Orientalism and Informatics: Alterity from the ChessPlaying Turk to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Ethnicity and other forms of difference (e.g., gender, class, disability, species) feature prominently in the design of automata, AI, HCI, and informatics more broadly. Frequently, cultural or bodily alterity theatricalizes the quality of a supposedly unmarked or universal form of reason associated with computing machines. However, the valences of this theatricalization and its implications for scientific and popular understandings of “thinking machines” vary tremendously. While some eighteenth-and nineteenth-century automata project exaggerated cultural difference onto the surface of machines, other more recent interfaces seem to suppress the visual representation of cultural difference. This essay argues that these figurations form part of a common representational strategy, an “alterity script,” that has structured presentations of reason, alterity, and automatic machines. I examine that script’s history through the case of an ostensibly Orientalized chessplaying Turk exhibited in the Habsburg Court and a family of related artifacts across linguistics, philosophy, popular exhibitions, cinema, and early AI. This history illuminates the enduring role ideas about cultural and physical difference play in informing present-day practices of AI, mechanization, crowdsourcing, and racialized labor in digital networks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-90
Number of pages46
Issue number43
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • AI
  • Amazon
  • chess
  • digital media
  • Orientalism
  • racialized labor
  • theatricality


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