The Pure/Uncanny Machine – A short essay and questions from the Architectural Association's DUE publication on machines and what they are. PDF available here

The Pure Machine is first noted by Edgar Allen Poe in a critical essay of 1836 titled ‘The Chess Player of Maelzel.’ Poe was writing about one of the most remarkable inventions of his age – an apparently autonomous chess-playing machine built by Wolfganag von Kempelen in 1770 and by the 1830s touring the aristocratic courts of Europe in the hands of one Johannes Maelzel. Poe wrote;

No exhibition of the kind has ever elicited so general attention as the Chess-Player of Maelzel. Wherever seen it has been an object of intense curiosity, to all persons who think. Yet the question of its modus operandi is still undetermined. Nothing has been written on this topic which can be considered as decisive - and accordingly we find everywhere men of mechanical genius, of great general acuteness, and discriminative understanding, who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine, unconnected with human agency in its movements, and consequently, beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the inventions of mankind.

Poe is quite clear about what makes the automaton a ‘pure machine’ and evokes a phrase that subsequently describes all pure machines as ‘…unconnected with human agency in its movements.’ The pure machine has been the guiding star of technological development from the earliest stirrings of automation in the industrial era – the dream of machines disconnected from human control, requiring no oversight or direction. It is predicated on the notion that humans are somehow flawed or inadequate at being human and require more than augmentation, they require automation. Take for instance, the autonomous car which is perhaps the most foregrounded pure machine today. It is ‘safer’, ‘cleaner’, ‘more efficient’ than allowing humans to drive themselves everywhere. This narrative of the ‘better’ pure machine on one hand appears to target and solve cars as fast, heavy, dangerous, poisonous chunks of metal but on the other hand targets humans as weak, squishy, easily poisoned snowflakes that can’t deal with the responsibility of their mortality and the planet themselves.

Paired with this notion that humans are a technological problem to be solves, the pure machine disconnects us from technology when it becomes uncanny. When the pure machine goes wrong or fails to fulfil its promise of ‘better’ it becomes uncanny. The world is filled with uncanny machines, Freud’s unheimlich – the unfamiliar familiar is present most obviously in creepy human-like androids but also in autonomous car crashes, Amazon Echo’s Alexa suddenly laughing without provocation, internet-connected door locks failing and locking people out of their homes and a litany of other bugs that are just as prevalent in the autonomous world of pure machines as they were in the ones that went before.

As a global technoculture, we steer towards the pure machine, it is entrancing and mysterious – an ever-receding techno fantasy. More than ever we are filling the world with uncanny machines that unsettle us and make our human position in mastery of the technical world uncertain.


Last updated: 05.2020