Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Kafka day

Interesting synchronicity today, spinning off from going to get a cat collar ID tag engraved. How things have moved on; I was expecting it to be done by hand or using a pantograph (for instance). But no, they used a very nice computer engraving machine not unlike this one. It raised vague resonances, and then I realised what it reminded me of: the execution machine in Kafka's 1919 story In the Penal Colony, which kills prisoners by engraving on them the law they have broken. The Condemned Man in story is a servant who has been convicted of falling asleep on guard duty and threatening his master, so the words will be "Honour your superiors!". The story is an examination of a psychopathically authoritarian officer in a Third World or colonial penal colony in the tropics, who is so logically consistent in his sense of duty that he will subject himself to the device when he feels he has failed to be just. What exactly it means is debatable: see Fear and Trembling in the Penal Colony, by Kyle McGee, at The Kafka Project.

The device is very like the computer engraving machine, comprising the "Bed" on which the victim is put; the "Harrow", needles that do the writing; and the "Inscriber", the programmable control box for the Harrow. I was about to pass this on to, which collects SF precursors to real-world science, technology and culture, but I find automatic engraving machines (although ones based on a disposable photographic template) existed at least as far back as 1901).

Later I read on the Telegraph website Japanese gamer 'marries' Nintendo DS character. I'm not entirely sure this is unprecedented - I vaguely recall stories a decade ago about the virtual idol Kyoko Date getting marriage proposals - but anyway the current news story immediately recalls one of the central themes of William Gibson's Idoru, in which the lead singer for a rock band becomes engaged to marry the idoru Rei Toei, an entirely artificial personality (admittedly a high-level AI with a holographic presence - rather more sophisticated than a Nintendo DS character). This is definitely one for Technovelgy, but I see someone beat me to it: Man Marries Anime Game Character.

On skimming my copy of Idoru to refresh my memory of the details, what should I find in the first few pages but an allusion to the Kafka story?

The stairway opened into The Penal Colony, a disco, deserted at this hour, pulses of silent red lightning marking Laney's steps across the dance floor. A machine of some kind was suspended from the ceiling. Each of its articulated arms, suggestive of antique dental equipment, was tipped with sharp steel. Pens, he thought, vaguely remembering Kafka's story. Sentence of guilt, graven in the flesh of the condemned man's back. Wincing at a memory of upturned eyes unseeing. Pushed it down. Moved on.
- Idoru, William Gibson, 1996

Gibson's previous novel, the 1994, Virtual Light, by the way, has a similar idea where Rydell recalls his uncle having a robot-created tattoo.

Rydell's uncle, the one who'd gone to Africa with the army and hadnlt come back, had had a couple of tattoos. The best one wenr right across his back, this big swirly dragon with horns and a sort of goofy grin. He'd gotten that one in Korea, eight colours and it had all been done by a computer. He'd told Rydell how the computer had mapped his back and showed him exactly what it was going to look like when it was done. Then he had to lie down on this table while this robot put the tattoo on. Rydell had imagined a robot kind of like a vacuum-cleaner, but with twisty chrome arms had [sic] needles on the end. But his uncle said it was more like being fed through a dot-matrix printer, and he'd had to go back eight times, one time for each colour.

This may also have come true. I'm not 100% convinced of the veracity of this 2002 Avanova report, Tattooing robot unveiled at hi-tech trade fair, but it looks very Kafka. Robot tattooing doesn't strike me as technically unfeasible, but it would need a lot more than a CAD-driven needle; skin being a flexible substrate, there needs to be some provision for stabilising the region being worked on (down to the skill of a human tattoo artist).

Addendum: After a little more reading, I find the connection between tattooing and engraving is closer than I realised. It appears that the now-standard tattoo machine derives from a stencil cutting device, Edison's 1876 Electric Pen and Press.
- Ray


  1. This, which would presumably be done by robots, is related. Metaphorically, I think this (in the linked article) has pretty much already happened to many people. *grumble, grumble*

  2. Damn but life is full of wonders. I know Kafka was brilliant but I think his mother was mean to him when he was young. As for this obsession with tattoos, I keep wondering what people will look like when they turn 65. They'll need something more than Viagra. On the other hand, they just won't get their cataracts fixed.

    So, why don't we just tattoo pets or would that bring back Central European memories none of us can deal with.

    Now I've read nearly all of Gibson but don't have this photographic memory like Ray. Maybe he has the Google 10 million wired into his amygdala.

  3. I keep wondering what people will look like when they turn 65.

    Oh, ghastly - mainly because they don't grasp the inevitability of tattoos spreading, and get tiny fiddly little designs that'll turn into a mess in under a decade. (Neat article here that goes into the histology).

    tattoo pets

    Humane issues apart, I guess the practialities would be messy: a) an ID would have to be unaesthetically big to stay legible, b) it's a lot slower than chipping and would have to be done under a general anaesthetic, and c) it'd be hard to ensure the healing protocol - one not even agreed-upon for human tattoos! - needed for a clean result.

  4. photographic memory

    Only in the sense of a large portfolio of random in-focus snapshots of what caught my interest. Don't ask me, for instance, what Virtual Light is actually about...