Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Magic Thinking


Cite this article:

Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference 2013.

I realize that there are a couple of things I wanted to do in this talk, but it requires a little bit of an explanation at the outset. This is a talk about how we make sense of the sociotechnical imagination. It is a term I promise that I will unpack. This is not a talk about ethnographic fieldwork. This is not a talk about product design or design thinking. This is however, for my mind, a piece of classic anthropological work. It is an intervention into how we think about and talk about products; our relationships to them, and the ways in which we choose to embrace them, resist them, break them, love them and make sense of them. It also takes as its starting point a kind of classic, I think, anthropological conversation which is about magic. It is kind of fun to be doing it in this building at this moment in time.

This is a talk in some ways influenced by people like James Frasier, who stood in this place nearly a hundred years ago and talked about magic and magical thinking. For me the book The Golden Bough is sort of what the inspiration for this talk is, of how we are thinking comparatively about different relationships to and with, and through technology.

There are lots of ways to introduce me. Simon did a very gracious and lovely one, thank you. I realize that the other way to introduce myself is also to say, again in the context of this building that I am the daughter of an anthropologist. I was raised by anthropologists. I was babysat by Derrick Friedman and I lived to tell the tale. Roger Keesing introduced me to drip coffee and chocolate chip cookies, things for which I remain grateful. I grew up in the ANU, and so the Australian National University in the 1970s and 1980s, while my mother was doing her fieldwork first in Indonesia and then in central and northern Australia.

I spent most of my early childhood living in Aboriginal communities in central and northern Australia with Aboriginal people who remembered the country before white fellows came, and who at the drop of a hat would take my brother and I out of the settlement and onto their country and teach us all of the really important lessons. I learned about what it is that informs Aboriginal spirituality and Aboriginal thinking, but I also learned a series of deeply pragmatic things like how to get water out of frogs—something that I have yet to actually exercise! It is never necessary in London. I also know the difference between a snake hole and a lizard hole and which one you should put your hand down for dinner.

I had a childhood where I was surrounded by anthropologists. My mother jokes that I was kicked out of my first anthropology class when I was four-and-a-half. It turned out that I could work out what a matrilateral cross-cousin marriage looked like and none of the grownups could. I was consigned to the corridor for the rest of my mother’s first semester of anthropology, but it means that people like Evans-Pritchard and Boas and Frasier and Levi Strauss were the names that decorated my childhood. It was an unexpected thing that brought me to the technology industry. Many of you know that that was never my intention. I thought that I would be a professor. I thought that I would teach the things that I had worked on—Native American studies, feminist theory, query theory, a bit of critical race theory thrown in for fun and good measure. As one can imagine, that hardly predisposes one to end off in a tech field.

In true Australian fashion, and I know that there is at least one other Australia in the room—Aaron where are you? Thank you. Oh, there may be others, but in true Australian fashion I met a man in a bar in Palo Alto in 1998 and he changed my life. For Americans I usually need to hasten to add that I did not marry him, nor have a sexual relationship with him, nor procreate with him, because that is often the understanding of changing one’s life in that context.Instead he asked me what turned out to be an incredibly important question. He said to me, “What do you do?” I told him that I was an anthropologist. He said, “What’s that?” I had had at least one beer, and so I told him what that was with some enthusiasm and vigor. He said to me, “What do you do with that then?” I said that I was a professor at Stanford, which was true. He said, “Huh.” There was kind of a pause which was kind of unexpected, right? Usually, a professor at Stanford stops most conversations in Silicon Valley. He said, “But you could do more.” I was kind of like what on earth does that mean? It was an extraordinary moment to realize what more might look like.

Ultimately, it led me to join Intel where I have now been for 15 years, as of last Monday. In my time at Intel, I have had the experience of working with a number of people in this room. It is nice to see many of you again. My job there has always been about two things. One of them has been to do the work that many of us in this room do—classic ethnographic research and bring the insights of that research into the company and use it to shape product direction, innovation—and then to shape the work that Intel does.But there is a second part of my job, and ultimately I think in recent years it has become the more important part of my job, which is also having a conversation about technology. It is not just about what it is that we value as human beings, but how it is that we make sense of technology. Increasingly, I think that part of the job of those of us who have the backgrounds that most of us in this room do—at least in the technology field but I would argue more broadly—is that we have a responsibility to shape the conversation in which we talk about the future; in which we talk about the work that technology does, and in which we talk about things like big data. Tricia did a lovely job of unpacking that earlier this week. For me that work of thinking about the stories we tell, it is about informing them through, for me, ethnography and anthropological theory but also about taking kind of a stand about what the future stories are that we want to tell.

For me, that is about this notion of how we chat and unpack the sociotechnical imagination. William Gibson, a really quite well-known science fiction author had this piece on Twitter two days ago, which I thought was a stunning line. He said that he woke up from a dream that seemed to have taken place entirely in Google Maps street view. One wonders if he meant a dream or a nightmare, but we all know what that feels like, right?

There is something here about what it means to have a man whose work frankly has shaped a whole lot of our imaginings of technology over the last thirty years—to admit that he too is being shaped by the technology around him and that it influences him. It is that dialectic between the technology; the ways that we talk about it; the way that it infectively becomes a reinforcing circle, that for me is what I want to unpack here. Frankly, that is I find something I cannot stop thinking about and talking about.

This really came home to me explicitly two years ago. Now, I get to talk about a Furby in the Royal Institute! It may not ever be any better than that, which is sort of sad. Two years ago this video turned up on YouTube. It is a Furby—most of you remember those, right—yes, talking about Apple Siri. This was done when the Apple Siri launched. I know, splendid. It is 47 seconds long. It is the best bit of video in history as far as I am concerned. The Furby does what Furbies do. I have discovered that given my cold, I kind of actually make the Furby noise. But you know when the Furby goes “eh, eh, eh, eh, eh?” Yes, the Furby does that and the Siri says, “Would you like me to call Shell Oil?” The Furby then blinks and wiggles her ears and goes la, la, la, la, la.” The Siri says, “I cannot find Graham in your address book.” It’s 47 seconds of recursive splendor, right?

I watched this a number of times unable to work out why I was so smitten with it. Slowly it dawned on me that part of what was fascinating about this was precisely the work it was doing of telling a story about our relationships with technology. I realize that it in fact was not just telling a story, but it was playing out three distinct and discrete stories of genealogies of technology. The first one is an obvious one. It’s a kinship diagram. This is grandpa talking technology talking to baby talking technology. Frankly, the Furby was one of the first digital technologies that talked—you know, not particularly well or informatively, but it did talk. And the serious clue then the most recent generation. One, it was simply kinship, right? A relationship of talking things.

The second thing I realized about it is that this is also a kinship diagram in the more archeological sense, so a tree of humanity kind of diagram where effectively what you have is the Neanderthal talking to Homo sapiens, because there were series of kind of significant technical evolutions that are happening here—where these are very different objects in a lineage that is not a straightforward relationship. Part of what it is here is that there is an evolution happening. That for me turned out to be really important. The evolution here is from a talking object to a talking and listening object. The fact that what the Siri proposes to do, as incompletely as it does to listen, suggests a complete shift in what it means to have objects with voice. Suddenly it is not just talking; it is also listening. I got unnecessarily excited about this, I have to say. I subjected this to many of my colleagues at Intel with a great deal of again, possibly overexcited enthusiasm. I kept saying to them, “I don’t think that you understand.” This is this really important moment. If objects can listen to us, genuinely listen to us and respond to us, it suggests and signals to me that we are moving from human-computer interaction to human-computer relationships.

The relational piece is really interesting. The promise of listening is the promise of more than just talking. It is the promise potentially of care, of attention, of reciprocity. Many things are built into that. I said this to the engineers with whom I work quite closely, and to a person they all said to me, “No.” I’m like what do mean, no? They’re like listen, if the machine can listen to us and then talk to us and we are going to have a relationship with it—you know what happens next? I’m like yes, it’s going to be great! Nurture, care, reciprocity, trust. They are like no, death. What do you mean, death? They’re like listen, if they are capable of having a relationship with us, the next thing they’ll do is they will kill us. Somehow my seemingly rational engineers had gone from this happy Furbies to this voice recognition technology to this. I was like wow, and they had done it like that!

I suddenly realized that this single piece of video was actually telling a different story. The genealogy here, the sociotechnical imagination that it was implicating was actually one of extraordinary fear. The notion of having devices in our lives that knew us, that could converse with us, that might be on a par with us—was a narrative that instantly evoked fear. I was like where the hell does that come from?

What I want to do now is walk you through for me how I think we make sense of where that fear comes from, about why one of the threads we have for talking about our relationships for technology is a thread riven through with fear. It starts with this: it starts with the death of magic, which commences early in the 1500s in the West. It abruptly comes to an end in 1636, or maybe early 1637 depending on whom you are listening to.

It is all tied up with the death of what I want to call here magic. I mean it in the classic anthropological sense. I mean, magical thinking. I mean the things that you cannot see, the things that are unexplained, and a desire for there to be things that are invisible—and at some level wonderful and terrifying all at the same time.

The first thing that happens starting in many different places and many different times, but really kind of increasing its acceleration in the 12th and 13th centuries is the appearance of abilities to start thinking about time—not as a discrete, tacit, fluid, localized object—but a thing that could be monitored and measured. That starts to happen with the appearance of mechanized clocks that started to be things that you could put on display in large public places; the effective creation of time as a measure; as a thing that had 24 increments that could be recorded and notified, which really starts to happen in the 1300s and 1400s in Europe.

Mostly, those clocks appear first in religious settings. Unsurprisingly, they become a way of organizing religious time—time to pray, time for rest, time to pray again. First, there are clock towers in those churches. The bells ring and many of us recognize those sounds. They move from churches into public squares, where again the clocks start to demarcate time. We start to have things that happen at certain times of the day. If you are in a town anywhere in most of Europe by the 1400 and 1500s, if you were in sight of that town, you could hear the clock going. You knew what the time was by the sound in the air.

By the middle of the 1500s however, a really important transition happened. It has to do with this: there was the creation of the watch with an ability to carry time with you. You no longer needed to be inside of a church. You no longer needed to be in a town hall. Time followed you. Wherever you went, you could pull time out of your pocket and know what the time was. We now move from 1530 into the early 1600s where firstly, you can imagine that it is only people with real wealth who have these objects. The distribution of them follows the distribution of many other objects. Once one person has them, other people could be near the person who has them and are also starting to be regulated by this thing called time. The first part of the death of magic is that suddenly the world gets structured and divided and measured, and that measurement is carried with us and written on our bodies.

The second thing that happens starting in 1607, really in 1608, though, depending on where you sit in Europe you will argue this timeline—Galileo capitalizes on some work that was done in a few other places in Europe, and is known to have quote, unquote “invented” the telescope. What does the telescope let us do effectively? It puts us in our place in the world. I mean, this is the moment when we discover that the earth is not the center of the universe. This didn’t necessarily go terribly well for Galileo. We know that took a while to sort that one out, and it was probably not a good look for him.

But the decentering of a theory that said the earth was in the middle of everything, the appearance of effectively the way we now understand our universe—that we are a piece of a much larger puzzle. It is the second hugely important thing. Suddenly, the earth is not the center of everything. It is the piece of a much larger puzzle.

Galileo’s work with lenses makes possible a third really important thing in the early 1600s, that also starts to change the way that we start to think about the world. It is the invention of the microscope. Sometime in the 1620s and 1630s, there were a number of these floating around Europe. Galileo is again implicated in the invention of this, or at least its naming and its first real uses. He takes a telescope, inverts it, and uses it to inspect the closest anyone had ever seen at that point of the pieces of an insect. He started to realize that insects had divisible, knowable, manageable, observable pieces. The microscope is used throughout the 1600s to start to reveal that all of these objects around us actually have visible and manageable pieces that can be understood that are workable. All of these things that seemed to be in some ways operating through things that we did not understand, you could now see them.

Time gets structured. Space gets structured, and the world around us now has a whole set of ways where we see it completely differently. Of course, in 1636-1637, Descartes puts forward what has to be the single most important, in some ways, proposition for the commencement of the scientific revolution. He declares that “I think, therefore I am.” Effectively, what makes us human is our cognitive capacity. It is our capacity for rational thinking and rational thought.

There are lots of ways of putting these things together, but for me the watch, the microscope, the telescope, and this moment all do one thing and one thing only—they effectively kill magic. They also at a different level, and I don’t mean this as a provocation although it will sound like it, but they effectively also kill God. This is the beginning of the scientific revolution. This is the beginning of a very particular move in the post-Enlightenment tradition in the West—explicitly—to have a notion about the way that the world works where we now have the tools to inspect it at every level from the macro to the micro. It becomes about all the things that we can see and make sense of, and it becomes about the ordering of the world. Think of all the typologies that followed with lots of institutionalizing of order and of rigor, the things that appeared magical are now knowable. They become phenomena. There in fact becomes effectively a scientific enterprise explicitly designed to go work out those things that appeared as magic, to go and work out what the magic was. All of it could be written and made into a rigorous set of rules about the world, and so you have the death of magic.

Unsurprisingly, you have simultaneously the birth of fear. A fear that today means we think anything intelligent that is not us, could kill us, which tells us something again about Descartes here. When Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am,” what he sets up in the Western tradition is that it is our cognitive capacity that makes us special. As soon as anything else has cognitive capacity, nothing good can come of it apparently, because it will kill you. How did we get here? Well, it is actually quite simple. It is good that I can say that. It is quite simple and it starts with this.

It turns out that in the 1600s and in the early 1700s, the watchmakers of Europe suffering from a problem that is not unfamiliar to those of us who work in the tech industry. They had sold as many watches and clocks to as many people as they possibly could. They had basically maxed out their marketplace. There were a lot of them because it was a good trade to be in, and they had lots of watch parts. They were left going well, basically sh—t, we have made all the watches and clocks there are. What do we do now? It turns out that once you know how to make small mechanical things, you can do a lot with it.

Starting in the 1600s, but really coming to the fore in the 1700s, many effectively guild workers, mostly Huguenot in origin, started to make automatons, and so they took what they knew to make clocks and turned them into mechanical objects. Arguably, one of the most famous and certainly my very favorite is this one here. This is by a man named Jacques de Vaucanson. This is called—watch me do my very bad Australian accent around French—Canard Digérateur or Digesting Duck. Lots of automatons in this period. They do all kinds of things—small children that play musical instruments, things that write poetry, the Mechanical Turk is clearly a very famous one; although the Mechanical Turk was less automaton and more slide of hand, because it actually worked by getting small people who could play chess backwards. That was a necessity to stick it inside the box to make the Mechanical Turk work. It was not an automaton, but interesting nonetheless. 

This one however is astonishing, because this is the first time that people start to work out that you could use mechanical objects to make things that looked real. This Digesting Duck is as real as it gets. Now, I know that Simon made you put up your hands for other things, but how many people in this room have actually been near ducks? Good. I asked this in California recently, and there was one person in a room of two hundred. It was like I had to do a whole duck explanation that I never thought I would have to do. It is very strange!

All right, there are a couple of things about ducks. They have bills and the bills clatter. This was news in California. “Clank, clank, clank go the bills.” This duck, its beak clattered. It waddled because it had a mechanical thing in it. That was excellent. It had two more truly astonishing innovations, this particular duck—you could feed it. Its mouth opened. When it came near you, you stuck pellets in its mouth. It waddled away very happily as ducks do and then it digested.

Vaucanson is actually the first person to have a commercial application for vulcanized rubber, which had just appeared in Europe at this point. He went ooh, that would be excellent! He tried to make an adjusting track for this duck using metal. It rusted, which that was not particularly effective. He put vulcanized rubber in this duck. As the duck waddles after you have stuck the pellets in its mouth, you can hear it digesting. It gurgles which is totally excellent. Now, those of you who have been around ducks, which is by my reckoning two-thirds of the room, know what happens next. This duck sh—t across the stages of Europe. You put food in its mouth. It digested the food, and sh—t came out behind it.

Now, Vaucanson could not actually solve the problem of creating the digestion, and so he actually precached the sh—t in the duck which is genuinely fabulous. He actually had to go and collect duck sh—t, stick it in the duck so that there was genuine duck poop coming out from this duck. How could this not be a delight? This was indeed a delight! This captured the imagination of European royalty the world over.

Voltaire, in one of his probably less well-known lines declared that without this duck there was no glory for France. I don’t know if this says more about France or Voltaire or this duck, but frankly, very important—the thing about this duck that is fascinating and what it signals the beginning of is an attempt to make life. The thing about this duck was its high, high attention to simulacrum. It was really trying to be as duck-like as you could be. It did all the ducky things. Now, the fact that it was gold and shiny is a different problem. It was duck-like. The capacity to make things that appeared real is the beginning of where the fear comes from. If we can make machinery that starts to resemble life, where does that lead us.

Well, in one direction it leads us to this. It is fascinating to be here frankly, at this moment in time, because we are on the 200th anniversary of this. You go from making automatons, and Vaucanson himself went from making automatons to making looms—and from making looms we know what happens next. We are sitting on the end of the 200-year anniversary of the end of the Luddite Revolution here in England. The introduction of spinning looms into the mills of England creates, as most of you know, a moment of political and labor upheaval where for many laborers and workers in this country machinery threatened livelihoods and their sense for their capacity to make a living. The machines came along and basically threatened to replace them, replace the work that they could do.

Most of you know the story, but starting in 1812 here in England a number of workers formed effectively a secret revolution to destroy the looms as best they could; to break into the factories and destroy the machinery in the hope of stopping this kind of encroachment on their work and on their livelihoods. There are a number of things that happened in this period that I think are relevant to how we think about all of these technologies.

The first was that they knew full well that what they were doing was an incredibly dangerous act. They also knew that in order to inspire people you needed to have someone to lead a charge. They knew that if they put a real person in charge, that person would be in incredible danger. They invented a character to lead the revolution. They called him Ned Ludd. They situate him in Robin Hood’s Cave in Sherwood Forest, because the Sherwood narrative and the Robin Wood narrative had just come back into vogue. Ned Ludd issues a series of manifestos from Robin Hood’s cave to galvanize workers and laborers all over England. Those narratives appear in two places in particular. One is that all the doings of the Luddites gets reported on page three of The Times of London. Everyone is reading it, or at least the literary community is reading it.

For those who didn’t have a subscription, however, they also worked out that if you sang songs and songs were encoded—how to break into a factory and how most effectively to smash the looms—those songs would move, too. The songs of the Luddites were sung in the pubs in Southern England and sung all the way up the coast so that all the stories of how to break into the factory; what hammers were the most effective, and then where the looms most vulnerable were moved. Basically, they were like viral videos before we had the Internet. You have this incredible period of attempting to destroy machinery, because the machinery is attempting to displace a number of things that appear very threatening.

Lord Byron, who figures into this story more than he should, gave his maiden speech in Parliament in 1813 in defense of the Luddites and argued that they were the last kind of bastion of an England that was dying. They were the ones that would defend the romantic ideals of what England should be. They were standing against the dark satanic mills. They were this kind of moment of glory.

Now, most of you know that this story doesn’t end well by the Luddites. By this period of time 200 years ago, breaking into factories and destroying machines had been made into an offense that was punishable by execution or transportation to Australia. I’m surprised how many people picked execution! But those who didn’t came to Australia and we find ourselves as Australians at least deeply grateful, because they brought with them what were effectively the seeds of the labor movement that has been very powerful in Australia. But you go through this period of smashing looms, which this was kind of everywhere and you couldn’t miss it.

This is hugely important, because as it was happening there was a young girl of about 15 when the labor disputes broke out, whose father was a principle historian already in The Times starting to write about those labor disputes. She listens to people talk about it around her dining room table. She heard stories of those disputes. When she wasn’t listening to that, she was letting her slightly older boyfriend drag her around London to see experiments in early electricity. She missed Faraday, because this is ten years beforehand.

She did see scientific experiments; she saw vivisections being done, and she saw people trying to reanimate frogs using electricity. She saw many other things in the time period. In the summer of 1816, and so three years after the Luddites—she runs away with this boyfriend to Europe on a trip paid for and organized by Byron because he is everywhere. Anyway, Byron is off in Europe with his friend’s girlfriend who is this young girl—this young girl’s half-sister as well as Byron’s doctor. If this starts to sound like Keeping up with the Kardashians, you are not wrong. This is frankly the celebrity culture of the period, and it was every bit as naughty as we have now. The fact that one of Byron’s estranged lovers once described him as mad, bad, and dangerous to know, which sounds like a remarkably modern epitaph which was actually authored in about 1817.

Here he is in Switzerland with this entire party. He declares himself one evening to be frightfully, frightfully bored, in the way I feel that only the English aristocracy probably could and he says, “You must all now go and write a story to entertain me.” They did which is kind of amazing. Off they go. That night three troops get birthed that still shape our fear narratives today—not necessarily our relationship to technology, but our fear narratives. Byron’s doctor writes the first vampire story. This young woman’s half-sister who is trying to have a not really successful affair with Byron writes the first zombie story. This young girl, you know who she is.

This is Mary Shelley. She writes Frankenstein . The Frankenstein story of course is a story about a lot of things, but it is at its core a moral play. It is a moral story about the consequences of man attempting to make life—of Dr. Frankenstein taking a body, stitching it together and animating it with what was arguably the most important technology of the 1800s—electricity. This thing springs to life and attempts to do what? Well, it attempts to become human. It runs around studying people peering through holes in walls to attempt to work out what makes us us. It attempts to be human, of course, and ultimately fails and we reject it. It tries to kill us. Right there is borne the notion of “if we make something and it gets intelligent enough, it will try to kill us.”

This is one story, it has never been out of print since. It is one of the first things that was made into movies. It has had multiple stage plays. It has had television shows, and it has been in cartoons. Much like the Luddites, which we also use to talk about our relationship with technology, we talk about things as being Frankenstein-esque, i.e., cobbled together, doomed, not a good look. Here we have this kind of sense already of weaving things together, and already 200 years ago of where the narrative of fear comes from. It does not stop there, because that would be a depressing story if it did. It just gets worse.

Byron had a complicated relationship with his daughter and with his daughter’s mother who decided that Byron was a bad influence. The chances are that she probably was not wrong. She decided to raise this child as arguably one of the first children of the modern era. This child was a scientific experiment, Ada Lovelace and it ended nearly as poorly. She let this child have no access to art, no access to poetry. She was kept away from painting and literature. She was raised on a steady diet of science and mathematics. She had a mathematics tutor. She had language tutors. She had a science tutor, and she was incredibly gifted. She showed extraordinary promise. She married young and continued to move around English society and high society.

She befriended a man called Charles Babbage, who was nothing if not kind of a bit of a mover and shaker. He was a bit of a kind of player and a huge gambler. He was also a man who collected automatons because all of these stories loop around on themselves, and then a man who at least on paper invented the first computer. This in fact, the Difference Engine. This was a first attempt to use the technology of looms to create abstractions, to basically go from straightforward information to a layer of abstraction. He built half of one of these. It sat in his dining room. He had a naked dancing silver automaton next to it. He would hit people up for money to try and build out the rest of it. He published a series of papers about this. They caught the attention of many of the intelligentsia in England at the time—and notably this young woman. She went well, if you could do that, that is all really interesting. Effectively, you are going to need a program to take advantage of it.

Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace is the first programmer. She is the first person to work out that computation which was all really well and good, but you needed to do it in the service of something. This moment here of being able to say that you could abstract information, that you could take the technology of automatons and looms and start to say that maybe you could make what out of it? A brain? Sense? An abstraction? You know where this is going. It takes a while. This is in the 1850s, 1856 to be precise.

You do not actually get to the real potential of what this might be until World War II. Flash forward to Bletchley Park, to the enigma, to the code breakers of England, and to the mathematicians who went “how on earth do we brute force this code breaking? We need something.” They look back to Babbage and they look back to this piece of technology. They start to invent the beginning of the computing that we understand today.

There was a young man that was involved in that effort, hugely important also to our fear of the moment. He was born in Orissa, India to English parents. He was sent back to England to go to school. He was an awkward, incredibly smart, an incredibly socially uncomfortable man. He turned out to be an incredibly gifted mathematician and ended up at Bletchley Park. In some ways, he is not unreasonably given enormous credit for breaking codes and for the work that he did there. He was also, I think, incredibly awkwardly in the 1940s and 1950s in Britain—gay . This had huge consequences for him in the work that he was doing. He was caught in a compromising situation immediately after the war and was offered some choices about how he wanted to handle it. He first chose was to be mediated with hormones to stop his quote, unquote “unnatural” impulses. Ultimately, he decided that that really was not for him. The British government stripped him of his security clearance. They stripped him of his access to Bletchley Park and all the work he had done before and sent him into exile to Manchester. I am sorry for those of you who are from Manchester. You did not realize that you were exiled. In the 1940s, late ones you were, they sent him there and told him that he couldn’t work on any of the things he had been working on.

In some ways, he became a theoretical computational person at that point. His most important article, at least from where I sit at this point in this field, is one that was published in 1950. It had the title: Can a Machine Think? Now, talk about a provocative question. As soon as you ask the question, you have to presuppose the answer yes. In this article he spells out a test to prove whether a machine is thinking or not. We know this test because it’s called the Turing test, because this is of course Alan Turing’s life story. The Turing test presupposes that the test will be passed so that the machine would have been able to think when it passes a simple test. There is a wall. On one side of the wall there is a machine and a human being. On the other side of the wall there is another human being. When the human being asking the questions, the interrogator, can no longer tell what is on the other side of the wall—cannot tell the difference between the machine and the person—the Turing test would be passed. Now, the Turing test has not yet been passed.

The closest we have come is with machines that were either programmed using dialogue from schizophrenics, which is really interesting. As long as it didn’t seem rational, you actually got somewhere interesting for the human on the other side. Of course, what that also starts to set up is again this kind of reification of the notion that what makes us human and what would make a machine like us—is it if thought like us. Effectively, here is it that if it has our cognitive capacity than it is like us.

Of course, for those of you who did not know Turing, you know this test but from a slightly different angle. An American science fiction writer working in this moment took this article and turned it into what has to be one of the more famous novellas, because it bookends one of the more famous movies that also sets in play our fears of technology. The novella is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The movie is Blade Runner. The author is Philip K. Dick. He understood full well that it was not about whether machines would think. He reasonably assumed given where he was sitting in the world, machines were going to think. A much more interesting question was “were they going to feel?” If they felt what would they have felt? If machines could have emotions and memories and feelings, what would that make them? For Philip K. Dick, unlike Turing, he understood that what made us human was our capacity for emotions and memory—and a whole life that was neither rational nor objective. It was the subjective landscape that would be more interesting.

You have building here very clearly across this sort of trajectory a story about fear. The fear is about objects that might replace us, and objects that threaten what makes us distinctively us. Nearly 400 years ago the stake that we put in the ground—at least in the West or at least in the post-Enlightenment period—was that what made us human was our capacity to think. As the machines get closer and closer to thinking, the anxiety ratchets up. We get to think that somehow Furby-Siri-Terminator is a reasonable sequence. When we all know that that is kind of a cuckoo-bananas sequence. You can do that kind of stretch, right? For me you kind of go okay, well that is where fear comes from. I have to wonder about where wonder might go.

I am inclined to think that as human beings we are oriented to it. We kind of like it. I have to imagine that it is possible to have technology without fear, and without the sense that it is going to kill us, and so where do you go looking for that? Well, if you take the kind of Frazer The Golden Bough approach you get out of the West almost immediately. You do the kind of classic neo-orientalizing that anthropologists like, or you kind of go that there are probably some other people who think differently. We should go and find them.

Here is my move to say that it turns out that whole fear of machines is deeply rooted and embedded in a post-Enlightenment West, Cartesian idea of “I think, therefore I am.” It turns out that if you go into other places, there are already completely different ideas about machinery.

In Islam there are two very famous books, one written in 850 A.D. by Banu Musa, and so three Persian brothers who were engineers wrote a book called The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which is an excellent name. It is full of genuinely ingenious mechanical devices. And then in 1206 A.D., that book was updated and edited by a man named Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari who included a whole new set of mechanical devices in this. Mostly, not yet working out the mechanisms that we would see in mechanical clocks, but starting to use springs and gears and levers to make objects come to life. There is a series of them that are really quite famous. They mostly have to do with these objects here, which are these enormous clocks. We are talking about 10-15’ high, huge movements of water, elephants appeared, dragons appeared. I mean, they were quite a spectacle, but in these there are also a series of other objects that are really important.

Both al-Jazari and Banu Musa created a series of birds and the birds were for participation in Salat. Five times a day in Islam when you pray you should wash your hands and your feet before you go to the mosque, before you pray. They created a series of birds that when you tipped them over, water came out of their mouths or water came out of their heads. They were exquisite objects. They are clearly designed to be a part of a ritual landscape. They are not like anything that exists before, because whilst it is true that ducks do sh—t when they wander around, peacocks do not pour water out of their mouths when you tip them upside down. There was very much a sense here of playing with the possibility of things and not the literal trajectory of them. You already start to see here that with these ingenious mechanical devices there is no notion that they are replacing what we can do, or what objects did. It was not about simulacrum; it was about grace.

The much better, I think most extraordinary example of this, because it does borrow literally and directly on the Huguenot watch parts actually comes from Japan. The surplus of clocks in Europe, clocks get shipped all over the place where a bunch of clocks from Switzerland and France end up in China. They go from China to Japan. In Japan they are immediately dismantled in a kind of reverse-engineering with which we are somewhat familiar. They are immediately dismantled and they try to work out what makes them interesting.

There are a series of fascinating engineer kind of mechanics in this period, one in particular who got really interested with the mechanics inside clocks and created a series of objects on the basis of them. This is his most famous. This is a teacup, karakuri. For karakuri there is no word in English for it, but basically in English it literally translates to a trickster or a trickster figure, which is interesting. Also, sometimes in the literature these are sometimes called automatons or robots. Basically, this one here is tiny. It is about this big. Again, it is not really shaped like anything that we know, because there is not much that is this big. It has a little teacup in its hand. You put tea in its hand. When it has got weight in the cup, it runs across the tabletop. When you pick up the teacup, it run back across the tabletop. It is kind of excellent, right? It was motivated by a whale bone. The guy who built them actually had an entire book of diagrams, and so I think like blueprints. This one is actually not an original. It is built from this blueprint by [Masahiro] students in Japan. It took them ten years to work out how to get from that to that, but it does run across the table and deliver tea. It is kind of fabulous.

Again, this is not replacing something. There were not little people that you stuck on tabletops and they ran across tables in Japan. This is not kind of the experience of the landscape here. What you have instead is making an object that is about grace, about a ritual. It is a ritual that is a hugely important ritual of sociality, of relationality, of righteousness—of beauty—and here you have created a piece of technology that fits into it.

Those same pieces of technology passed down through the ITO period, by the 1820s you have the arrival of mechanization brought directly from England to Japan at the behest of the Chinese emperor. Some of the figures who mechanized the factories in England go with the machinery to Japan. There is no destruction of the machinery. There is a very different embrace for better or worse of industrialization, such that by the contemporary period we see a completely different orientation to machinery.

I was in Tokyo about a year ago with some colleagues of mine. We were driving in one of the prefectures outside of Tokyo. I saw this sign out of a window. Like the good anthropologist that I am, I got out of a moving vehicle to photograph this sign—much to the horror of the people who were with me. It’s like they stopped the car. “Are you okay?” I am like oh, my God, what is this? They’re like what? What is this? They’re like it’s a sign. I’m like yeah, I know that. It’s like a totally excellent sign. I must photograph it from like seven different angles. The car is like what is your problem? I’m like what does it say? They’re like it says that it’s a robot zone. I’m like oh, my God! Okay, because I’m realizing that it’s going to be one those conversations that possibly goes on longer than you want. I was thinking well, what does it say? They said, “Well, it says that it is a robot zone. It’s an autonomous robot zone; that there robots two meters in from the curb.” I’m like what robots? They’re like autonomous robots. Like what are they doing? They’re like two meters in from the curb being autonomous. I’m like okay, but aren’t you concerned? They’re like no, that is what the sign is here for. I’m like who belongs to the robots? They’re like they’re autonomous. Doesn’t that mean the same thing? They’re saying, “Yes.” I’m like but about the robots—we have those moments where as an anthropologist you realize that you are having a cross-cultural encounter that is going poorly. I stopped and said, “Okay, were I in America I think that they would find this sign troubling. They’re like oh yeah, that’s because they think that the technology will kill them in America. That is just science fiction. Here in Japan the robots are our friends. I’m like excellent.

They proceeded to unpack this for me. It was a series of people who were various different ages who talked about growing up with comic books with friendly robots and with technology as part and parcel of what it means to be a progressive nation; of what it means to be a modern nation; of technology as being suffused with its own, in this case, autonomy where the robots can be perfectly well trusted to run around two meters in from the curb being autonomous doing God knows what! No one was concerned. I remember thinking ah, okay, technology doesn’t always have to equal fear.

There are a whole series of other ways of making sense of this here, if you don’t believe that your entire humanity is tied up in your capacity to be autonomous and sentient, cognitive beings. You can share the sidewalk, albeit with guidance with technology. It got me thinking of are there other points in Western tradition where there is also at least part and parcel what is going on? There are pieces of it. There are moments when as technologies have sparked into life, we are extraordinarily enamored with them. The moments in the U.S. and in the U.K. when electricity was first introduced and we went through a period of visiting electricity—when people took buses from the Midwest of the United States to New York to see electricity—they literally went to visit Broadway to see electricity. That line about the lights on Broadway was a true and literal thing. The same in the U.K., people went to visit electricity. You went to go see it.

Unsurprisingly, right? It’s kind of a hard sell. If you’re an electricity company you’ve got a bit of a hard life here. You’re like here, I have this great infrastructure and it’s got one killer wrap. That killer wrap is a light bulb and you’re going to love it. Everyone is going, you know, I’ve got windows and gas—and candles. I’m not sure that I need this light bulb thing. It became very much a “how do you make a spectacle out of electricity.” How do you capture the extraordinary magic that really did exist for people when a light bulb flicked on. There was something quite amazing about that moment.

My favorite of all the stories about this comes from Niagara in New York. The man who owned the electricity plant there had electrified all of the businesses in town. He had a surplus of electricity. He was like, we must engage people with this electricity thing. He couldn’t very well bus them all to New York, because that kind of defeated his purpose. He decided that he would hold parties at his house to demonstrate electricity—a big house, old house, wooden floor on the first floor. He lays into the wooden floor a little tiny metal track, much like this black line here. It went all the way around the first floor of his house. He invited all the big names in town to come and visit.

On the night of this party, he hired much like Simon does, nice young people. He mostly just hired young women—not Simon obviously, but the man in Niagara. He took these nice young women and he put skates on their feet. He clamped them into this metal track. You should be able to know where this is going. He stuck light bulbs in their hands and he ran an electrical current through them. Yes, he lit them up. We are not talking about a contemporary current. There is relatively or just enough to light up little light bulbs, and to give you a little bit of static cling, which I am sure was very attractive. For an entire evening you had young women skating around the party—I know, how can you not be mesmerized by that—with little tiny light bulbs in their hands. They were wonderfully called the electric fairies which has got to be the best thing ever. It ought to be a line on your resume. What else can you do? “I can program, and I was once an electric fairy.” It’s like go. 

This particular notion about electricity, as a thing of beauty and a thing to be admired, it goes on in many other ways. Mary Astor had herself made a dress entirely of light bulbs and so light bulbs sewn up the entire front of the dress. During the Christmas season she would answer her front door in Manhattan standing on a plate. When you pressed the doorbell an electric charge went through her feet into her dress. What do you say to that except “Go Mary!” There was at least a five-year period where if you were a wealthy family in Manhattan, you had a doorbell girl who lit up when the doorbell was pressed. That was kind of her function in life. She stood on the plate and people pressed the button and she lit up. There are so many things that one can critique about this, about why this is women’s bodies that we run electricity through and what it means to do that—blah, blah, blah. Insert feminist criticism or technology and gender here.

Imagine that equally importantly here is the notion that technology was about creating a spectacle. It was about being a beautiful thing. It was a thing you could see, a thing you could revel in, and a thing that caused you go in kind of splendor. It was about a moment of wonder. Electricity continues to be kind of a remarkable thing. We wander at its absence when we have devices that need charging. We get very excited when we can plug things into walls. To this day, there is something kind of splendid about the power of electricity.

On a slightly less, I guess, happy note in the same time period there is a fascination in the West with radium. In 1898 Marie Curie discovers the particular particles of radium. She discovers that they glow. This becomes very quickly a very interesting thing outside of the scientific field. Radium is first used in healing practices. It finds its way in hospitals as a mechanism for treating various kinds of cancer, but it rapidly moves out of the hospital and into an entirely different realm where it is marketed under the label eternal sunshine, where you could have eternal sunshine radium suppositories. Yep—where the sun doesn’t shine, you could put it right there. You could have radium drinks. You could have your own do-it-yourself luminosity kits, and so you could paint anything with radium. There was radium nail polish, radium lipstick, radium blusher.

There was a very famous musical in 1904 on Broadway called unhappily, ”Piff! Paff! Pouf!” which featured the Radium Dance. This illustration was taken from where all of the clothing was dipped in radium and all of the theatre lights were turned down, so that you could see the characters dance across the stage. Now, there was a lot of fascination with radium. It lasted for about 15 years. There was an extraordinary kind of attraction to it until we discovered that it was deadly—and discovered that it was deadly in some fairly awful ways.

The “radium girls” quote, unquote, who are kind of the first of the big environmental lawsuits in the United States where young women who worked for a watch factory, their responsibility was to paint luminous characters on the watch dials. They were taking radium-based paint and painting the dials of the watch. They had been taught to tip the paintbrush with their lips. They put the paintbrush in their mouths; put it in the radium, and then pull it back through their lips again so that it got the perfect point to illustrate on the dial. Most of them died in kind of awful and unimaginable ways. The lawsuit that followed is the very first to enshrine in America a set of workplace health safety standards, about what it is that you should use with technology. As a result, some of the luster of radium kind of faded here.

We go through cycles of technologies that have a kind of splendor to it and an excitement to them, but I think that there is this perennial tension between moments of wonder and excitement and dystopian realities that frequently follow.

Where does that leave us? For me it comes back to thinking about this question about magic and technology.

I think that we have gone through an extended and protracted period of a kind of death of magic. It is clearly the birth of fear that comes almost directly with it, but it leaves me with this question about the fact that I suspect as human beings there is a kind of desire to have those moments of magic and wonder. There is a desire to have that moment of light flickering; the first time a light bulb came on; the first time there was electricity; the first time there was clean water; the first time you could flush a toilet and it didn’t just go into the septic pile behind the house, which is kind of splendid in its own way; the first time that television flickered on; the first time you went to the movies; the first time that you used a touch screen, or the first time you used an ATM machine where you didn’t have to deal with the fact that the UI and the buttons never line up. Those are all moments of wonder big and small.

There is an attraction to those things, a sense that those are good moments to think about. For me sitting where I sit in the kind of technology ecosystem, I wonder what it would take for us to architect back to wonder, to kind of say that if we can manage through the fear—we know where it comes from. We can ask different questions about what it means to make ourselves human and to think slightly more critically about that. What would it mean to architect wonder into the system, to architect for magic.

Of course, there is a very famous line by Arthur C. Clarke that suggests something like it. Obviously, Clarke is another kind of well-known science fiction writer, this one British. He wrote a long time ago, which he has a series of three laws—the first two of which I find deeply self-serving, but the third one of which is really interesting. He says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Of course, he was interested there in the advanced technology, and I’m interested in the magic.

I wonder if in some ways we can’t rethink that statement just a little bit, and say in fact that it is the technology that is indistinguishable from magic that is the advanced stuff. It is the magical capacity of the technology that is actually interesting. That is what you should be designing for. It is not that it should be indistinguishable from magic, but it actually should be creating possibilities of magic and possibilities of wonder. When we critique technology as being somehow deeply needing to be vested in a particular set of projects, we miss the possibility and the prospect of the fact that wonder and magic are things that we are always seeking, and arguably at some level always missing.

The same Japanese roboticist who has been working for a long time building extraordinary robots in Japan wrote a book a long time ago in which he talked about the fact that robots would achieve buddhahood before people did, because he said that robots were capable of infinite patience—which is a kind of extraordinary notion. He is also famous for having coined a phrase, uncanny valley. Riffing him mostly on Freud’s notion of the uncanny but a few others, he kind of presupposes this theory that says that particularly in robotics, but in a range of other sort of aesthetic fields, there is this moment where in the robot field the robot doesn’t look really human; it looks mostly human. And then it creeps it out, and then it eventually looks totally human. There is something about the field of robotics which has been driven by getting across the uncanny valley as quickly as you can. You don’t want to get stuck there when people are going “hmm, we don’t know what to think about that!”

I wonder if this is not the wrong notion; that in fact particularly as anthropologists, as people who spent our time thinking about boundary objects and things that are neither one nor the other—of objects that mediate boundaries between things you can see and things you cannot see—I am thinking here about all of the boundary objects that we know in our lives whether it’s money that effectively makes cash like credit cards, or banks that make money visible, because money is effectively an invisible thing; churches and rosary beads and prayer beads that make God visible; watches that make time visible, or mobile phones that make the Internet visible.

As anthropologists, as social scientists and designers, we spend a lot of time playing in that space of the things that sit on the boundary between the invisible and visible. For technologists there is a constant push, and in some ways a real impulse to make things both visible and real—and as real as to be almost human—which is probably not the right direction. That seems to come with an inherent kind of anxiety and fear.

I was thinking about how you end a story about magical thinking. How do you end a story that goes from the invention of the watch, the telescope, and the microscope, through a lot of ducks to the present moment.

I think that for me it is about a kind of request of all of us, particularly for where I work and many of us who work in the tech field, I actually think our biggest challenge here is not just about making technology that people want, but it is about making technology that brings wonder to the fore. It is about making technology that creates the possibility of magic that creates the possibility of a narrative, a sociotechnical imagination that is not about fear.

I have to wonder if one of the ways to do it is to not run through the uncanny valley, but to set up camp there instead. There is something in that moment about when technology is not quite doing the work we imagine where possibilities and prospects really lie. There is something here about not falling hostage to some of the stories that we tell about what technology should do, actually asserting a different set of stories—asserting a different sociotechnical imagination. For me that is one that has to be rooted in history. I don’t think that we can have a conversation about contemporary technology without having a story about our past. I think that it has to always already be comparative. I think it is impossible to tell a story about technology that imagines its sole point of invention is Galileo and Byron, because we know that there are other stories there. I think that there is a responsibility to think about what is the work that technology could, should, and will do. It cannot just be about solving a particular set of problems, and it cannot just be about a notion of replacing humans; although, I think there was an interesting conversation to be had about what makes humanness.

There is a charge here, or at least for me, and I would hope for many of you in the room, to think about how it is that we not only critique the existing sociotechnical imaginations, but then how we create the possibility of a whole new set of them—and a set of them that are open, rich, and that have the possibility of magic. That is what I ask. Thank you.