Maybe we’re not human

Notes for Devolution

It may be hard to find just where our bodies begin, but we usually know where they end. When reaching out to touch the world we usually know how much of what we feel is us and where something else begins.

When something splits or peels or breaks off from our bodies, what was once a part of us becomes something else and strange. A little pile of toenail clippings, the hair that falls to the hairdresser’s floor, sunburnt skin that peels and flakes – such things are quickly swept away. We like to keep ourselves in order, to keep track of our body and its bits. We like to know that this is me and there is you and that is something else.

There’s something neat and nice-and-clean and civilised about this. But is it actually how we live? For we also like to be in touch with other bodies. We like to make connections face-to-face and hand-to-hand, skin-to-skin and mouth-to-mouth. In making contact and connecting, we feel part of something else. Our sense of who we are enlarges. Connected and entwined with others and other things, we become a couple or a cluster, a community or chorus. The feeling here is warm and close – but not so neat. It sometimes gets quite messy.

Dancers make contact with each other and the audience as they dance the choreography’s connections between bodies and their body parts. Sometimes dancers dance alone – but more often they don’t. They dance together, in and out of time and space, in touch and with connection. ‘To dance is human!’, the title of a book on dance announces in affirmation of the way that dancing makes us human by connecting us together.

So what to make of humans dancing with machines?

What do you say to your alarm clock when it wakes you in the morning? How do you feel about your car when you’re coaxing it to start? Do you love your new wide screen television and does it love you back? Do treat your old computer with contempt? Or smile at your mobile phone when it retrieves an SMS? Do you blame the photocopier when it jams? Have you pressed the button more than once when waiting for a lift?

Our interactions with machines are plagued with aspirations and frustrations, with injuries and contagions. Video screens strain our eyes and computer keyboards spread RSI. Bodies crumple in car crashes and fingers jam in sliding doors. Little wonder we’re not always enamoured of machines. Sometimes we’re afraid of them. Sometimes we’re in awe. Yet we would not be who we are – which is to say, we could not do what we do – were it not for our connections with machines. We’ve learned to live with them, to love them. We simply could not live this way without them.

To dance with machines is to dance the ecology of our world.

In making Devolution’s choreography with the dancers and Louis-Philippe Demers’s robotics, Garry Stewart tried not to think of humans and machines as different species. Rather he was interested in the ‘collision and confluence’ of the two – in how they make contact and connection, in how they flow together.

Looking to the dancers and machines, the dancers-machines of Devolution, we see a world envisioned in which we may be no longer human – if being human means being masters at a distance, different and disconnected from all that we survey. Looking to Devolution, we may learn instead to live our lives embedded and enmeshed amongst the beings of our world.

Some notes on dancing, humans and machines

To Dance Is Human was written by American dance scholar Judith Lynne Hanna (University of Texas Press, 1979). I do not know of any book on dancing with machines. Felicia McCarren’s Dancing Machines (Stanford University Press, 2003) comes close – it’s about humans dancing like machines. Mark Franko’s The Work of Dance (Wesleyan University Press, 2002) also draws an interesting connection between the production line in factories and the chorus line in dance.

In the future we may read about the spread of Para Para, the techno-pop dance culture from Japan. Its choreography, encoded into dance machines, has spread around the world and replicated its routines in countless bodies finding choreographed amusement in clubs, arcades and computer games.

I found a useful way of thinking about our connections with machines in ‘actor-network theory’ and the work of Bruno Latour, a French sociologist of science and technology. Actors may be machines or humans, animals, plants, materials or objects – it is how they link together into networks of connection and interaction that is of interest to Latour. He has this to say about our feelings for machines:

“Behind the tired repetition of the theme of the neutrality of ‘technologies-that-are-neither-good-nor-bad-but-will-be-what-man-makes-of-them’, or the theme, identical in its foundation, of ‘technology-that-becomes-crazy-because-it-has-become-autonomous-and-no-longer-has-any-other-end-except-its-goalless-development’, hides the fear of discovering this reality so new to modern man who has acquired the habit to dominate: there are no masters anymore – not even crazed technologies.”

Latour’s ideas about humans and machines are elaborated in his books, including We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993) and Aramis, or the Love of Technology (Harvard University Press, 1996). The quote above is taken from his article ‘Morality and technology: the ends of the means’ which was published in the journal Theory, Culture & Society in 2002.

Jonathan Bollen, Flinders University