The Octopus and the Machine
A Daily Telegraph article published in October 2008 describes the exploits of an octopus named Otto, who, acquiring a taste for chaos after learning how to short circuit the light above his tank by squirting jets of water at it, embarked on a rampage of escalating mischief. In addition to electrical tampering, by the end of the spree Otto’s misdemeanours included damaging his tank by throwing stones against the glass, juggling hermit crabs, rearranging the tank “much to the distress of his fellow occupants,” and squandering the resources of the aquarium staff, who took some time to get to the bottom of the matter.
The director of the Sea Star aquarium was quick to discredit Otto’s character. “We’ve put the light a bit higher now so he shouldn’t be able to reach it. But Otto is constantly craving for attention and always comes up with new stunts.” Another spokesperson stressed the moral gravity of the issue: “It was a serious matter because it shorted the electricity supply to the whole aquarium that threatened the lives of the other animals when the water pumps ceased to work.” Bored Otto may have been, but in the eyes of the aquarium this was no excuse for placing his fellow sea critters in danger, not to mention the trauma endured by those hermit crabs.
The aquarium’s inhabitants depend for their continued existence on a technological bureaucracy comprised of both human and nonhuman components. These include cooling and heating systems, automatic spotlights, tanks with precise structural properties, animal specialists and security guards, timetables, routines, and so on. Unsatisfied with being merely maintained, Otto had other plans. His crime was to co-opt the apparatus of the bureaucracy for ends other than those intended by its human architects. The authoritarian clampdown that followed takes the smooth functioning of this regime as axiomatic, its moral probing either off-limits or unthinkable by those enforcing it. Nowhere is it considered that responsibility for the risk to animals living in an artificial environment highly sensitive to technological malfunction may lie with whoever put them there in the first place.
As a reader of the article it is difficult not to root for Otto. The journalist, well aware of this, delivers the story with a tongue-in-cheek deadpan highlighting the absurdity of the earnest displayed by the aquarium’s representatives. The comic tension lies in the fact that to lay the blame at Otto’s door, the aquarium must characterise him in a manner which only makes him more relatable. Describing him as bored, they convey a being possessing its own interests and agendas. Described as attention seeking, Otto is imagined enjoying interaction for its own sake. Portrayed as a moral agent Otto also becomes a moral patient, a victim of the aquarium and its oppressive technological bureaucracy. No wonder he starts trashing the place.
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Otto’s pranks are not unique among octopi. In a recent book on the evolution of the mind in cephalopods1placeholder, Peter Godfrey-Smith relays a series of anecdotes from animal intelligence researchers about octopi stalling attempts to assess their cognitive faculties by failing to conform to their experimental assumptions.
In some early research on animal learning by Peter Dews2placeholder, three octopi were rewarded with a piece of fish whenever they pulled a lever which was hanging down into their tank. Two of the octopi — Albert and Bertram — learned to do so with reasonable consistency, while the third — Charles — was not so compliant. The paper documenting the experiment describes Charles as squirting the experimenters when they approached the tank, absconding with the light, and applying so much force to the lever that it broke, “forcing the early termination of the experiment.” Dews notes dryly that “the variables responsible for the maintenance and strengthening of the lamp-pulling and squirting behaviour in the animal were not apparent.”
Behaviourism, the methodological paradigm guiding Dews’ research when it was conducted in 1959, is reflected both in the design of the experiment and in his rationalisation of Charles’ behaviour. The introduction to the paper makes clear that the experiment is intended to extend the ‘operant conditioning’ model of learning — already enjoying success with mammals — to animal groups relatively unstudied at the time. This model claimed that behaviours are learned through conditioning by repeated external stimuli. The experiment aimed to modify the behaviour of the octopi by rewarding lever pulling actions with food, which if successful would add empirical weight to the operant conditioning model of learned behaviour.
Discussing all this from the heady vantage of 2016, in a climate more frosty to the behaviourist program, Godfrey-Smith points out that one of the assumptions guiding experiments of this kind is that animals of a given species will behave in more or less the same way in all cases except where particular behaviours have been learned. Hence Dews’ need to account for Charles’ behaviour with factors in his experience, instead of factors in his temperament. But one of the few clear lessons from octopus research is that, at least in their case, this assumption is false: temperament varies greatly from individual to individual.3placeholder Perhaps Charles was just more feisty, or more playful, or more grumpy.
The degree of individuality displayed by octopi represents a major difficulty in subjecting them to behavioural analysis. It casts doubt on whether observations of particular octopi (or particular samples of octopi) can be generalised to others. To use a term of Michel Callon’s, it undermines the ability of particular individuals or groups to act as ‘representatives’ for those not presently accessible for observation.4placeholder In Callon’s own work on attempts to introduce Japanese techniques of scallop cultivation to France, efforts to seed scallop larvae on the sea bed using a towline of collectors made from netted bags were initially successful, generating funding for the project from interested parties, but then failed spectacularly in all subsequent years. It is unknown whether this mutiny (as Callon calls it) stems from the presence of hidden variables, or from a failure of representation by the scallops of the initial year, since funding was withdrawn and the research abandoned. But it serves as a cautionary tale: variability in the temperament of octopi ensures that similar mutinies are a very real possibility wherever conclusions are based on inductive generalisations from particular sets of octopi, as they always must be. The heterogeneity of the octopus population functions as a form of resistance to its consolidation as an object of scientific study.5placeholder
There is another complication thrown up by the research, concerning the propensity of octopi to interfere with the experimental apparatus itself. In the case of Dews’ experiment Charles broke the lever, stole the light, and distracted the experimenters by firing jets of water at them. Certainly it is a problem whenever an object of study causally interacts with the experimental setup. But with the octopus the problem runs deeper than this. It seems, in fact, that the very attributes that make it so hard to capture the nature of octopus intelligence are precisely those most suggestive of a highly developed mind: a capacity for play, the ability to distinguish and respond variably to different humans, the use of tools, an ability to shift priorities, an often uncanny awareness of captivity, and so on. A striking example comes from octopus researcher Jean Boal, conveyed to Godfrey-Smith in a private correspondence, who relates the tale like this.6placeholder
“Octopuses love to eat crab, but in the lab they are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”
There are many ways to speculate about what this octopus was up to — conducting an experiment of its own? making a point? a threat? — but it is near impossible to avoid attributing it complex intentions of some sort or another. Occurrences of this kind are likely impossible to recreate reliably in experimental conditions, and those experiments which do aim to test cognitive capacity in octopi are often met with indifference or outright hostility by their subjects. The cunning of the octopus eludes quantification, not because it is an immaterial cunning but because in the situations that count it is used to disrupt the means of quantification.
The behaviourist program was an early attempt to subject the mind to a thoroughgoing scientific analysis. Its aim was to explain the behaviour of an organism purely by reference to external causes, rather than by appeal to internal mental states such as desires, beliefs, and intentions. The effect of this would be to reduce mentalistic explanations of behaviour (Albert pulled the lever because he desired some fish, and believed that pulling the lever would get him some) to causal explanations phrased in terms of dispositions (Albert pulled the lever because he had a disposition for lever-pulling which had been previously conditioned by fish rewards). As a fully-fledged philosophical program behaviourism attempted to identify all mental states with dispositions to behave.7placeholder According to this line of thought, Albert’s belief that the lever would get him some fish just is his disposition to pull the lever in the presence of a desire to eat fish; Albert’s desire to eat fish is his disposition to yank nearby pieces of fish into his beak.
The concept of a disposition, which provides a way of understanding what something is in terms of what it does reliably, lies at the heart not only of behaviourism in psychology, but modern science as a whole. The emergence of the disposition as a key concept in scientific explanatory practice can be traced as a development of the earlier Aristotelian notion of a capacity.8placeholder To say that a thing has a certain capacity is to say something about what it can do; to say it has a certain disposition is to say something about what it will do in certain specifiable conditions. The introduction of the stronger sense of the counterfactual embodied in the concept of a disposition meant that the explanatory work performed for Aristotle by the concept of telos — or natural purpose — could instead be performed by a different concept: natural laws specifying the causal dispositions of entities. In Aristotelean science things are the way they are because that is how they should be (at least partially). In modern science they are so because given the way they were there is no other way they could be. Causality replaces normativity as the source of necessity in nature.
This fundamental shift marks the advent of science as a modern discipline, and governs the organisation of its emerging practices and institutions. If by a machine we mean that whose being is exhausted by its function — that which is whatever it does reliably — then it is this figure that is the organising principle of the new complex. As theoretical science increasingly becomes concerned with the creation of mathematical models specifying the dispositions of systems, so experimental science develops in parallel as a process of gathering observations under specifiable conditions of repeatability. Repeatability emerges as a key criterion delimiting science in both its object and its method. The singular event, the unique individual, the sample of one — all are rendered invisible by this criterion. Similarly, a one-off measurement cannot be registered by the justificatory apparatus of the scientific community. An anomaly can only be treated as a possible motivation for theory change if it repeats; until it does it must be disregarded as a product of human error or technical malfunction.
The two appearances of repeatability as constraint — once in the natural object, once in the scientific subject as method — are in no sense distinct. On the contrary, experiments must be repeatable because they must reveal dispositions, that is reliable behaviours. In this sense, the legitimacy of an experimental result always depends on a belief in the reliability of the technologies involved in its setup. This condition testifies to a normative background against which experimental results become scientifically meaningful. It is a normative background in the sense that it is a web of trust, a trust placed in laboratory machines and their techniques of operation and interpretation.
This background represents a deep interdependence between the capacity of science to render the world as machine — in its causal-dispositional essence — and our ascriptions of correct functioning to the machines that make scientific practice possible. What is seen in the criterion of repeatability, therefore, is something like a mechanism of teleological debt repayment. The scientific rendering of the world is an operation as much technical as metaphysical, an act of framing which strips telos from its image only to re-inscribe it in the technologies of the frame. If this displacement is perceived as the disappearance of purpose from the natural world, it is because the displacement corresponds to its taming, its integration into the human sphere in the form of the functional telos of our machines.9placeholder Yoked to human interests, agency withdraws from the natural world and takes up a derivative residence in the technological background which measures, represents, reproduces, and contains it.
It is by disrupting this background of trust that the octopus retains its own agency. One way it achieves this is by being radically amorphous. The heterogeneity of temperament is one example, throwing up obstacles for those searching for general principles of octopus psychology. But this amorphousness also occurs at the level of the individual. For example, octopi elude modern theories of embodied cognition, which argue that certain kinds of knowledge are coded into the structure of the body, for the simple reason that octopus bodies are so lacking in structure.10placeholder The formlessness of octopus bodies also makes them difficult to photograph. In Godfrey-Smith’s book a description of a diving site where peculiar octopus behaviour has been observed is accompanied by a photograph on the following page, “taken just off the edge of the site, […] to give you a sense of how these animals look.”11placeholder But the image does not give much sense of anything. The components are all there, tentacles, bulbous head, and so on, yet their configuration seems to consist purely of accidents of the moment. Absent is an essential form, some kind of deep structure. In each subsequent photo the transitory form is altered totally, multiplying the absences.
Video, too, is often unreliable. A CNN report from 2016 features smartphone footage of an octopus leaping onto a rock to wrestle a crab back into the water. There is a crab on a rock, a rapid flurry of movement; then, eventually, no more crab. Despite the camera lingering on the mass of claws and seething tentacles for some time it all seems somehow unreal. The reporters are sufficiently doubtful that they feel the need to inform the audience of scientists’ confirmation that what was just witnessed is indeed possible. In addition to technologies of quantification, the octopus succeeds in resisting our technologies of representation.
The second way octopi defy the machine seems at first glance to be more straightforward: they do so by stealing, appropriating, and destroying actual machines. This occurs outside the laboratory as well as inside. One of the most popular octopus videos on Youtube shows an octopus acrobatically breaking into a metal crab trap, gobbling all the crabs, and escaping at the last moment through a tube specifically designed to keep things in, thus thwarting Steve, the fisherman. In effect the octopus hacks the trap, repurposing it for its own ends.
In the laboratory this kind of behaviour takes on a special poignancy. When an octopus interferes with the mechanisms of an experimental setup, it is interfering with the very apparatus being used to subject it to machinic analysis. In these situations it can be seen that the amorphousness of octopi and their reputation for abusing machinery are two sides of the same coin. The formlessness of the octopus is always also the limit of human technology to produce knowledge of the form of the octopus.
It is time to return to Otto. What was really going on? Why was it so natural for the aquarium staff to treat Otto as a responsible agent? And why is the gut response of an onlooker to root for Otto?
I’d like to suggest an answer to this question: by portraying Otto as an active agent, the aquarium staff are deflecting attention from a third actor: the technological bureaucracy itself. Specifically, they are deflecting from the pull it exerts not over the animals it incarcerates and maintains, but the humans that tend to it. Imagine that no agency was attributed to Otto, that he was regarded as a piece of the environment, like a special kind of weather. If this were the case then when the tanks began to be rearranged and the electrics started shorting, the aquarium staff would have to conclude that they were faced with a malfunction. But malfunction is precisely the moment at which a technology ceases to be part of the environment and exerts its own agency, intruding into the foreground to place demands on its caretakers, forcing them to do things they had never intended and typically don’t want to do. When electricians wind up camping out on the aquarium floor to find the cause of the blackout, the blame can only lie with themselves, or at least with whoever designed or built the aquarium’s systems. This conclusion is resisted by shifting the agency of the machines onto Otto: the lights and the tank are no longer indicative of a malfunction, but the interference with perfectly well functioning machinery by a malicious actor.
What, then, of the warmth felt for Otto by the wider audience? I have suggested that the agency of the technological bureaucracy is masked by transferring it onto Otto. On neither side of this transference are humans considered significant actors. As such, the situation represents a certain kind of powerlessness of the humans involved, a diminishment of their own agency. As representatives of the aquarium defence of its technological systems is axiomatic, so any actor that interferes with them is necessarily a bad actor. But for anyone who is not professionally invested, there is no reason why this must be so. The aquarium is in many ways a microcosm for a much larger technological bureaucracy, one which encompasses and permeates the whole of human society. It includes computers, everyday gadgets, cars, industrial machinery, scientific apparatus, the machinic ideas guiding scientific thought, targeted advertising algorithms, cybernetic motifs in cultural products, and so on. These things come with their own demands, their own agency manifesting as unintended and often undesirable effects, disrupting and confounding human ends. A sense of powerlessness in the face of this is hardly surprising, and nor, for that matter, is the welcome of a creature that appears capable of defying the regime.
The octopus is such a creature. The professional loyalties of the aquarium staff oblige them to portray Otto as a bad actor, but this need not be the case for anyone else. Anyone who senses in the figure of the aquarium a sinister shadow of the modern world, with its privileged position for the apparatus of display, its artificial yet pervasive logic of separation and categorisation, the unspoken moral substructure that enforces and sustains it, Otto will more likely appear as an emancipatory actor. Writing in 1984, Thomas Pynchon described how the figure of Ned Lud took on a mythical potency for the Luddite movement, earning fame for his destruction of the machinery used in the cotton mills that threatened their livelihood.
“By the time his name was taken up by the frame-breakers of 1812, historical Ned Lud was well absorbed into the more or less sarcastic nickname ‘King (or Captain) Ludd,’ and was now all mystery, resonance and dark fun: a more-than-human presence, out in the night, roaming the hosiery districts of England, possessed by a single comic schtick — every time he spots a stocking-frame he goes crazy and proceeds to trash it.”
At the end of the article Pynchon wonders whether the computer age can expect any kind of rekindling of Luddite hostility to technology. He suggests not, reasoning that the technological bureaucracy is already so vast and all-pervasive that it is no longer possible to even imagine ways of resisting it. If it was even half the case in the mid-eighties, it is undeniable now that technologies of transmission, representation, reproduction, and measurement encircle all aspects of human life. It is quite possible that full technological integration has drained from the human sphere all conceptual resources that could be mobilised against it. But if this is the case, is the answer not to turn to the nonhuman for fresh impetus? If life in the human aquarium is the subjection to the regime of a distributed machine, is this not the moment to look to Otto and his kin for new strategies of resistance?
The blurring of the scientific frame by the octopus is a parable in the power of strategic refusal. Amorphous and unreliable, it refuses to perform itself before an alien gaze that sees only what repeats reliably. In the human sphere, a trap is laid when a system of value coveting uniqueness, authenticity, and singularity above all else is transposed onto a technical system which deals only in reproductions. Within such a system uniqueness can be registered as real only when it can be performed for the camera, at the very moment that it must die. In the face of the double-bind of a contradictory imperative to be reproducibly unique, the octopus implores us to target the reproducibility principle directly. To remain unique is to become amorphous before a technical eye that must always reduce uniqueness to a variation on underlying sameness. To remain free is to become invisible.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth, was published in 2016.
Peter Dews, Some observations on an Operant in the Octopus.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth, p. 53–54.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth, p. 57.
The canonical behaviourist text in the philosophy of mind is Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 opus, The Concept of Mind.
See Wilfrid Sellars’ account in his wonderful 1949 essay Aristotelean Philosophies of Mind.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth, p. 75.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth,p. 61-62.