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Our machines are disturbingly lively & we ourselves frighteningly inert (Donna Haraway)

A few weeks ago I received an invitation. I love receiving invitations, even if I’m not able to accept. I appreciate being asked. It feels better than being forgotten, or excluded.

I responded to this invitation with a thank you and wrote words to the effect that I would come if I could, but as I was having some problems with health, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to.

I realised too late that the invitation was one of many sent by a machine and a response, especially a personal one was not appropriate. This machine didn’t know me, apart from as a series of 0s and 1s, wouldn’t understand what I was saying, wouldn’t care whether I was in good health or not, and even whether I attended or not.

I felt a bit foolish.

I was reminded of this incident when I read Nicholas Gane’s interview with social philosopher Donna Haraway. Gane had asked her about a comment she had written in her Cyborg Manifesto (1985). There she said:

“Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

She explained that she had been concerned about the passivity of humans, especially compared to machines.

Like Haraway, I have concerns about the way in which machines are becoming increasingly active, particularly in care and security – notably sensor-activated alarms and surveillance cameras, and robots that are designed to perform everything from the mundane to lethal military operations …

However, with respect to many successful innovative projects around care and security I have been involved with, I think we also have much to thank machines for, especially the accessible, user-friendly machines people can and do use to enhance their agency and possibilities in their everyday life.

I’m thinking of the conversations and collaborative projects in the suburb of St Albans, New Zealand, in the 1990s – around the photocopier and PC computer with a modem at John and Douceline Wardle’s home and the printing press in Frank Prebble and Kate Taylor’s garage a few blocks away.

Projects included the publishing of a local newspaper – and the publication and promotion of the nuclear free peacemaking association magazine.

Last week I attended a transcontinental video conference where a paper was presented by Lucy Suchman on robots and machines, and Donna Harraway featured in the discussion. People from England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand took part.

The chair surprised and impressed me when she concluded the session by thanking the many people who helped (including the often forgotten technicians) and then the many machines – the computers, Internet, wordpress software, video etc etc that made possible this stimulating and productive, international human interaction.

I thought that was an effective way to acknowledge the joint contributions of human and machine in a context where the humans involved could reflexively problematise their relationship with the machines.

Your thoughts are very welcome.

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