Robot Desires: The Social Behavior of Technology

Published, 2018, available in bookstores and Amazon, B&N, etc.  – In the early 1700s, we were making fabric using one of the technologies of the time, a loom. Creating a row in cloth required that you pass a thread back and forth through other threads that are held in place. It’s slow going, unless you are John Kay in charge of your father’s mill, and you think there must be a better way. There is, and in 1733 you receive a patent for a “flying shuttle.” The shuttle is a piece of wood and a process enabling the thread to be passed back and forth faster than before. You save time, and presumably, you make more money.

Now it’s 1784 and Edmund Cartwright takes weaving another step into efficiency. He creates a loom that is powered by something other than humans – could be a water wheel, steam engine, or electrical motor. A step into the Industrial Revolution that would also alter working environments, from a home/cottage industry to factory. Faster: more money.

At this point, we have improvements envisioned, developed, and implemented, basically by one person who could understand the workings of the entire process. Another advance, Vaucanson’s loom of 1745, was made commercially viable by Joseph-Marie Jacquard in 1804. This loom had a data card reader enabling more complicated patterns to be incorporated into the weave.

Consider the difference between the Jacquard loom and the previous two. The first two advancements are easy to understand: attach a cord to a block of wood and throw it to the other side of the loom, and connect a water wheel, steam engine, or electric motor to a loom. Now try describing how a card reader might control the threading of a loom.

Today’s commercial weaving machines are designed for a wide range of very specific functions, and require trained operators, maintenance technicians, and programmers to make them run. When we moved from a technology that one person, or even one small group, could understand, we entered a very different technically-oriented environment. One result is that many job functions address only one small part of a task: it’s someone else’s job to know the other piece of the process. As specialization increases, it becomes less and less our job to understand why we do what we do.

From pre-industrial, through the Industrial Revolution, and into the Information Age, the need to make a living was always negotiated in concert with the tools we made and used. And we humans will always do what is necessary to supply the system we have in order to continue to make a living. However, we are now challenged – much more than in previous eras – to negotiate with this larger, more controlling, and more sophisticated system.

The story of human interactions with technology is a big one: this book is a very short version.