Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines

By Dominic Pettman, University of Minnesota Press, 2011

Reviewed by Sarah Soliman

Any number of examples can be held up as supposed proof of mankind’s extraordinariness. Ancient wonders such as the pyramids, scientific milestones like the moon landing, and artistic output from Michelangelo’s David to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to The Beatles’ catalogue (and according to the author of Human Error, his own breakfast crêpes) all attest to the greatness of humanity. Our presumably unique capacity for thought, empathy, speech, and imagination distinguish us from all other earthly beings.

Or so we narcissistically think.

In Human Error, Dominic Pettman confronts the idea of human exceptionalism, arguing that human beings aren’t the privileged species we’d like to believe. Rather than being at the centre of the world, Pettman says we use the world as a massive and infinite mirror that ‘humanity requires…to reassure itself of its enduring beauty’. It reflects what we wish to see, reinforcing our mistaken perception about our own superiority. To challenge this fallacy, Human Error takes up an exploration of the ‘cybernetic triangle’, which has as its three points human, animal, and machine. Throughout the book, Pettman makes use of this triangle to reconfigure the place of the human amongst our animal and technological Others, pointing out that we are not as distant or dissimilar a species as our egos would have us believe.

Pettman makes reference, either in passing or through in depth analysis, to several films which shed light on the complex interrelationships between humans and our Others. Film itself serves as one such Other, an especially notable one for its reflective capabilities, which play a major role in convincing us of our uniqueness. Pettman says, ‘the human constantly reemerges through technologies of representation, reflection, and recognition.’ As we do with animals, humans attempt to distance ourselves from technology, imagining ourselves masters of the Other, and yet we rely profoundly on machines to make us human. Dean Martin may have sung ‘you’re nobody till somebody loves you,’ but perhaps it is more accurate to say that you’re nobody till somebody sees you. Until, that is, you are reflected back at yourself. In this way, film becomes the ultimate mirror for humanity – it both serves as an example of our technological mastery and literally shows us images of ourselves. This is addressed throughout the book, but is best encompassed in Pettman’s brief discussion of a work of early cinema, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895). The self-explanatory title points to the desire to showcase the human, but Pettman observes that the film also demonstrates how ‘the machine itself is revealed as narcissistic’. We want to see ourselves, and so does the machine: ‘The first motion picture features the primal scene of the first motion picture.’ Like us, it desires reflection and recording, and this calls into question how different we humans truly are, not only from the living beings we share our world with, but even objects we often think of as inanimate.

The film camera is a continuing reference point throughout the book. Pettman devotes a chapter to the Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man (2005), which chronicles the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, who spent several years trekking into the Alaskan wilderness to live amongst grizzly bears. In Grizzly Man, Pettman locates a microcosm of the cybernetic triangle – Treadwell, the bears, and the camera Treadwell brought along with him to record his expeditions. Pettman regards the camera as an essential member of this trinity: ‘I want to designate Treadwell’s camera as not only the recording instrument that allows us access to his remarkable story and experiences but as a catalytic agent—a participant observer—on equal footing with the grizzly man and the grizzly bears themselves.’ Human Error is strewn with such insights, which encourage the reader to reconsider the way we regard the non-human amongst us.

Given the now ubiquitous use of social media, it is somewhat surprising that Pettman does not discuss the ways in which our lives have been transplanted into cyberspace. Social networking would seem to add a new dimension to any discussion of posthumanities. Perhaps a focus on Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare might revert to the human-centric discourse Pettman is trying to guide us away from, seeing as these technologies are so often used as tools of self-promotion. Still, a discussion from Pettman about habitual engagement with computers would be welcome.

Human Error marries knotty theoretical concepts with accessible cultural touchstones, in order to help guide the reader through some difficult territory; difficult not only because of the high minded theory that Pettman draws on for his analysis, but also because of the necessary hit to the ego that one must endure while reading. Pettman makes it an easier pill to swallow with his humour, and for anybody approaching the book with an open mind, Human Error should provide an insightful and entertaining reading experience.