Thoughts on the Working Machine

Monday, March 17th, 2014 by brandontruett

There seems to be a trend forming around my experiences in the MAL. My fumbling attempts to operate a machine are sometimes thwarted by its inoperability but more likely my own technical ineptitude. Last week I walked into the MAL with the goal of loading a cassette game onto the Commodore 64 of 1982. Before Lori told me, I had no idea that a cassette could load information besides music. After about an hour of loading five different cassette tapes, I nearly gave up. The machine would flash colored horizontal bars that danced down the screen, giving me hope that the game would soon appear. However, the pirouetting bars would eventually give way to the command prompt, alerting me to the game’s inability to “work.”

While my last posts that derived from lab research focused on the concept of user-friendly, I am now more interested in the notion of a machine that “works.” What does it mean if it works? How do we determine it doesn’t work? I began to notice the yellow post-its placed on some machines in the MAL that read “this works,” but in my experience, especially in the context of my family’s one desktop computer that was a hallmark of my childhood, the machine might work when someone else uses it. Working, then, might inescapably depend on who’s using it even though we’re quick to pass judgments on the machine when frustrated.

The Commodore 64 obviously powered on and correctly processed my commands, but the various cassette tapes (software?) posed problems. I eventually was able to see the colorful title screen of Max Headroom (see image below) yet after ten excruciating minutes of no progress, I concluded the cassette didn’t work. I began to ponder the notion of a correctly working machine, which inevitably must satisfy the user. There certainly are degrees to which a machine will work, but we will say the machine doesn’t work when it doesn’t satisfy our needs. Indeed, I couldn’t load the cassette game, Sherlock, so I concluded that the Commodore 64 didn’t work. This of course is faulty logic, but I think it reveals an interesting aspect of our relationships to machine––that we place demands on the machine that far exceed its feasible operability; that is to say, the machine probably “works” in the abstract sense, but we define its operability based on our experience, how it works in relation to us. It, then, follows that our ability to understand object-oriented ontology, how the machine itself experiences being, might have a limit. I may be assuming too much about the general user, but based on my own experience with machines, the frustration that builds to the point at which I nullify its being, I am hesitant by the prospect of fully understanding or theorizing an object-oriented ontology. As we have discussed in class, these theorizations, which have been borne out of or perhaps have arose in tandem with posthumanism, predictably return to the status of the human. In short, my frustrations in the MAL complicate my own ability to understand the machine on its own terms, as I affix my own affective responses onto the machine when it doesn’t do my bidding. I feel better to conclude that the machine doesn’t work rather than perhaps more likely declaring that I as a user do not work.



2 comments on “Thoughts on the Working Machine

  1. kylebickoff says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I would agree, although these works did not work as ‘intended,’ they have still stimulated critical thought on what it means for a machine to be functional. Moreover, I think in my own experience in the lab, I often learn much more about how a machine actually ‘works’ when it doesn’t. For example, using the Commodore 64 tapes forced us to try the process again and again, making slight alterations. We even swapped out the cassette deck to try to help load the content. Indeed, after we swapped out the deck, the machine created the image that you posted. Did it work? Well, sort of…

    In a multiplicity of other circumstances, a ‘non-working’ machine has forced me to read extensively online about the system, its history, and other information in an attempt to get that system working. Other systems I have opened up, tinkered with, and indeed found success after this–some quick tinkering has allowed these systems to once again ‘work.’ Anyways, I am glad to hear that you enjoyed the process of engaging with a ‘non-traditionally functioning’ machine to end up learning a great deal about it.

  2. Lori Emerson says:

    Brandon – yes a fascinating post – I was going to write a lot of what Kyle already wrote, about how malfunctioning somehow always seems to reveal a certain functioning to me…and also I’ve been thinking along similar lines about what exactly is the point at which a machine works or doesn’t work? Do we even need an electrical current for it to work? I mean, we do in a strict sense but there’s still something oddly functioning even when the machine doesn’t turn on. But on the other hand, as I think you were gesturing to in your post, what is the point at which it doesn’t matter for the human user/observer? Where does it get us to acknowledge the machine on its own terms, as far removed from the human as possible?

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