Mechanization, Automation, Animation: Enchanting the Human-Built World

If you’re paying any attention at all to news coming out of the tech sector, it’s hard to go a day without coming across a story about a new robot, app, or tool that promises (or threatens) to do what we previously did for ourselves. Some of these tasks involve physical labor, but increasingly they involve cognitive, emotional, and even ethical labor. Thinking carefully about the implications of this trend is, in my view, one of the most important tasks before us.

Taking a comment from Adam Thierer on a recent post about “smart-homes” as my point of departure, I propose that we think about the trend described above as a three-step process aimed at the enchantment of the human-built world.

In Adam’s view, as I read his comment, the “smartness” of the “smart home” is simply an extension of the many ways that we have already automated household tasks over the course of the last 100 years or so. Moreover, to my claim that a “smart home” is “an active technological system that requires maintenance and regulation,” Adam commented, “Even in the days of mud huts and log cabins that was somewhat true.”¹

In my initial response to Adam, I suggested that while it is true that more primitive homes, huts and cabins if you will, involved technology and might even be considered technological systems if we press the semantic range of that phrase a bit, there were important discontinuities as well. To clarify that claim, I began by making some distinctions using home heating as an example.

For most of human history, if I wanted warmth in my home I would need to build and sustain a fire of some sort. I could, for example, build a fire in a fireplace or I could light one in a coal burning stove. This would require a good deal of effort and caution. In short, it required a significant amount of engagement on my part, physical and mental.

Then along came the furnace and central heating. I no longer needed to build and sustain a fire. I could simply flip a switch and a machine would generate the heat and disperse it throughout my home. But I would hesitate to call this an instance of automation. Instead, let’s call it mechanization. Central heating, machine heating if you will, mechanizes the work of providing heat. And, of course, with that mechanization comes far less engagement on my part. In fact, this initial step is probably the most obvious and striking point of discontinuity in the evolution of home heating.

Add a thermostat and I no longer need to actively monitor the temperature in order to keep my home comfortably warm. I can set the thermostat at a toasty 73 degrees and trust the system to do the work for me. Ease of use continues to advance as my degree of engagement diminishes. Now, I think, we can talk about automation. Of course, thermostats of varying degrees of sophistication are available. The simplest models allow you to set just one temperature and require you to manually change that setting if you want the temperature to adjust over the course of the day. More elaborate, digital thermostats allow you to program a series of temperature changes throughout the course of the day and for different days of the week. All of these, however, allow me to automate the functioning of the machine. But, we should note, altering these settings still required direct action on my part.

It seems that the next step in this progression is something like Nest, a thermostat that “learns” your preferences and takes over management of the temperature for you. Nest is illustrative of the “smart” trend that promises something more than simple automation. Tools like Nest take automation further along the path toward autonomous functionality by “learning” to regulate themselves. Nest can also be controlled with a smart phone. In other words, it can be networked; it can “talk” to other devices. It is, then, a potential component of the assemblage of technologies that together constitute the so-called Internet of Things, one manifestation of which is the “smart home.” At this point, I am thoroughly disengaged from the process of providing heat for my home. I don’t need to cut wood or start a fire. I don’t need to flip a switch. I don’t need to adjust controls. Without labor, attention, or decisions on my part, my home is comfortably heated.

I remain uncertain about what to call this last step. Mechanization, automation, and … what?

In my previous post, I couldn’t quite resist an allusion to the famous scene in Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein where Dr. Frankenstein shouts, “It’s alive. It’s alive!” The allusion suggested “animation” a name for the third step after mechanization and automation. That strikes me as a provocative and vivid word choice, but it also threatens to mystify more than it clarifies. I mean the term in a figurative sense, but it may be too easy to suppose that something more literal is intended. Nonetheless, throwing caution to the wind, I’m going to go with animation, at least for the time being. Blogging is nothing, if not provisional, right?

So then, we have three discernible stages–mechanization, automation, animation–in the technological enchantment of the human-built world. The technological enchantment of the human-built world is the unforeseen consequence of the disenchantment of the natural world described by sociologists of modernity, Max Weber being the most notable. These sociologists claimed that modernity entailed the rationalization of the world and the purging of mystery, but they were only partly right. It might be better to say that the world was not so much disenchanted as it was differently enchanted. This displacement and redistribution of enchantment may be just as important a factor in shaping modernity as the putative disenchantment of nature.

In an offhand, stream-of-consciousness aside, I ventured that the allure of the smart-home, and similar technologies, arose from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. I’m doubling-down on that hypothesis. Here’s the working thesis: the ongoing technological enchantment of the human-built world is a corollary of the disenchantment of the natural world. The first movement yields the second, and the two are interwoven. To call this process of technological animation an enchantment of the human-built world is not merely a figurative post-hoc gloss on what has actually happened. Rather, the work of enchantment has been woven into the process all along.

In support of this claim we might consider, first, the entanglement of technology and magic just as the process of disenchantment is taking off in the early-modern period as well as the pervasive and, secondly, the persistent presence of the religion of technology within the western technological project.

I’m going to leave it at that for now. In a subsequent post, I’ll bring Hannah Arendt’s discussion of labor, work, and action into the discussion to help us think about the trade-offs involved in this enchantment of the human-built world.

[Discussion continued here: More On Mechanization, Automation, Animation.]

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¹ There is a methodological question lying beneath the surface of this exchange: how do we wisely weigh the relevant degrees of continuity and discontinuity with older technology as we think about new technology? This can be tricky. There can be a tendency to exaggerate either the continuity or the discontinuity. In both cases, there would be nothing at all to learn because either nothing has changed and thus nothing needs to be learned, or else everything has changed and nothing of use can be learned. In the most unhelpful cases, both exaggerations are simultaneously affirmed. To generate hype, proponents of a new technology breathlessly proclaim its revolutionary character while at the same disingenuously allaying criticism by insisting the new revolutionary technology is really just like any number of other technologies that preceded it.