OK COMPUTER by simon schaffer
that human beings were used as reading machines. Assume that in order to become
reading machines they need a particular training' (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1934).
Machines are predictable and humans
are not. In celebrated papers of the late 1940s the English mathematician Alan
Turing questioned this notion. Having been a wartime cryptographer at Bletchley
Park, then a computer theorist at the National Physical Laboratory and
Manchester, Turing claimed he had indeed occasionally been surprised by the
output of some discrete state machines. But this revealed nothing about the
source of surprise, rather it reflected one's own mentality. The view that
machines could never truly surprise was but a version of brainy folks' snootiness
towards mere deduction or computation.
Turing gave this prejudice a ready social explanation. A big machine like the
new Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) at the National Physical Laboratory would
need servants (whom Turing presumed would be women) to run the hardware, but
their tasks would soon be absorbed by the machine itself. When sufficiently routine, even its masters'
tasks could also be taken over by ACE. But 'they would surround the whole of
their work with mystery and make excuses couched in well chosen gibberish'.
Intellectuals and bosses liked to think that higher functions could never be
automated, because they were informal, discretionary, and startling.
To counter this mystification,
Turing distinguished between rules of conduct governing every eventuality,
which were not to be had, and laws of behaviour, which might well exist though
currently be unknown. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, with whom he had some
unfortunate exchanges about mathematical conventionalism in Cambridge seminar
rooms just before the War, Turing reflected on rules and games. Once upon a
time, the outcome of horse races was determined by Jockey Club stewards. Now it
was thoroughly mechanized by photography. But Turing had a print of a photo
finish whose outcome depended on whether six inches of saliva sprayed across
the finishing line counted as part of a horse's head. The rules didn't say - so
the decision had to be referred back to the stewards' discretion. Criteria for
automated judgments could still be vague, even though all might acknowledge the
lawlike character of the behaviour involved. He showed the picture to his
Manchester colleague, the physical chemist turned social theorist and fierce
anti-communist Michael Polanyi. Polanyi gladly used photos of equine spittle in
his own 1951 lectures on tacit knowledge and unspecifiable procedures. The
distinction between conduct and lawlike behaviour also helped Turing explain
how machines could learn. Though the laws of behaviour of a discrete state
machine could and would never vary, its conduct might indeed develop in
surprising directions. Hence followed a version of the maker's knowledge
argument that one knew with certainty only what one built. The machine/human
distinction was just a matter of whether such laws were exhaustively known, not
whether one was afterwards surprised by their ways of execution.
The wealth of commentary on Turing's
proposals has attended mainly to the imitation game he then devised. An
interrogator communicating solely by teletype with a woman and a discrete state
machine is challenged to identify the former. It has now been claimed there are
machines which can defeat the interrogator. An American manufacturer of disco
dance floors, Hugh Loebner, offers an annual prize to programmers of such
machines and to convincingly human humans too. It
has also been argued that the Turing Test proved a dead end, a distraction for
devotees of artificial intelligence now to be consigned to history. It has been
suggested that the imitation game is too easy for the machine, since it
displaces someone pretending to be a woman and ignores the full social
repertoire through which attributions of intelligence are commonly made. It has
been suggested that the imitation game is too stiff, since it tests whether discrete
state machines possess specifically human intelligence, not simply any kind of
do not propose a further contribution to this debate. I agree with Donald
Michie, the Oxford classicist who worked with Turing at wartime Bletchley on cryptography,
chess and machine intelligence. Michie has pointed out that there are certainly
intelligent but inarticulable human activities which would make the test
obselete. Michie thought it understandable but fatal that Turing had defined
intelligence in terms of academic communication not craft skills. I also agree
with Robin Gandy, another of Turing's closest collaborators and subsequently
distinguished mathematical logician, who advises that the celebrated 1950 paper
be read not as philosophy but propaganda and that machine programs alone cannot
provide the right way to discuss intelligence.
But of all Turing's exegetes, I find
the most congenial in Hugh Kenner, eminent literary critic of modernism. Kenner
did not assume human action and capacity stable, then wonder whether machines
might ever mimic them. Instead, he proposed the investigation of changing human
capacity and action, then wondered whether such changes made them more
machine-like. 'Imagine that human beings were used as reading machines',
Wittgenstein had suggested. What kind of training would be needed to execute
this task ? Kenner saw that the imitation game was but one of a long series of
projects in technical fakery - Swift's speculations on whether Gulliver was
man, machine or horse; Vaucanson's automata; Babbage's analytical engines;
Keaton's acting; Warhol's soup tins. The point of this list was to remind us
that notions of authentic human capacity and specifically mechanical capability
develop in tandem. Kenner remarked that in the prediction that by the century's
end discrete state machines would pass a five minute test about 3 times in ten,
'Turing himself was not perhaps allowing for the possibility that people will
grow more machine-like'. In
fact Turing also seems to have just such a millenial prospect in view: 'the use
of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will
be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted'.
The imitation game is then less interesting as philosophical propaganda than as
would be an historical sociology of technology. It has been rightly urged that
a history of brain models is really a history of the literary and material
technologies which are familiar to, and then used as metaphors by, brain
scientists. Their metaphorical menagerie exhibits mental clocks, logical
pianos, barrel organisms, neural telegraphs and cerebral computer nets.
How do specific technologies get into this zoo ? Claims that certain systems
can mimic, or even exhibit, intelligence are sustained by social hierarchies of
head and hand. Minds are known because these social conventions are known.
Colin Blakemore, an eminent contemporary neuroscientist, describes the brain as
'a biological instrument more complex, more compact, more sophisticated than
any machine made by man'. It might therefore seem to escape metaphoric
analysis. But no: 'within this enigmatic kilogram-and-a-half of jelly resides a
power of computation that embarrasses the weightiest computer_.A computer with
so many components and connections could administer the world. Perhaps it is
not surprising that a few famous and infamous brains in history have tried to
do the same'.
Such conventions include those which maintain or question the privileges of
discretionary behaviour. Intellectual labour's apparently discretionary
character may be subsumed within more determinist regimes if it can be
subjected to precise estimation. Then the performance of such labour by
machines seems more plausible. There are obvious philosophical counterparts of
the components of this argument: materialism, reductionism and determinism are
ranged against idealism, emergence and free will. But the story which follows
attempts to give these rather olympian philosophical themes a local
significance in scientists' interests in taming and analysing underdetermined
behaviour by the measurement of intellectual outputs. Since the Enlightenment,
neurology, anthropology and physiology have often relied on such measures: oxygen
flow, pulse rate, galvanic activity, phrenological charts, cerebral thermometry
or - most pervasively - cranial capacity have all been used as markers of
underlying brain activity and thus intellectual, social and moral rank. No
doubt the instruments used to make such measures then become the source of
But this kind of cerebral metrology embraces a wider history than that which
links craniometry with more recent strategies of intelligence testing and
psychometrics. It includes commonplace enterprises which preserve a space for
mental life, and define and measure quantitative tokens of that life, so as to
show how intellectuals function in economy and society. Cerebral metrology may
involve physico-chemical monitoring of brains and bodies and competitive
examinations to test intellectual achievement; but it also includes assessments
of risk which displace cautionary theodicy by social insurance; political
economies which show how price formation depends on matters of psychological judgment;
or forms of industrial organisation which expropriate embodied skill as
allegedly visible productive performance.
The aim of this chapter, therefore,
is to suggest how judgements that machines are intelligent have involved
techniques for measuring brains' outputs. These techniques show how
discretionary behaviour is connected with status of those who rely on
intelligence for their social legitimacy. These connections seem rather evident
in Turing's own milieu. Protagonists of thinking machines and artificial minds
then scarcely doubted the entanglement of brains and culture. In the 1940s, for
example, collective organisation and military mobilisation of intellectual
labour seemed to make feedback systems acutely plausible representations of human
capacity. Cybernetics temporarily convinced those who had lived among (and
occasionally as) homoeostatic devices. The political scientist Herbert Simon,
future guru of AI, moved via management science and military planning into
'artificial intelligence research into high-order intellectual processes'. Soon
he was predicting that within a decade 'most theories in psychology will take
the form of computer programs'. In
1950 the English biologist John Zachary Young gave a major series of radio
lectures on new models of the brain using the then fashionable language of
cybernetics and feedback theory. He mixed the well-established neurological
research of Sherrington and Adrian with the up-to-date information theories of
Lashley and Wiener. In quick succession he compared the brain with a guided
missile system and with a mechanical computer based on networked valves. 'In
order to have some picture of how the brain works it is useful to think of it
as an enormous ministry whose one aim and object is to preserve intact the
country for which it is responsible' - an image utterly familiar to a British
audience accustomed to world war and welfare state. Young's version of brain
science closely tracked changes in communications technology. He recalled how
Cartesian clockwork gave way to Victorian engineering. Had not Thomas Huxley
claimed that mind is to brain as whistle is to steam engine ? The brain was
obviously the machine which itself generated science; science was just the way
good brains worked. Managerialism was the right way to run society and model
the brain. 'We do not know much yet about what goes on in our brains and
therefore cannot expect educators to educate them properly, psychologists to
help us correct their workings, or surgeons to know whether it is wise to cut
pieces out of them'. 
As he prepared to write up his
broadcasts for publication at the end of 1950, Young needed advice on
estimating the storage capacity of a brain-like machine. He recalled a meeting
at Manchester a year before on 'the mind and the computing machine'. There he
debated the computer analogy with Polanyi and Turing. Young, Turing and their
contemporaries such as the cyberneticist Ross Ashby (whose homeostatic 'Design
for a Brain' first appeared in 1948) were much impressed by state-determined
systems completely described by prior position and given imput. Ashby reckoned
that such systems were exactly what experimenters achieved in ideal laboratory
trials. Young urged that such systems were the best possible models of how neurological
Polanyi, by contrast, worked hard to show how eliminativist neurology,
cybernetics and the vices of Soviet Communism fitted together. He argued that
contemporary neurologists reduced their subject matter to measurable variables
and so got rid of discretion and will. Cybernetics turned humans into robots.
Soviet ideology did the same — and had seduced fellow-travelling intellectuals
such as Desmond Bernal because 'rational action becomes a lifeless banality'.
Polanyi found his allies among neurologists such as John Eccles and eminent
opponents in Turing and Young.
Though very sceptical of its metaphysics, Turing knew all about cybernetics.
From summer 1949 he joined a London discussion group on the topic with such
enthusiasts as Ashby and Warren McCulloch. Soon Turing broadcast for the BBC on
whether digital computers could think. Meanwhile, in October 1950 his
Manchester paper appeared in the nation's pre-eminent philosophy journal, Mind,
under the title 'Computing machinery and intelligence'.
The closing section of Turing's
paper was devoted to the problem of building a brain. Anything that could be
turned into a routine could be aped by a computer and so plausibly performed by
the kind of brain which Young set forth. Young deprecated intellectuals' talk
of 'pseudo-things' and 'semi-things' such as consciousness or mind. He claimed
that cerebral evolution explained why humans might resist the possibility of
treating brains as machines and so replacing one by the other. In February
1947, in a talk to the London Mathematical Society on the operation of ACE,
Turing spent some time detailing the social organisation required to tend it
and the gibberish with which bosses would try to resist their own automation.
'This topic leads to the question as to how far it is in principle possible for
a computing machine to simulate human activities'.
Turing insisted that learning machines, the basis of building brains, must
possess operating rules which could 'describe completely how the machine will
react whatever its history might be, whatever changes it might undergo. The
rules are thus quite time-invariant'. For the admirers of state-determined
machines the principal puzzle would be the appearance of innovation:
'intelligent behaviour presumably consists in a departure from the completely
disciplined behaviour involved in computation, but a rather slight one, which
does not give rise to random behaviour, or to pointless repetitive loops'. Now
Turing turned back to the history of his own discipline, citing an 1843 account
of Charles Babbage's project to build a digital computer. In planning his
Analytical Engine, Babbage had early developed the notion of conditional
branching. As Turing's biographer sagely remarks, mechanising conditionality 'would
be analogous to specifying not only the routine tasks of the workers but the
testing, deciding, and controlling operations of the management'. Bosses
make choices, and intellectuals make reasoned but discretionary ones. The
history of such choices might tell us something about the cultural history of
has been convincingly suggested that the early nineteenth century separation of
calculation from intelligence depended on the low status of the mechanics who
performed computation and thus made its mechanization then seem viable.
Enlightenment ergonomics provided metrologies of work which were then applied
to brains and helped make intelligent machines plausible. In the rapid
industrialisation of the first decades of the 19th century, theorists of the
factory system such as Charles Babbage represented the workforce as a
collective machine under intelligent management. To extend their cultural legitimacy, Babbage and his allies
showed that capricious or miraculous change could be the programmed outcome of
intelligent mechanism. But when challenged by cultural conservatives, more
friendly to priestcraft and the academy, they made sure to preserve a realm of
intellect and will. This could help their own command over economic and social
resources. By the end of the 19th century, scientific professionals such as
Thomas Huxley and his colleagues among the scientific naturalists rapidly
gained this command, imposed tests of intelligence and aptitude on the
brainpower of the nation, and accounted for the brain as a complex mechanism.
They also conceded that the mind might escape such mechanisation - using
techniques of precision quantification, they were able to point to those tokens
of mental activity which could indeed be subjected to measurement and thus
mechanism. The balance of this admittedly Anglocentric paper, therefore, is
devoted to the intellectual and social crises of industrialisation in the 1830s
and of professionalisation in the 1870s, the cerebral metrologies developed at
those moments, and the issues of prediction and underdetermination raised by
the evaluation of brain power.
'The engine knows'
'The Analytical Engine has no pretensions
whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to
perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any
analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making
available what we are already acquainted with. This it is calculated to effect
primarily and chiefly, of course, through its executive faculties' (Ada
Lovelace: Sketch of the Analytical Engine, 1843).
cautionary text about the unoriginality of digital machines, which Turing cited
in 1950, had originally been generated during Babbage's dramatic publicity
campaign for his troubled Analytical Engine. Babbage used contacts such as the
Piedmontese military engineer and future premier Luigi Menabrea and then the
aristocratic philomath Ada Lovelace. The 'Sketch of the Analytical Engine'
appeared in journals in Geneva and then London in the winter of 1842-43. It
showed the new machine was an unprecedented technical system designed to carry
in its memory one thousand numbers each of fifty digits. The store consisted of
sets of parallel figure wheels, structured like those in the store of Babbage's
earlier Difference Engine, launched in the early 1820s and still incomplete
despite massive government and private investment. Sequences of operation cards
carried instructions to the engine, which were decoded in the store using the
machine's library of logarithmic and other functions, and then distributed to
the operating sections of the mill. Such distribution could itself be modified
by variables set by the existing state of operations in the machine. These
crucial aspects of the Engine, its capacity for memory and for anticipation,
were to be profound resources for Babbage's metaphysics and his political
economy. 'Nothing but teaching the Engine to foresee and then to act upon that
foresight could ever lead me to the object I desired'.
Discussions with his colleagues such as Menabrea questioned Babbage's account
of the knowledge which such complex processes of training and judgement might
involve. When Menabrea completed his essay on the machine, he remarked that
'the machine is not a thinking being, but simply an automaton which acts
according to the laws imposed upon it'.
Enlightened savants such as Babbage
and his allies well understood the figure of the automaton as a resource for
estimating labour power and defining their own managerial role. They were
enthusiasts for techniques first developed by the French engineer and
academician Charles Coulomb, who after managing colonial military works had
tried to evaluate the maximum effect extractible from labour, and the chemist
and economist Antoine Lavoisier, who worked out laboratory methods treating all
humans as so many machines absorbing vital air and nutriment. They could
determine 'how many pounds weight correspond to the efforts of a man who
recites a speech, a musician who plays an instrument. Whatever is mechanical
can similarly be evaluated in the work of the philosopher who reflects, the man
of letters who writes, the musician who composes. These effects, considered as
purely moral, have something physical and material which allows them, through
this relationship, to be compared with those which a labourer performs'.
Lavoisier's chemical technology of self-experiment allowed him to evaluate 'the
efforts of the mind as well as those of the body', because all humans were understood
as automata labouring in closed exchange systems. By constructing, displaying
and imagining such self-governing machine systems, the enlightened supposed
they could make their own social order and a powerful place within it. So
automata had a salient political function in 'the technologies of rationalism'.
Menabrea and his allies worked hard to link this kind of algebraic analysis of
human capacities with the urgent practical demands of military and civil
engineering and thus to reform the labour force of new states. Babbage's own
use of such rationalist resources marked him out as an unusually sympathetic
apostle of Enlightenment techniques in early Victorian Britain. In this
context, the Analytical Engine was a neat way of accounting for labour discipline
alongside intellectual control.
Babbage and Lovelace, who translated
and annotated Menabrea's memoir in 1843, used highly anthropomorphic language
to describe the faculty of anticipation, feeling and choice which they reckoned
the engine would display. Lovelace had her own self-destructive interests in
the bodily experiences of doing analysis. Alan Turing strangely echoed some of
her own worries when, in a testy passage of his 1950 paper directed against
theologians, he pointed out that 'in attempting to construct such [intelligent]
machines we should not be irreverently usurping [God's] power of creating
souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children'. Lovelace
explicitly saw her own frail body as a 'laboratory' for testing currently fashionable
materialist theories of mind, especially those of her ambitious young
physiological mentor, William Carpenter. Carpenter, Babbage and Lovelace all
discussed the effects of mathematical analysis on bodily constitution and of
bodily condition on mathematical capacity. Then they applied these lessons to
the calculating machines.
Babbage conceded that 'in substituting mechanism for the performance of
operations hitherto executed by intellectual labour...the analogy between these
acts and the operations of mind almost forced upon me the figurative employment
of the same terms. They were found at once convenient and expressive, and I
prefer to continue their use'. Hence he was committed to phrases such as 'the
engine knows', to describe its predetermined move from one calculation
to the next. Lovelace put the issue
like this: 'although it is not itself the being that reflects, it may yet be
considered as the being which executes the conceptions of intelligence. The
cards receive the impress of these conceptions, and transmit to the various
trains of mechanism composing the engine the orders necessary for their
action'. This execution of intelligence was directly linked to the capacities
of reliable subordinate workmen: 'it will by means of some simple notations be
easy to consign the execution of them to a workman. Thus the whole intellectual
labour will be limited to the preparation of the formulae, which must be
adapted for calculation by the engine'. The subordination of machinofacture to
intelligence was crucial. The Analytical Engine, like Turing's ACE a century
later, raised the issue of the class division of intelligence. Menabrea ended
his memoir with a reflection on the 'economy of intelligence'. 'The engine may
be considered as a real manufactory of numbers'. In her remarkable annotations
to this text, Lovelace extended and qualified these remarks about the
manufacture process. She urged that the issue of whether the 'executive
faculties of this engine...are really even able to follow analysis in its whole
extent' could only be answered by watching the engine work. She explicitly
analogized between the working of the machine and the mind, notably in respect
of the separation between operation cards, variable cards and number cards. 'It
were much to be desired', she noted, 'that when mathematical processes pass
through the human brain instead of through the medium of inanimate mechanisms,
it were equally a necessity of things that the reasonings connected with
operations should hold the same just place as a clear and well-defined branch
of the subject of analysis...which they must do in studying the engine'. The
science of operations was proposed as a new discipline of utter generality both
within the surveillance of cerebral labour and in the manufacture of exact
Management of labour's caprices held
the key to these connexions. In the decade of political reform and the factory
system, Babbage tried to make industry uniquely visible to managers so as to
guarantee the reliability of output. One could survey 'not only the mechanical
connection of the solid members of the bodies of men' but also, 'in the form of
a connected map or plan, the organization of an extensive factory, or any great
public institution, in which a vast number of individuals are employed, and
their duties regulated (as they generally are or ought to be) by a consistent
and well-digested system'. Under this gaze factories looked like perfect
engines and calculating machines looked like perfect computers.
These engines for manufacturing numbers were developed alongside the discourse
of political economy. The 'philosophy of manufactures' provided Babbage with an
account of what he called the 'domestic economy of the factory'. His
publications on the economy of the factory and the automatism of labour power
culminated in his great survey of 1828-32, On the Economy of Machinery and
Manufactures, a work based on intelligence gathered throughout the
factories of Britain, soon translated into every major European language. As
the calculating engine was a 'manufactory of figures', so Babbage sketched his
definition of a 'manufactory', especially its disaggregation of production
processes into their simplest components to allow economy and surveillance in
terms of consumed power, wages, or time.
Babbage's specifications placed
unprecedented demands on the skills of the machine tool workshops. A report
drafted in 1829 for the gentlemen of the Royal Society by Babbage's closest
allies conceded that 'in all those parts of the machine where the nicest
precision is required the wheelwork only brings them by a first approximation
(though a very nice one) to their destined places, and they are then settled
into accurate adjustment by peculiar contrivances which admit of no shake or
latitude of any kind'.
The troublesome terms in these bland remarks by the gentlemen of science were
the references to nice precision, accurate adjustment and shake or latitude.
What might seem to a savant to be matters of irrational judgement were key
aspects of the customary culture of the industrialising workshop. The rights of
the workers to the whole value of their labour informed much of the radical
protest of these key years. The Chartist workforce protested against the
campaigns 'to make us tools'. Proletarian
visitors to the machine shows equally frequently complained that their own role
in manufacture was invisible there. In contrast, Babbage's colleague 'the
Pindar of Manufacture' Andrew Ure characteristically lapsed into the imagery of
Olympus and of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to describe the new automatic
machinery as 'the Iron Man sprung out of the hands of our modern
Prometheus at the bidding of Minerva - a creation destined to restore order
among the industrious classes'.
These issues made urgent the problem
of the source and ownership of the intelligence and skills embodied in machines
confessedly designed to perform mental work. In his Economy of Machinery
Babbage made much of the means through which the automatic lathe and its
product, the calculating engine, would guarantee 'identity' and 'accuracy'.
Proponents of machinofacture reckoned that the factory system was evidently a
consequence of intelligent reason and situated this intelligence in the complex
relation between the fixed capital of the steam-driven engines and the mental
capital of the millowners. The workforce itself was only judged a producer of
value to the extent that it matched precisely the capacities of the machines.
The qualities attributed to this intelligence were just those required from
this form of superintendence, anticipation and meticulous scrutiny. This was
the definition of intelligence which Babbage embodied in his machines and the
sense of intelligence which he reckoned those machines displayed. He even claimed
that these were the virtues of divinity. Natural theology was the indispensable
medium through which early Victorian savants broadcast their messages. The
dominant texts of this genre were the Bridgewater Treatises composed in
the early 1830s by eminent divines and natural philosophers under the
management of the Royal Society's presidency.
The treatise produced by William Whewell, then mathematics tutor at Trinity
College Cambridge, was among the most successful of these. Babbage's machine
philosophy was here assailed from a perspective in complete contrast to those
of the radical artisans. Whewell rejected continuities at every level. He
invented the word 'palaetiology' to describe the rational search for causes of
current systems, just so as to point out that this search must always terminate
with the inexplicable and spiritual. He denied any material origin for thought
or language. He reckoned that discoveries were not made by the patient
accumulation of facts but rather by the sudden dramatic superinduction of a
fundamental idea which then governed the phenomena. He thought that his
students could be drilled to formalise mathematical truths but not taught how
to discover them. 'We cannot unfold the mind of a spider or bee into the mind of a geometer'. The historical
emergence of intelligence from mere matter was itself, for Whewell, not a lawlike surprise but rather a divine
and thus miraculous act. Whewell maintained a consistent hostility to the
implications of mechanised analysis: 'we may thus deny to the mechanical
philosophers and mathematicians of recent times any authority with regard to
their views of the administration of the Universe'. Worse was to follow.
Whewell brutally denied that mechanised analytical calculation was proper to
the formation of the clerisy. In classical geometry 'we tread the ground
ourselves at every step feeling ourselves firm' but in machine analysis 'we are
carried along as in a railroad carriage, entering it at one station and coming
out of it at another.....it is plain that the latter is not a mode of
exercising our own locomotive powers...It may be the best way for men of
business to travel but it cannot fitly be made a part of the gymnastics of
These remarks were direct blows to
Babbage's programme. He called the
reply to Whewell he produced in 1837 the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise and
labelled it 'a fragment'. It contained a series of sketches of his religious
faith, his cosmology and his ambitions for the calculating engines. It amounted
to a confession of his faith that the established clerisy was incompetent,
dangerous and innumerate. Babbage had shown that memory and foresight
were the two features of intelligence
represented in his machines. He now showed, using resources from his
calculating engines and from David Hume's notorious critique of miracles and
revelation, that these features of machine intelligence were all that was
needed to understand and model the rule of God, whether based on the miraculous
work of the Supreme Intelligence or on His promise of an afterlife. Foresight
could be shown to be responsible for all apparently miaculous and specially
providential events in nature. Throughout the 1830s Babbage regaled his guests
with a portentous party trick. He could set the machine to print a series of
integers from unity to one million. Any observer of the machine's output would
assume that this series would continue indefinitely. But the initial setting of
the machine could be adjusted so that at a certain point the machine would then
advance in steps of ten thousand. An indefinite number of different rules might
be set this way. To the observer, each discontinuity would seem to be a
surprise, if not a 'miracle', an event unpredictable from the apparent law-like
course of the machine. Yet in fact the manager of the system would have
given it foresight. Whewell's Bridgewater Treatise appeared at the start
of March 1833. Less than two months later Babbage had already worked out a
salon experiment using the Difference Engine to print the series of even
integers up to ten thousand and then increase each term in steps of three. The
sudden discontinuity was predictable to the analyst and yet surprising to the
audience. Babbage drew the analogy with divine foresight, whether in the
production of new species or in miraculous intervention. In May 1833,
therefore, Babbage was ready to show a mechanical miracle.
His onlookers were almost always
impressed. As early as June 1833 Lady Byron and her daughter Ada Lovelace 'both
went to see the thinking machine (for such it seems)' and were treated
to Babbage's miraculous show of apparently sudden breaks in its output. 'There
was a sublimity in the views thus opened of the ultimate results of
intellectual power', she reported. The dour Thomas Carlyle was predictably
sceptical, and thundered his complaint about Babbage's analogy between thought
and steam power. 'Innumerable are the illusions of Custom, but of all these,
perhaps the cleverest is her knack of persuading us that the Miraculous, by
simple repetition, ceases to be Miraculous....Am I to view the Stupendous with
stupid indifference, because I have seen it twice, or two hundred, or two
million times ? There is no reason in Nature or in Art why I should: unless,
indeed, I am a mere Work-Machine, for whom the divine gift of Thought were no
other than the terrestrial gift of Steam is to the Steam-Engine, a power
whereby Cotton might be spun, and money and money's worth realised'.
Two years later a curious visitor was treated to a lecture of three hours on
the topic of programmed discontinuities: 'the whole, of course, seems
incomprehensible, without the exercise of volition and thought'. Here, then,
was the spiritual equivalent of the systematic gaze. In answer to Whewell's
boast that only induction might reveal the divine plan of the world, and that
machine analysis could never do so, Babbage countered that the world could be
represented as an automatic array only visible as a system from the point of
view of its manager. The world-system was a macroscopic version of a factory,
the philosophy of machinery the true path to faith, and the calculating
engines' power of 'volition and thought' demonstrated to all.
Babbage's house-party miracles were
not the only way in which London reformers like Charles Darwin learnt about the
capacity of machines to mimic sudden and unexpected actions. In the
metropolitan anatomy schools where Marshall Hall taught and Thomas Huxley
studied in the 1840s, the new doctrine of the reflex arc indicated that the
central nervous system functioned like an automatic machine. Hall notoriously
sought to distinguish the realm of the cerebrum, the proper governor of the
sensory and voluntary nerves, from the more automatic, less capricious,
excito-motory nerves. Some went further: the York medical teacher Thomas
Laycock argued that since the cranial ganglia were continuous with the spinal
cord, they must be regulated 'by laws identical'. Compare this map of
structural continuities of law-like determinism with that Babbage drew of the
division between the automatism of mechanical labour and the unique privileges
of the philosopher and manager. The language and technique of comparative
anatomists and neurologists in the mid-century repeatedly questioned, though
they tried to preserve, the proper sphere of mind and soul over and above an
ever-expanding automatic system.
Thus the unitarian medic Carpenter, Lovelace's erstwhile moral confidant and
soon the capital's premier physiology professor, wondered whether the cerebrum
displayed the reflex functions common elsewhere in the body's system of nerves
and ganglia which he so patiently mapped. Somehow there had been an apparently
discontinuous 'increase of intelligence' and 'predominance of will over the
involuntary impulses'. Eventually Carpenter wrote of cerebral reflexes no less
automatic than those of the lower nervous system. Consciousness and will were
then strictly limited, and the rule of the neurological machine extended to
zones previously the prerogative of mind alone. Thus was forged the careful
boundary around what later Victorian philosophers and intellectuals would call
'the mysterious citadel of the will'.
and Babbage argued that a single law could govern the universe's unfolding,
whether in cosmology or physiology. Both attacked Whewell's donnish claim that
divinity, spirit and mind supervened on, and dramatically disrupted, the
law-like progression. And both understood the division of labour as apt
evidence for the way in which machine-like automatism could generate apparent,
but by no means miraculous or inexplicable, innovation. In
the 1870s, when the new professionals of the physiological and physical
sciences set out to capture the commanding heights of government expertise,
industrial science and college jobs, they carried with them this interest in
the emergence of novelty from mechanically governed systematic order. Some
psychologists and physiologists also reckoned that the security of
intellectuals' new status was dependent on preserving a realm of voluntary action
and discretion resistant to reduction. The new tool in their hands was the
capacity which men like Babbage had forged - the science of measurement. It had
become plausible that natural objects like brains really behaved the way that
geared engines did. At the end of his Economy of Machinery Babbage had described 'a higher science'
which 'is now preparing its fetters for the minutest atoms that nature has
created: it is the science of calculation which becomes continually more
necessary at each step of our progress'. It
is significant for this story of the cultural meaning of thinking machines that
a prophecy of the universal role of tabulated calculation appears at the end of
a text on social organisation of the factory system.
A mechanical equivalent of
believe that we shall, sooner or later, arrive at a mechanical equivalent of
consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat. If a
pound weight falling through a distance of a foot gives rise to a definite
amount of heat, which may properly be said to be its equivalent, the same pound
weight falling through a foot on a man's hand gives rise to a definite amount
of feeling, which might with equal propriety be said to be its equivalent in
consciousness' (Thomas Henry Huxley, 'On Descartes' Discourse', 1870)
In any recognizable or recognized
form, intellectuals first appeared in England around 1870. Gentlemen of letters
and of science had not until then been members of a well-defined social class.
Their standing had relied on the model of the learned professions - law,
medicine and the church. Babbage complained in 1851 that 'science in England is
not a profession: its cultivators are scarcely even recognized as a class'. It
has been said that Victorian intellectuals 'thought of themselves as exchanging
specialized products in a market which was tolerably free, and the sum of whose
intellectual commodities made up the sum of knowledge'.
But neither in political economy nor in materialist metaphysics was it easy to
see exactly how to measure the productivity, and thus estimate the value, of
this special class. Negative implications quickly clustered in English around
the term 'intellectual'. The airy realm of pure theory, brain rather than
brawn, seemed too easily to distance this social formation from the
common-sense world of market and home. Aesthetes were satirised as
otherworldly; philosophers were viewed as useless on the exchange;
experimenters were damned as inhuman vivisectors or as cloistered myopes. So
when in the 1830s Whewell's allies tried to defend their university against the
tide of utilitarianism, the philosophic radical John Stuart Mill influentially
answered by noting that 'in intellect' England was 'distinguished only
for...doing all those things which are best done where man most resembles a
machine, with the precision of a machine'. The portentous Catholic theologian
Cardinal Wiseman feared that 'the next generation' might be 'brought up in the
ideas of many of the present, that man is a machine, the soul is electricity,
the affections magnetism, that life is a rail road, the world a share market,
and death a terminus'.
Either brain power could be precisely estimated, thus bringing brains to
market, or else it could be claimed that such valuation was really denigration,
so keeping brains sacred.
By the 1870s aggressive positivists and scientific naturalists, cultural
critics and ambitious lay experts, all sought recognition as a distinct order.
By analogy with the 'labour aristocracy' of highly skilled technicians and
artisans, there was now an 'intellectual aristocracy' which had in the 1850s
turned secretive discretionary government into well-oiled administrative
machinery and by 1870 had imposed competitive public examinations on the military,
the civil service and most cognate institutions.
The polite language of intellectual labour changed too. The Oxford English
Dictionary (1888), compiled by James Murray and other intellectual
aristocrats, carefully recorded the introduction of new terms for cerebral
labour and its effects. In 1864 the Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, started
using the term 'brain-labour'. In 1871 novelists invented 'brainwork' and
psychical researchers started investigating 'brain-waves'. In 1878 Huxley's
closest friend Joseph Hooker coined the term 'brain-power', and the author of a
work on The Hygiene of Brain and Nerves began referring to
'brain-workers'. In the United States, it was reported, one could now be
'brainy' (1874) and even suffer from 'brain-fag', a term soon picked up by
William James. And from 1877 the Brain even had an eponymous learned
journal all its own. The physiological psychology of Hall and Carpenter was now
an entire professional world. It is thus tempting to link these lexicographic
innovations with the 'new phrenology' which Brain's founders, the
metropolitan hospital physicians John Hughlings Jackson and David Ferrier, then
developed. These new phrenologists displaced the mapping of mental faculties by
the exact energetics of sensory-motor phenomena. There could be no physiology
of mind as such: ideas, memories, delirium, verbal slips, were markers for the
expanding realm of sensory-motor phenomena. This was when Jackson, for example,
introduced the punning term 'barrel organism' for the mechanisms of aphasia.
'Neural physiology is concerned only...with the physics of the nervous system'.
This version of cerebral metrology, with its naturalistic and evolutionist
implications for the social order and careful explication of its apparent inequalities,
provided what has acutely been called 'a cosmic genealogy for middle-class
So in March 1870 Thomas Huxley came up to
Cambridge to tell an audience of young Christians that the true path from
Cartesian dualism led to 'legitimate materialism' - 'man is nothing but a
machine...capable of adjusting itself within certain limits'. Huxley called
this 'the introduction of Calvinism [understand: predestination] into science'.
Exactly three years later Huxley again lectured on animals (and humans) as
automata; so the university's newly hired professor of experimental physics
James Clerk Maxwell told a more senior Cambridge audience that such Cartesian
metaphysics was just bad physics. Huxley's fatal mix of Cartesianism and
Calvinism was an error based on overconfidence in 'absolutely perfect data and
the omniscience of contingency'. Maxwell explained the cerebral metrology of
bad metaphysics: 'What is the occupation of a metaphysician ? He is nothing but
a physicist disarmed of all his weapons - a disembodied spirit trying to
measure distances in terms of his own cubit, to form a chronology in which
intervals of time are measured by the number of thoughts which they include,
and to evolve a standard pound out of his own self-consciousness'. The telling
point in this intriguing contrast between the naturalist's materialism and the
physicist's indeterminism is that both discussed how brain work could be turned
into measurement. Huxley judged that a materialist science of consciousness was
in prospect because he held that a mechanical equivalent of consciousness could
be established. 'It is because the body is a machine that education is
possible'. Maxwell reckoned that no such science was to be had because there
was no plausible physical measure of changes in consciousness, whether it be
'the little word which sets the world a fighting, the little scruple which
prevents a man from doing his will, the little gemmule which makes us
philosophers or idiots'.
To deny the possibility of a 'cerebral metrology' was just to deny
the submission of intellectuals to the mundane economy. As Otto Sibum reminds
us, the enormous significance of James Joule's construction of a 'mechanical
equivalent of heat' for Victorian technical culture and economic life offered
the notion of 'mechanical equivalence' as an apt way of measuring value.
Brain work could be made part of this economy if some token could be found
allowing that work to be measured. Huxley, who thought of himself as 'something
of a mechanical engineer in partibus infidelium', reckoned there was such a token - hence his appeal to the
'mechanical equivalent of consciousness'. The pious and scholarly Maxwell held
otherwise - hence his argument that the brain was an example of an
underdetermined, arbitrary system. In February 1879 Maxwell discussed these
matters with Francis Galton, genealogist of the new intellectual aristocracy,
author of Hereditary genius, a self-confessedly 'conscious machine' then
'busy with experiments on the workings of my own mind'. Maxwell had already
attacked Galton's hereditarian determinism in his 1873 Cambridge lecture and
again in an article on atoms for the Encyclopedia Britannica a couple of
years later. Now Maxwell wanted him to consider moments when the course taken
by a material system 'is not determined by the forces of the system'. Such a
system 'invokes some determining principle which is extra physical (but not
extra natural) to determine which of the two paths it is to follow...it may at
any instant at its own sweet will, without exerting any force or spending any
energy, go off along that one of the particular paths which happens to coincide
with the actual condition of the system at that instant'. For Maxwell, there
were indeed natural systems of such complexity that they lay beyond the grip of
the metrology derived from the conservation of energy. In such systems
'expenditure' could not be used as a token of real transformation. Cerebration
was exactly such a system. The Maxwellian position reserved a certainly natural
realm for brain-work outwith the control of the physical economy.
Institutionalisation of the
experimental natural sciences within the universities, and the role of
scientific experts in the state, were influentially urged by Huxley and his
powerful allies. Political interest focussed on the expansion in public
education and mass journalism, on German models of industrial expertise and
military might, debates about church authority, about evolution and
vivisection. All these themes of the early 1870s helped summon into existence a
publicly recognizable intellectual profession. It
was just such a group of intellectuals whom Huxley entertained at the
Metaphysical Society in London only a few months after his Cambridge lecture
with the painstaking and imaginative
anatomy of a frog in the deliberately futile search for the amphibian's soul.
It was at such an audience of commercially-minded intellectuals, too, that the
'worldly philosopher' and Manchester professor William Stanley Jevons aimed his
remarkable manifesto, The Principles of Science (1874). Jevons urged
that brute economic facts were mere reflections of mental phenomena. This was
exactly why post-Smithian economics could become an exact science and why
physical measurement could be applied to the brain's output: 'The time may come
when the tender mechanism of the brain will be traced out, and every thought
reduced to the expenditure of a determinate weight of nitrogen and phosphorus.
No apparent limit exists to the success of the scientific method in weighing
and measuring, and reducing beneath the sway of law, the phenomena both of
matter and mind'.
Jevons and his allies among the new
marginalist economists showed how the economy could be understood as a mental
machine; and they also made sure to reserve an impenetrable zone of pure
intellect. So in 1869 Jevons automated logic by turning Boolean algebra and
Babbage's calculating engine into a 'logical piano', a device built for him by
a local clockmaker designed to automate reasoning.
What he judged Babbage's 'exquisite book' on machinery and manufacture also
gave Jevons the resources to replace the labour theory of value by a more
thoroughly psychophysical account. Consumption would take place if calculations
of increases in pleasure overbalanced those of further painful exertion. In
1870 Jevons published in the house journal of the new scientific professionals,
Nature, on a series of experiments on muscular exertion which helped
convinced him that labour became more painful the longer it was performed.
Jevons learnt his experimental techniques directly from Babbage's protocols and
indirectly from the ergonomic models of Coulomb and Lavoisier.
From Carpenter's physiological
psychology Jevons then deduced two universal laws of the economy which tied
economic activity firmly to psychological and measurable principles.
Consumption relied on the marginal effect of external impressions on the
neurospinal system; production on the differential action of muscles guided by
the sensorimotor system towards external objects. The link between automatism
and physiological psychology showed how the social order could be incorporated
directly into the human frame. Like Carpenter and other admirers of the social
cosmology of physiological psychology, Jevons made sure to reserve the realm of
mind apart. 'Every mind is thus inscrutable to every other mind and no common
denominator of feeling seems possible'; but 'we may estimate the equality or
inequality of feelings by decisions of the human mind'. What could be estimated
with great precision were the public tokens of these feelings in mechanical
exertion, price formation and consumption decisions. These in turn depended on
the mechanical behaviour of the reflex system. Marginalist economics treated homo
economicus as a thinking machine. As a machine, its economic activity was
individualised, quantified and then referred to physiological mechanics. In
1872 the economic journalist Walter Bagehot composed Physics and Politics,
a history of economic organisation based entirely on the development of the
reflex system as set out by Huxley himself. Huxley then issued Bagehot's text
in his influential series of works propagandising for scientific naturalism.
Babbage's productive machines here became human machines driven by neurological
forces. But because these were machines which could think, a sequestered realm
could be left for the exercise of mind, and especially for those of the
intellectual analysts who alone could set out the laws which governed all of
social and economic life.
Competitive public examination of
brainpower and expert value, newly introduced in the 1870s, was a triumph for
the scientific professionals. Some worried that such quantitative estimates
would miss the true qualities of intellect and spirit; others nicely compared
examinations with 'engines' to drive social progress.
Their introduction might seem subversive of morally strenuous instruction among
intellectual elites. Maxwell understood the resistance to testing the tyro
intellectuals of a newfangled experimental physics laboratory. 'In the present
day', he conceded in October 1871, 'men of science are supposed to be in league
with the material spirit of the age, and to form a kind of advanced Radical
party among men of learning'. Would lab work for brainy students end up
'tainting their mathematical conceptions with material imagery...Will they not
break down altogether ?' The mechanisms of breakdown and and brain work were
the obsession of Victorian Cambridge's intellectual elite. In his study of
their manufacture, Andrew Warwick tellingly cites such commentators as Ralph
Waldo Emerson on these remarkable 'cast-iron men' and recalls the catastrophic
breakdowns during mathematics training of both Maxwell and Galton, the latter
of whom had felt as if he had 'tried to make a steam-engine perform more work
than it was constructed for'.
Cerebral metrology was highly controversial. The head of the new Edinburgh
University physics laboratory, Peter Guthrie Tait, judged examination of
students' ability in measurement experiments as a good way of testing their
intellect. The Cambridge mathematician Isaac Todhunter, Whewell's executor,
countered that experimenters should be "born and not manufactured".
Both sides charged the other with levelling standards and breeding uniformity.
Tait wanted "social entropy" in the laboratory, not the
"eternal, hideous, intolerable sameness" of mathematical life.
Energetics evidently provided the right language for cerebral metrology.
Maxwell's energetics studied mechanical systems which behaved
erratically or capriciously. His first triumph had been an essay on the
stability of Saturn's rings. In his campaigns to establish properly exact
standards for electrical resistance during the 1860s, he'd had his attention drawn
to the puzzles of making mechanical governors which could control the rate of
spin of a current-carrying coil. The equations of motion of such homeostatic
systems showed surprising irregularities and often escaped complete analysis.
In early 1873, a few weeks before his paper attacking Descartes, Huxley and
determinism, Maxwell introduced problems about apparently continuous, orderly,
mathematical systems which nevertheless displayed sudden discontinuities as
questions for Cambridge students. In
the 1870s he decided to use this expertise to teach his public the right
lessons about the cognitive capacities of machines and the properly secure
realm of mind. In dialogue with his Scottish colleagues such as Tait, Maxwell
began satirising the capacities of any Laplacean intelligence which claimed
complete knowledge of the entire future of a mechanical system. Maxwell reduced
this intelligence to 'a finite being', a 'pointsman on a railway line', or, in
William Thomson's felicitous phrase, 'a demon'.
There was a resonance with the physiological agencies of Jevons' economics,
which, unknown to the wilful economic agent, guided decisions about labour and
consumption in the busy marketplace of clashing values. The link between
indeterminacy, measurement and intellectual life was set forth in 1868 by
Norman Lockyer, Nature's founder, and Balfour Stewart, Jevons' opposite
number as Manchester physics professor. They wrote of 'a machine of infinite
delicacy of construction' such as an electric mine exploded by a long-range
telegraphic signal. This was a singular point in the smooth physics of
mechanical energy. Then the scientists invited their readers to compare this
intriguingly mechanical yet startling system with a living body, and, in
particular, with the 'obscure transmutations of energy' in 'the mysterious
brain chamber' of a human being acquiring a new truth. In 1871 William
Carpenter picked up the theme in a widely read article on 'the physiology of
will': he acknowledged the existence of a mechanism of thought, then insisted
that 'there is a power beyond and above all such mechanisms — a will which_can
utilize the automatic agencies to work out its own purpose'. Here was a a rude mechanical (rather than a
deity) incapable of performing work but able to shift valves without friction
or inertia, whose actions surpassed those of contemporary mechanical philosophy
and defined a boundary which that science could not transcend.
Maxwell and his allies agreed to limit their science's scope in order to scotch
the dominion of blind fate and articulate the constitution, and social role of,
scientific intellectuals. 'Every existence above a certain rank has its
singular points: the higher the rank, the more of them. At these points,
influences whose physical magnitude is too small to be taken into account of by
a finite being, may produce results of the greatest importance. All great
results produced by human endeavour depend on these singular states when they
occur', and it was the solemn duty of public scientists to disseminate wider
understanding of 'singularities and instabilities' so that the ill effects of
materialism and the reduction of humans to mere machines could be corrected and
quashed. At the end of his life Maxwell wondered whether the soul was 'like the
engine driver, who does not draw the train himself, but, by means of certain
valves, directs the course of the steam so as to drive the engine forward or
backward or to stop it .'
The demonic implications of
Maxwell's account of instability and discontinuity had a long and complex
aftermath - in psychical research and theosophy, cybernetics and information
science. Michael Polanyi made full use of the demon in his lectures on tacit
knowledge in the 1950s. The 'emergence of man and the thoughts of man' must not
be understood as passive motions of matter and mind, but rather 'the gradual
rise of autonomous centres of decision'. The Maxwellian demon was Polanyi's
perfect example of such a centre free from the tyranny of material mechanism.
This helped Polanyi contest Turing's apparent attribution of intelligence to
digital machines. Autonomous centres, such as human minds, themselves
determined what might count as a machine. 'Since the control exercised over the
machine by the user's mind is - like all interpretations of a system of strict
rules - necessarily unspecifiable, the machine can be said to function
intelligently only by aid of unspecifiable personal coefficients supplied by
the user's mind'. But in his 1948 talk on intelligent machinery, Turing also emphasised
the social basis of this kind of technology. He suggested that 'intellectual
activity consists mainly of various kinds of search', among which he singled
out 'what I should like to call the 'cultural search'. The isolated man does
not develop any intellectual power. It is necessary for him to be immersed in
an environment of other men. From this point of view the search for new
techniques must be regarded as carried out by the human community as a whole,
rather than individuals'.
This paper has offered some
historical remarks about the new techniques of mechanical intelligence and the
communal cultures sustaining them. Babbage's automated conditionality was a
decisive moment in the history of these techniques, because he used startling
outputs to show how even the most dramatically surprising events in his culture
could be quantified and programmed. When intellectuals appeared in England as a
specific class formation, debates about the scope of cerebral metrology,
automation and determinism became correspondingly intense. In such images as
Huxley's mechanical equivalent of consciousness, and Maxwell's cunning
proletarian pointsman, Victorians worked out ways of redefining the role of the
intellectual in the social economy. By finding proxies for mental life in
variables which could be measured the system of thinking machines gained
plausibility within a carefully defined but nevertheless rather extensive
realm. Processes which are deemed machine-like can therefore be
mechanised. It is true that 'the cliché example' of such a process has been the
Taylorist ideal of production-line work. Resistance to thinking machines is
sometimes bound up with resistance to (or satires of) Taylorisation. It is for
this reason that Kenner neatly connects the imitation game with the on-screen
antics of Keaton and Chaplin. One correspondingly cliché example of
unmechanisable work is the artisan ideal of craft workshop culture. In cultures
where administrative discretion and capricious coteries are seen as the principal
threat to social virtue, mechanisation and predictability seem like ideals. In
those where automation and expropriation of skill are seen as insidious, the
tacit and irremediably embodied will be praised.
This is why judgments that some machines can think or that brains are well
represented by such machines are of necessity implicated in rival accounts of
the socioeconomic order. The hardware of cerebral metrology does more than
provide the material for the neurological imagination. It also helps provide the
brain with its cultural and economic place.
'OK Computer' is
published in Michael Hagner (ed.), Ecce
Cortex: Beitraege zur Geschichte des modernen Gehirns, Wallstein Verlag,
1999, pp. 254-85.
I thank Robin
Boast, Gerd Gigerenzer, Michael Hagner, Emily James, Anna-Katherina Mayer,
Andrew Mendelsohn, Helmut Mueller-Sievers and Alison Winter for help with the
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