Like any totally-normal-not-at-all-obsessed person, I spend a lot of time thinking about automatons.
Mostly, I shake my fist at the sky like an old man complaining that kids these days only like their sleek, human-passing, electric robots and no one cares about the wind, fire, water, and clockwork powered beings that preceded them. Is MonkBot not sexy? With that sweet, sweet segmented mouth action?
Automatons are usually thought of as no different from golems, living dolls, or patchwork girls. Just another category of animated being: nifty, sure, but so what? But automatons are, and have always been, important. And for two thousand years we knew that.
In the arc of human invention, automatons predate paper. That means before we thought “sure would be nice to write things in a convenient and portable manner” we thought “sure would be nice to have an inhuman creation in our shape that moves.” Then we immediately looked at this thing we’d made and instead of believing we’d become gods, we thought we’d created them. In ancient Rome and Egypt, as well as during the medieval period, automatons were representations of the divine. Even after they shifted into the realm of entertainment, automatons were singular wonders, art that brought joy to the viewer.
By remembering automatons we remember how the prioritization of art can become bulldozed by wants of industry, the miraculous giving way to the profitable. These creations are still essential to study, because when humans create in their own image they also create a tangible snapshot of the values and visions of the world at that moment. Sometimes, that image is of religious devotion. Sometimes, it’s an image of intellectual curiosity and wonder. But sometimes they are darker, cautionary tales exposing how power operates against the powerless.