Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"From the very first instance, automation replaced human work"

Here's a passage from Out of Control by Kevin Kelly:

Ktesibios was a barber who lived in Alexandria in the first half of the third century B.C. He was obsessed with mechanical devices, for which he had a natural genius. He eventually became a proper mechanician--a builder of artifactual creations--under King Ptolemy II. He is credited with having invented the pump, the water organ, several kinds of catapults, and a legendary water clock. At the time, Ktesibios's fame as an inventor rivaled that of the legendary engineer Archimedes. Today Ktesibious is credited with inventing the first honest-to-goodness automatic device.

Ktesbios's clock kept extraordinarily good time (for them) by self-regulating its water supply. The weakness of most water clocks until that moment was that as the reservoir of water propelling the drive mechanism emptied, the speed of emptying would gradually decrease (because a shallow level of water provides less pressure than a high level), slowing down the clock's movements. Ktesibios got around this perennial problem by inventing a regulating valve (regula) comprised of a float in the shape of a cone which fit its nose into a mating inverted funnel. Within the regula, water flowed from the funnel stem, over the cone, and into the bowl the cone swam in. The cone would then float up into the concave funnel and constrict the water passage, thus throttling its flow. As the water diminished, the float would sink, opening the passage again and allowing more water in. The regula would immediately seek a compromise position where it would let "just enough" water for a constant flow through the metering valve vessel.

Ktesibios's regula was the first nonliving object to self-regulate, self-govern, and self-control. Thus, it became the first "self" to be born outside of biology. It was a true "auto" thing--directed from within. We now consider it to be the primordial automatic device because it held the first breath of life-likeness in a machine.

It truly was a "self" because of what it displaced. A constant autoregulated flow of water translated into a constant autoregulated clock and relieved a king of the need for servants to tend the water clock's water vessels. In this way, "auto-self" shouldered out the human self. From the very first instance, automation replaced human work.

Some may call me evil, but I find great beauty in getting humans out of the picture.

Each time a new device is created, human toil is replaced with non-human toil. And in this way human capital is released. Released to take on a new task that inconveniences lives. Ad infinitum.

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