[Humanist] 23.28 servants as automata

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu May 21 08:00:08 CEST 2009

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 28.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (24)
        Subject: why servants as automata

  [2]   From:    Neil Kelly <nkelly at teacher.uklinux.net>                   (12)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.27 servants as automata

  [3]   From:    Steve Jones <s3jones at comcast.net>                         (14)
        Subject: servants as automata

  [4]   From:    "Rabkin, Eric" <esrabkin at umich.edu>                      (169)
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.27 servants as automata

  [5]   From:    Igor Kramberger <k at aufbix.org>                            (13)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.25 servants as automata?

        Date: Wed, 20 May 2009 07:08:25 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: why servants as automata

Thanks for the several leads so far. But let me clarify my query about 
servants as automata. It's clear from Victorian British practices 
(brilliantly represented in Robert Altman's Gosford Park and well 
documented in the scholarship) that servants are seen as a function of 
the household for which they work and so are de-personalized in various 
ways -- by giving of names not their own, by dress and by rules of 
conduct. What I am looking for, however, is the specific equating of 
servants with automatic machines.

This is one half of the story. The other half is the identification of 
such machines, computers specifically, with the performance of drudgery, 
while humans are thus "liberated" to do what is considered higher or 
more noble work, or simply to think. The computer in this common 
imagining takes on the role of the servant.

On the conceptual level all this is fairly straightforward. But I want 
to find people making an *explicit* connection between living human 
beings in menial roles and machines, automata, computers.


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

        Date: Wed, 20 May 2009 10:51:36 +0200
        From: Neil Kelly <nkelly at teacher.uklinux.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.27 servants as automata
        In-Reply-To: <20090520054322.D331C8425 at woodward.joyent.us>


Regarding the representation of human servants as machines - there are  
many representations of soldiers as automata in film and literature -  
the military and civil service requirement that the individual act  
without fear of favor (administrative decisions preclude compassion)  
is caricatured as machine-like.  Durenmatt's essay/short-story "The  
Winter War in Tibet" has soldiers with heavy prosthetic parts.

Neil Kelly <nkelly at teacher.uklinux.net>
Aesch, 4147 Switzerland

home:	+41 (0)61 681 17 77
mobile:	+41 (0)79 227 40 78

        Date: Wed, 20 May 2009 07:08:55 -0500
        From: Steve Jones <s3jones at comcast.net>
        Subject: servants as automata
        In-Reply-To: <20090520054322.D331C8425 at woodward.joyent.us>

A parodic sketch from 1829 by Silver-Fork novelist T. H. Lister, "A  
Dialogue for the Year 2030," offers a steampunk science fictional view  
of the future, complete with mechanical hunting machines instead of  
horses--and an automaton "steam porter" at the door of a fashionable  
London Lady.




Steven E. Jones
Professor of English
Loyola University Chicago
sjones1 at luc.edu

        Date: Wed, 20 May 2009 09:59:25 -0400
        From: "Rabkin, Eric" <esrabkin at umich.edu>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.27 servants as automata
        In-Reply-To: <20090520054322.D331C8425 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

The whole field of puppetry plays at least unconsciously and sometimes consciously on the mechanical view of human beings.  Bergson's notion (in _Le Rire_) that the joke arises from the imposition of the mechanical on the animate (as in a pratfall) points to a sudden rebalancing of that relationship more toward the mechanical.  I take it, then, that you are not so much interested in the machine (mechanical) aspect of servants as in the more specifically automatic aspects of servants, as your header has it.  The sorcerer's apprentice (and the golem et al), it seems to me, raises an important question: how do we define "automatic"?  If free will is required for an automaton to be truly automatic, is an automaton still a machine?  If the machine has no free will, then can it be viewed fully as an automaton?

Example: I set my thermostat for a given temperature.  Without my further attention, it turns the air conditioner and the furnace on and off as needed.  Is the thermostat an automaton?  It makes decisions on its own but has no free will.

Is a roomba an automaton?  Not only does it navigate around furniture, it knows when to recharge itself and does so.  But while people would often call a roomba an automaton (and it is made by a company called iRobot), conceptually it is merely a complicated thermostat adjusting itself to predefined parameters.

Is the talking mirror in "Snow White" an automaton?  It is clearly an information servant, but we have reason to believe that its role in the story depends on its inability to lie.  Is that restriction a consequence of its nature or its social status as a servant, something built in (no free will) or something constantly imposed by the ongoing situation?

What is the difference between the ongoing situation being social (which makes a slave or servant a slave or servant) and asocial (like the ambient temperature changes activating the thermostat)?

My guess is that at least a good chunk of the issue you're pursuing may be amenable to exploration of a narrower question: what is the relation between nature and culture in our understanding of free will?  An excellent text in which to consider that is Asimov's _I, Robot_.  An older, comic example is Plappa, the out-of-repair robot mathematics teacher in Zamyatin's _We_.  That 1920 novel explores vividly the role of "fancy" or "imagination" (translations vary) in distinguishing a person (called a "Number" here and all Numbers are servants of the One State) from a machine.

The question of nature versus culture here may arise in a problem that flows from the inherent and necessary ambiguity of natural language.  Oracles say one thing but turn out to mean another which is equally well represented by the same phrasing.  For example, "You will kill your father and marry your mother" obviates Oedipus' free will because "father" and "mother" have both natural meanings (contributing gametes) and cultural meanings (raising a child).  Freed genies, as bound servants, grant wishes, but not necessarily wishes intended.  As Susan Calvin discovers in _I, Robot_, when it comes to robots, the key problem is properly formulating the instructions.  And this is true of dealings with servants.  The more precise one must be ("take a slice of bread and toast it at level 4 and then spread one-quarter ounce of butter on it and then bring it to me on a blue plate" as opposed to "bring me breakfast tomorrow after I shower"), the less valuable the machine as servant.  To put that another way, the less automatic, the less valuable.  But at what point does automatism become free will and the servant escape the world of machines (no matter its etiology) altogether?



Eric S. Rabkin                                       
Dept of English
Univ of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003

        Date: Wed, 20 May 2009 08:34:44 +0200
        From: Igor Kramberger <k at aufbix.org>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.25 servants as automata?
        In-Reply-To: <20090520054322.D331C8425 at woodward.joyent.us>

Good morning,

perhaps this could be useful for your purpose:


Look for: Olimpia as a woman, but it is automata.

Kind regards,

Igor Kramberger, raziskovalec-urednik

Koro'ska cesta 63, SI-2000 Maribor
pri Tom'si'c, Ulica Toma Brejca 11 a, SI-1241 Kamnik

Slovenija, Evropa

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