Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Machine that Does Nothing

So goes the A-Head piece in yesterday's WSJ: there is a machine that exists only to turn itself off after you turn it on. 

The story doesn't say if it is battery operated, or electrically wired, but it does seem to require the owner to build it from a kit, which of course means you have to do something to build a machine that will, in effect, do nothing. The experience gained might still be valuable.

Whether the machine is a metaphor for many things in our lives, electronic mechanical, human, or governmental, is not discussed.

The machine, in its first variation, appeared in the 1950s, invented by an artificial-intelligence expert who is now retired and is 85. As pictured in yesterday's edition, I first thought it was variation of the Laugh Box, a black cube that caught on many years ago as a novelty. It was battery operated, and when you turned it on it emitted this hideous laugh/cackle for several seconds, then shut itself off. The difference between it and the 'Useless Machine' is that it did something before shutting itself off. It laughed.

The boxes were fairly popular as gag gifts. If anyone can remember Fifth Avenue Card Shops, then you might remember the Laugh Box. A story went around town that Sir Rudolf Bing, the Metropolitan Opera's long deceased, legendary general manager pulled a Laugh Box out of his desk and started it up when a certain baritone came in and asked for a better contract. Opera folk.

Academics have of course weighed in on the 'Useless Machine' by saying it reflects an "intuitive grasp of a fundamental problem of the unconscious...Freud...death drive." Read the story.

The show Seinfeld is famously said to have been about nothing. If that were true, then the show would have turned itself off right after you turned it on. There would be no ratings, and Jerry et al wouldn't be ensconced in a multi-million dollar property in the Hamptons.

Philosophically, I wonder if something that turns itself off can really be something that does nothing. After all, countless TV and radio talk shows get turned on, but don't reward us by turning themselves off.

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