Unerring Certainty of Machinery

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Machinery and technology fascinates me, sometimes more than life. When we go about our day, looking, observing, moving, interacting with people and things around us. I’m not going to say that we don’t’ have the time to stop and stare, because we do have the time, and we do stop and stare. Our minds process information all the time, even more when we’re on the road or out in the wild, outside the tranquil comforts of our own abode.

I used to have a Nintendo DS. I say used to, because I don’t play it anymore. It’s buttons are too light and I’m sure some of them don’t work. The top screen flickers and goes white if you don’t hold it at a certain angle. But it’s not these little intricacies that keep me from playing today; it’s the lack of time and the lack of interest or motivation. I used to have friends to beat in Pokemon. I remember cycling down the route on Solaceon Town trying to get the perfect IVs for a Pichu or battling the Gyarados at the lake to get attack EVs on my Garchomp. And I loved it. I loved the thrill of beating all my friends at this game that largely built our friendship through thrilling memories of childish war and battle strategies. I loved my Pokemon and I loved the machine that let me do all this.

It’s not just the DS. I have a pair of Altec Lansing 12W speakers with a 18W subwoofer that I’ve had on both my computers since 2006. They’re not the most powerful speakers, and its lows are, admittedly, not the best. It requires three wires. Four, if you include the power cable. It runs on a simple auxiliary plug, which distorts the noise if the connection is even slightly off angle or loose. But I love that too. All the music I’ve ever listened to has passed through these speakers atleast once. Those are the memories I cherish, and no amount of dust or two foot cables would change that.

But these devices didn’t function very well. The DS was very well built: it still survives after nearly five years. It’s well engineered but at the same time badly executed. And yet I love it. Why is that?

The function of a machine is to perform one or more tasks. It’s expected to do this flawlessly, accurately and quickly, when provided with the right resources. They’re inanimate, with no judgment and no empathy. They have the worst qualities one can find in a love interest, and yet I love them.

My interest in machines translates over to things like rockets, aeroplanes, engines and cars. Naturally, I like Jeremy Clarkson, one of the hosts of Top Gear. And he’s got the perfect reason why I’m so attached to these irrelevant pieces of machinery.

“There was a guy called Charles Babbage, who invented the computer back in the 18th century. He talked about the unerring certainty of machinery. Now, the problem you have is that when you have the unerring certainty of machinery, it is a machine. When something has foibles, and won’t handle properly, that gives it a particularly human quality, because it makes mistakes. And that is how you can build a relationship with a car, that other people won’t get.”
– Jeremy Clarkson

Charles Babbage is most famous for his Difference Engine (not to be confused with Professor Elemental’s Indifference Engine), arguably the first computer ever built. But he was also a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. A pioneer in the truest sense.

The Difference Engine. Still probably cheaper to buy than a TI-83.

The fact that my first-gen iPad has very little RAM and takes too long to do simple tasks might be a pain for me to deal with, but it’s one of the many factors that adds to reason I grew attached to it. The same goes for my phone with its limited functionality, or my electric guitar and its failing whammy bar. The shortcomings of a machine which you expect to do its job all the time adds to your emotional attachment to it. It reminds us of our own, real, fleshy loved ones with their potential for mistakes. It tries to show us that behind it’s façade of electronic circuitry there might lie a shadowy glint of a soul which it chooses to share with us.

Memory is a powerful drug.

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Upamanyu Acharya is a writer who doesn't write. Sometimes he's an artist, musician, photographer, physicist or lazy student. His hobbies include being vague, bending rules, time-travel, and embellishment of words. This is his personal blog where he writes on topics ranging from leadership skills to the consistency of jam.

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