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Machinic Excitement and Anxiety in the Nineteenth Century

Wednesday 21 October 2020, 15:00–17:00 BST

jonesCo-facilitator: Prof. Matthew L. Jones (Columbia University)

Assigned texts

Excerpts from writings by:

Charles Babbage
Ava Lovelace
Alan Turing
Mary Wollstonecraft
Charles Stanhope
Thomas Carlyle
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Sydney Padua


Our readings this month give you a taste of the cultural world around the attempts by Charles Babbage to build his Difference and Analytical Engines, the first intended to produce mathematical tables, and the second, never realized, capable of being programmed to do a much wider variety of mathematical calculations. Despite never coming into general use, the machines spurred reflection and reaction, in his own time, and then in the wake of the creation of electronic digital computers around World War II. Babbage and his collaborator Ada Lovelace were recovered as progenitors for computing after World War II and given diverse cultural functions.

Rather than prioritize the technical aspects of these devices, the readings, a series of excerpts, focus on meanings and implications of the Babbage machines and then machines more generally in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain.

Event summary

Having spent 5 reading sessions and training method sessions looking at the four central themes identified to HoAI – Hidden Labour, Encoded Behaviour, Disingenuous Rhetoric, and Cognitive injustice – this reading group turned to applied analysis of historical material.

Prof. Matthew Jones provided the participants with a cluster of documents to make a genealogy of AI which combines various interdisciplinary interests. Demonstrating that there are many genealogies of AI – including those of calculating machines, models of reason, and the machine as other to the organic/human – he invited participants to use a set of tools using historical evidence to think about this, drawing out a lively interactive conversation. The central questions to consider in the course of this historical analysis were as follows:

  1. How do current concerns about AI enable us to read these documents?
  2. How do these documents allow us to think through current concerns about AI differently?

The session made manifest the importance of doing historical work to contextualise and destabilise 19th century and contemporary assumptions, excitements, and anxieties surrounding machines.