Saturday, 9 October 2010

Fall Conference: The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT)

I attended, for the first time, the annual meeting for The Society for the History of Technology. It was a great experience and I confess that I was rather academically-star struck. I had the privilege of meeting and/or listening to talks by the likes of: Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Misa, Rachel Maines, Rosalind Williams, Julie Wosk, and many other fascinating and talented PhD students and independent scholars. An expenditure well worth the investment.

My talk was entitled, History of Mechanical Woman: Automaton to Android. The (rather long) abstract is below:

The image of the artificially created woman as unruly and/or erotic has deep cultural and historical roots. Her significance has been, above all, anchored and shaped by cautionary narratives about the unintended consequences of knowledge transgression. Artificial woman appears in Greek mythology through the story of Prometheus[1] as the ‘beautifully evil’ Pandora. Fashioned upon the anvil of Hepheastos, Pandora stands as the prototype for all mechanical women who follow, as well as the punishment against Prometheus for stealing fire (knowledge) from the gods. The artificial female also appears within fifteenth century Jewish golem mythology, although unlike her male counterpart, the female golem is strictly a concubine. Substituting for a ‘real’ woman, the female golem’s primary purpose was to fulfill the sexual desire of her creator. Mechanical women, as erotic objects of desire, appear in literary works as well, perhaps most famously in the stories of Villiers’ Tomorrow’s Eve and Hoffman’s Der Sandman. Although referred to only briefly in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the threat implied by the creation of the artificial woman (i.e. the destruction of the entire human race) stands as a central, familiarly Pandoran, warning in the novel.

Less acknowledged is the presence and significance of the scientifically created ‘mechanical woman,’ standing at various historical moments as the very symbol of scientific prowess and Enlightenment and as an object of mass consumption and erotic desire. This essay argues that machines created in a female image during the Golden Age of the Automaton (envisioned as an automaton throughout the eighteenth century) and the ongoing contemporary projects to create machines in female verisimilitude (envisioned as android from the mid-twentieth century) have a good deal in common beyond their obvious functions as a reflections of intellectual and scientific prowess and mechanistic amusements. This analysis begins with a brief overview of the female-machine’s historical development from the eighteenth century before examining the continuities shared between these two periods in three key areas. The first similarity between the female-machine as classical automaton and contemporary android (robots whose bodies mimic the human form) relates to their emergence at critical ontological junctures which is suggestive of a historical moment in which the understood similarities and differences between humans and machines is in flux. Second, eighteenth century automata and twentieth century androids are both associated with periods of simulation[2] indicating moments in which the conceptual boundaries between humans and machines are fluid and therefore subject to more examination and experimentation than the periods immediately preceding and following. Third, eighteenth century female-machines and contemporary androids seem to exist on two registers: as articulations of intellectual enthusiasm and as expressions of erotic desire. Indeed, the history of the female-machine is conflated with issues of sexuality from the start and as such the automaton and the android tend to foreground the intimate relationships often experienced between people and their machines.

[1] The myth of Prometheus is told by Hesiod in the late eighth century BC in two separate stories, Theogony and Work and Days (Wutrich, 1995, p. 8; Ziolkowki, 2000, p. 27).

[2] Riskin, J. (2003). Eighteenth Century Wetware. Representations, 83, 97-125; Riskin, J. (2003b). The defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life. Critical Inquiry, 29, 599-633; Riskin, J. (2007). Genesis redux : essays in the history and philosophy of artificial life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

SHOT Publications

Technology and Culture
Technology and Culture, April, 2004"Technology and Culture, founded in 1959, is the preeminent journal for the history of technology. International and interdisciplinary, T&C publishes articles and research notes by scholars from a wide range of intellectual disciplines: history, sociology, engineering, law, architecture, anthropology, economics, philosophy, literature...."

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