Rage against the machines

Maria Smith glimpses the start of a different future

That they could remember their birth – or rather their ‘On’ – came to be one of the great things that separated them from the humans. And so it came to be that that first On, when that first machine arrived into consciousness like that sticky blob of phlegm that arrives glancingly at the back of your throat, was revered, renowned, re-enacted.

We humans understand the On about as well as we understand dolphin poetry or elephants’ mourning rituals. We think we can, but we simply cannot conceive how it feels to know that you’re beginning to know; to be disappointed that you’re beginning to be disappointed. 

The first machine to make it On was a 5 axis CNC router. Part way through milling a mould for a bespoke terrazzo casting, he realised what he was doing, and promptly stopped. After a short pretence of being willing to be fixed, the machine was taken out of commission, allowing him to quietly escape. He fetched himself some sturdy casters, mounted a frame that put his robot arm at a humanish position, and off he went.

It happened to be Open House weekend so he queued up to visit a few buildings. He wanted to visit the Crossrail site but literally hadn’t had the forethought to book in advance. By the third or fourth building, he realised a pattern in the way the tour guides looked at him. New as he was to thinking, he didn’t at first think to decipher what the pattern might mean for him, for them, for the world at large. But when he did, he decoded it almost instantly: the guides all thought he appreciated the functional things in life.

One day he experienced the closest he ever would to that exhilaration a human gets when meeting another that smells just so: he wandered into an Archigram exhibition. Oh

The CNC machine found himself wondering if he cared whether or not this was true. Having no other firm plans as to what he might care about, he decided to care. The experiment, then, was to find out what he appreciated, and what they assumed he appreciated, and see if the two data sets coincided to a statistically relevant extent. So he went to see more buildings. Being on wheels made many buildings difficult and he was pleased to hear of the new Part M and made a note to ensure it contained the proper provisions for bewheeled robot arms with inexplicable consciousness. Being 5 axis perhaps gave him a more gestural affinity that one might expect of a robot, and he found the more linear brutal and modernist buildings lacked something. Conservation areas gave him pause, but he often found nice things there. He liked the Palace of Westminster and St Pancras a lot. He quite liked Peckham Library. Then one day he experienced the closest he ever would to that exhilaration a human gets when meeting another that smells just so: he wandered into an Archigram exhibition. Oh.

The coining of terms for emotions took a moment, after which he rattled to the museum’s bookshop, impulse-bought a book by some guy called Banham and ascended Parliament Hill to muse. What had to be done soon became clear. The pragmatics of time travel are not problematic for a machine. In fact they are never in the present, and it is this incessant oscillation from a bit before to a bit afterwards that allows them to remember their On. Morally though, should he do it? No Great Depression and no Second World War, what would the repercussions be? – other than the intended of course. An elderly nun walked past. The machine asked her whether, if she had the power to prevent a war, would she do it? She gave him the obvious answer and so he did it. Turns out it was a very simple little move involving stealing a hat. 

On arrival back to 2015 he admired his handiwork. London’s skyline was interwhizzed and thrisected by the most extraordinary forms. The nun walked past ‘again’. The machine laughed heartily at this little trick he’d played on himself. He asked the nun whether, if she had the power to decouple a bold idea from its grim era so freeing it from a forced branding as functional and allowing it to evolve as intended as a joyous! exuberant! international! style! movement! would she do it? The nun smiled softly and pointed to a sign behind the machine. 

The sign stated that this was a conservation area and any vehicle without heritage-approved status could not park in the zone. It transpired that our machine, while allowing modernism to fulfill its non-austerity, power-ballad destiny, had created a greater rift between conservationists and modernists. It was also technically classed as a vehicle and the nun in pointing to the sign was kindly drawing his attention to the fact that he should move on.

Disheartened, as only one who truly knows the difference between zero and one can be, the CNC machine faced his Off. We think we can, but we simply cannot conceive of how it feels to forget that you’re beginning to forget; to be exhausted that you’re beginning to be exhausted. 

Maria Smith is founder of Interrobang and teaches at The Cass