continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 8.1-2 / 2019: 62-69

Black Boxes

Steven Connor

It is necessary for every machine to have workings, moving parts that may be distinguished from each other, and for the ways to be indicable in which the moving parts work on each other. And yet, it seems to have become usual, sometimes for the more effective operation of the machine, but more often as a more obscure kind of necessity, for those parts to be modestly obscured from view. It is this which seems to make all machines magical. It is intensified by the tendency for machinery of all kinds to become smaller and less conspicuous, along with the development, in recent years, of distributed forms of technology that are much less likely to be physically apparent (Denning 2002). Ours has become ‘an age of technological invisibility’, writes Philip Ball:

“Thanks to the shrinking of electronic and mechanical technologies, the occult cogs, levers, and electrical switches of the machine—the same devices that once seemed to breathe life into ingenious automata in an indivisible blend of magic and mechanisms—have become truly too small to see, allowing them to be packaged into smooth-contoured bodies that do wondrous things without a visible means of action.” (Ball 2014: 225)

It is perhaps because they act through workings that must remain concealed for them to continue to work that machines seem allotropes of the concealed automaton that is the human body. The ghost hidden in the machine is this quality of being hidden or withdrawn from view. 

There is a certain obscenity about a machine that operates in full view, with everything that should be off-scene drawn into the field of the visible. It is the obscenity of the body opened up to view, or the obscenity of the writing machine in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’, at the end of which the machine that has been described and displayed working so immaculately starts to vomit up its working parts: 

“[H]e heard a noise from up in the Designer. He looked up. Was that cogwheel going to make trouble after all? But it was something quite different. Slowly the lid of the Designer rose up and then clicked wide open. The teeth of a cogwheel showed themselves and rose higher, soon the whole wheel was visible, it was as if some enormous force were squeezing the Designer so that there was no longer room for the wheel, the wheel moved up till it came to the very edge of the Designer, fell down, rolled along the sand a little on its rim, and then lay flat. But a second wheel was already rising after it, followed by many others, large and small and indistinguishably minute, the same thing happened to all of them, at every moment one imagined the Designer must now really be empty, but another complex of numerous wheels was already rising into sight, falling down, trundling along the sand, and lying flat.” (Kafka 1993: 157)

The machine is in fact an apparatus for making manifest, for exposition. Its aim is to make the condemned man, his crime, and his sentence all identical, in a form that leaves nothing, as we say, to the imagination, by inscribing the judicial sentence as a corporeal sentence, in the body of the Condemned Man. But this making visible turns out to be dependent on the absence from view of the actual workings of the machine. The exposure of the machine somehow undoes all the work of the exposition, indeed, seems to make it palpable that there has been no machine at all, but only the vile, humiliating fact of torture:

he bent over the Harrow and had a new and still more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing, it was only jabbing, and the Bed was not turning the body over but only bringing it up quivering against the needles. The explorer wanted to do something, if possible, to bring the whole machine to a standstill, for this was no exquisite torture such as the officer desired, this was plain murder.” (157-8) 

There seems to be a necessity for something we call a machine to be withdrawn from visibility. Often this will mean that the machine will work best if its smooth operation can be monitored better by the ear than by the eye—the thrum of the washing machine, the steady thud of the turbine, or the smooth whir of the propeller. Henry James was soothed by the click of the typewriter operated by his secretary Theodora Bosanquet as he dictated (Thurschwell 2001: 103), as though it were a guarantee of the regular operation of the machine of his imagination, an operation which would be subject to disruption if he were actually to try to imagine it. Sometimes, it is useful to the functioning of a machine that it should operate in a sealed or invisible environment; but for the most part there is no mechanical advantage to having the working parts of the computer, the television, the automobile, hidden from view. The invisibility of the machine seems to answer to some ulterior kind of necessity, some need for the machine to need to be imagined, or imaginary.

Machines, that is, operate on the principle of the black box, a contrivance where one can specify precisely an input and an output, without being able to describe precisely the process in the middle which results in the conversion. The black box principle is an important part of the magical thinking associated with all machines, whether they be factual or factitious. Alfred Abrams, who invented an imaginary form of energy-medicine called radionics, based on the careful adjustment of the balance between good and bad energy, instructed his customers under no account to open up his diagnostic and therapeutic devices, lest they interfere with their delicate workings—much as the Apple Corporation does today, perhaps for not entirely dissimilar reasons. When, in 1951, the US Food and Drug Administration opened up one of the $400 dollar machines marketed by Ruth Drown, one of Abrams’s successors, they found only a simple electrical circuit, with no sign of any work to do for the nine dials displayed on the outside of the box (Young 1965: 159). 

This ambivalence is a feature of Wells’s The Invisible Man, which delays its revelation of the process whereby Griffin has become invisible until late in the narrative, the usual convention being that the exposition of transformative machinery occurs close to the beginning of such stories. Wells is coy, or perhaps just undecided, about what kind of mechanism has been involved in producing Griffin’s invisibility. He tells us that, after leaving University College London, he ‘dropped medicine and took up physics’ (Wells 1995: 81). His experiments in changing the refractive index of organic matter seem to involve a lot of chemistry, with much compounding and talk of ‘filtering’. Ingestion of certain substances seems to be enough to render most of Griffin’s body translucent. And yet Wells also feels the need to invoke a bit of radioactive apparatus, which will work on the body from the outside rather than the inside, as in Griffin’s explanation to Kemp:

the essential phase was to place the transparent object whose refractive index was to be lowered between two radiating centres of a sort of ethereal vibration, of which I will tell you more fully later. No, not those Röntgen vibrations—I don’t know that these others of mine have been described. Yet they are obvious enough. I needed two little dynamos, and these I worked with a cheap gas engine. My first experiment was with a bit of white wool fabric. It was the strangest thing in the world to see it in the flicker of the flashes soft and white, and then to watch it fade like a wreath of smoke and vanish.” (86)

As he embarks on his career of invisibility, Griffin is oddly determined to leave no trace of the means he has employed to achieve it, explaining to Kemp that 

it occurred to me that the radiators, if they fell into the hands of some acute well-educated person, would give me away too much, and watching my opportunity, I came into the room and tilted one of the little dynamos off its fellow on which it was standing, and smashed both apparatus.” (92)

The invisibility machine once disposed of, it itself remains invisible, recoverable only through the three manuscript books in which Griffin has recorded his secret process in cypher—which are the last thing of which we gain a glimpse as readers. 

Despite the fact that his invisible condition often yields Griffin’s bodily interior up to view, ingested food remaining visible as a kind of floating slurry until he has fully absorbed it by digestion, and cigar smoke lighting up his bronchial tree like an X-ray, there is very little of what we might think of as Griffin’s own interior experience or perspective. We remain entirely dependent on external evidence of his presence and intentions. This makes his invisible physiology entirely a matter of physics—of impacts and abrasions. The mixture of the comical and the queasy this produces may explain Wells’s subtitle for the novel, A Grotesque Romance. Though magical machinery is largely kept offstage in the novel, almost all of the action may be thought of as mechanical, in an anti-Bergsonian sense that seems to make persons and objects indistinguishable. In this the novel surrenders the traditional advantage of interiorised narrative, subjecting itself to the constraint that we may know only of what may be shown, so that we never hear or see Griffin except through his effect on others. Indeed, not only does Griffin escape the gaze of characters in the novel, he even seems, in one extraordinary passage at the beginning of Chapter Two, after Griffin has fled Kemp’s house, to give the narrative itself the slip:

The Invisible Man seems to have rushed out of Kemp’s house in a state of blind fury. A little child playing near Kemp’s gateway was violently caught up and thrown aside, so that its ankle was broken, and thereafter for some hours the Invisible Man passed out of human perceptions. No one knows where he went nor what he did. But one can imagine him hurrying through the hot June forenoon, up the hill and on to the open downland behind Port Burdock, raging and despairing at his intolerable fate, and sheltering at last, heated and weary, amid the thickets of Hintondean, to piece together again his shattered schemes against his species. That seems the most probable refuge for him, for there it was he re-asserted himself in a grimly tragical manner about two in the afternoon.” (119) 

In subjecting his narrative to this arbitrary and unnecessary constraint, Wells seems to be anticipating the medium that will provide the most paradoxically recognisable and, in contemporary parlance, ‘iconic’ embodiment of the Invisible Man, that of cinema. Indeed, in a certain sense, we may say Wells wrote his story of invisibility as a kind of screenplay for a kind of cinema that still lay in the future. This is not as surprising or clairvoyant as it might seem, for there had been a fascination with invisibility in the many machineries of image-making that anticipated cinema. Painting had developed many ways of using the visible to indicate the invisible, one of the most subtle and suggestive being Velasquez’s ostentatious presentation of the viewers of his Las Meninas with the back of a canvas, on the concealed front of which we presume is the portrait of the royal couple in front of him who, we then realise with a ghostly start, must be standing in precisely the place that we occupy to look at the painting. As we see the faces of the king and queen reflected in the mirror on the back wall, we surmise that they are a double of the faces being depicted on the concealed front of the painting, in which we also see the fact of our own invisibility to everyone in the painting.

It seems that it is only through the supplementary production of images that are both there and not there, in the form of paintings, theatrical performances, photographs, and films, that invisibility can be figured as a positive and visible absence. This may help explain the fact that technical means have often been employed to create effects of vanishing or power invisibly exercised. For the plot-resolving power of the deus ex machina to descend from the flies, rather than from stage left or stage right, signifies an incursion into the visible action from some other dimension, which is essentially rather than contingently invisible. In fact, it does not seem as though any effort was made to disguise the appearance of the mechane, or crane, which lifted or lowered gods, or important mortals like Socrates in Aristophanes’s The Clouds (Brockett et. al. 2010: 10). The fact that one could see the mechanism perfectly well is itself a kind of instruction to the eye that it should be regarded as figuring the properly invisible; it is the lack of camouflage that is telling. The underneath of the stage was also a kind of reservoir of invisibility, from which demons and spirits could arise and into which they could depart, either through what the Greek theatre knew as the ‘steps of Charon’, or through trapdoors (Campbell 1923: 65). The projection of sounds and voices from beneath the stage in nineteenth-century ventriloquist performance recalls this tradition, confirming the convention that the space to the left and right of the stage is to be regarded as a simple extension of it, whereas the space above and below

it is to be regarded as ontologically distinct, and a different dimension of existence (even where, as in the medieval theatre, there might be a hellmouth leading down to the underworld). The machinery of visualisation centres on the laborious operation of cranking weight through vertical distance. In his Ten Books on Architecture, Vitruvius even distinguishes between ‘machines’ (machinae), which ‘need more workmen and greater power to make them take effect’, and ‘engines’ (organa), which ‘accomplish their purpose at the intelligent touch of a single workman’ (quoted Campbell 1923: 18). Cloud machines that allowed Christ to ascend into glory were employed in medieval plays like the Towneley and N-Town Ascension plays (Davidson 1996: 97). Such machines were still commonly employed in the Renaissance. Isabella D’Este described a presentation of the Annunciation in Ferrara that impressed her by the fact that it showed God surrounded by a choir of angels in mid-air: ‘No support could be seen either for His feet or for those of the angels, and six other seraphs hovered in the air, suspended by chains’ (60). The principle of these machines is precisely that they remain invisible, suggesting the divine entering into the sphere of the mortal. Photographic media employing stopaction procedures were able to produce emergence from concealed places within the visual scene, rather than above or below it, as well as a kind of visible invisibility. Hard, or kinetic machinery therefore gives way to optical machinery, which in turn gives way to digital animation.

The phrase deus ex machina, translating Greek ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, was commonly employed to refer to the plays of Euripides, which use the device freely. By the time that Aristotle used the phrase in Book XV of his Poetics (Aristotle 1995: 81), it had moved from actuality to abstract device, signifying any sudden and unexpected resolution. The deus ex machina device has come to mean a slightly crude, or contrived summoning up of some hitherto hidden principle to untangle what might be an otherwise inextricable kind of confusion. The very elaboration of the phrase may seem to enact this disproportion between physical and mental effort. On the one hand, the resolution comes from nowhere, out of nothing, out of the blue. On the other hand, it is clear (or, so to speak, clearly concealed) that a great deal of work has been required behind the scenes to create the illusion. Invisibility in theatrical terms therefore seems to institute an economy between the something-for-nothing of a denouement that has simply and costlessly been dreamed up, and the expensive contraption required to give this impression.

The cinema took over many of the devices and machineries for creating theatrical illusion developed over the nineteenth century, which themselves increasingly employed optical as well as mechanical means. The best known of these illusions was ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, first devised by the engineer Henry Dircks and the Director of the Royal Polytechnic Institution, John Henry Pepper. An adaptation of this device was the ‘Proteus’ cabinet, invented by Thomas William Tobin, which used mirrors to allow somebody to appear to disappear from within a sealed cabinet. The principle here is not that something is added to the visible scene, but that it appears to be taken away, through a reflection that in fact covers the presence of something present (Steinmeyer 2005: 77). Tom Gunning, arguing for the roots of cinema in the possibility of visible disappearance, describes this as a kind of ‘Copernican revolution’ in optics, in that ‘[r]ather than conjuring a spirit, the trick made emptiness visible’ (Gunning 2012: 59). The trick allowed for complex interlacings of appearance and disappearance, as this description from a performance at the London Polytechnic indicates: 

Most interesting of all is something indifferently described as ‘The Wonderful Cabinet,’ and ‘Proteus; or, we are here, but not here.’ This is a new invention by Mr. Tobin and Professor Pepper. A handsome, cabinet is produced, large enough to contain two or three people upright; but is opened, and found to be empty. On the evening when we saw it, Mr. King desired Mr. Tobin to enter. He did so, and immediately after somebody else came from it in the costume of Paul Pry. Mr. Tobin had disappeared. Mr. Tobin again entered, and when the door was opened, there was a chattering skeleton with fragments of Mr. Tobin’s attire upon him, thus leading to a certainty of the identity of the skeleton upon earth. Mr. Tobin reappearing at the side, was desired to enter the chest once more, to fetch his bones out, and then fresh complications occurred, as they did also with Mr. King, who certainly must have been in the flesh, as he was talking all the time. However, there is no ‘must’ at the Polytechnic; there is ‘nothing certain in life’ at the Polytechnic.” (‘Public Amusements’ 1865: 8)

It is as though the power of mastering absence enacted in the fort-da procedure described in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud 1953-74: 18.14-16) were autonomised and transferred to the visual scene itself—as though the visible itself could blink, or close its eye upon itself. But then, that is just the way in which the variant of the game reported by Freud works: rather than throwing a cotton-reel away and pulling it back into view, Freud’s grandson would operate his own ring of Gyges, ducking down below the mirror and then coming back into sight.

The machine which best demonstrates the tension between display and concealment is the Mechanical Turk. This was a contrivance invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769, in which the mechanical figure of a Turk seated over a cabinet appeared to play games of chess. After having been displayed in a number of European cities, it was acquired in 1805 by a showman and engineer called Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Having sold the automaton, Maelzel repurchased it in 1817 and took it on tour in the United States. Despite the fact that von Kempelen was a maker of genuine automata, having to his credit a machine for producing vocal sounds by artificial means, it was actually, as many suspected throughout its career, a hoax, in that it was not a machine at all. The Turk was operated by a succession of presumably well-remunerated chess masters hidden inside the cabinet.

Edgar Allan Poe said of the Turk that ‘we find every where men of mechanical genius, of great general acuteness, and discriminative understanding, who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine, unconnected with human agency in its movements, and consequently, beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the inventions of mankind’ (Poe 1836: 318). The machine is pure because it is supposed to operate without human intervention. It is invention without intervention, without anything coming between the machine and its operation.

There is no machine. And yet there is a machinery for the production of the conviction that a machine is at work. The machinery of the spectacle, the making visible of the machine, is all intervention, in that it is insinuated between the seer and the seen. Poe carefully explains the procedure by which the machine is presented:

Maelzel now informs the company that he will disclose to their view the mechanism of the machine. Taking from his pocket a bunch of keys he unlocks with one of them […] and throws the cupboard fully open to the inspection of all present. Its whole interior is apparently filled with wheels, pinions, levers, and other machinery, crowded very closely together, so that the eye can penetrate but a little distance into the mass. Leaving this door open to its full extent, he goes now round to the back of the box, and raising the drapery of the figure, opens another door situated precisely in the rear of the one first opened. Holding a lighted candle at this door, and shifting the position of the whole machine repeatedly at the same time, a bright light is thrown entirely through the cupboard, which is now clearly seen to be full, completely full, of machinery.” (320)

Maelzel follows conjuring convention in seeming to act out a kind of logical demonstration, in order to convey to the spectators the conviction that they have ‘beheld and completely scrutinized, at one and the same time, every individual portion of the Automaton’ (320). Everything is laid open to view, leaving the conclusion that the machine consists of nothing but its machinery. In fact, as Poe goes on to demonstrate, the device contains a chess player, who is trained to move his body into different postures as different doors are opened which allow the illusion to be given that the machine is machinery and nothing but machinery. This includes mirrors ‘so placed to multiply to the vision some few pieces of machinery within the trunk so as to give it the appearance of being crowded with mechanism’ (323). The ‘direct inference’ Poe makes from this is ‘that the machine is not a pure machine. For if it were, the inventor, so far from wishing its mechanism to appear complex, and using deception for the purpose of giving it this appearance, would have been especially desirous of convincing those who witnessed his exhibition, of the simplicity of the means by which results so wonderful were brought about’ (323). 

In all of this, Poe himself relies upon what he calls ‘demonstration’. That is, he is following, and mimicking, the logic of the original demonstration. ‘It is quite certain’, he writes, ‘that the operations of the Automaton are regulated by mind, and by nothing else. Indeed this matter is susceptible of a mathematical demonstration, a priori’ (319). But where Maelzl’s demonstration, itself a kind of theatrical apparatus, is designed to produce the idea of a machine, Poe’s demonstration is designed to show that not everything has in fact been laid open to view. Poe aims to demonstrate the machinery of dissimulation, the machinery by which the Mechanical Turk convinces us that it is a machine.

But this means that there is in fact a deeper analogy between Maelzel’s operation and Poe’s. In both cases, demonstration is used to show definitively that there is nothing of the workings of the machine that cannot be seen, and yet that there is also something that cannot be seen, namely how the machine works. For Maelzel, this is a machine that works in secret; for Poe, it is the secret that it is not the machine that works at all, but rather a mind. The Maelzel-machine and the Poe-machine are meshed together in an act of writing that must itself be a ‘pure machine’ of logical inference if it is to demonstrate that the machine is in fact pure mind—or rather, must convince its reader that it is such a machine, and not in fact the staging of its demonstration. In both cases, the machine is at once laid open to view, and operates in concealment.

There is an even more surprising form of black-box concealment, in which the operation of the machine is not hidden from view, but is rather exhibited, yet with a complexity that seems entirely incomprehensible. This illegibility allows the machine to be at once visible and withdrawn from view: one sees but does not know or cannot say what it is that one sees, meaning that one cannot be sure whether one is viewing a hoax or an authentic artefact. Some of the most mysterious machines found in art are of this kind, for example the strange apparatus devised by the inventor Canterel in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, which combines a machine for instant and painless extraction of teeth with an aerial device able to predict and exploit every change of wind direction, the whole operating to effect constant adjustments to a mosaic of discarded teeth of different colours (Roussel 1983: 24-36).

In 2005, Amazon borrowed the Turk’s name for a system it made available to bring together employers and workers on Human Intelligence Tasks that human beings find relatively easy, but are difficult or expensive to automate, such as classifying images, editing and transcribing podcasts, and even searching image databases for traces of missing persons. The system was originally devised in order to enable individual workers to identify which of the millions of pages produced by Amazon were duplicates, a job which was surprisingly difficult to automate. In this kind of crowd-sourced microtasking, the workers are the ‘Turks’, or ‘Turkers’, who enable the machinery to work. They are, in the words of Jeff Bezos, ‘artificial artificial intelligence’ (Cushing 2013: 2). Turkers earn tiny amounts of money, which makes it odd that so large a proportion of them should be from the US (the other largest source of Turkers is India, which makes greater economic sense). In fact, Mechanical Turk is a symptom, a largely hidden one, in that it is not much known about or discussed, of a much larger and more structural dependence of artificial systems of intelligence on human ones. Many internet businesses are finding ways to make use not of labour time but of the data by-products of our other activities. We imagine a world in which more and more human actions and interactions are replaced by automated ones. A large part of the reality is that we are in fact working the machine, only, unlike the inmate of Maelzel’s apparatus, we don’t know how—or even that—we are doing it. This then becomes artificial artificial artificial intelligence, the black boxes that dissimulate the work forming multiple encapsulations.

Technologies of visualisation like phototography and cinema have displayed an elective affinity with machinery. The many films that deal with the making of life, or with statues, dolls, toys, robots, or machines that come to life, seem often to be a ceremonial enactment of cinema’s own power to animate. The scene in which the monster is animated in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) musters an unaccountable collection of art deco machines involving dials, phials, coils, and electrostatic tubes, up and down which sparks flash and ripple, along with, suspended over the bed on which the insensate monster is lifted up to the thunderstorm, a wonderfully purposeless barbell arrangement, suggestive of the Van de Graaff generator, the first model of which had in fact been demonstrated by Robert Van de Graaff in the very year the film appeared. The equipment in the laboratory is a confection of different styles and epochs of technology, from the winch that is laboriously employed to raise the monster on its bed to the roof, to the space-age globes. All of this in fact seems to embody not so much the power of machinery as the machinery of exhibition, which for centuries had been electricity’s primary use (Morus 1998). The sparks that fly out intemperately suggest immense power under the control of human genius. The scene perhaps recalls the photographs of Nikola Tesla taken by Dickenson Alley for the Century Magazine in December 1899, in which double-exposure was used to show Tesla calmly reading amid a torrent of sparks streaming from an enormous transmitter (Carlson 2013: 297). And yet, of course, the real purpose of the sparks is to suggest a power beyond power that can scarcely be contained, not even perhaps in the space of vision, which is subject to blitzing white-outs as lightning flashes.

If there are suggestions in this scene of Lazarus being lifted on his bed to the roof, the raising of the monster to the heavens also suggests sacrifice and the forms of religious display known as ‘ostension’, a sort of exhibition to the second power, in a showing that shows itself. The monstrous may be that which is horrifying or sublime in its formlessness, but may also bring with it the recollection of the monstrance, sometimes also known as an ostensorium, a ceremonial holder in which the host or holy relics may be displayed to the faithful. The monster, from Latin monstrare, to show, is indeed a showing or revelation.

James Whale’s transformation scene is affectionately parodied in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974), which actually employed the props used in Whale’s film. We might say that cinema uses the scene of the laboratory in a similar way, to make visible the work of animation or transformation that is otherwise kept invisible in the work of visualisation.

So there are machines for making the invisible visible; and there are machines for making the visible invisible. There are also machines designed for seeing or visualising invisible mechanisms, along with machines that are themselves invisible. And there are machines whose visibility is itself a form of concealment in plain sight, or a way of making themselves, or part of themselves, invisible. The categories are not wholly distinct, and machines may move between these different conditions of, and relations, to visibility. Perhaps there might even be a kind of machinery in the logic that governs such motions. We may be sure at least that, through all kinds of machinery whatsoever, visibility is always at issue. A mechanism is always something capable of exposition, since to say something is mechanical is to say that its workings can be seen and shown. And yet to imagine a machine is always to imagine some occultation, working against, or even within the ocular, if only because our seeing or fantasy of seeing is always in part caught up in the workings of any machine we imagine or inspect. We can never, it seems, fully see what it is that we see in machines.

This essay was previously published in Dream Machines (Open Humanities Press, 2017).


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