Machines have Feelings
by Richard Ballantine

You should no more mistreat a machine than kick a dog. Aside from showing consideration and respect for all things, there is a practical aspect: like dogs, machines can defend themselves, and may retaliate if abused.

The word which ties this kind of thinking together is vibrations. Hippies speak in catch-all terms of 'good', 'bad' or 'weird' vibrations. But in physics, vibrations are a specific phenomenon. All things, whether alive or dead, vibrate, each at a particular frequency or frequencies. Everything that is, moves; if it doesn't move, then it ain't.

So thousands of years ago, ye olde stone, randomly kicked by someone who at the time was thinking about something else, suffered an upset. Are stones alive? Are they aware? Are there differences between stones? Do some stones endure the knocks of life lightly, while others slowly craze with lust for revenge?

One indicator of life and awareness is the ability to respond to changing conditions. By this classic distinction between animate and inanimate, the stone is dead. But we humans are just beginning to grasp that this kind of differentiation is relative, and very much a matter of perception.

Thus, we know from empirical observation that trees talk to each other -- about insects, the weather, and other news of concern to trees. We can't overhear their conversation, because the ways and means of tree talk are different, and in a slower time-frame, than our own language.

The so-called 'primitive' societies that lived as organic, inter-related components of their environments, animated things with spirits. So, before an American Indian of yesteryear cut down a tree to make a canoe, he sat down and talked things over with the tree spirit. He would apologize for interfering, then describe the good times to come: the trunk would be hollowed out to become a magnificent vessel that would explore lakes and rivers and have great adventures. The branches would become bows, supports for tepees and meat-drying racks, and so on. Nothing would be wasted.

Fine, we can see that the trees are alive, and it is good to maintain an awareness of their place in the scheme of things. We also know that there is much we do not understand. Many creatures communicate with each other without any known means of being able to do so. For example, if you divide a group of shrimps into two groups, A and B, leave group A in a tank, carry group B out of the building into another building some distance away, and place them on a hot stove, the shrimps in group A will scream.

But rocks?

Well, let us scale up for a moment, to all of planet Earth. Some 20 years ago an English scientist named James Lovelock came up with the idea that life is the sum of all forms of life on Earth, from bacteria to elephants. Lovelock said that life -- all terrestrial forms combined -- is interactive and has the capacity to maintain its environment so that it -- life -- can continue. In other words, life is the whole shebang; planet Earth is a vast, self-regulating organism, and therefore, alive. Lovelock gave his concept the name 'Gaia', after the ancient goddess of the Earth.

Orthodox scientists were outraged by Lovelock, and sought to disprove his hypothesis. The hippies and we-shall-overcomers loved it; mama Earth will take care of everything. But the hippies missed a critical point: if Earth itself is alive -- and much evidence points in this direction -- then the obvious solution to Earth's current anthropogenic, man-made environmental problems is to eliminate us.

The view is beautifully put in Voice of the Planet, a book by Michael Tobias, in which a rogue computer built by a Buddhist monk becomes the voice of Gaia, the planet: "Overpopulation? No real problem. The more corpses, the more bacteria. The more bacteria, the more blooming begonias. I love begonias."

Voice of the Planet takes up the rock question. After all, if Earth is alive, then how and when did she become alive? The beginnng, the first genes, says Gaia, were clay minerals suspended in water. Through an electron microscope, the film views a smear of such a clay, kaolinite. We see a series of crystaline structures growing and inerweaving in fantastic, fast-moving patterns, in a gorgeous riot of colours that makes Stanley Kubrick's 2001 look very tame.

These patterns, says Gaia, are a series of transmission micrographs. Minerals grow like plants, and the crystalline structures are data storage devices. Under the stress of mudslides, storms and earth-quakes, the mineral crystals were forced to protect themselves. They developed architectures for strength, and to impart the information about these processes, they learned to fold in upon themselves to touch, and thereby communicate -- the basis for the messenger RNA molecule, which transmits the code of heredity for all organisms.

The process -- and all evolution -- starts with feeling. Intimacy. The nurturing of kind. And kaolinite forms from the weathering of feldspar, a primary ingredient of granite.

If life and a whole teeming planet can start from a rock, you'd best treat a machine like a bicycle with respect. Who knows what transmission micrographs may be taking place in the dark, convoluted innards of an SA three-speed hub?

A classic dictum for those who fancy tinkering with machines is: "It ain't broke, don't fix it." Is this because machines work, at least in part, through a fragile, Gaia-like magic that does not easily toerate outside intervention, or does it reflect that people are simply ham-fisted?

It's both, I guess. Few of us can avoid a heartfelt prayer when we need a little extra help, or for something to work just one more time. Who knows, the energy of our feelings may sometimes make a difference. At any rate, we like to think so; hope has made a lot of money for the makers of gambling machines.

Of course, a machine is as good (or bad) as its design, and the materials it is made from. In the case of machines made as equipment (such as bicycles, or skis), however, much depends on how the equipment is used. At the simple level, equipment which is over-stressed will wear or break more rapidly. At a more sophisticated level, the pursuit of performance forges a powerful inimacy between user and equipment. Tight, carved turns on ice with skis are easier, nay, only possible, if the skis have sharp, strong edges. Just how sharp the edges are, and exactly where along the length of the ski they are sharp, makes an important difference. There are doubtless more than a few good skiers who have never handled a file, but among the greats, personal involvement is the norm. What the equipment can do, and what that person can do, is closely intertwined.

Interaction between humans and machines has many different aspects and levels. We are all familiar with the fact that, for example, a particular derailleur system can be sweetness and light for one person, and an excruciating series of clashes and grinds for another. In the latter case, is it the rider, or the derailleur system, which is at fault? Should the design of the mechanism be improved to meet the expectations of the rider, or should the rider learn how to work within the capabilities of the equipment?

A few summers ago, while rooting around my parent's home in upstate New York, I unearthed a Carlton bicycle I had given my father nearly 20 years previously. Amongst other adventures, it had passed through the hands of my nefarious, hard-riding, eight-year-old cousin (now in his mid-thirties), and was fairly knackered. But the frame, Reynolds 531 in a nice green, with chromed stay and blade tips, and lugs, was sound.

I went to my father and said, "Hey Dad, we can put this bike back into good shpe with some new components. Easy and cheap -- only a few hundred dollars."

My Dad said, "See what you can do for fifteen dollars."

Over the next few days I rebuilt the Carlton, scavenging parts from two wrecked bicycles tossed behind my uncle's shed, or making them myself using an anvil, hammer, and file. I got the job done for nine dollars and 50 cents.

A neighbour, mounted on the lates Lemond-inspired, profile-bar, aluminium superbike, stared at the refurbished Carlton as if it had come from another world. The bike is very antiquated by modern standards, and certain gear changes require patience and restraint. But the bike is fun to ride. I use it a lot.

You should indeed work within the limitations of a machine or mechanism. To do otherwise is unkind, and gives an ill reflection; it is a poor workman who complains of his tools. A perfectly-balanced, incredibly precise bow is of little use if the archer is a lousy shot. Yet also, and equally, a workman is only as good as his tools. A bow made from a bough torn from a tree and a bit of old string simply won't do for match competition.

As for whether or not rocks and machines are alive, the answer is yes, they are. Rocks are a personal sentiment. For me, feeling that everything is alive is part of my feeling good to be around. The vitality of machines is more objective. There is a Gaia-like magic which holds machines together -- or apart. If the design is right, when a machine goes into operation the various component parts settle in and cosy up to each other as their respective rough surfaces wear smoother. The machine functions as a single unit, as an entity. If the design is wrong, the thing breaks or falls apart.

It does not hurt to cajole machines or equipment, or to expect that they enjoy functioning, but nor should one be awed or afraid. I believe in magic probably as much as anyone, but, to me, mechanical things were and are put together in order to work. They should come apart, and go back together, without mystery or argument, or questions about whether things will function. To get the best out of a machine, you should undertand it, and be able to be with it.

You need to be willing to mix it up with other machinery, but bear in mind that practical experience is important. Stand forth him or her among us who has never stripped an alloy bolt... You need to know what you are doing. I am never embarrassed to ask how something works, comes apart, goes back together, or whatever. I always read the manual before putting a new device into motion. It saves a lot of trouble. And I repect experience. You can know everything there is to know about wheels, yet for hands-on working with wheels, not even come close to an experienced mechanic and builder.

So, do not be afraid, but restrain ambition unless you have time for learning, and room for mistakes. In any case, treat your machines with TLC. It will make you feel better, and perhaps the machines, as well.

© Richard Ballantine
New Cyclist, Autumn 1990

other stories by R. Ballantine