Working across film, literature, philosophy, and history, the authors take creative and critical approaches to the study of technology, profoundly concerned with its reciprocal influence on and by the human.
Machines, Technology, and the Human
In 1920, a Czech writer named Karel Čapek published a play entitled R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. It was the first use of the word “robot,” having derived from the Russian robota, connoting servitude and slavery––in this case, of the machine to the human. A skeptical character at one point notes that “a working machine must not play the piano, must not feel happy, must not do a whole lot of other things.” The machine would seem to be subordinate, derivative––a mere copy. But dystopia and anxiety abound in the play, which culminates in the eradication of the human race, as the capability of the machine surpasses that of the human.
This early iteration of technological speculation, looking toward the collapse of boundaries between human and machine, is now abundant in media and literature, to say nothing of its persistence within politics and lawmaking. As OpenAI releases versions of its large language model ChatGPT, as private companies and nation states invest in visual technologies of surveillance, and as generative artificial intelligence programs become capable of digital imaging and video creation, responses to a cybernetic and cyborgian rendering of the world have grown both paranoid and reverential. The machine is as much a threat as it is an object of curiosity.
While initial entries into speculation and response may have dealt clearly in the rhetoric of warning, new developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning have kindled a fascination with technology’s capacity to confound and exceed the human. We are lured into the act of playing with technology, of discovering what is possible, even mystical, when we probe our own creation. We want, for instance, to see what emerges when a language model processes millions of words and images, how technology materializes the subconscious of media. Looking for traces of the human in contemporary technologies, we find new forms of language, of art, of perception––and often we find new forms of relationality, new forms of intimacy, subjectivity, and interiority.
With that in mind, I became interested in how approaches to technological troubles and prospects had evolved since students began publishing their work on Confluence. Where and with what material did we begin, and in what critical milieu have we found ourselves now? Among the work of hundreds of students over the last decade, I found a changing definition of technology itself––evolving amidst, though it is not always explicitly addressed, industry advancements in automation and computer programming. Though many students address technology and the human in their work, the following pieces selected from the archive form a timeline of sorts, a record of change. Artificial intelligence is a frequent subject of inquiry, but the pieces also consider gender, the body, and ontology; Working across film, literature, philosophy, and history, the authors take creative and critical approaches to the study of technology, profoundly concerned with its reciprocal influence on and by the human. In many instances they hint toward possibilities of a technological ecology between organism and machine, exploring this through philosophical inquiry and artistic collaboration with new forms of programming and technology.
Throughout the first few years of Confluence’s publication, students often took depictions of technology as their origin of study. Keyli Peralta’s 2016 essay on Ex Machina (2014) and Antony DiGiacomo’s 2016 examination of Blade Runner (1982) offer insight into the way in which filmic representations of technological possibility have underscored our contemporary relationship to machines, and the ways in which echoes of human bias and affect either do or do not appear in technology.
But the publication of these pieces, each taking canonic technology films as their subjects, also reveal just how much has changed in the study of machines and artificial intelligence in just a few years. Blair Simmons’s 2019 print(dialogue) and Elliot Wright’s 2023 “Psychoanalyze this Diary Entry” are both co-authored by themselves and large language models, a far less likely endeavor for students in the early 2010s, for whom natural language processing was not nearly as ubiquitous. They explore authorship and meaning, objectivity and trust, and the limits of artificial intelligence in understanding emotional experience. And it is deeply amusing to learn, in Elliot’s work, what ChatGPT is trained to produce when given the prompt: “indie song.”
These creative responses to technology find themselves at odds, in a way, with something like Čapek’s play and other works in the abundant archive of skepticism and apprehension toward technology. Artistic intimacy with the machine is possible and indeed proliferating, as the realization of technology previously only represented in film allows for a new kind of creative production. It is a situation of relative unknowability––what are we to do with our unending fascination when it is still haunted by unease? The authors highlighted here are in many cases unafraid of hinting at glimpses of technological utopia, of a fundamental wildness to technology in which taming is not the final aim.
This is not to say that critical study has declined: over the past few years, students have written on cyborg subjectivity and ontological anxiety, on selfish robots and the social performance of the self, and on contemporary media, like the television series Love, Death, and Robots. Throughout these pieces, the authors search for ways to incorporate and revitalize critical theory in a time of new machines and new ways of being; they attempt to find scientific and philosophical possibilities beyond paradigms of similitude and replication.
While several students focus on philosophical approaches to machines and artificial intelligence, a few pieces selected below take a sociological and materialist approach to their study––a refreshing, insightful addition to the Confluence archive. Alexandra Shveda’s 2018 essay on sex dolls and the intersection of commodification and technology asks why we recreate the human, why our tools fulfill desires, and why modern capitalism has found such harmony with the humanoid machine. And as reporting on AI uncovers systems of exploitative labor contracts and underpaid programmers, Lauren Balser’s 2021 exploration of gender and computing historicizes the way in which ostensible “immateriality” often masks labor politics upon which the industry constructs false ideals of human perfectibility. By taking the social world as their material, these perspectives ask for a reevaluation of who technology serves.
And the oldest piece in the selection, Adam Bligh-Hasan’s reflection on Addie Wagenknecht’s exhibition of work responding to state surveillance, perhaps exists as a bridge between reactions to rapidly developing machine technologies. Through meditations on the exhibit’s pieces, which include ethernet cable sculptures and security camera installations, Bligh-Hasan provides a glimpse into how art might respond to the information economy, in which visuality itself is appropriated to ends of data collection and storage. Insofar as artificial forms of intelligence have become ubiquitous, ecologies of creation and experimentation can coincide quite easily with those of commodification and surveillance. As AI promises to reconstruct the human mind, one might do well to remember that replication can be an instrument for malevolence as much as for awe.
The authors approach their respective inquiries with both gravity and exuberance, each following methodologies that illuminate their conclusions. Below you will find a selection of ten pieces from 2015 to 2023––they reflect an evolving cultural habitus for students at Gallatin, and constitute a keen, attentive study of the contemporary technological condition.