Historical Fictions of Technology




In the mid 1990s I was investigating the history of science and technology, and I noticed that certain themes kept recurring in different epochs. While the themes manifested differently and made differing claims for technology and knowledge, they had many of the same goals. For example, reading faces has been an ongoing endeavor, from cranioscopy through Darwin to Amazon’s Rekognition. There has also been an ongoing tradition of experiments to determine the nature of language, dating back to Herodotus, and carried on through countless inquiries such as those by von Kempelen, Dudley, and, of course, Amazon’s Alexa.

My method for investigating these pan-historical human desires was borrowed from literary historical fiction: to create a new entry in the history of technology that would fit perfectly, describe a moment in the past while also revealing something about the contemporary efforts, and challenge viewers to think about this history. The work was presented “dry” and without reference to its fictional or synthetic nature; indeed the projects were accepted as factual by many viewers, appeared in online histories of technology, and one was even mistakenly curated by a historical museum until I realized their error and alerted them.


Character Input

A system from 1968, developed by Dr. Ilya Prokopoff, a soviet scientist, to determine a person’s character through an image of their face. Minsky & Papert’s influential but misleading book Perceptrons put neural network research on hold for decades in the West. Prokopoff, however, could not import the book to his lab in Stalingrad, and as a result continued to make discoveries.



Species Substitute

In the mid-1970s the new EPA was preventing the construction of a dam in the southwestern USA, as its construction and subsequent flooding might damage the habitat of an endangered species of ant. Pro-hydropower think tank American Hydropower Institute came to the rescue with Species Substitute, a machine to keep the ants alive in perpetuity.





Natural Language Processor

The Natural Language Processor was a massive scientific experiment conducted by a mid-20th Century linguist, aimed at finding the original language of babies.