Machina ex Machina: Theoretical Perspectives on Adira & Fen Slattery’s The Machine

Matthew Tilly's floor plan of the air loom

In Adira Slattery and Fen Slattery’s The Machine,the titular contraptions are explicitly designed to play music. The Machine, the game, produces play and, through it, a collaborative work of creative fiction. In both cases, the machines and The Machine are exotelic: their end is something outside themselves.

The following is a counter-interpretation based on machines that bear uncanny, morphological resemblances to The Machine and its machines. (And there are some fun twists at the end.)

The Influencing Machine

This psychoanalytic concept is a syndrome—a cluster of symptoms described by psychoanalyst Victor Tausk as “the experience of being influenced by a distant machine.” In The Machine, the character’s machine seems distant not in space but in time; it (presumably) waits in the future, compelling the character to create it. (In reality, it is ontologically distant, as characters inevitably fail to achieve this goal.)

Clinical patients cannot fully describe the influencing machine. Through their own technical knowledge, they can describe certain mechanical components and attempt to describe how it functions. As the symptoms intensify, the influencing machine becomes more complex, incorporating new mechanisms to explain new functions and effects. But all of these descriptions fail to coalesce into an adequate technical description, just as characters in The Machine fail to construct a functioning version of their machine (just as schizophrenics typically suffer inhibition in performing novel tasks).

Matthew Tilly's illustration of the air loom
Tilly’s “air loom” is one of the most famous examples of the influencing machine. Matthew Tilly, illustration of the Air Loom, 1810. Public domain.

The patient may also perceive inner thoughts and actions as originating from an external source. The influencing machine is one such source and an example of a characteristic willingness to develop unlikely explanations for extraordinary phenomena. These phenomena are internal, generated within an afflicted nervous system, but due to the breakdown of the ego boundary—the dividing line between self and other—the sufferer believes other people are capable of reading and/or implanting thoughts in their mind.

And this is precisely what happens in The Machine’s cooperative, sequential gameplay. Players and characters read previous players’ journal entries, granting characters access to the other characters’ thoughts, which influence players’ in-game and metagame actions.

Tausk writes that “the structure of the machine differs materially” from patient to patient, and it also varies from player to player and game to game. Players within one game will design different machines based on preceding descriptions and the physical journal itself, just as players in other games will devise even-more-different machines informed by their own journals’ unique material characteristics.

Finally, the influencing machine is felt to compel actions and force motor functions (such as building a machine). In The Machine, the machine acts on the character, and the primary “symptom” is loss of control as the character attempts to bring the machine into reality as a means of ending the pathological experience. This characteristic qualifies The Machine’s machines another, specific type of machine.

The Self-Reproducing Machine

Non-trivial self-reproduction occurs when a machine builds a copy of itself, and that copy can in turn immediately begin building another copy. Such a machine requires three major components: a constructor, a supervisory unit, and the schematic or “blueprints” of the machine itself.

Without these “blueprints,” a new machine will have no instructions for further self-replication. The supervisory unit supplies the instructions, which include templates for the constructor and the supervisory unit itself.

self-replicating cellular automaton
A cellular self-replicating automaton in action. Yes, it’s as complicated as it looks. Renato Nobili, read arm demo, 2009. Public domain.

But the “blueprints” aren’t a discrete piece of information; they are inherent in the machine’s structure.  The machine is a system that contains a coded description of itself in addition to being a functional realization of that description. The supervisory unit interprets that organization both ways—as description and device—and it instructs the constructor to build a new machine (which is also a description of itself).

This is the process at work in cellular division and replication. Each cell’s structure contains the mechanisms and information necessary to make more cells, which in turn make more cells. From certain biological points of view, this is the essence of being “alive.”

But neither The Machine nor its machines fit this definition precisely. Machine and character are both part of the game, but the character is not a part of the machine—as an influencing machine, it is external and acts at a distance. It affects the player and induces them to build.

And this qualifies it (again) as a different type of self-reproducing system.

The Meme

Doge. Modified from the original photo by Atsuko Satō, 2010.

The term meme derives from the Greek mimesis—imitation or representation. “Meme” shares its etymological roots with mimicry and carries phonetic overtones of “memory,” both of which are crucial for—even definitive of—memes’ function. Any idea or information that we learn, recall, and repeat (whether Newton’s calculus or a picture of a cat) is a meme. Imitation leads to meme propagation and replication.

Neuropsychologist Nicholas Keynes Humphrey writes “memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”

Viruses cannot reproduce on their own; they instead repurpose cells’ internal reproductive processes to construct new viruses (rather than healthy cells). Likewise, the meme “infects” its host and uses them as means of propagation.

Individual memes’ defining qualities are longevity, fecundity, and copying fidelity: how memorable a meme is, its proficiency in producing copies of itself, and the how closely those copies resemble the original machine. All contribute to the meme’s survivability in a competitive environment.

Every meme, at every moment, vies for a limited pool of attention and memory. Students and office workers alike would probably prefer browsing macros over learning physics or preparing financial reports. This illustrates the fact that memes reproduce because doing so is advantageous for them—not us. Sometimes they are helpful to the host organism, but they also can be toxic and destructive.

In The Machine, the character’s life is co-opted by the machine meme and their work is never completed. The machine is not a physical thing that can be constructed; as a meme, it is a piece of information that compels its own reproduction and, in the process, the character’s deterioration and downfall.

In the context of self-reproducing automata, this meme (the concept of the machine within the game The Machine) is not a proper blueprint. As an influencing machine (a fiction), its precise workings lie beyond the character’s (and probably the player’s) technical acumen. And the machine, by the rules of the game, cannot be built; the character fails and their journal passes to another who in turn undertakes the same doomed endeavor.

This failure to construct the machine—not its completion—propagates the machine as a meme.

Conclusions

Clearly, The Machine’s machines are detrimental to the characters, closely aligning to Humphrey’s analogy of viral infection and the influencing machine’s pathological nature. The character “feel[s] the machine calling”—and the player is also instructed to play when they “feel the journal calling.”

As explained in my review, The Machine establishes an identity between the character’s machine and the player’s journal, an identity of in-game existents with the medium of play. As a result, this entire interpretation of the machines is also true of the The Machine (pathological assessments aside). Go back, re-read this post, and in every place I’ve written “the machine” substitute “The Machine” (and substitute “player” for “character” as necessary). Directly addressing this analogy would extend an already-pretty-lengthy discussion, so I’ll leave that analysis as an exercise for critically minded readers.

Memes are inherently competitive, but The Machine is a non-competitive game; it does not pit players against one another. As influencing machines, players’ machines compete with standard cognitive function. And The Machine, as an influencing machine (and as a meme) does the same: it pits the play mentality or attitude against the “serious” one of everyday life. The competition is between playing and not playing, and between playing The Machine and playing another game.

Both the in-game machines and the game itself, The Machine (like every other game and meme) depend on human activity as their medium of reproduction. Characters and players both receive and write in journals; through these journals, the machines and The Machine influence subsequent players.

Play itself is the strange, inexplicable force by which these influencing machines act on “afflicted” players. The field of play described by Johan Huizinga is analogous to an electromagnetic field, which affects objects and organisms within it. The player is, so to speak, influenced by the currents moving through the field of play—a strange, ethereal medium befitting a semi-mystical influencing machine.

Ironic Coda: Autobiography of a Machine

I first encountered the influencing machine in an undergraduate course on technology and millenarianism. Later, during my doctoral research, I stumbled across self-replicating automata. In my case, both memes/machines have proven to possess remarkable longevity and fecundity that not only informed this analysis but actually enact themselves through it. Their analogies in The Machine seized my attention and compelled me to put them into words; a constellation of concepts crystallized into an idea that demanded I help it reproduce itself in the minds of others.

This post is itself another self-reproducing influencing machine—a meme. It instructs you, the reader, on how to interpret the imaginative activity of The Machine. And it stands in a long tradition of critical discourse that presumes to dictate interpretation of art and other cultural phenomena, thereby propagating that self-obsessed meme in a new generation of minds.


If you’d like to learn more about the influencing machine, Victor Tausk’s seminal paper is freely available, and his exposition of the symptoms is very accessible; his analysis of those symptoms is rather more technical. John Von Neumann’s theory of self-reproducing automata are deftly explained by William Poundstone in The Recursive Universe. Richard Dawkins originated and explained the concept of memes in The Selfish Gene, from which my paraphrase and N.K. Humphrey’s quote are drawn. And, of course, The Machine is by Adira Slattery and Fen Slattery; you can replicate a copy at itch.io.

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