Narrator: Is there a special feeling that you have towards people once you're inside that outfit – you start taking on a feeling of a robot.
Cheryl Sparks: You do kinda, yeah
The Making of Silent Running, 1979
The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment.
Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto, 1991 p180
I am very aware of my breathing inside the head, it interferes with the muffled vibrations I receive as sounds contact the outer shell. I only have one visual sensor. This monocular vision is projected directly onto my retina via a low resolution digital camera. Unable to cope with anything but the slowest movement, the image jumps and blurs. A single plastic pincer enters my visual field and attempts to pick up a pencil. I control it, but it feels as if someone else does. Depth perception is not good and several attempts are needed before the pencil is slowly and deliberately held and rotated into position. I begin to write my name. The pencil slips.
When Donna Haraway said "the machine is us" she wasn't being quite as literal as I am here. However, in response to her and many other writers who have noted that we (humans) are creatures intimately bound up with technology, I have decided to spend a day in a robot costume. I have a spherical polystyrene head sporting a single lens eye (video camera) and a movement activated flashing blue light. My single arm is fashioned from a tumble dryer outlet hose, hemispherical lamp fitting and litter picking pincer. My casing is a large cardboard box, I move on casters. Like many robots before me, my experience is highly constrained.
The word ‘robot’, first used by Karel Capek in his 1920 play Rossum's Universal Robots, meant 'slave'. These organic machines (they weren’t made from metal) only broke from their servitude after undergoing some sort of epileptic fit. Later, (I Robot, 1950) Asimov's robots had laws imprinted in their positronic brains, telling them what they could and could not do. My own limitations are caused by the material of my manufacture and the poor interface between my mechanical and organic parts. Also I can't wear my glasses inside the head casing. In fact, I suppose I am not a robot at all but a cyborg.
John Connor: No, you can't. I can do anything I want. I'm a human being, not some god-damn robot.
T-850: (correcting him) Cybernetic organism.
John Connor: Whatever!
Terminator 2, 1991
There is obviously a bit of free-will snobbery going on here. John Connor seems to be subscribing to a sort of sliding scale: God-human-cyborg-robot-washing machine. At one end of the spectrum one can do whatever one likes. The other end washes clothes.
All robots in films are really cyborgs in that they are people pretending to be robots, dressed up as robots, operating puppets, programming cgi, or scripting robot actions. But then if "the machine is us", machines are humans and humans are machines. Then it follows that cyborgs are robots and humans are robots, and robots are humans. There is a lot of time for circular thinking in my spherical head.
Some of the people that might know better than most what it is like to be a robot are: Mark Persons - Drone 1 (Dewey), Cheryl Sparks and Steven Brown - Drone 2 (Huey), Larry Whisenhunt - Drone 3 (Louie), Kenny Baker/Don Bies - R2D2, Anthony Daniels - C3PO
When interviewed, all of these actors talk about about their robot experience in terms of the way in which their interactions with the world, and each other, are reconfigured by the physical limitations of their robot bodies. The Drones of Silent Running (1971) were forced to develop communication techniques based on physical touch (tapping and nudging). These actions were subsequently included in the film. The droids of Star Wars (1977) didn't even bother:
C3PO: We were both in our droids; there was no interconnection at all. We couldn’t hear or see each other.
When interviewed about his role as C3PO, Daniels talks about the Christ-like suffering of the robot in the Tunisian desert. Like the other cyborg actors, he concentrates on feelings of isolation, truncated sensory information and of being transformed into a technical object:
You can imagine what it felt, and sounded like, for me. It was just like being inside a Rubik’s cube with people on the outside arguing over the instructions.
I feel similarly isolated in my machine and more than a little sweaty. Admittedly the camera in my robot head could be better quality, then the sense of separation might not seem as great. Perhaps my myopic eyes are the problem and I need to take the leap Stellarc-like and replace them directly with electronic sensors wired into my brain. But I am not sure that higher technology would solve this problem of isolation entirely. My limited experience of even virtual reality is that I do not feel part of the environment presented to me but isolated from it.
The third edition of Cinemagic (1979) gives detailed instructions on how to build and behave like a robot. It includes a suggestion that malfunctioning is an excellent way to convince humans of your robotic nature and suggests spending time talking with cigarette machines, vacuum cleaners etc. The above illustration shows the interior of a robot’s head; note the script taped at eye level, a sort of primitive programming for the neophyte robot. There is a suggestion here that if one sticks to the script, one will be a robot, but that any deviation could lead to being recognised as a rather sad individual wearing a colander on one’s head. Of course we humans have scripts too, anyone who has had conversations with ppi call centre operatives will know this.
Returning to Asimov’s I Robot (1950) the reader is never really given a clue as to what it is like to be a robot. Their positronic brains are so complex that no one knows how they work. So robot psychologists are brought in to tease out the problems that Asimov's robots have. Nearly always their breakdowns are caused by conflicts between the laws of robotics, environmental change and interaction with humans. Basically they find that the script doesn’t hold all the answers. Sometimes the robopsychologists employ talking cures, at other times physical lab rat tests and mind games are used.
This robot costume feels like a bit of a mind game; it's all about being inside yourself and being uncertain about the outside world. What it makes me realise is how much our identity is formed by: our physical limitations, our ability to interact with our environment, and how much I rely on my glasses.
The machine is us.
Read more about Alex Pearl and his work.