The Machine-Ensemble

tumblr_inline_nc77e1IRMB1r2u8ivI’ve recently been posting, on my other blog, about the cultural impact of speed…

I used the term machine-ensemble, in those posts and below, to describe the context of what I was describing. It turns out that the term is not widely known, and I have been asked to explain it. So, here goes…

The machine-ensemble is a term, first coined by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in relation to the 19C railway system. The term recognises the scale, scope and speed of machine integration so that the systemic and mechanical workings of the whole are given expression through this term. As the term suggests, it’s a group of connected machines of different sorts. The whole thing is a network system that becomes a meta-machine.

You can get a clear sense of what Schivelbusch means by looking at the integrated railway timetables for Europe. The parts all work in relation to each other.

One way of thinking about this, is to imagine an enormous train set…where all the parts move in relation to each other…and where everyone and everything arrives safely. Just by thinking about this, you can see how complex and sophisticated such a system would have to be. It’s the co-ordination that turns it into an ensemble. In practical terms, things have to be in the right place at the right time.

Actually, there are a number of examples of this kind of railway layout as system design. The film, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), also provides a compelling, if slightly dystopian, vision of the modern machine-ensemble. Otherwise, you can look at the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany. This is the world’s largest model railway!

Nowadays, it’s not just trains though; it’s trains, boats, planes and cars. Each moving as part of a huge and co-ordinated ensemble. Don’t forget that all the goods and services that are provided also feed into this. The internet-of-things is the next step of this co-ordinated and systemic development.

How we engage (safely) with the machine-ensemble is a matter of public health…requiring: rules, discipline, courtesy and education.

A number of interesting ideas flow form these observations….

The first is that the machine-ensemble concept develops an ealier idea of the human body as a form of precise clockwork…and applies the same form of mechanical precision across a much greater field…observation and logic reveal cause-and-effect in terms of consistent and general rules.

The second idea is that the speed of the machine ensemble is not constant…it’s accelerating. We can trace the acceleration of modern life through stages of foot, horse, railway, and internal combustion. Later, there are jet powered, solid-state and digital stages. Each of these technologies provides the basis for a step-change, or quantum advance, in the speed of everything.

The machine-ensemble isn’t just accelerating though; it’s getting bigger… Scale and speed combine as an expression of power. Needless to say, when big automated machines are moving it’s best to stay out of the way. That’s where safety issues come in.

The idea of safety is important because it protects us and keeps the ensemble going. Like the city, the machine-ensemble is never allowed to stop.

The machine-ensemble also devolves from the factory organisation that provided for the great standardisation – that’s Babbage, and Whitworth and Ford. The organisational framework of Ford’s production line evolved from an economic logic of production and became a management theory of evidence-based scientific management and, later, of data-crunching operational research…

The integration of elements and the automation of function that is implicit in the machine-ensemble change the way we see the world…it’s the matrix; but in mechanical form.

The computer pioneer, Jon von Neumann, identified artificial intelligence as depending on the possibility of a self-replicating automata. When asked what these machines might look like; he pointed to the people around the table! We became the prototype.

I mentioned, earlier, about how the the speed of the machine-ensemble changes the way we see the world. What I mean is that we needed new kinds of image culture to represent that world as we experience it. The modern poster, distinguished by colour, scale, and the integration of word and image, provided for a form of communication that could be read at distance, at a glance and whilst moving. But, the speed of the machine-ensemble also changed painting, film, literature and music!

All of the things that I’ve described, above, combine to impact on the psychological formation of modern subjectivity. In cognitive terms, human beings are hard-wired to move towards what they recognise as familiar…so the visual representations of modern life provide for a powerful normative experience of what to expect when you leave the house!

These images provide the signs of prompt and command that train us, according to behaviourism, to act in specific and prescribed ways. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are conditioned to act according to the rules and reward of the machine-ensemble.

The objects and signs of modernity prompt us to act in ways that optimise the system…first we make our tools (machines and systems) and then they make us.

Nowadays, the big-data in the system is visually expressed as a kind of flow…you can see this in the architecture of Zaha Hadid, and on a blog that I found about footwear design…

Actually, it’s not that surprising to find that footwear and the machine-ensemble are connected…it’s all about movement and speed!

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