Turning Man into Machine
It is project season, and many of us envy the cyborgs of Sci-Fi. How do we wish that we can turn ourselves into perfect robots and finally complete this submission...or do we? Writer Jun Kang brings us through his reflection on man's pursuit for perfection through technology
If you have ever ridden a bike or become skilled at a musical instrument, you probably would have heard of muscle memory. In our current SMU lives, we often wonder how many other tedious, menial tasks we could also automate, such as typing and spell-checking. Unconsciously, buried deep in your psyche (basal ganglia and cerebellum for those in Intro to Psych), your higher thinking brain gets to focus on other pressing matters, while your hapless meat puppet of a body suffers by repeatedly pedalling down a concrete sidewalk.
All of us have to contend with menial labour, something most of us deeply despise. We despise it so much we pass it off to other people, from the physical labour of Singapore’s 247,000 domestic workers or SMU’s cleaning robots you see hoovering up the floors. Doing the exact same thing over and over again striving for the exact same result each time is a recipe for insanity.
Eins, Zwei, Drei…
Albert Einstein once stated that “The Definition of Insanity is doing the exact same thing, again and again, expecting a different result”. Unfortunately, it appears he has little experience with menial labour: You do not actually want, let alone expect a different result since this would mean all the progress your body is making towards muscle memory just got wiped out. Your higher-order thinking brain is forced away from its comfy cerebrum since it now actually has to do some thinking just in case you over-rely on muscle memory and didn’t notice the preschooler in front of your vehicle.
Speaking of Einstein, many throughout history have wondered: How did Einstein come up with his groundbreaking scientific discoveries? It’s probably because he never needed to do any menial labour in his illustrious life. Why would he, when he had someone to do it for him, for free? No, not his mother, but his wife. To marry the great and amazing Albert Einstein one had to sign a-definitely-legal-not-at-all-suspicious contract pledging one’s life to be Einstein’s unpaid housemaid.
For the rest of us in civilised modernity, the option of having a slave is no longer acceptable in society. Thus we turned to machines. Patrolling our streets, accepting library returns, handling groceries, these wondrous marvels of machinery can handle menial labour far more efficiently with no human error, and no noisy complaints about healthcare or holidays. Unfortunately, they cannot yet take over our society, because of their costly price tags.
Finally, we turn to automating ourselves, trying to extend muscle memory into as much of our drudgery as possible. Unfortunately, by the time we start menial labour, our brains have aged far beyond their initial childlike, malleable nature, and muscle memory is far harder to acquire.
Not that society is particularly keen on letting workers turn off their brains. The economy treats all of us as rational thinking human beings, and the law holds citizens responsible for ALL their actions. Society expects all of us to use higher-order thinking at all times.
For some, there exists the tantalising thought experiment of turning ourselves into a third-person player controlling our body. To let the body’s muscle memory take over all the boring actions, and have our minds wander infinitely.
Aleksei Gastev and the Soviet Iron Man
Over a century ago in 1920, one man had the exact same thought, the same hatred for menial labour, the same lust for machine efficiency. Like the innovators of today, he too longed for humanity’s intellectual potential to be freed from the shackles of the cerebellum. He too dreamed of a day when the demand for blood and muscle can finally be handed off to an unthinking body or machine.
This man was Aleksei Gastev. Unlike most dreamers, this man had the backing of an entire superpower, founded on the ideals of workers' liberation. But where the Soviet Union wanted to free the worker from the boss, Gastev sought to free the worker from work without abolishing either.
Founding the Central Institute of Labour, Gastev was obsessed with the technology of his time, believing the factories and iron foundries of today were tomorrow’s human evolution. Throughout his literature, Gastev loved comparing humanity to metal. The flesh was weak, prone to disease and deformity, both common during the Russian Civil War. Instead, metal was praised: An iron will to stand up to the capitalists, and an iron body to withstand anything they could throw at the worker.
Metal was praised: An iron will to stand up to the capitalists, and an iron body to withstand anything they could throw at the worker.
With the war won, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labour to create this new “Iron Human”, to overcome the constraints such as the adult brain blocking the worker from a full division of mental labour. The adult brain might suffer from muscle memory, but the flesh is weak, and the Russian Machine will be stronger.
More practically, after a civil war, Russia was completely destroyed. The factories Gastev loved were ruined, and to build new factories meant importing costly machinery from the filthy capitalist west. In his infinite wisdom, he thought: “Why should man operate a machine, when man can become machine?”
And so he did. His institute set to work painstakingly researching and recording every step of the manufacturing process. Even the swinging of a hammer was broken down into milliseconds, as Gastev sought to find the most efficient way of doing literally anything in the factory Eventually, everyone was exactly synchronised doing the exact same task the exact same way until their muscles could memorise exactly what needed to be done. Afterwards, he could then automate any need for a boss. Why would you need a filthy capitalist boss to give you orders when your body has been programmed to do everything automatically?
"Hundreds of identically dressed trainees would be marched in columns to their benches, and orders would be given out by buzzes from machines. The workers were trained to hammer correctly by holding a hammer attached to and moved by a hammering machine so that after half an hour they had internalised its mechanical rhythm."
"The same process was repeated for chiselling, filing, and other basic skills. Gastev's aim, by his own admission, was to turn the worker into a sort of 'human robot'"
Following initial success, Gastev then sought to apply his thinking to all of Russia. Under his Ustanovka (Setup) programme, every menial act of human behaviour was subjected to Gastev’s experimentation. Afterwards, the education system could take advantage of his findings: Why wait until a person is within a factory when their brains were far more malleable earlier on? Through constant rote repetition, the Russian worker would be mentally and physically conditioned to perform menial tasks to perfection, synchronised cogs under machine overlords.
Keep in mind Gastev saw this not as a 1984 totalitarian dystopia, but the complete liberation of the human mind. For him, work was painful, something to be endured. Freedom for the worker meant freedom from work, and so he wanted his test subjects to be freed from the curse of thinking on the job. Their bodies would do the hard work, and their minds could think about more important topics like art, music and communism. Yes, you will be doing work, but if your mind barely registers your actions, will you even care?
For him, work was painful, something to be endured. Freedom for the worker meant freedom from work, and so he wanted his test subjects to be freed from the curse of thinking on the job.
Looking at Gastev’s eccentric tendencies, you are likely to come up with two conclusions. Either that this sounds amazing, or that this is your worst nightmare. Most Russians fell in the second camp, and Gastev’s ideas never achieved mainstream popularity. Curiously enough, Gastev’s final downfall and erasure from history would come, not from some liberty-minded revolutionary, but a totalitarian dictator, Joseph Stalin. Becoming a leader in 1924, Stalin set to work on purging all his political enemies. Since he was very paranoid, this meant hundreds of thousands of people, including Gastev.
One would expect a dictator to love Gastev’s plan to turn all Russians into easily controllable robots, but in the end, Stalin would have Aleksei Gastev sidelined to be in charge of quality control standardisation, and then to be executed in 1939. The Great Purge and show trial meant Gastev was charged with the dubious claim of ‘counter-revolutionary activity”, despite his role in Soviet Russia’s formation.
In the end, Gastev would be forgotten by most of the world, as individualism and freedom became the cultural baseline norm for mankind. Yet, his dream lingers on in the disgruntled backspacing of another autocorrect error, the tiresome act of operating troubleshooting our appliances, or the fantasy act of controlling a character in a third-person game. To order our bodies to automatically perform our tasks, and for our minds to remain blissfully unaware of the laborious task. Unfortunately, we in the present do not have the backing of a superpower to fulfil this dream.