Next week I’m presenting a talk, Send in the Robots, for Adventures in Culture and Technology (ACAT), which is the seminar series for the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) at Curtin. My talk is very much a work in progress, and will develop into a chapter for the book I’m writing currently as part of my brief research fellowship at CCAT. The format for these seminars allows me to speak for 20-40 minutes, after which time I pose three questions to encourage audience debate. Finally, the seminar is opened up more generally to audience questions and comments. I hope that the talk will be interesting and that, with the help of the audience, I’ll get a better idea of what the book chapter should be about!

Poster for Send in the Robots

As the poster indicates, the robot cat image has been used courtesy of Martin Fisch on Flickr.

All this talk about perspectives, windows, maps and travelers etc. and no mention of robots… well, I’d better do something about that!

Alan, Brad, Clara and Daphne are “cybernetic machines” designed and built by the artist Jessica Field. They are all linked together to form an art installation, a system that is able to perceive human visitors. I saw these ‘robots’ when I was in Canada in 2007, at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal as part of the Communicating Vessels: New Technologies and Contemporary Art exhibition.

Semiotic Investigation into Cybernetic Behaviour from Jessica Field on Vimeo.

Alan, Brad, Clara and Daphne can’t move around, so they can’t really be thought of as travelers, but the ‘conversation’ between Alan and Clara offers an extreme illustration of interaction between beings that perceive the world from incommensurable perspectives. Alan is able to sense the motion of visitors over time, whereas Clara senses their distance from her in space. Alan and Clara’s perceptions of their environment are communicated to human visitors by the other two robots/computers in the system. Brad produces noises indicating particular aspects of their emotional state or “mood”, while Daphne translates their interactions into a conversational exchange in English. Although Alan and Clara aren’t really communicating with each other directly, their potential interaction is played out for visitors to the installation. As you move around the room you begin to ‘experiment’ with the robots (at least that’s what I did) in order to try to work out what their conversation means, what they can and cannot ‘see’.

Alan and Clara’s conversation highlights the difficulty involved in discussing the world with an other that senses its environment in an entirely different way from you. They see the world through different windows, and most of the time they are unable to agree on what is happening. Occasionally, Alan and Clara both ‘catch sight’ of a visitor at almost the same moment, “WOW! YOU SAW IT TOO”, and they are able to agree that something is there, but for much of the time the conversation is one of confusion over what, if anything, is out there in the installation space.

The difficulty in their interaction unfolds in part because of the extreme difference in their perceptions, but also because Alan and Clara are unable to develop any strong sense of trust for each other or respect for the other’s judgement. This means that, while they appear to find their disagreements over what is in the room unsettling, they don’t take any steps to try and work together in developing a sense of what is happening in the room. Of course, the installation is designed precisely not to explore this idea, but rather to focus on the incommensurable nature of Alan and Clara’s ideas about the world. It offers a great illustration to help explain why I’m particularly interested in how trust and respect can develop between disparate team members who sense the world in different ways. Attaining a level of trust and respect is key in effective human-dog teams for example, and I think it could also be vital in human-robot teams.


now we have come to travelers who multiply meanings as they move, we should be wary of getting to comfortable with any single line of analysis. These stories have as many senses as the contexts of their telling. Their tracks point every which way. Odysseus’ oar may also be a winnowing fan, but that hardly exhausts its meanings. Burying the handle of the winnowing fan in a heap of grain is a sign that the harvest is done. Burying a sailor’s oar in a heap of earth is the sign that marks that sailor’s grave. Maybe when an oar stands over a grave it does come to the end of its meanings, for then the traveler’s journey is done. But who would want such closure? “Rabbit jumped over Coyote four times. He came back to life and went on his way.”

(Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes this World, 1998, p. 80)

I really feel that I should have read this book many years ago, but it was shoved under my nose recently, and this section appeals to me in light of yesterday’s post about windows on the world. Hyde provides some rather beautiful examples of how a different perspective changes the meaning of something.

The point about multiple meanings, and developing a wary eye towards “any single line of analysis” makes a lot of sense to me. However, I also think that it is one of the reasons that I find research writing so difficult. I try to be very careful to see through more than one window (as Mary Midgley suggests) to see more than one meaning, and I then find it very difficult to place descriptions and analyses of the different views together on the page. It is easier in a verbal presentation, probably because the ideas are performed in particular space and time, for a particular audience, and often because there is only time to discuss a few points. In writing it always seems so much more complicated…

Rabbit and Coyote


quotationMarkWhile Chomsky, at least in his political work, operates most comfortably at the level of empirical data and relies on his encyclopedic grasp of the facts to assault his opponents, Žižek is more interested in the ways people comprehend those facts, in the symbolic laws and regulations that frame their understanding of the world. Thus, if Chomsky emphasises facts, Žižek’s primary concern is the ideological framework colouring their interpretation.

Importantly, these two positions are not as diametrically opposed as they may initially appear. What we have here is not an irreconcilable contradiction but a case of different dimensions. In their remarks, Chomsky and Žižek simply do not inhabit the same plane. They are operating from different levels of abstraction, both of which, I claim, are important and necessary for political struggle.

(Greg Burris, What the Chomsky-Žižek debate tells us about Snowden’s NSA revelations, in The Guardian, Comment is Free, Sunday 11 August, 2013)

Since I am interested in looking at communication from a range of theoretical perspectives (some of which are incommensurable at least some of the time), this article was relevant both because it unpicked an example of communication between theorists who “do not inhabit the same plane”, and because it went on to consider how useful it is to analyse a political situation from the disparate perspectives they offer.

I was also reminded of the work of Mary Midgley and her explanations of the importance of realising that pluralism in science is useful as opposed to being a problem that must be overcome. Midgley equates different scientific perspectives with the range of world maps on the early pages of an atlas, which may show population, climate, political boundaries etc. and therefore appear very different from one another. She goes on to suggest:

quotationMarkWe have to see the different maps as answering different kinds of question, questions which arise from different angles in different contexts. … The plurality that results is still perfectly rational. It does not drop us into anarchy or chaos.

(Science and Poetry, 2002, p. 82)

In The Myths We Live By, Midgley offers another way of thinking about the idea of pluralism (and this is the one referred to in the title of my post):

quotationMarkanother image that I have found helpful on this point is that of the world as a huge aquarium. We cannot see it as a whole from above, so we peer in at it through a number of small windows. … We can eventually make quite a lot of sense of this habitat if we patiently put together the data from different angles.

(2004, p. 40)

I am aware, even as I consider the different world views of Chomsky and Žižek, that I place a great weight on the importance of identifying personal or ideological biases and assumptions that colour one’s argument. Therefore, while I might find Žižek very difficult to understand much of the time, I think that this makes me more open to his style of critique, as opposed to Chomsky’s empirical stance which, as Burris notes, “downplays or even ignores his own ideological presuppositions”. However, in spite of my personal bias, I can see it is important always to remember Midgley’s warning that “if we insist that our own window is the only one worth looking through, we shall not get very far” (2004, p. 40).

Eleanor Sandry



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