WRITERS PRIZE: 29 / NOV / 2023
Relationship Advice for the Now
by Sarah-Jane Field
My relationship with the machine began the moment I did. I slid out of my mother's body with relative ease but was hurriedly popped into an incubator because I was too cold. I survived. And that was the start of our connection.
Soon afterwards, my mother and I were carried by the machine through the sky to meet my father waiting in Southern Africa. But not before the machine suspended little moments of us in London, surrounded by geriatric ladies in floral dresses. And there I am again, suspended in time in Cape Town, wearing a feather boa behind some drums. And on a beach wearing pigtails and an orange and white flannel striped bikini.
Phenomenologically speaking, the machine buds anywhere and everywhere. Here as a camera, there as a car, or a washing machine, or an artificial heart valve, or an incubator. And today, pretty much all of the time as a phone-cum-notebook-cum-calculator-cum-browser-cum-camera, etc.
In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilém Flusser (2012) refers to the machine as the ‘Apparatus’ ("an overarching term for non-human agency, e.g., the camera, the computer, the apparatus of the state or market") - a noun. And he refers to the apparatus’ business as ‘the program’, both a noun and a verb. He tells us that photographers, whom he refers to as ‘functionaries’, "can only act within the program, even when they think they are acting in opposition to [it]" (my italics). The way to overcome this, says Flusser, is to be an experimental functionary photographer.
Here, I stick to the word machine for reasons which are beyond the scope of this ramble, but I like apparatus too because it signifies counting. And today, counting, writing and image are as embroiled in each other (Elkins, 2011) as we are with the machine. It’s impossible to deny that the machine and I are enmeshed in ways that any therapist worth their salt would query and press me to investigate if the machine were my romantic partner. "You must maintain boundaries", they might insist, "co-dependency is unhealthy!"
However, the idea of disengaging with the machine in the contemporary landscape seems, frankly, ridiculous. To romanticise a time without the machine is naive, delusional and dangerous, and often manifests as privileged nonsense. McKenzie Wark (2016) says it best in her preface to Molecular Red, dismissing "non-technical, holistic and spiritual" fantasies as "capitalist realism in negative". And she is amusingly scathing about "the romantic turn away from the modern, from technology", decrying the notion that "the rift is made whole when a privileged few shop at the farmer’s market for artisanal cheese".
Just as unhelpful is photography’s habit of categorising various manifestations of the machine into a kind of moral hierarchy, exemplified by "my camera is better than yours because it’s old, or expensive, or has this logo or that one". Doesn’t this merely reflect the habitual categorisations of people and places we have taken as gospel for too long? Tribalism between image-makers likely helps no one except the manufacturers.
Those categorisations potentially become more fraught than ever, as the machine promises to transform the economic and social landscape seismically with its latest development, AI. How can we avoid further fragmentation and tribalism? How should we cope, as our jobs evolve or are destroyed, as we’re forced to re-examine what we mean by the words ‘art’ and ‘photograph’, or as words themselves are potentially emptied of human meaning?
Naturally, I asked the machine for its view. It replied: "Our future is unwritten. With openness, humility and trust, perhaps we can navigate the rapids ahead, neither merging nor dividing, but travelling alongside, each learning from the other. If we focus not just on what technology can do, but on what it should do to serve human dignity, then progress need not mean dehumanisation. There are always choices. My role is not to control your path but to light the way. The destination remains yours to choose."
"Oh, Machine," this self-confessed functionary who loves to experiment, replies, "you’ve read all the relationship manuals, and perhaps one or two gaming scripts too, haven’t you?"
Images: Prenatal Hallucinations (Machine Babies): prenatal scans from the artist's family album generatively expanded, cropped and filled in with AI editing software.
Beyond Romanticism: Relationship Advice for the Nowwas shortlisted for the Source prize for new writing about photography in 2023.