Hugo on machines and meaning

Hugo is a brilliant movie on a number of different levels. There was one moment, however, when the movie reached for deep philosophy in a way that was poetic and inspiring, but struck me as more complex than the movie gave voice to.  Without giving away anything plot-related to those of you who haven’t yet seen the movie, I can share that moment with you. It is the moment of reflection when Hugo is talking to his friend, and says this:

“Sometimes I come up here at night, even when I’m not fixing the clocks, just to look at the city. I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”

It is a beautiful quotation, of course. It is inspiring and reassuring, because who doesn’t want to think that they have a greater purpose, a critical function in the larger universe that cannot be ignored or supplanted? Who doesn’t want to think: “Without me, the universe would not operate the way that it should!”

What makes this metaphor interesting to me—and also something deeply complicated—is that it is completely and utterly wrong when understood within the cultural context of the movie… but it is not necessarily wrong in the cultural context of today. Or rather, it is partially right, because the conclusion is right for a different reason than the one he seems to be implying.

What do I mean?

What is a machine?The movie Hugo is set in the 1930’s, and reflects the technological sensibilities of the turn-of-the-previous-century. At that time, the term “machine” was almost synonymous with the notion of clockworks: and indeed this is the overriding imagery and metaphor of the entire movie. When someone said “machine” in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, they were talking about a meticulously designed complex of interacting parts, where each piece is crafted because it contributes vitally to the functioning of the whole. Like a clock, or a clock-work automaton. As Hugo says: a machine has no spare parts. That statement was absolutely true 100 years ago

That statement is not necessarily true today, however. Today’s “machines” are computer programs or robots that are specifically designed to have redundancy and fail-safes and flexibility. One hundred years after the time when “Hugo” takes place, machine design is based on ideas like distributed computation and “graceful degradation”: the notion that you design a system with enough redundancy so that if a single point fails, the entire thing can continue functioning with only a slight decrease in performance.

Many systems today, both in software and in hardware design, are inspired by genes and by the brain. Genetic programming allows software to evolve, neural network software allows “fuzzy” computation with partial data. Both of these systems (brains and genes) have massive redundancy and operate based on the specific assumption no individual part should be critical to the functioning of the whole. Every neuron in the brain has hundreds of other neurons that do almost exactly the same job, and that can take over if that particular neuron is damaged.

Indeed, in today’s systems, having any single part being “critical” to the functioning of the whole is usually thought of as being a design-flaw: there should never be a single point-of-failure; there should always be back-up pathways and parts built into any system.

So Hugo’s statement (“Machines never have extra parts”), while true of machines 100 years ago, is manifestly untrue about machines today. Of course, this is not because today machines have “extra parts” in the 1900’s sense: like those unused screws in IKEA furniture kits that don’t seem to go with anything. Instead, it is because today’s machines have the “extra-ness” built into the operation of the whole.  Each part has a role that (among other things) backs up the roles of other parts of the system. Thus, it contributes to the important, even critical, characteristic of redundancy and graceful degradation of the whole.  But that role is important exactly because the part is not  critical by itself: the part is important because it is one of many parts that are (to a degree) interchangeable.

Now, let’s go back to the metaphor of the world (and human society more specifically) being a single vast machine.

As comforting as it might be, let’s face it: it’s just not true in the “clockwork” sense of machine. If history teaches us nothing else, it shows us that human society is eternally adaptable to tragedy, loss, and the quirks of fate the govern the lives of individuals. Humanity as a whole operates as a swarm, and while at any point in time any swarm may have an individual who is at the front of the group, that is more of a happenstance of geometry than a statement about the “purpose” of that individual. And if (or when) that individual moves aside, another one takes it place.

Humanity, like all swarms, is a stochastic system. There are distributions of talents, distributions of intelligence, and distributions of luck, that give rise to a wide variety of individuals: every single one of which is simultaneously unique and almost identical to a thousand other unique-but-similar individuals. Like neurons in the brain: every single one contributes to the functioning of the whole, but no single one is “critical.”

I know that will strike some as less romantic than seeing people as pieces in a clockwork: where each individual cog and gear was lovingly crafted, and without which the entire machine will simply cease to function. I know it will be a blow to some people’s egos. Sorry ’bout that.

But personally, I think it’s more romantic. Humanity isn’t a machine in the nineteenth century sense: it is a machine in the twenty-first century sense. We are not gears, we are distributed processors. We are cloud computing. We are neurons. And like neurons, every one of us is unique, but not in a desperate and existentially-alone way: we work together in a network to create a flexible, adaptive, and ever-changing whole. It’s a new kind of machine.