Clockwork Fetishism

Paul McCann '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

It used to be you could see how things worked. The piano key moves the hammer, strikes the strings, makes a sound. The cat in the Rube Goldberg device gets wet, wakes up, and pulls the string attached to its tail, lighting a match somewhere. Mouse steps on trap, spring propels metal bit, mouse loses head. Realiable, comprehensible.

That's not how computers work. There are competing theories as to how they function. One suggests they run on smoke, and will continue to operate until you let the smoke out (most easily accomplished by dampening them). Another claims they are powered by thousands of tiny, invisible demons known as "electorons" which are bound into paths of alchemical copper inscribed with sacred words like "CAT5". There's some other theory about variable electric fields in pseudometals such as silicon, but nobody pays that one much attention as those behind it are evidently communist drug addicts.

Technology whose most basic functionings are invisible to the naked eye and beyond simple comprehension people may build their own computers, but have you ever known someone to assemble their own processor? Wire their own motherboard from scratch? — is the rule of the day. It's a bit odd when a mechanical talking head turns up William Gibson's Neuromancer. More than a bit odd, considering the complete microchip saturation of the world.

The most unusual thing Jimmy hadm anaged to score on his swing through the archipelago was a head, an intricately worked bust, cloisonne over platinum, studded with seedpearls and lapis. Smith, sighing, had put down his pocket microscope and advised Jimmy to melt the thing down. It was contemporary, not an antique, and had no value to the collector. Jimmy laughed. The thing was a computer terminal, he said. It could talk. And not in a synth-voice, but with a beautiful arrangement of gears and miniature organ pipes. It was a baroque thing for anyone to have constructed, a perverse thing, because synth-voice chips cost next to nothing. It was a curiosity. Smith jacked the head into his computer and listened as the melodious, inhuman voice piped the figures of last year's tax return. [pp. 74]

This clockwork fantasy is Wintermute, Maezel v2, the perfect — and beautiful — Eve made by Adam, rather than from him.


1. No other computer — mainframe, deck, or otherwise — has any element of beauty assigned to it. Why this head, why Wintermute?

2. Why does the world's most advanced AI interface through essentially obsolete technology?

3. What's the value of old technology in a new world? Is it just for crazy collectors, and are replicas only good for melting down?

4. Using a marvellous piece of art to pipe back last year's tax return figures — blasphemous or suitably serviceable?


Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

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Last modified 24 February 2005