Rise of the Machines

Like Digital vs Human, the recent book by futurist Richard Watson, war studies professor Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines takes a similar look at our relationship to technology.

But where Watson’s was a more practical look at the near future extrapolated from the bleeding edge of today’s software and device science, Rise of the Machines investigates how we got here in a far more philosophical fashion.

Even though most of the early chapters chronicle the history of the term ‘cybernetic’ and all it entails, it’s less history than it is cultural barometer for how the cyber age has shaped the world – and will for the forseeable future.

Such as it is, the book seeks to untangle the term ‘cyber’ by scrutinising the history behind it. As Rid says in the introduction, ‘The word refuses to be either noun or prefix. Its meaning is equally evasive, hazy and uncertain. Whatever it is, it is always stirring, it is always about the future, and it always has been.’

The prism he looks through is the birth and growth of the cybernetics movement, and it’s why so much of the first half of the book concerns itself with history. A lot of context introduces the reader to the effort to use computing machines to better aim large artillery guns in the Second World War, and from there the movement flowered into the work and theories of post-war era computer scientist Norbert Wiener and his contemporaries.

A lot of it (Turing, von Neumann) is stuff you’ll know if you’ve read much about the history of computers, but Rid draws a path directly from the heady post-war days to more recent thought like merging machines with humans.

There’s not much in Rise of the Machines that concerns itself with practical applications or prediction. It’s more about wondering what our relationship to machines means – or should mean.

In one of several enlightening passages, Rid writes; ‘What if a mechanic with an artificial arm is trying to repair an engine? Is the arm part of the organism that is fiddling with the car engine? Or is the prosthesis part of the machinery that the man is trying to control?’

And throughout it all there’s a seam of nervous tension that only breaches the surfaces a few times. Technology and machinery, Rise of the Machines reminds us, has long been promised to either deliver or destroy us if we give it too much power, and just one of the questions posed early on asks; ‘How much risk are advanced societies taking by delegating ever more control into the virtual hands of ever more networked and seemingly ever more intelligent machines?’