By Lizzie O'SheaNon-fictionVerso

Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us about Digital Technology

When we talk about technology we always talk about the future – which makes it hard to figure out how to get there. In Future Histories, Lizzie O’Shea argues that we need to stop looking forward and start looking backwards. Weaving together histories of computing and social movements with modern theories of the mind, society, and self, O’Shea constructs a 'usable past' that help us determine our digital future.

What, she asks, can the Paris Commune tell us about earlier experiments in sharing resources—like the Internet—in common? Can debates over digital access be guided by Tom Paine’s theories of democratic economic redistribution? And how is Elon Musk not a visionary but a throwback to Victorian-era utopians?

In engaging, sparkling prose, O’Shea shows us how very human our understanding of technology is, and what potential exists for struggle, for liberation, for art and poetry in our digital present. Future Histories is for all of us—makers, coders, hacktivists, Facebook-users, self-styled Luddites—who find ourselves in a brave new world.

Portrait of Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer, writer, and broadcaster. She is regularly featured on national television programs and radio to comment on law, digital technology, corporate responsibility, and human rights, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Sydney Morning Herald, among others.

Judges’ report

The digital has colonised the contemporary world as widely as any pandemic. But how well do we understand it? And are we prepared for its consequences? Future Histories asks us to look through and beyond these questions. It compels us to imagine a future in which our relationship with the digital is not one in which we mindlessly exploit ourselves and others, nor is it one in which we live in fear of being alienated by a devious machine beyond our control.

Lizzie O’Shea’s book brings together the lessons of radical politics and activism from our pre-digital past to help us envisage a future in which we’re not servants to potentially harmful and also potentially liberating technologies. It is an invitation to a democratic and egalitarian political commitment in both the production and consumption of digital realities.

This insightful, provocative book is an intellectual kaleidoscope that sits effortlessly at the crossroads between investigation, history and radical philosophy.

Extract

Don Carlos was seventeen years old in April 1562 when he fell down the stairs and hit his head. He was the heir to the Spanish throne, studying at the university town in Alcala de Henares. Depending on who you ask, he was either something of a lush lothario or an inbred oddball (his parents were half-siblings). One observer noted his 'violent nature, his intemperate speech and his gluttony.' But the reports also indicate that he was well liked by the Spanish people, as a teenager at least. His whole life reads like the plot of a modern gothic fantasy television series: allegations of treachery, leading to solitary confinement at the hands of his father, an episode of bingeing and purging, and ultimately death, possibly by poisoning. His life was later the subject of Giuseppe Verdi’s great opera Don Carlos.

But all that drama was yet to come, when, while still a young man, engaged 'possibly on an illicit errand,' as one scholar politely puts it, he tumbled down a disused flight of stairs and knocked himself out on a closed door.

In these early years of Don Carlos’s life, relations with the paterfamilias were still good, and the king was devastated by his eldest son’s misfortune. He was bedridden by his head injury. Numerous doctors flocked to his bedside, and Don Carlos was subjected to a variety of barbaric surgical procedures, including a misguided attempt to drill a hole in his skull. He eventually fell into a coma and was expected to die.

The local people were very upset by their prince’s malady. In an effort to help, they brought Don Carlos the century-old relics of a former member of the local Franciscan order of friars. Since they wanted this friar to be canonized, his body was presented to the prince in hopes of a miracle. The 'desiccated corpse' was brought to the prince’s bedside, where, unable to open his eyes, he reached out to touch it, then drew his hands across his feverish face. 

Suddenly Don Carlos made a remarkable recovery. By the following month, he was back to his usual self. His doctors were stunned. Reflecting on the brutality of his later life, it is unclear if his survival was a blessing or a curse. In any event, the desiccated friar was made a saint.

The prince ’s own explanation for his recovery was that the figure of a man, 'dressed in a Franciscan habit and carrying a small wooden cross,' came to his sickroom and assured him that he would recover. This, scholars suggest, was the inspiration for what must be one of the world’s most fascinating objects: an early automaton of a friar. 

Today the automaton is held in the Smithsonian. In a history that reads more like a detective story than an academic article, this minor miracle of engineering is described by professor Elizabeth King in the following terms:

made of wood and iron, 15 inches in height. Driven by a key-wound spring, the monk walks in a square, striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies.

From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. After over 400 years, he remains in good working order.

The workings of the friar are concealed beneath his cloak, fashioned from wood, but the inner levers and cogs are beautifully made, though they were designed to be seen by no one but the maker. This shell gives the figure an air of ghostly mystery, inspiring fear and reverence in all who witness him move about without visible assistance, as if by magic.

No one really knows where the friar came from. King’s thesis is that the creator was Juanelo Turriano, an engineer who worked for King Philip. A prodigy from humble origins, he became a distinguished maker of astronomical clocks and other similar instruments, and even designed a system of waterworks for the city of Toledo. 

After his son’s impressive recovery, Turriano could well have been commissioned to build the contraption by King Philip in honor of the Franciscan friar, who was deemed responsible for this miracle. King ascribes the creation of the automaton friar to what she terms an 'ambitious impulse,' the ancient and abiding human desire to understand by imitation. She argues that it recalls Descartes’s thinking about the connection between body and mind —questioning whether we are driven from without or within. 'The automaton forms an important chapter in the histories of philosophy and physiology,' writes King, 'and, now, the modern histories of computer science and artificial intelligence.'

Objects like clocks and automatons are in many ways the predecessors to modern digital technology. You needed to be both an engineer and an artist to build these kinds of machines—technology was often entertaining, inspiring, frightening and useful, all at the same time. In this sense, the path to the modern networked computer was paved with excruciating care and dedication, as well as a little whimsy. It was a journey populated by experimentation with both functional and decorative objects, and those who work with equivalent kinds of advanced technology carry on this tradition today. Examining this mechanical friar through twenty-first- century eyes, we recognize many themes of our history and our future, our excitement and misgivings about our current relationship with technology. The friar shows how stories from our past can shape our destiny. Our past tells us about our present—how it was just one of many possible futures claimed by those who came before.

In this context, both the creation and use of technology express a kind of power relation. King writes about this, in summarizing conversations about the friar with the Smithsonian conservator, W. David Todd:

Would the measure of the monk’s power have come from the sight of a king setting him in motion? But Todd and I agree the power flows in the opposite direction, so that once the tiny man is seen to move independently, the operator’s status takes a leap, he becomes a kind of god.

Either way there is a mutual transfer of authority and magic. Todd, jesting only a little, likens the possession of the monk to owning the pentium chip a couple of years ago. Who commands the highest technology possesses the highest power.

If we accept King’s hypothesis, the friar is a product of royal decree and religious fervor, serving as a tribute to divine intervention but made with a very human, highly material skill. Today the leading edges of technological development are occupied by similarly powerful individuals, who use technology to inspire loyalty and also to intimidate. The 'magic' of modern technology implies that the trajectory of the digital revolution is objective and unassailable and that the people driving its development are great figures of history. Technological objects, even those that are or seem to be playful or diverting, are designed with a certain purpose in mind, and they can influence us in profound ways.

But Don Carlos’s automaton also tells us something about how technology is produced in contemporary society. The friar is a piece of craftsmanship that has lasted four centuries, whereas a comparable artifact today might be built in a Chinese factory, under appalling conditions, complete with planned obsolescence. Such a contrast demonstrates how technology is a field of creativity and skill, especially in its early, innovative stages. But when it is scaled up, it can become an industry of exploitation. The promise of technology has always relied on the meticulous efforts of people like Turriano; yet concealed in many beautiful objects that we see and handle every day is the brutal labor history of places such as Shenzen that testifies to the power of the process of commodification. Having replaced artisanal automatons with mass-produced robots, we start to treat others and feel like robots ourselves. Our current society reveres some kinds of labor and debases others, and the power of technology to improve our world and livelihood is not equally distributed.

The past lives on in memories and stories and in the objects we use and produce. The networked computer represents an exciting opportunity to reshape the world in an image of sustainable prosperity, shared collective wealth, democratized knowledge and respectful social relations. But such a world is only possible if we actively decide to build it. Central to that task is giving ordinary people the power to control how the digital revolution unfolds. 

In the huddle of people attending Don Carlos, amid all the hubbub of miracles and reverence, one doctor did claim that his recovery was due to objective factors rather than divine intervention. “The cure was of natural origins,” he bravely argued, only those [cures] are properly called miracles which are beyond the power of all natural remedies … People cured by resorting to the remedies of physicians are not said to have been cured by a miracle since the improvement in their health can be traced to those remedies. This pert remark serves as one doctor’s message to the future, to those who would come after him. Seek evidence, speak honestly, he seems to be saying, try to shine a light of truth on the events to which you bear witness with integrity. Cause and effect exist in the real world, and humans can both observe this process and sometimes influence it with their agency. Do not be distracted by religious ardor or royal conceit. 

We can still see the glimmers of this light, even four centuries later. Turriano created a marvelous and beautiful object that commemorated the recovery of Don Carlos, and he contributed to our collective technological knowledge, the legacy of which lives on in computing today. But his work was made to pay tribute to divinity rather than stand as a testament to human ingenuity and science. It is not hard to imagine how the formidable skills and creativity on display might be used to tackle some of the problems faced by humanity. But only if we take the power out of the hands of kings.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist