I’ve been obsessing over this book– Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life written by Gabby Wood (she has an article in The Guardian with the same title).
For the life of me, I don’t know if this is a work of fiction or not. It probably isn’t. I took it off a friend’s hands because he was clearing house, and automatons are interesting. Besides, I already live in the future. We’re surrounded by these thinking machines, and interconnected through this series of tubes. A man has base jumped from outer space! People can choose to either be cremated into trees, or cremated into diamonds when they die. It’s a brave new world out there.
So I thought it might be funny to read about ye olde robots.
It’s all incredibly interesting though. A bit creepy, but in a fantastic way. The building of automata was seen as part-artisanal, part-sorcery, with the tiniest dash of medicine thrown in. It wasn’t scientific in the sense that no one was building machines in the name of science. The goal was either to have machines replace manual production, or to amuse the gentry. Almost accidentally, it was sending the religious and existential into a tizzy over whether or not these machines were alive.
Humanity clings desperately unto the existence of the soul because without it, how are any of us different from machines? As in automata, the human is composed of numerous internal parts that operate automatically, like clockwork. Everything inside us is interconnected– without need of us being aware of how our blood flows, or what makes us break into sweat.
It’s a strange chicken-and-egg puzzle: if we can recreate life, does it cheapen our own? How are we different from our invention? If the human came before the automaton, does that make us superior to it? No, seriously: do we dare claim superiority by virtue of our chronology?
Because that sort of thinking can lead to a slippery-slope. Whether we subscribe to the Judeo-Christian version of events, or the evolutionary theory, humans do not come first in anything. And if we admit that we are not superior to any other living being, then how can we possibly justify our methodical killing of living things to feed our industries?
So, to make this easy on all of us, let’s just agree to have a soul. Just us. It’s still up for debate on whether or not animals have souls. And I think almost everyone agrees that plants don’t have souls. It also stands to reason, machines can’t have souls.
But what is the soul, exactly?
In 1773, France, the Flute Player was made. It’s an automata that plays the flute, but it wasn’t just a manikin with a music box in it. It had a bellows where its lungs should be, and air is expelled through the mouth and into the flute. Its mechanical fingers pressed on the instrument’s nodes. It played the flute.
Around 1770 in Germany, The Turk was unveiled. It was a mechanical chess player made to look like a Moor that caused a stir in Europe. It toured Europe like an 18th century robot rockstar, and defeated many human opponents. It’s still not quite clear how the Turk supposedly worked. If chess is supposedly a game of intellect, and this machine could curbstomp its human opponents, then this well and truly must be a thinking machine.
A machine that can make music, a machine that can think. Are these not the symptoms of having a soul? [Insert pre-emptive rebuttal against humans as beings that can think for themselves– for I’ve never quite met anyone who is wholly original, or has not in been influenced, or “programmed” into behaving the way they do]
But the best thing I’ve read in this book is about the Canard Digérateur — The Digesting Duck– made by Jacques de Vaucanson, the same guy who made the Flute Player.
It was insanely popular, this stupid duck. Vaucanson exhibited it all over. The duck could quack, flap its wings, and “eat” bread crumbs from someone’s hand. A few minutes later, the duck would shit. It was believable too, as the composition of the bread crumbs and the duck shit were empirically different.
Vaucanson claimed that he wished to replicate the duck’s digestive system. He said the duck robot had a small chemical pit in its stomach wherein it could “digest” the food before it expels it. It’s popularity probably stems from the fact that people would like to witness the wonder of a shitting robot duck (I know I would).
The truly amazing thing is that the robot duck had absolutely no need for digestion! It could not be more apathetic to the nutritional aspect of food. It did not have to eat nor shit, and yet it was created specifically for that function.
On the other hand, the digestive process is one of the basest necessities of being human. We kill for our right to consume, and then foul ourselves every day. These are functions that we have to satisfy in order to continue existing. Imagine what new heights we could rise to if we didn’t have to eat or shit or sleep! And here is an artificial duck, testament to the greatness of human ingenuity, trying to beat us at our own game despite the irrelevance of its function. It’s like a taunt, it’s brilliant.
I had a dream of getting this cross section of the Digesting Duck tattooed on the inside of my arm. It looks cool, plus its got an impressive story. But I’ve been obsessing about it and what it could mean.
Would it be a salute to the mad French clockmaker who dreamed of creating life– like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods? And in building the shitting duck, has he nailed down the very essence of what it means to have a soul?
Or would it be an admission of my redundance, of what this modern world has reduced us into? Working to live, and spending more than half our lives chained to professions that aren’t really necessary — no better than shitting ducks.
I don’t know. I have to think about it.