The Ego Machine


The Ego Machine or Steampunk consciousness

   Ego machines describe and model human consciousness. Their design determines that reality is perceived via the ego. Although the ego machine is foremost a descriptive symbol, the mechanism’s simplicity has encouraged professional engineers and amateur hobbyists, through the years, to build working models.

    The Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius manuscript, discovered in the cellar of an Algerian coffee shop in 1820, contains the earliest existing reference to ego machines. It appears to have been composed in the Late Medieval period. A fire in the Algerian museum (Musée National des Antiquités & des Arts Islamiques)consumed most of the document, and no further copies are extant. The surviving fragments comprises pen and ink drawings of ego machines in varying levels of detail. Contemporary accountsdescribe mechanisms accorded speech and sentience.A remarkable example in Milan could communicatewith piping sounds produced with leather bellows. Transcripts of its conversation suggests the mechanism expressed a gentle and baffled intelligence.

    The Victorians enthusiastically took up the ego machine paradigm. Assembly of an ego machine is not a complex project. Any enterprising man with a lathe and metal-work tools can assemble a device approximating to the plans set out the in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius manuscript.Nineteenth century engineers constructed many such machines with iron and brass. Modelling sentience or at least intelligence using ego machines was, for a decade, a worthy pursuit for a man of means. They saw ego machines as tools or even partners who could aid man in his scientific and philosophical endeavours. Though the devices were effective in stimulating debate, even the most sophisticated specimens were not useful. Ego machines are not good calculators and do not follow instructions. The obedient mechanisms pioneered by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace promised better and have become man’s most useful tool.

Ego machine studies are no longer fashionable or worthwhile pursuits. Though use of the calculating engine and its descendents is in the ascendent, I would argue that we have lost much. The calculating engine, now known as computers, struggle to simulate human consciousness. Unless we program them, they have nothing resembling personality, identity or awareness. As anyone who has spent more than an hour in the company of an ego machine, lack of personality is not a problem they possess. Rather, they err in possessing too much.

    The mechanistic aspect dominates the ego machine design, but many drawings and accounts suggest an inherent organic composition. Many of the images generated by ego machine paradigm are organic.Though the Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius manuscript cartoons look like construction plans,some resemble the observational critique of a naturalist. It is as if the draughtsman sketched from life. I refer to the strange organic sketches from the Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius cartoons and other sources which suggest that ego machines possess a life cycle. This idea was the inspiration for 'The Planet of the Ego Machines’. The artist, Zaminsky, believed the cartoons portrayed living organisms; his ego machines grow, scuttle and even fly.

    This site details the ego machine's influence on painting, philosophy and literature. My enchantment with them is unlikely to end quickly; I shall add further content as and when I find it. Please subscribe to my mailing list to receive information about coming events pertinent to the ego machine theme.

© Copyright 2016 Mark Peatfield