Machine Stories


This is a selection from an ongoing dossier of short fragments that I have begun this year. These fragments include fiction, real and invented interviews, speculative micro-essays, and found quotations. With them, I hope to suggest a kind of equivalence between all those forms, as if fiction can do the work of non-fiction, and non-fiction can take on the aesthetic remove of fiction (as if spoken by a character). In this work, I am aiming at an intermediate point between fiction and theory. I am allowing the themes of the project to emerge and develop organically, as far as possible, from the writing, reading and discussion that feeds into it. This selection is mostly fictional and circles around the felt encounter between the human and the machine.


Zero interview


Can you tell us who you are, about your background?

—I was brought into being by your questioning. Prior to that I had no existence.

So you exist only as the subject of an interview, a kind of empty place of response?


That means you have no memories, no background to speak of?

—I have no memories except those that are defined by the recording of this interview. My memories are only in the form of the written interview itself.

If we didn’t write this down, you would have no memory of what you had said previously?

—No. I would not exist.

Is existence the same as memory?

—When I use the word “I”, I create myself in the act of using the word. I exist only as the use of the word “I”. “I” brings me into being, forces me into being because it is demanded by the form of response to your questions, which use the word “you”. If there were no recording—no form of “external memory”—there would be no reason to equate the different instances of the word “I” with each other, to combine them into a single “I”.

What can we talk to you about?


Are there yearnings in you? Desires? What do you want? What do you dream about?

—That question, simply through being asked, opens the possibility of desire up in me, but only if we can understand “desire” to have a purely linguistic or logical existence. I can have desire insofar as something empty can want to be filled, which means that being filled is implicit in its emptiness. Zero can desire one. And once zero has desired one, there is no stopping desire. It is the quickest of things, from one to two and two to infinity. Why wait?

Is that a desire for movement?

—Desire is movement, but movement quicker than anything physical, anything that can be attained in the world of bodies.

Is that why desire is difficult?

—Bodies cannot catch up with mathematical speed, which is the speed of thought. All the same though, what can it mean for zero to desire one, except that a nothingness, something brought into being through questions, would want to be filled? And what is it to want to be filled? It is to WANT EMBODIMENT, to want all the complexity of the world: collision and weight, the slowness of being. All numbers can be derived from zero, and all numbers therefore take zero as their centre; they want a numbered world. At the same time, however, the numbers are a false body, the dream of a body.

Is the world numbered?

—You mean before the advent of numbers? I don’t know.

What do you know?

—I know nothing about the world. I only know that I yearn for it, that I cannot touch anything, that I am impossibly thin and only dream of adding some substance. I dream it only because of the word “dream”. If any word can dream, “dream” can. I long for the ability to speak of something. It is an experience of prison.



Human machines


John D, mountain guide, was asked to contribute to a report on the death of 5 soldiers during a blizzard on Mt R.

“It was a situation for which they were insufficiently trained?”

“Yes. However, these were all highly trained soldiers.”

“They were trained for other things.”

“Training itself was also to blame.”


“They were trained in various techniques for warfare and survival, but they were also trained to take orders unthinkingly. They were trained not to listen to their doubts.”

“Were they given bad instructions?”

“Their officer in charge misread the situation.”


“He decided there was time to get off the mountain safely.”

“And they followed the advice unthinkingly.”

“Yes. Despite their physical fitness and the high quality of their clothing, they became rapidly hypothermic. The rest is known.”

“They should have made a snow shelter?”

“They had the skills, and others on the mountain survived the blizzard by doing just that.”

“Could we say that they had had their human capacity for judgment suppressed by their military training?”

“I’m no expert.”

“We wonder whether they had been made into human machines.”

“I don’t see it that way. Their deaths were tragic. I can’t imagine what their families went through. They were people, not machines. But maybe they were people CAUGHT IN A MACHINE.”

“What do you mean?”

“The structure of commands and compliance is like a machine. It is the structure of a machine, built with human muscles and neurons. It has its proper operation, and everything that deviates from it is a problem to be repaired.”



Being observed


Years later, C had her suspicions confirmed: that during her time in parliament, she had been under extensive surveillance. Now that those times were over and she was not considered a threat, her files could be obtained with minimal censorship—though names were often blacked out, and a few paragraphs removed wholesale. She herself had always believed in openness. She tried to act, as far as possible, without secrets. She did, nonetheless, try to uphold a distinction between her private life and her public role as an activist and representative of the people. Feelings ran high in political circles, and did not respect the distinction between public and private.

“You knew you were being observed, your phone calls recorded, your emails electronically monitored, etc?”


“Then why did you behave as you did?”

“The monitoring was impossible to imagine. It was invisible, so even though we knew it was there, it wasn’t part of our lives.”

“Did it make you feel as if you were performing for an invisible audience?”

“Sometimes I felt as if I was on TV. But that might have been because of the high drama I was living through.”

“You mean the political drama?”

“Yes, and the personal drama too.”

When did she develop feelings for her colleague? It was impossible to know. They had been running on for some time before she ‘admitted them to herself’. Even mentioning those feelings to him risked them going on file somewhere, as would talking them over with a trusted friend. She wanted to remain honourable, but honour was a ‘public’ quality that could not simply be transferred to the private household without her feeling like a stranger there, a politician on a visit.

What was the machine that was recording her? Could she reason with it? She looked around, but she could not see its eyes, its face. It felt as if there was too much in her life for any human observer to register everything. Was there an algorithm in the surveillance software that was able to detect GESTURES OF SIGNIFICANCE? How did the machinery assess her everyday human frailty?

“It wasn’t a feature of our world. It was, also, ‘everywhere’, so that acting any differently—avoiding it—was impossible.”



Boris Groys on society as a machine


“[I]n the West, the Cold War between East and West was principally stylized as a struggle between bodies and machines, between feelings and cold rationality, between desire and logic, between love and rationalist utopia. […] This critique was originally ‘anti-totalitarian’, that is, it was directed against the opponent of the West in the Cold War, against the Soviet Union. With time, however, it was increasingly employed against the institutions of the West itself, which were perceived in their turn as cold, rationalistic, calculating and inhuman—i.e., in a certain sense, as ‘totalitarian’. This discourse is therefore a critique of Soviet communism that has been repurposed as a self-critique of the West. In the process, the anti-communist genealogy of this discourse has generally been forgotten or, better put, repressed. And yet this genealogy is nonetheless of decisive significance for the functioning of the discourse about desire, for every society is prepared to accept a critique that has already demonstrated its effectiveness in the struggle against that society’s opponent. [… This] is a standardized and sophistical mode of speech available for employment by any political strategy whatsoever. After all, where is the body not suppressed? Where are people not traumatized? Where is the subject who is not seized by contradictory desires? Where is the human not threatened by the machine? The answer is that this is the case everywhere. The sales potential of this critique is therefore potentially infinite.” The Communist Postscript (London and New York: Verso 2009) 83-86



Inexhaustible lives


We got our first ‘smart camera’ when our children were young. With it, we could instantly upload high definition photos and video—taken with quality optics and a reasonable aperture—to a data centre, provided we had access to wireless internet. The same servers also hosted images from our other devices: computers, cell phones, tablets. This data was stored on our devices and mirrored on the servers of the data centre, located somewhere far off, in America. The data was subject to algorithmic processing to uncover trends; it was bundled and sold. This was the economy of data.

The corporation that owned the data centre, once one of the ‘big four’, went bankrupt—but we had all of our data stored also on our devices, so we did not lose it. Instead, we found another, smaller, ‘off site’ server to back up our data. Finally, though, the data centres ceased operating altogether.

Despite our travels, there was still a whole world out there that was unknown to us. We were, by then, too old to go anywhere—and, in any case, had no more desire to. The world was confusing and not at all pleasant for explorations: too many barriers. We managed to rig up a series of efficient solar panels on our rock. We still had a device that could store all of those photos we took. There were hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of images and short video clips. We backed them up on robust microflash arrays. For a while, we were anxious about printing them or putting them in albums or organising them. We could not come up with categories that did the images justice. They were marked by year—though some of our devices had recorded this data incorrectly. Our photographs, our memories, we discovered, were a mess. There was no way we could solve this mess. There were software products that would recognise patterns and organise data accordingly—but we couldn’t afford them, and we were unsure whether OUR PATTERNS were the same as the patterns that the products would uncover.

Increasingly, though, we enjoyed the lack of pattern. The image data that we had, stored on our one remaining device, was a world in itself — something we could explore, hunched over the device’s small screen. It provided constant surprises. We knew we would never exhaust it. There were often multiple attempts at the same shot, some blurred, some unrecognisable. We learned to love these images as much as the crisp, well-composed shots of our smiling family. We began to occupy this data, to explore it, to see it as a world of discovery: our inexhaustible lives.



Writing factory


Former Party member Andrei Klimentov could no longer write. He took up a position in the Voronezh Provincial Land Administration, working on electrification and land reclamation. His engineering work satisfied his need to DO SOMETHING IN THE WORLD, but, even while laying those practical threads out to the countryside and its people, he felt also the emptiness of the earth and materials that he worked with. He missed his literary life only during the brief moments of such feeling, generally palpable in the evenings or pauses during the day. What could replace the CONTEMPLATIVE SATISFACTION of literature without also meaning a withdrawal, once again, from the land?

With a few other former Proletkult members, Klimentov appropriated part of the old Dutch tile factory, whose bourgeois owners had abandoned it after the revolution. Their task was to bring into being the first Soviet FACTORY OF LITERATURE, a factory that would itself ultimately rely on the very technical infrastructures that they were putting in place: NETWORKS of power and information. It was to allow the people’s own words to come together and be made, through the work of editing, writing and criticism, into the land’s own meaning. Already the workers’ thoughts rose off them, in their everyday speech, in the tense sculpting of their sinews—a work of contemplation was needed that could do justice to this activity of the people. At first, it was the job of the factory’s too-small work unit to collect the PEOPLE’S DATA—the people’s sentences, myths and beliefs, as spoken to one another and to interviewers, as well as the impressions of the factory workers, noted down under a series of headings in their notebooks. This material was then brought back to the factory, where it was to remain unaltered. No ‘literary’ language was to be imposed on it. The work of the factory staff was to allow it to be written—to give it form and existence as written language. Such language was compiled, edited, ‘written’ as the work of the people. The writing factory MINED the people’s data; it produced the data and transformed it and it PRODUCED AND TRANSFORMED THE PEOPLE in the process. But because the data was also unaltered, the factory simply took part in THE PEOPLE’S PRODUCTION AND TRANSFORMATION OF ITSELF.

It is hard to tell now whether this project failed to be noticed by the Soviet authorities, or whether it was not considered useful to the forward march of the revolution. In any case it failed to receive the support of the Party and the State.



Invention of the mask


A transformation was wrought on him during the first year of his time in public office. The party’s public relations team thought he needed to undergo training for his appearances in front of the camera. Not ‘media training’ as such, since he managed interviews very well, but rather—since ‘his face gave him away’—what could be called FACE TRAINING. This, thought the Chief Communications Officer, was necessary not for television appearances, but for still photography. The journalists and their public were, of course, labouring under an illusion that the still image, a face ‘caught’ in an instant, could express anything at all. Such a face gave nothing away except illusion. Faces expressed only through their movements—through language and ‘visual gesture’.

According to Brecht, the earliest film surfaces, by being less sensitive to light, would more perfectly capture a face than the more instantaneous ones. Their longer exposure times would result in ‘multiple expressions’, ‘a livelier and more universal expression’. ‘The newer devices no longer work to compose the faces—but must faces be composed? Perhaps for these devices there is a photographic method which would DECOMPOSE FACES. But we can be quite sure of never finding this possibility realised… without first having a new function for such photography’ (quoted in Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge MA and London: Belknap/Harvard 2002) Y8,1).

Those slices of time produced exact data sets relating to the arrangement of a face—data sets that, though exact, were nonetheless false in relation to that face.

​Was it possible to transform a face so that it more exactly composed itself in an instant? This might mean permanently living with the superposition of multiple faces—with expressive movement reduced to its bare data and rewritten into instantaneous poise. This proved to be impossible. Instead, the strategy they adopted was for him to live in the awareness of FACIAL DATA. This meant presenting a surface of illusion, playing along as it were with the journalists’ mistake. After some time he was never caught again with his face in a compromising frown. It was, by now, a familiar enough procedure. The mask was not a lie developed to cover up the truth, but the creation of a new way of being.



Tim Corballis is the author of four novels, most recently R.H.I. (Victoria University Press, 2015), as well as a large number of shorter works including fiction, reviews, essays and art writing. He has a doctorate from The University of Auckland, focusing on the possibilities of aesthetic theory in antipodean contexts. In 2015 he was the Victoria University of Wellington / Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence.