The manifestation of human-machine relationships in Afrikaans poetry (1990–2012): a quantitative and text-analytical perspective

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This article investigates the manifestation of human-machine relationships in Afrikaans poetry on two levels. First, a quantitative analysis is done of technological terms and references to technological objects in Afrikaans poetry between 1990 and 2012. Secondly, this article will show various shifts in human-machine relationships as a theme represented in Afrikaans poetry in this period.

The quantitative analysis played an important methodological role in that it allowed me to make a meaningful and representative selection of poems for analysis. Furthermore, the quantitative analysis added to the focus and depth of the textual analysis and enriched the qualitative analysis.

The quantitative survey is of value for Afrikaans literary history because particular thematic developments and changes may also be drawn from it. Furthermore, the elaborate quantitative survey also fills a gap because similar research has not yet been conducted in Afrikaans literary studies. In addition, the survey may prove useful to future researchers planning to research other aspects of human-machine relationships.

The specific timeframe in which the research was conducted (1990 to 2012) as well as the particular selection of poems was necessary to limit the scope of the article. However, it is important to note that this limitation in no way implies the absence of human-machine relationships in the period preceding and following the selected timeframe. It is in this particular period (1990 to 2012) that a notable increase in the use of digital technological terms and themes in Afrikaans poetry is found. The chosen period is also suited to the textual analysis conducted in part 5 of this article. It includes the identifying of developments, differences and similarities regarding human-machine relationships and the representations of these relationships in the period preceding (1990 tot 1999) and following (2000 tot 2012) the turn of the millennium.

It is important to define some theoretical concepts for the purposes of specifically the textual analysis in part 5.

Kroes (1998:124) describes the concept technological object in terms of two dimensions, namely physical attributes and function. He describes the duality of a technological object as follows:

On the one hand, it is a physical object with a specific physical structure (physical properties), the behavior of which is governed by the laws of nature. On the other hand, an essential aspect of any technological object is its function. A technological object has a function, which means that within a context of human action it can be used as a means to an end. A physical object is the carrier of a function and it is by virtue of its function that that object is a technological object.

According to Kroes (124) the function of a technological object is defined by the context of use and is therefore always subject to human construction. This definition follows on what Heidegger and Ihde say about technological objects. Non-human entities, or the being of “things” that are manipulated or used, are described by Heidegger (1962:97) as “use-objects” or “tools”. Ihde (1990:31) describes “use-objects” as part of our ordinary experience of technology. According to Ihde (32) objects are bound by context and have “intentionality” or a specific purpose, and objects-in-use become the means of the experience.

Two other concepts to define are anthropomorphism and technomorphism. Simply put, anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human forms (Guthrie 1993:62). Epley, Waytz and Cacioppo (2007:864–5) define it as follows:

Imbuing the imagined or real behavior of nonhuman agents with humanlike characteristics, motivations, intentions, and emotions is the essence of anthropomorphism. These nonhuman agents may include anything that acts with apparent independence, including nonhuman animals, natural forces, religious deities, and mechanical or electronic devices.

Technomorphism, originally termed megamorphism (Caporael 1986:215) is described as the attribution of machine-like characteristics to humans. Lum (2011:2) describes technomorphism as the attribution of technological characteristics to humans. Lum (5) furthermore explains that technomorphism and anthropomorphism are intertwined because the two concepts are considered opposites. “If technomorphism involves the attribution of machine-like characteristics of humans, anthropomorphism can be considered the opposite, such that it is the attribution of human-like characteristics to non-human entities” (Lum 2011:5).

In part 3 of this article I give a short summary of some of the thematic manifestations of technological objects in Afrikaans poetry before 1990. This brief historical overview gives more depth to the textual analysis following in part 5.

In part 4 the quantitative survey of technological terms and references to technological objects in Afrikaans poetry (1990 to 2012) follows. The survey was conducted by using the South African National Library’s online database as a starting point to compile a preliminary list of published anthologies in Afrikaans from 1990 to 2012.

In addition, a list of poems from the online platform LitNet was also compiled. Unfortunately, the precise publishing dates of poems especially from 1999 to 2006 are not available, and the LitNet list was therefore not included in the data analysis. The primary reason is because of the effect this would have on the validity and reliability of the data analysis.

The list of published Afrikaans anthologies includes the quantitative surveying of technological terms and references to technological objects in Afrikaans poetry from 1990 to 2012. The data analysis and results are concluded by means of graphs and tables in this article.

In part 5 the textual analysis focused on several characteristics, dimensions, differences, similarities and developments as embodied in individual and selected poems. In addition, the representations themselves and the conclusions that may be drawn from the represented human-machine relationships are investigated. The goal of the textual analysis is to present a clearer, more nuanced perspective of the representations of human-machine relationships from 1990 to 2012. The selected poems are: “ode aan my televisie” (Prevot van der Merwe), “Virtual reality” (George Weideman), “e-sonnet” (Susan Smith), “kantoormasjien” (Hein Viljoen), “Gevaar / Danger / Ingozi” (Martina Klopper) and “Remote” (Aniel Botha).

The representation of human-machine relationships from 1990 to 1999 emphasises the negative, destructive and disruptive influence of machines on human existence. A notable shift from fear, paranoia and antagonism towards the representation of more moderate human-machine relationships takes place. The relationships are characterised by acceptance of the changes brought about by machines, but also include disappointment, disillusionment and a rational awareness of technological limits.

In the representations following the year 2000 there is far less focus on the negative impact of machines. Representations in the period 2000 to 2012 indicate more complex, intertwined and multidimensional human-machine relationships than the preceding period (1990 to 1999).

In representations following 2000 the focus falls on complete integration between human and machine, wherein the human transform into a machine and experiences the world as a machine would. Representations from 1990 to 1999 indicate a blurring of boundaries and differentiations between humans and machines, although the total lifting of boundaries in representations occurs only after 2000. Total integration however, is not always represented positively. There are indications that complete integration between human and machine may have devastating consequences for humanity and that it is futile to undo the human-machine integration.

Anthropomorphism is a prominent characteristic of the representations of human-machine relationships from 1990 to 1999. Machines are portrayed rather simplistically as monstrous and evil intruders, thereby emphasising the one-dimensional distinction between humans and machines. Technomorphic representations are absent in this period; however, in the poetry following 2000 technomorfic representations have become predominant. The shift from anthropomorphism to technomorphism is one of the most important developments in representations of human-machine relationships in Afrikaans poetry. From this shift the development from initial antagonism towards a more moderate acceptance and eventually total integration with machines is clear.

The quantitative data analysis supports the finding that representation of human-machine relationships manifests in various ways. This is further supported by the multidimensional and ever-changing nature of human-machine relationships as highlighted by these representations.

Keywords: Afrikaans poetry; anthropomorphism; human-machine; technology; technomorphism; technological objects

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die manifestasie van mens-masjien-verhoudinge in die Afrikaanse poësie (1990–2012): ’n kwantitatiewe en teksontledende beskouing

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