This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My rifle without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. We will become part of each other.1
Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket introduced me to the Rifleman’s creed, penned by Major General William Rupert during WW2 and routinely recited by Marine recruits as part of their training. The aphorism neatly expresses Bruno Latour’s idea of how humans and tools undergo a mutual translation with one another, forming new hybrid entities that have been re-configured to carry out a composite goal. In the rifleman’s case, the bringing together of rifle and man through the recitation of the creed turns the two into a hybrid “rifle-man,” with new goals and affordances. The creed cleverly shifts from “I will,” to “we will,” indoctrinating the marine into thinking like a hybrid entity – a man-machine shooter – “masters of our enemy.”
The rifleman is a very neat example indeed, and the creed gives insight into how wartime humans could comprehend their goals, or more importantly their roles in society, as interrelated and transformed by the tools they used. I am the rifleman, the postman, the bricklayer, the ambulance-driver, the shop-owner and so on. Few managed to document this paradigm of human-holding-tool-becomes-something quite like the German photographer August Sander. In People of the 20th Century, Sander captured citizens defined by what they do; however, each portrait captures not a person but an assemblage of human-uniform-tool-workplace that proudly asserts its hybridisation and special purpose to the world. Sander’s image of a Pastrycook2 , for instance, depicts a man in whites holding his spoon and bowl, standing proudly in the kitchen. His photograph of a Blacksmith3 portrays a man holding a hammer and anvil, wearing a heavy apron, surrounded by his small, blackened workshop.
The industrial age brought technologies that offered distinct job roles based on the tools with which one entered a relationship. To some extent it was always this way (this is my stone axe, there are many like it, but this one is mine), and continues with modern tools today, though Sanders’ photographic study would look quite different in an age of ubiquitous networked objects and increasingly complex job-enabling human-tool assemblages. Ironically, it might look on the surface as though we all presently do the same job, our speculative neo-Sanders capturing us all holding roughly the same smartphone, or sitting behind a generic desktop computer inside homogeneous offices. Our choice of clothing may give more insight into our individual tastes than our job roles upon cursory inspection.
However, this scenario is not entirely as it seems. For a start, the technologies in view – the smartphone or the desktop computer – grant the illusion that we are entangled with technologies according to the same one-to-one relationship as the rifleman, that we are still empowered with the choice to pick it up and put it down as we please, and that this thing “without me, is useless.” If my smartphone enables me to do a particular job, say offering a taxi service, the phone is merely the palpable access point to a black-box containing myriad technologies operating both within the phone and from remote distances that neo-Sanders could never see through his lens: GPS satellites, computer servers, submarine cables, databases, algorithms, and the teams of programmers and engineers folded into this assemblage. One often imagines themselves at the centre of this aggregate, the master of the tool, but sadly it is not the case, for “this is my iPhone, and there are many like it.” Each of those like it are also hybrid phone-workers folded into the same networked-service chimera. If you put your tool down, the service, the infrastructure, the assemblage, continues to operate. Kubrick again provokingly addresses this irony in Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s farewell talk to the marines:
Whether you are aware or not, your job prospects are becoming irrevocably ensnared to the technologies and service platforms of Amazon (the picker, the turker), Google (the search engine evaluator), Uber (the independent contractor), or the next Uber-but-for-X, perhaps Uber-nurses or Uber-security. Perhaps most disturbing is that the depth and complexity of your entanglement, either by ignorance or by design, is always masked. I once took a ride in a taxi service decidedly unlike Uber: the driver informed me he had never switched a computer on in his life, and though seemingly oblivious to how his smartphone, navigation, and car scheduling system worked, he was in fact the participant in a vast network of computation. What the modest man failed to realize is computational systems are no longer subservient to our on/off button-press authority, nor contained within plastic cases at home. I sympathize with the driver, as unawareness is often built into these systems, rendering even our own complicity invisible.
Human Computation, developed by computer scientist Luis Von Ahn and subsequently sold to Google in 2009, is an incredibly powerful concept. Users, while going about their normal business on their computers and smartphones, can passively take part in a training programme for machine-learning algorithms. It’s startling to realize that when you identify yourself on a Google CAPTCHA by clicking the dog image, not the cat, you are part of a silent task-force of human problem-solvers delivering results to a system that facilitates advanced machine learning. From black boxes that contain within them a multitude of humans performing this very task, emerge the seemingly image-comprehending computer-vision algorithms portrayed in the news. We look at Artificial Intelligences (AIs) as machines that will eventually take our jobs but say nothing of the endemic labor that enables our own replacement.
The phone is merely the palpable access point to a black-box containing myriad technologies operating both within the phone and from remote distances.
The Microsoft search engine Bing employs a team of one thousand people to constantly test and rate search results, meticulously retraining and optimizing their algorithm. Thus when you perform a query it becomes difficult to discern what exactly contributed to your search results. The simple man-machine dichotomy no longer persists. Folded into the results is not only the labor of Microsoft’s bespoke search workers, but everyone who posted or meta-tagged content to the Internet. Andrew Shuman, Bing’s former head of development acknowledged this outright: “What people forget is that [Bing] is completely a black box, even to us.”
“Man versus machine” is a false dichotomy oftentimes perpetuated by companies developing intelligent systems who were raised on a fantasy of a robot-driven culture and maintain its appearance despite the growing prevalence of mixed human-machine solutions. Take for instance Watson, IBM’s artificially intelligent computer. You may recall the pivotal moment it “defeated humans” on the popular televised game show, Jeopardy!. The human contestant, upon losing, wrote beneath his final answer ‘I for one welcome our new computer overlords.’ But is Watson the harbinger of our impending machine servitude? I think not. While Watson was not permitted a connection to the internet during the taping, it still had at its disposal millions of documents, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, newswire articles and, most notably, the entirety of Wikipedia: the sum total of billions of hours in human labor. Watson is a black-box, both figuratively and in appearance, but within that box is a vast entanglement of human and machine actors, some of which were once diligently typing-in and meta-tagging the Jeopardy answers that Watson would one day read out.
It’s easy to become nostalgic for the Sander-ian age where tools and creeds pronounced our special societal roles, affecting both a sense of purpose and individualism to our labor. And I lament for the Amazon picker that runs around a warehouse to the chime of machine-timed directions, first to be replaced once her legs can no longer withstand the pace of hyper-networked logistics. I can even forgive the hipster-dressed-as-porter4 collecting vinyl albums to offset the time spent hybridising with his phablet.5 Indefensible, however, is not striving for conscious engagement with our modern tools, to not know our own hybrids: if we all labour away within the mesh of globalized technology but fail to wholly grasp it.