The Living Machine: A Computational Approach to the Nineteenth-Century Language of Technology

Daniel Wilson, Kaspar Beelen, Mariona Coll Ardanuy, Barbara McGillivray, Ruth Ahnert

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Abstract

This article examines a long-standing question in the history of technology concerning the trope of the living machine. The authors do this by using a cutting-edge computational method, which they apply to large collections of digitized texts. In particular, they demonstrate the affordances of a neural language model for historical research. In a deliberate maneuver, the authors use a type of model, often portrayed as sentient today, to detect figures of speech in nineteenth-century texts that portrayed machines as self-acting, automatic, or alive. Their masked language model detects unusual or surprising turns of phrase, which could not be discovered using simple keyword search. The authors collect and close read such sentences to explore how figurative language produced a context that conceived humans and machines as interchangeable in complicated ways. They conclude that, used judiciously, language models have the potential to open up new avenues of historical research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)875-902
Number of pages28
JournalTECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE
Volume64
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 11 Aug 2023

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