The Personification of Technology

Posted Tuesday September 2, 2008 by John Gunders in |

When I was 10 or 11, and a bookish youth fascinated by anything science fiction or science fact, I found an article in the Reader’s Digest about the soon-to-be-launched NASA probe, Pioneer 10. I read and re-read the article over and over, fascinated by the scale of the endeavour—Pioneer 10 will enter the constellation Taurus in about 2 million years, if the Klingons don’t blast it out of the sky first—and by the prospect of learning new things about the solar system. I even cut out the article and pasted it into a scrapbook, which I think I still own, if only I could find it.

But mainly I think I was taken by the style of the article, because Pioneer 10 was literally personified as a plucky little adventurer exploring the depths of space, and beaming home treasures of knowledge until it was too far away to communicate. Portrayed as an obedient and dutiful pupil, Pioneer 10 obeyed its masters’ commands, and sent home the most beautiful and extraordinary photos.

And then, the article continued, after all the adventures of the asteroid belt and the close encounter with Jupiter and its moons, the little spaceship would start to die: slowly its generators would run out of fuel and one by one, its sensors and instruments would shut down. Beaming back one last failing signal to home, the brave orphan would travel on, cold and silent, lost in the infinite blackness of space, until one day—perhaps—some alien intelligence would find it, and give it a home.

(There’s a bit of a sub-plot here about Pioneer returning home, damaged and insane, through the device of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a theme which is even more obvious in the Star Trek episode that, according to some, inspired the motion picture: “The Changeling”. Unfortunately, the dates don’t add up (Pioneer 10 was launched four years after the episode) so I can’t draw the inference that the events of the episode were inspired by the NASA programme.)

I was reminded of this article and its—admittedly, pretty clumsy—pathos today because one of the “people” I follow on Twitter is the Phoenix spacecraft which is currently examining soil samples near the north pole of Mars. Phoenix sends out several tweets a day, detailing what it is doing, and the discoveries it is making—all presented in the first person. Now this is a brilliant idea of NASA’s: an effective way of getting information out to people, while making the cold science of the mission seem a little more friendly. It seems to be working: at the time of writing, Phoenix has 33,287 followers in Twitter.

And then today, this bombshell:

Q’s about coming winter: I can’t operate in winter due to lack of solar power. I need to collect as much sci data as possible before then

Seasons are longer here. My winter will last 158 sols (vs. 89 days on Earth). I’ll be surrounded by ice & don’t expect to survive til Spring

All of a sudden I was that star-struck 10 year old again, sobbing over the loss of a friend who wasn’t even animate (OK, I wasn’t really sobbing this time).

Then it got worst:

Don’t write my obit yet! I hope to be around and digging perhaps till end of November. So no good-byes just yet. :-)

That brave little guy! Stoically facing death, but marching on, because he still has work to do. (An aside: I don’t know why I’ve just coded Phoenix as male, but he most assuredly is, despite NASA being very careful not to use gendered language. Probably a man thing).

All this is a rather round-about way of introducing the topic of the personification of technology.

We name our cars and boats; we use gendered pronouns when talking about ships; we personalise computers with wallpapers and screensavers. And of course we attribute human motives and emotions to our pets. But this heavy use of anthropomorphism in relation to high-tech devices is really weird.

I want to suggest that despite our professed love of machines, whether they are cars, computers, stereos, or guitar amplifiers, there is still a sense of alienation about technology. The Frankenstein complex is still around; the fear that our creations will rise up and kill us (q.v. Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Making these bewilderingly complex machines seem human is a way to neutralise their power; a way to bring them down to our scale. Whether this is still necessary, I’m not sure, but I’d appreciate your thoughts about it.

In the meantime, I’m sure going to miss Phoenix when he dies…

Your Comments

  1. Catriona writes:

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    Posted: 5 09 2008 - 04:31 | Permanent link to this comment

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