BOT by Tom Estes @ BRUNO GLINT exhibition, Trolley of Folly
Two centuries ago this year, 64 men were brought to trial in York, England. Their crime? They were skilled weavers who fought back against the rising tide of power looms they feared would put them out of work. The Luddites spent two years burning mills and destroying factory machinery, and the British government was not amused. Of the 64 men charged in 1813, 25 were transported to Australia and 17 were led to the gallows.
Since then, Luddite has become a derisive term for anyone afraid of new technology. After all, the weavers turned out to be wrong. Power looms put them out of work, but in the long run automation made the entire workforce more productive. Everyone still had jobs—just different ones. Some ran the new power looms, others found work no one could have imagined just a few decades before, in steel mills, automobile factories, and railroad lines. In the end, this produced wealth for everyone, because, after all, someone still had to make, run, and maintain the machines.
But that was then. During the Industrial Revolution, machines were limited to performing physical tasks. The Digital Revolution is different because computers can perform cognitive tasks too, and that means machines will eventually be able to run themselves. When that happens, they won’t just put individuals out of work temporarily. Entire classes of workers will be out of work permanently. In other words, the Luddites weren’t wrong. They were just 200 years too early.
What do we do over the next few decades as robots become steadily more capable and steadily begin taking away all our jobs? This isn’t something that will happen overnight. It will happen slowly, as machines grow increasingly capable. We’ve already seen it in factories, where robots do work that used to be done by semiskilled assembly line workers. In a decade, driverless cars will start to put taxi hacks and truck drivers out of a job. And while it’s easy to believe that some jobs can never be done by machines—do the elderly really want to be tended by robots?—that may not be true. Nearly 50 years ago, when MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created a therapy simulation program named Eliza, he was astonished to discover just how addictive it was. Even though Eliza was almost laughably crude, it was endlessly patient and seemed interested in your problems. People liked talking to Eliza.
This is the kind of thing found frequently in literature but when I started looking for answers from mainstream economists, it turned out there wasn’t much to choose from. The economics community just hasn’t spent much time over the past couple of decades focusing on the effect that machine intelligence is likely to have on the labor market.
The theme of the robot and its role in society has been thoroughly explored in literature. Film adaptations have always been literary studies’ unwanted offspring. An inbred, unoriginal variety of something that had already existed. The more troubling argument when it comes to film’s exploration of the issue is that the label ‘killer robots’ strikes me as undermining the seriousness of the issue. That is, by implicitly bringing to mind ‘terminator’-esque images in the public’s mind the issue can and will be belittled by those with an interest to do so. Why use comic-book like language for such a serious issue? The problem is certainly not that such language is designed to instill fear but, rather, that it might have the opposite effect.
A new performance work ‘Bot’ by Artist Tom Estes revolves around the contemporary revolution in robotic technology and artificial intelligence. The work taps into the humor and the horror of the golem stories that illustrate unknown parameters and the ancient question of unlocking knowledge and the creation that goes with it.
With its roots in the Bible, the word ‘golem’ denotes an “unshapen form” of a human being (Psalm 139:16) and is also known as the bringing to life of something that was initially not alive before, as revolving around the animation of an inanimate statue. In Jewish folklore, a golem (goh-ləm; Hebrew: גולם) is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter. The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing. The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. There are many tales differing on how the Golem was brought to life and afterwards controlled.
The Expressionist film from the1920’s Der Golem is a silent German classic and tells the story of a Jewish rabbi in 16th-century Prague, who creates a giant creature from clay, called the Golem, and using sorcery, brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. An unusual difference in both stories lays in the reasons as to why the protagonists create a golem. Rabbi Leib does so because he told to and the creation comes to life because of religious magic — magic that is not revealed in the story. Leib faithfully does what is told him, while Frankenstein pursues humanistic values of unlimited knowledge.
When I see these old attempts at what amounted to a horror film back in the day, before my time (and I’m an old duffer), I’m always struck at the marvelous Gothic quality wrought by the twisted buildings, the gnarled stairways, the open balconies and the weird angles of things such as doorways, arches, street, bridges and the like. The monstrosities are stark, and disconcerting but hardly terrifying by today’s CGIs. However they still manage to terrify their victims in an almost comical, stylized way. The Golem is a marvelous film, that together with Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be considered examples of early film at its very best. There is an ageless quality to them that transcends the hoary and often corny plots and acting. Each must be taken as a whole because that product is always greater than the sum of their parts. Compare the magical Indian Love Call of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, two rather mainstream singers whose voices blend into something greater than either of their individual talents. So too it is, I contend, with these old Gothic classics. Horror? Hardly. But, their starkness and darkness with its twisted surroundings are still eerie and provoking.
In the performance artist Tom Estes completely wraps himself from head to toe in electrical tape to form the outline of his own body. He then proceeds to fill the shell he has created in the shape of himself with wires and parts salvaged from home appliances.
Estes’ use of the body as well as cannibalized technology also relates to the story of Frankenstein. The Golem is clearly the ancestor of the Frankenstein monster. Like Frankenstein, The Golem is an extremely potent form of tapping into our dream states and the horror of the irrational and unknown, and is a metaphor for humanity’s quest for creation. However the fundamental difference is that the Golem coming to life relies on the unknown powers of God while he Frankenstein Monster relies on man-made intellect. In film adaptation of The Golem story, the Rabbi uses sorcery (with Gods blessing) to bring the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. Dr. Frankenstein pursues humanistic values and systematic scientific research but his creation seems to stem from his own desires for unlimited knowledge.
Within the film the menace or monster of Frankenstein is related to a corruption of technology and may be regarded as directly going against God. So Estes’ performance also references the theme found in Dr. Faustus in which, like Frankenstein, he is so blindly ambitious for knowledge regardless of the consequences.
Horror films developed out of a number of sources: folktales with devil characters, witchcraft, fables, myths, ghost stories. Considered that there are many works of literature that use this motif and the largest usage is found in the Jewish literary tradition which itself knows many diverse variations of the golem legend. Der golem is explicitly given life by God, whereas Shelley’s golem is electrocuted into this world. Singer’s version of the golem myth entails religious magic, whereas Shelley shocked the world with her scientific approach to a story — that makes it even more impossibly frightening. On an interesting sidetrack lays Harry Mulisch modern version of the golem titled De Procedure (The Procedure, 1998). Mulisch’s novel entails two golems, one in the third ‘act’ (chapter) in which the narrator relates the myth of the golem (Prague in the 16th century) according to the Jewish myth of the golem, apart from the fact that this golem is female. In the rest of the novel, the contemporary protagonist himself creates a golem. In his novel, Mulisch incorporates both the mythical and the modern (Frankenstein-like) golem. All of which raises questions as to what the thematic overlap between these versions are and what the startling differences are in both Singer’s golem and Shelley’s. Does the reason and method of creation influence their kinship?
Robots are learning to think for themselves, some are even developing their own private language. Is it possible that these new life forms will evolve to be smarter and more capable than us? From our telephones to our vacuum cleaners to our cars, we have robots that live and work beside us. And now we’re designing them to think for themselves, giving them the power to learn to move on their own. We are currently undergoing a transition period, much like the Industrial Revolution, where workers shifted from farms to factories.
So will the human species take the course of its own future evolution into its own hands? One possibility is merging the human mind with artificial intelligence and the body with advances in robotics. Will Homo sapiens evolve into Homo cyberneticus?
Scientist in Japan believe the future lies in combining humans and robots, and are already building robot suits for people to wear, which gives them superhuman strength. Will we choose to merge with the machines, combining the best of our world with the best of theirs?
Until a decade ago, the share of total national income going to workers was pretty stable at around 70 percent, while the share going to capital—mainly corporate profits and returns on financial investments—made up the other 30 percent. More recently, though, those shares have started to change. Slowly but steadily, labor’s share of total national income has gone down, while the share going to capital owners has gone up. The most obvious effect of this is the skyrocketing wealth of the top 1 percent, due mostly to huge increases in capital gains and investment income.
This is a grim prediction. But it’s not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. Economist Paul Krugman recently remarked that our long-standing belief in skills and education as the keys to financial success may well be outdated. In a blog post titled “Rise of the Robots,” he reviewed some recent economic data and predicted that we’re entering an era where the prime cause of income inequality will be something else entirely: capital vs. labor.
Over the last century many labor saving devices were introduced to reduce our workloads, and give us more leisure time. But that is not the way it has panned out. Labor reducing devices may have freed us from many of the drudgeries of housework but it has only freed us to work more hours as a means to increase the power and profits of the ownership classes. In simple terms, if owners of capital are capturing an increasing fraction of national income, then that capital needs to be shared more widely if we want to maintain a middle-class society. Somehow—and I’m afraid a bit of vagueness is inevitable here—an increasing share of corporate equity will need to be divvied up among the entire population as workers are slowly but surely stripped of their human capital. Perhaps everyone will be guaranteed ownership of a few robots, or some share of robot production of goods and services.
Your greatest competition in a few decades probably will not be human. Instead, job applicants will most likely have to compete with tireless and efficient robots, which are aggressively transforming the labour force. In this new generation of employment, workers will not be able to compete against machines but instead will have to find a way to work alongside them. So are we in the midst of a revolution so insidious we can’t even see it? Are we constructing our robots that will replace us in evolution?
Now is a particularly appropriate time to think about this question. Increasingly, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.
But whatever the answer—and it might turn out to be something we can’t even imagine right now—it’s time to start thinking about our automated future in earnest. The history of mass economic displacement isn’t encouraging—fascists in the ’20s, Nazis in the ’30s—and recent high levels of unemployment in Greece and Italy have already produced rioting in the streets and larger followings for right-wing populist parties. And that’s after only a few years of misery.
On Saturday, October 5th Artist Tom Estes presented a new performance work ‘Bot’, in a Large industrial space situated in the Tram Depot in Clapton. The exhibition, Trolley of Folly for the Bruno Glint Gallery was staged as part of the Artleaks weekend.