Reliable Humans Trustworthy Machines

The Northrop Frye Centre Presents:

Reliable Humans, Trustworthy Machines NFC Poster Art


Reliable Humans, Trustworthy Machines: The Lost Histories of the Technological Self

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017 at 2:00pm
Edward Jones-Imhotep, NFC Visiting Fellow
The Northrop Frye Centre (VC102), Old Victoria College Building
91 Charles Street West

This talk explores a forgotten history of people and machines, examining how modern observers from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries understood the failure of machines as a problem of the self - a problem of the kinds of people that failing machines created, threatened, or presupposed. The modern period saw the rise of a public theatre of machines, whose proper functioning underwrote conquest and commerce, vouchsafed privileged knowledge, and furnished powerful, enduring metaphors for nature, politics, art, and the body. Because machines provided theatres of proof for the forms of social and political life built around them, their failures threatened the social and political orders they served. 

From 18th-century sentimentalism and the guillotine, through Victorians’ nervous fascination with railway accidents, to industrial breakdowns in Jazz-Age America, this talk excavates the largely-forgotten concerns that linked selves and social orders to the problematic workings of technology. Linking those developments to our own worries in the early-21st century, the talk encourages us to see the history of modern technology not as a history of disembodied mechanisms and devices, but as a history of the self and the social orders it made possible.

Edward Jones-Imhotep is Associate Professor at York University in the 
Department of Science and Technology Studies. He is a historian of the social and cultural life of machines, focusing on the intertwined histories of technology, trust, and social order in modern Europe and North America. Prof. Jones-Imhotep is the author of The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (MIT Press, forthcoming 2017) and co-editor of Science, Technology and the Modern in Canada (UBC Press, under contract). His current research project, Reliable Humans, Trustworthy Machines, combines advanced digital techniques with traditional historical methods to recapture a lost history of technology.