I’m Johannah. On Twitter, I’m Johannah with eight Js, and I’m actu­al­ly not talk­ing that much about bots, [inaudi­ble] has an intu­itive sense of what they are and what makes them fun. So instead I’ll be talk­ing about how that relates to wacky inven­tions and wacky inven­tors, espe­cial­ly at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Mostly I’ll be talk­ing about Rube Goldberg machines and also Heath Robinson machines, which are the British ver­sion. So here’s a quote:

The Goldberg inven­tions coun­tered the cor­po­rate imper­son­al­i­ty; they are the whim­si­cal solu­tions of an inde­pen­dent gad­geteer bent on assert­ing his right to dream.
Peter C Marzio, Rube Goldberg: His Life and Work

That remind­ed me a lot of you guys. Likewise, the Twittering Machine” is actu­al­ly the name of a paint­ing by Paul Klee and the art crit­ic K. G. Pontus Hultén called these the mod­ern machine” and also the mock machine,” and said they’re machines that look like machines but accom­plish noth­ing. That is from the 1968 MoMA exhib­it The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.”

I’ll come back to this lat­er, but just to quick­ly run through what bots and Rube Goldberg machines share:

  • They’re fun­ny.
  • Justifies its exis­tence when it works, not because it’s solv­ing anything.
  • Absurd, meant to be plau­si­ble but not real­is­tic. Mimesis is not a goal.
  • Deliberately dumb com­pared to cut­ting edge technology.
  • Popular while his­tor­i­cal­ly on precipice of machine-danger. (For Rube Goldberg that refers to the atom­ic bomb. For us I guess it’d prob­a­bly be AI, or drones, or I don’t know. Whatever you want.)
  • And fix­at­ed on the pos­si­bil­i­ty that there is an ani­mal (not a ghost) in the machine. (It’s com­pli­cat­ed, I’ll get to it later.)

This is a Rube Goldberg machine, in case you don’t know, and this is one of his ear­li­est machines. It’s called The Simple Mosquito Exterminator. You can see it’s com­pli­cat­ed, but mechan­i­cal and pur­pose­ful­ly not straight­for­ward and effi­cient. These Rube Goldberg car­toons start­ed in 1912, a dai­ly strip was added in 24 and con­tin­ued until 34. He con­tin­ued pro­duc­ing inven­tion car­toons until 64, and the inven­tor in the car­toons is called Professor Lucifer G. Butts. The G” stands for Gorgonzola. Rube Goldberg” did­n’t become an adjec­tive until 66.

Just to get an idea, this is a Heath Robinson con­trap­tion, again just the British equiv­a­lent. I’ve heard that there’s a Swedish equiv­a­lent as well. They were both work­ing [around] World War I, World War II. It was just in the air. 


Goldberg was very influ­en­tial. You can’t see because this is just a pic­ture I took of a book because I could­n’t find it online, but this is from Rube Goldberg’s liv­ing room. It includes the Gershwins, the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, Jack Duncy, Fanny Brice, sev­er­al Ziegfield girls, and not in this pic­ture, but he was also real­ly real­ly good friends with Charlie Chaplin.

These machines are not like oth­er machines, and again at this point you should just imag­ine I’m also talk­ing about bots even though these spe­cif­ic quotes have to to with Rube Goldberg or Heath Robinson machines. So

The essen­tial qual­i­ty of a Heath Robinson machine is that it has its own inex­orable inte­ri­or logic…When each time the machine shows that it works, it jus­ti­fies its own exis­tence, and the jobs of the huge num­bers of staff requires to oper­ate it. 

Maybe not huge num­bers of staff in bots’ case, but cer­tain­ly there’s a lot of staff going on behind com­put­ers, and every­body’s work­ing togeth­er. So in that sense there’s a huge staff.

And this is actu­al­ly about Duchamp:

By demon­i­cal­ly dis­trib­ut­ing com­plete clues of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al decep­tion and an abstract pat­tern that is nev­er quite abstract,” Duchamp makes sure that his refrac­to­ry pro­duc­tions frus­trate their own illu­sions of integri­ty by being nei­ther true nor false except to their own ratio­nale of divi­sive anamor­phism and self-reflexive plot.
Lawrence D. Steefel Jr., Marcel Duchamp and the Machine” [PDF]

It means the same thing as [the pre­vi­ous quote].

The point being that this isn’t just some ran­dom thing about Rube Goldberg machines, it’s also about changes in art. It’s a broad pat­tern that hap­pens when­ev­er there’s a major tech­no­log­i­cal shift, at least for the last hun­dred years. You get these use­less machines that self-justify.

Again, they are total­ly inef­fi­cient. These are both Heath Robinson con­trap­tions. The one on the left is for pour­ing water on a cat, and the one on the right is for tak­ing a self­ie, so I thought you guys would appre­ci­ate that.

This is anoth­er Heath Robinson con­trap­tion, but I’m show­ing this to show how this is a response to the effi­cient machin­ery of World War II. This was for pour­ing hot water on German sol­diers, and as you can see it’s very inef­fi­cient, very low-tech.

Men around the depart­ment who have trou­ble puz­zling out some­thing in the blue­prints yell out after refer­ring in some man­ner to the Lord, the Devil, or Rube Goldberg…Some man may yell out, This **oo**!!?! blue­print looks like some­thing Rube Goldberg made!” Or, If Rube Goldberg were here, he could tell us how this engine goes together.”
Anonymous engi­neer from Detroit

One of the things that’s real­ly inter­est­ing about this phe­nom­e­non is it’s appro­pri­at­ed by big busi­ness, even though it seems to be resist­ing the ideas behind big busi­ness. This is a quote from an engi­neer in Detroit. The cen­sor­ing is in the quote, I did­n’t put it in there. That’s what those stars and Os are. They real­ly adopt­ed him as an icon, and just to give some back­ground of what was going on at the time, inven­tion around this time became cor­po­rate instead of indi­vid­ual. This was around 1920, as Bell Telephone, General Electric, and Westinghouse came to promi­nence, and Rube Goldberg said with few excep­tions no sin­gle per­son can stand out as the inven­tor of any great mechan­i­cal appliance.” 

Also, Professor Lucifer G. Butts real­ly hat­ed big busi­ness, even though he was adopt­ed as an icon of it, and I’m quot­ing from Rube Goldberg’s biog­ra­phy from this guy Marzio. He says

Butts was an emo­tion­al guy who con­demned the big whole­sale lab­o­ra­to­ries for ignor­ing the inti­mate needs of the peo­ple. The social demands are grow­ing more urgent and noth­ing is being done about them,” the Professor shout­ed one after­noon in 1928. One of Butts’ great­est machines was the self-destroying mem­o­ran­dum pad. As soon as some­one jots down a note, the pres­sure of the pen­cil squeezes a small accor­dion, which fright­ens a light­ning bug. As the bug flies up, it ignites a row of can­dles on the edges of the memo paper. The can­dles burn paper and the bug, still exhaust­ed from his flight, pants heav­i­ly and blows out the can­dle, leav­ing a fresh piece of white paper for the next nota­tion. According to Rube, Butts drew a plan for this device, but rep­re­sen­ta­tives from white col­lar asso­ci­a­tions around the world hired crooks to steal Butts’ only copy.” 

So, Butts and big busi­ness were ene­mies in this mythol­o­gy even though big busi­ness adopt­ed him as an icon.

The machines are delib­er­ate­ly dumb. That’s an ad from the Ideal Home” exhi­bi­tion in 34, which is a British fair. Heath Robinson cre­at­ed a full-scale home called the Gadget Family for the 1934 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia, where it stood phys­i­cal­ly oppo­site the mod­ern stain­less steel Staybright City, and Daily Mail wrote

At the heart of the exhi­bi­tion, set where it could poke a bad­ger­ing kind of fun at the exhi­bi­tions of inven­tions the world has ever seen before the Heath Robinson house turns the creak­ing wheels of its wood and spring machin­ery, yet like every­thing else in Olympia the grotesque satire on an ide­al home works perfectly. 

So again, even at the time these were thought of as low-tech and stu­pid or dumb machines, sort of like how bots are not meant to be real­is­tic AI and they’re sup­posed to sound flat or stu­pid or whatever.

Also, they are not at all oppres­sive. This is a still from Modern Times; that’s Charlie Chaplin at the feed­ing machine. Machinery obvi­ous­ly has the capac­i­ty to be very fright­en­ing, but Rube Goldberg machines are fun, and break­fast actu­al­ly is a theme of Rube Goldberg machines.

On the left that’s a Heath Robinson pancake-making machine, and on the right that’s a still from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I can think of a bil­lion exam­ples of the break­fast machine. It’s a huge trope pre-dating the 20th cen­tu­ry even, and I think it’s an exam­ple of some­thing that’s very fun. Bot cul­ture is sim­i­lar­ly fun. I don’t think there’s a break­fast equiv­a­lent, but I thought that was a cool trope to point out.

It also reminds me of bot cul­ture’s love of school­marmish apho­risms. I think that’s maybe a way that you can com­pare the oppres­sive­ness of mechan­i­cal machines from the Rube Goldberg era to the oppres­sive­ness of text on the Internet con­stant­ly advis­ing you, the oppres­sive­ness of intel­li­gence, whatever.

This one I haven’t real­ly ful­ly worked out yet. We can talk about it lat­er or on Twitter. Something that’s real­ly inter­est­ing to me is obvi­ous­ly a lot of bots have a feel­ing of there being a ghost in the machine. But a lot of them don’t feel like there’s a ghost in the machine, they feel like—you get para­noid that there’s an actu­al per­son there and obvi­ous­ly that came to fruition with @horse_ebooks. I notice it a lot with Olivia Taters. And in Rube Goldberg machines yout get a lot of that—I chose this one because there’s a drag­on there. Rube Goldberg said that he often has to have emo­tions and ani­mals in his cartoons.

When I have a goat cry­ing in one of my car­toons, I have to give a sat­is­fac­to­ry rea­son for hav­ing it cry, so I have some­one take a tin can away from him.
Rube Goldberg

He also has the idea of some­thing called [yok yoks?] which are lit­tle bugs that make machines mess up, which is—I don’t know if inten­tion­al­ly or not—but is an updat­ed ver­sion of the Yahoos in Jonathan Swift.

This is the part that I feel least con­fi­dent about in terms of relat­ing Rube Goldberg machines to bot cul­ture, but I’m just throw­ing it out there.

I want­ed to point out again, even though I’ve talk­ing about Rube Goldberg machines and Heath Robinson machines, it’s not spe­cif­ic to those two moments even though I think of those as the wack­i­est machines, and I think of bot cul­ture as being very wacky. Useless machines also came to promi­nence in mod­ern art. That’s Duchamp, obvi­ous­ly. I already showed you the Twittering Machine from Paul Klee.

Here’s anoth­er exam­ple of a use­less machine, less famous, but just to show that’s it’s not just Duchamp doing it. This is Fakir in 34 Time” by Lucy Jackson Young and Niels O. Young, and this is a machine that makes a rope stand up on its own.

To return to that slide I showed you guys before, what bots and Rube Goldberg machines share. They’re fun­ny; jus­ti­fy their own exis­tence when it works; Absurd, delib­er­ate­ly dumb; pop­u­lar while on the precipice of machine-danger; and fix­at­ed on the pos­si­bil­i­ty that there is an ani­mal, not ghost, in the machine

And that’s all I got.

Darius Kazemi: We do have time for a few ques­tions or com­ments. We’ll start in the room and I’ll take a look at IRC and make sure we’re get­ting that rep­re­sen­ta­tion here, too.

Audience 1: The ani­mals trapped in the machine, would you relate that to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and dis­trib­uted labor appli­ca­tions like that?

Johannah King-Slutzky: Definitely. That’s a great point. Something I for­got to men­tion, that a lot of these bots do lit­er­al­ly use human labor, because they form the cor­po­ra for the way we’re talk­ing, and also bots respond to peo­ple all the time. So I think it’s the same phe­nom­e­non def­i­nite­ly. But a lit­tle dif­fer­ent because Mechanical Turk is so men­ac­ing and it’s sort of uncan­ny, which is at the crux of the ghost in the machine as well. The drag­on in that car­toon I showed of the Rube Goldberg machines is not at all uncan­ny; it’s very sooth­ing. So I have a hard time dis­tin­guish­ing between those two ideas all the time.

Audience 2: Building on that, though, I wish Rob [Dubbin] was still here, because he’s a friend. I simul­ta­ne­ous­ly love Olivia Taters and I’m grow­ing to dis­like her a lot, because she’s built off of the body of work of teen girls. And I think it’s explic­it­ly girls because of the words that he’s cho­sen to scrape from and the body of text that he’s cho­sen to build from. And it’s sup­posed to be like, Oh teens! Oh well.” But it’s explic­it­ly like LOL teen girls!” and, Check out this teen girl! She’s the most incred­i­ble teen girl.” There’s actu­al incred­i­ble teen girls. Did we need to build a fake teen girl for every­one to admire on Twitter? Because there’s a bunch of those and they talk about One Direction more than Olivia does, and they talk about actu­al teen girl things. So if Olivia is the dad great­est hits” of teengirl-dom because she does­n’t talk about any of the things that actu­al girls like, she just talks to you thirty-something adults some­times. It’s this weird decon­tex­tu­al­ized expe­ri­ence of what being a teenage girl in America is. It lets you feel like you’re watch­ing a teenag­er with­out ever hav­ing to actu­al­ly… So in that way it’s like but maybe she’s real, this is get­ting too creepy. Sometimes she’ll actu­al­ly talk about hair­styles. Sometimes she’ll express an opin­ion about some­thing and that’s like, Oh my god, did some­one actu­al­ly write that? This seems too close.” And it’s like the parts where Oh, it’s get­ting like a per­son.” But then some­times, Oh she’s fun­ny.” And I’m like yeah she’s fun­ny. I don’t know [crosstalk]

Joel McCoy: There was the fol­low a teen [inaudi­ble] a lit­tle while ago and that’s legit­i­mate­ly weird and creepy. [crosstalk]

Audience 2: Like adopt a highway.”

Joel: Follow the teen and just don’t talk to them, because that would be weird. But what you can total­ly do is sub­tweet what your teen is tweet­ing about to your adult friends. It’s that one lay­er of abstrac­tion where it’s like at least you’re not active­ly harm­ing a real teen despite [crosstalk]

Audience 2: Just car­ry this egg around for two weeks.

Erin McKean: No teens were harmed.

Audience 2: It seems like this very odd thing to do where it’s like learn to lis­ten to women? No. Build a bot. Build a bot. I think it speaks to some of that, like some­times she seems real because her text is real. It comes from young women and the uncan­ni­ness there. Same with dis­trib­uted labor. The uncan­ni­ness makes you aware that there are mil­lions of peo­ple on this plan­et, alive at the same time that we are, and they’re active. And when they’re active on the same but­ton, shit happens.

Darius: We also have a ques­tion from IRC ask­ing if there are bots based on Amazon’s regrettably-named Mechanical Turk ser­vice. I know of art—

Audience 3: The sheep.

Darius: There’s Clement Valla. He sent a line through the ser­vice ask­ing peo­ple to retrace a line over and over again and you can sort of cre­ate this ani­ma­tion or col­lage of it mov­ing and mutat­ing and that sort of thing. I believe he’s done oth­er work with the ser­vice as well. I don’t know if there are any— It’s hard to to Twitter bots because it’s not a real-time API-based thing. You put a request out and then you wait for things to come back. I think the way that I would approach it if I were to do some­thing like that would be to make a bulk amount of requests and build a cor­pus that way, and then tweet from that sta­t­ic cor­pus. That seems to me the only way that you could real­ly build up a bot based on that.

Audience 3: There’s a [inaudi­ble] project by Matt Richardson called Descriptive Camera.” It was­n’t a Twitter bot, it was a phys­i­cal instal­la­tion. But it was a lit­tle hard­ware cam­era he built with Raspberry Pi inside with no viewfind­er. When he clicked the but­ton it would take a pic­ture, not show it to you, send it to Mechanical Turk, have a Turk job where some­body would describe what they were see­ing in the pic­ture, and you’d get back two sen­tences with a descrip­tion like five min­utes lat­er. It’d be like, This is two peo­ple stand­ing in front of a brick wall and one of them’s kind of smil­ing and the oth­er one looks dis­tract­ed.” That would be a kind of nat­ur­al Twitter bot. He was able to get sub-five and ten minute laten­cies for a small task like that.

Further Reference

Darius Kazemi’s home page for Bot Summit 2014, with YouTube links to indi­vid­ual ses­sions, and a log of the IRC channel.

Johannah’s piece Robopoetics: The Complete Operator’s Manual” at The Awl is not about Twitter bots, but also worth a look.