The Technium

You Are a Robot

The central argument of Jaron Lanier’s intelligent and argumentative book, You Are Not a Gadget, is that technology wants us to become more like technology itself — and this is a bad thing. Jaron believes that as technology advances humans tend to make themselves more machine-like and less human. For instance, he claims that we tend to alter our behavior in a non-desirable way in order to use poorly designed computers, today’s internet, and many hi-tech gadgets. We start to think like a machine in order to use a machine. More worrisome, we may become dumber in order to use dumb machines. Maybe we speak slower, or use simpler language. Or maybe we restrict our emotions and freedoms so that a computer can read us. Perhaps we accept that we should produce things for free because the internet “wants” things to be free. Jaron sees this as a long slippery slope as we make ourselves into gadget-beings. But he warns, “you are not a gadget.”

I think there are cases and examples of this dumbing down, but in general I think Jaron is wrong that this is the main event of our relationship with technology, or a long term trend in humanity or the technium. However there is one place, a curious place, that Jaron’s analysis is absolutely correct: increasingly, as an artist, you are a gadget.

Everywhere we look in pop culture today, some of the coolest expressions are created by humans imitating machines. Exhibit A would be the surging popularity of popping, tutting, and dub step dancing. You’ve seen these dancers on YouTube: the best of them look exactly like robots dancing, with the mechanical stutter of today’s crude robots trying to move like humans. Except the imitators robotically dance better than any robot could — so far.

The are so many styles of robotic dancing, and the genre is moving so fast, that each variety has its own practitioners, lingo, and culture. From Wikipedia here is a partial taxonomy of some of the sub-varieties of dance moves and styles.

A style and a technique where you imitate film characters being animated by stop motion. The technique consists of moving rigidly and jerky by tensing muscles and using techniques similar to strobing and the robot to make it appear as if the dancer has been animated frame by frame. This style was heavily inspired by the dynamation films created by Ray Harryhausen, such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958).

A style that imitates animatronic robots. Related to the robot style, but adds a hit or bounce at the end of each movement.

Boogaloo or boog style is a loose and fluid dance style trying to give the impression of a body lacking bones, partly inspired by animated movies and cartoons. It utilizes circular rolls of various body parts, such as the hips, knees and head…

Dime stopping
A technique of moving at a steady pace and then abruptly coming to a halt, as if attempting to stop on a dime. This is often combined with a pop at the beginning and/or end of the movement.

Fast forward
The concept of moving faster than normal, like being part of a video being played in fast forward.

In flexing the dancer uses flexible arm stretches which usually include the temporary dislocation of the shoulder. Movements are also added to make the stretches look more exaggerated. This style of movement is also commonly known as “Bone-breaking”.

Floating, gliding and sliding
A set of footwork-oriented techniques that attempt to create the illusion that the dancer’s body is floating smoothly across the floor, or that the legs are walking while the dancer travels in unexpected directions. Encompasses moves such as the backslide, which was made famous by Michael Jackson who called it the moonwalk.

A style imitating a puppet or marionette tied to strings. Normally performed alone or with a partner acting as the puppet master pulling the strings.

A style imitating a robot or mannequin.

A style imitating the scarecrow character of The Wizard of Oz. Claimed to be pioneered by Boogaloo Sam in 1977. Focuses on out-stretched arms and rigid poses contrasted with loose hands and legs.

Slow motion
Moving very slowly with exaggerated movements to make it appear as if the dancer is viewed in slow motion.

A style of popping that gives the impression that the dancer is moving within a strobe light. To produce this effect, a dancer will take any ordinary movement (such as waving hello to someone) in conjunction with quick, short stop-and-go movements to make a strobing motion.

Based on action figures such as G.I. Joe and Major Matt Mason, developed by an old member of the Electric Boogaloos called Toyman Skeet.[5] Goes between straight arms and right angles to simulate limited joint movement.

Inspired by the art of Ancient Egypt (the name derived from the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun), tutting exploits the body’s ability to create geometric positions (such as boxes) and movements, predominantly with the use of right angles. It generally focuses on the arms and hands, and includes sub-styles such as finger tutting.

Tensing muscles very hard, causing them to shake or flutter.

There are so many examples on YouTube that its hard to pick just one as a start. For a lovely example of the beauty of a human dancing with machine exactness and style, see this fabulous video of “finger tutting” — that is, using one’s hands to “tut” (like King Tut) geometric shapes. As you’ll see at the end, this is commercial for Samsung — another indication of how far this attitude has penetrated the culture.

But also don’t forget the older versions of machine precision dance found in North Koreas stadium spectacles, where humans become mechanical pixels illuminating giant moving images, or even the eerie robotic precision of an army of Chinese dancers in the Beijing Olympic ceremonies.

We find the same imitation of machines in the faddish prevalence of extreme auto-tuning in pop music. Rather than trying to make the human voice more perfectly human, auto-tune technology is used to make the voice uncannily mutant. It catches that same strange loop of a human imitating a machine imitating a human. It is not a mechanical voice. It is a mechanical voice that tries to be human. I predict that the next step in the coming years will be humans singing — unaided by auto-tune — like an an auto-tuned voice. They will sing like robots.

We see similar behavior in movies. What are the heroes of Iron Man and Avatar but humans trying to behave like robots and technological avatars? The more robotic they are, the better the hero.

Mechwarrior copy

Since technology isn’t new, why this infatuation with imitating machines now? I think there are several reasons.

First, it’s a blank artistic frontier. Other than a few tip-toes into the territory over the years (the tin man in Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, etc), the continent of acting out a machine’s life is wide open.

Secondly, we have a much better idea of what we think a machine’s life is. We’ve all heard robotic voices in our phones and GPS units, so it is easier to imitate one now. There are enough robotic arms and prototype humanoid robots that we can fake one and everyone knows what we are faking. As robots continue to improve their imitation of us, the differences will become more subtle, and the art of imitation, the art of tutting and botting, will become more subtle. But here at the beginning, the otherness of robots is blatant, distinctive, and near enough to copy.

Lastly, but not least, we are slowly changing our attitudes about robots. For as long as robots have existed (let’s say 50 years) we humans have viewed them as inferiors, sub-human, and to be pitied because for all their powers they lacked our spiritual essence of consciousness. They were less than human in almost any way we could measure. But slowly, robots are becoming better than humans in small, narrow fields. Each time a robot does something better than us, the very notion of “robotness” is elevated. Botness is incrementally something that is valued, something that we envy. When computerized machines in our cars can brake our car better, faster, and more dependably than we can, then being a robot is not as much of an insult as it used to be. As robots balance a bicycle/motorcycle better than we can, we envy them. When they remember more than we can, we will envy them.

Today’s dancing robots let us imitate them by their clear signs of vibration and inferiority. But someday we may not be able to imitate their fluid dancing at all — we’ll only be able to envy them. We may not be able to imitate their hyper-real human-like voices at all. We may wind up in a long century of full-time envy of robots. Kids may announce to inquiring parents that what they want to be when they grow up is a robot.

Jaron Lanier is worried that we lower ourselves as we imitate our machines and gadgets, but what happens if our machines and gadgets raise our ambitions and inspire our better angles? What if we ourselves want to be as great as our mechanical creations? What happens when we switch from pitying robots to envying them?

UPDATE: Now years later, a Youtube video of guys dressed as robots dancing like robots. They are pretty good robots.

  • Excellent points.
    That said, calculators are robots that are better at calculating that I will ever be and I don’t envy them: I use them. 
    Google is a robot that is better than me for searching and I love it.

    I am not sure what “robot envy” is, unless it’s a representation of perfection and eternity. But even if I would aspire to be “perfect and eternal”, it wouldn’t be for accomplishing more robotic tasks but for being more playful, more adventurous. More human.

    Robots are not a machinery outside of us, they are just the future of the Technium. They are extensions of ourselves, like any other media.

  • The problem of uploading to emulated life is solved by meeting in the middle. I’ll agree to meet my immortal self at check point Charlie so he will let me pass through the DNA gate. And back. Forever. This solves the Matrix problem. All the meat was used for harvesting the limbic system. The rest was computation.

  • neilinchicago

    If you don’t teach machines and horses to do what you want in their way they’ll teach you to do what they want in your way.
     — _Always Coming Home_, Ursula K. LeGuin

  • Three comments: 

    1) A reference to the gestural vocabulary / alphabet that Apple registered with the U.S. patent office last year and the implications of same. Or indeed any reference to the pinching and pulling interactions that many millions of us now engage in on a daily basis with our touchscreens, small or large, thanks to Mr. Jobs. These actions far more closely resemble the “human dancing with machine exactness and style” of the finger tutting than any more ancient, more biological style of dancing
    2) A discussion of robot dancing or irrational fears of robot without reference to the finest comic marriage of those two themes – The Flight of the Conchords song “The Humans are Dead”? Really? It’s my sense that a significant percentage of the most innovative and influential music in the last 3 decades, particularly the dance music, has the historically peculiar acoustic signature of sounding like it is trying to represent life within a machine, which could be the global industrial machine economy and society. Everything from the obvious high bpms of industrial techno and jungle through Radiohead and the tune that accompanies the above video. That the dancing that emerges to naturally accompany such music is machine-like or robotic in forms seems, to this observer, obvious. I wonder how much of this type of modern music you listen to? For me it’s been the most reliable pathfinder for the way the world is going for as long as I have been paying attention. 

    • Hmm, this came through a little garbled at the end. Text missing after the youtube ink is

      “3)…It’s my sense…”
      [Site manager: that’s a weird apocopation tool you have on spaces in the comments!]

  • I read Mr. Lanier’s book and thought it was excellent.  I share his worries about making humans dumber in order to make machines seem smarter.  For instance, one thing that is special about the human mind is the ability to discuss both formal and conceptual semantics.  Machines, from what I know (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), simply use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of semantics.   

    I don’t understand why people think that humans and robots cannot coexist and also have entirely different skill sets or intelligences.  One doesn’t necessarily have to become like the other.  Why do humans have to envy robots instead of simply admiring them or using them?  Why can’t we let robots do what they do best and let humans focus on things that involve innate human creativity?

    One thing is certain, however.  Our political and economic systems are not evolving as quickly as life in the Technium is.

  • “What if we ourselves want to be as great as our mechanical creations?”

    What we fantasize about is what we’ve always desired in a part of our souls: to be superhuman, to be gods. I think this dates back to the beginning of our species. But this is an adolescent fantasy. We should stay wary of it because power isn’t the same as wisdom, as nearly all great spiritual traditions teach. Our many Faustian legends show us the dangers as well as the promise. There’s no machine most of us want to be “as great as” today, but the day may come. We’ll see if we can dance the right steps when it does.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yep, as my friend Stewart Brand proclaimed long ago: “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

  • Excellent reflections, Mr. Kelly. You might be interested in reading an article on my blog as a response to it: Cyborgs, Dubstep and Human Evolution:

  • On the same theme We, the robots

  • “Since technology isn’t new, why this infatuation with imitating machines now?” 

    i’m not sure what you mean by “now”, but one could be forgiven for thinking you’re suggesting there hasn’t been any robotic-type dancing before this current wave, aside from mass communist performances.

    One particular style of Robot Dancing was, according to Wikipedia, started in 1967 and I remember it being popular in my English school playground in the early 1980s.

    Going forty years further back there’s something very robotic about the Triadic Ballet of 1927, from the Bauhaus: (I believe that’s a performance of it from 1970.)

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I think robotic dance is not new, as there has been experiments earlier. I think what is new is the popular infatuation with it, a popularity I don’t think was present before.

  • David McCabe

    There’s a tattoo parlor here called “Robot Tattoo”. I guess that’s the ideal for tattoo artists: quick, precise, and unfaltering. 

  • a reader

    check out this little guy….he’s great