The Ego Machine


The Ego Machine or Steampunk consciousness

The Ego machine is a mechanism which describes and models man’s relation to consciousness or human awareness. Specifically, its design determines that the mind and ego intervene and determine the perception of reality.  


It is foremost a descriptive symbol but the mechanism's simplicity has been modelled in various guises through the years. It first makes an  appearance in renaissance times in the Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius manuscript discovered in the basement of a coffee shop in Algeria. Most of the manuscript has been destroyed in a fire and no copies of the manuscript are extant. The surviving fragments consists of pen and ink drawings of the Ego Machine in varying levels of detail. Other, independent accounts of the time, describe fully functioning mechanisms accorded some degree of sentience. Somehow, the technological problems were overcome and the early mechanisms achieved a degree of notoriety. One famous example in Milan was able to communicate by means of an leather bellows. One transcript of its conversation suggests a benign  though baffled intelligence was expressed by the mechanism. 


More recently, the fundamentals of the mechanism have been adopted by the Steampunk movement with the components shown in the early drawings being instantiated with iron and brass. Gimbal friction is a trivial problem thanks to modern materials; assembly of an Ego Machine is not a difficult task and can be done by any enterprising individual in possession of a lathe and metal work tools. Indeed, the Victorian era saw a flowering in the interest of modelling sentience or at least intelligence using Ego Machines. It as thought that Ego Machines could aid man in his scientific and creative endeavours. We know now that an  intelligent workhourse needs another paradigm. Ego Machines are not good calculators and rarely follow instruction. Mechanisms pioneered by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are succeeded in their stead. 


The machine aspect dominates the Ego Machine design though many  drawings and accounts strongly suggest an inherent organic composition. Many drawings of the Ego Machine were intended as plans for the construction of mechanisms but there is something also in them that suggests the observational critique of a naturalist. It is as if some of the drawings were made from life. I refer specifically to the strange organic sketches from the Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius cartoons and other sources which suggest that Ego Machine possess a life cycle. This suggestion has evidently been the source of inspiration for 'The Descent in Hell' where Ego Machines appear to inhabit an alien landscape. 


Construction of Ego Machines is no longer regarded as a fashionable and worthwhile pursuit. The calculating machine is in the ascendent though, I would argue, we have lost much by abandoning the Ego Machine. The calculating machine, now known as computers, struggle to simulate human consciousness. They have nothing resembling a personality, unless they are programmed to simulate one. As anyone who has spent more than a hour in the company of an Ego Machine, lack of personality is not a problem they possess. Rather, they err by having too much.


This site documents the Ego Machine's influence on painting, philosophy and literature. My fascination with them is unlikely to end in the near future so I shall frequently add more content. You are invited to subscribe to my mailing list to receive information about forthcoming events relevant to the Ego Machine theme.