar, machines are growing into the words that are reserved for people, pets, and other living things--"grumpy," "tired," "alive," "dead."

As a graduate student at the Massachussets Institute of Technology Media Lab working with Professor Bruce Blumberg in Synthetic Characters Group (http://characters.www.media.mit.edu/groups/characters/), I help design machines that resemble living things. By machines, I mean a wide range of technological products, from real objects to entire virtual worlds. Using the study of animal behavior as our model, we make autonomous virtual creatures who are able to sense things in their virtual world and combine these sensations with drives, motivations, and emotions in order to choose which actions to take at each moment (Blumberg 1996; Kline 1999). …

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