Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Mechanical metaphors in kid's body books

This is the cover of Usborne's classic kid's book How Your Body Works. The book has been around in some form since 1975, so you might have seen it before. I'm interested in it for many reasons, but this blogpost is going to focus on the way it reflects an oft-used metaphor when it comes to explaining the human body, that of a machine.

Cover of How Your Body Works

Comparisons of the body to machine are sometimes seen in a negative light; endemic of a mechanistic worldview which is overly-reductive approach to something as complex and beautiful as the human body. 


Ok, a "yawn" is over-trivialising the anti-mechanist critique, but I want to argue that kid's body books employing robot metaphors are a bit more complicated than that (personally, I think you can say the same of Blake's Newton, but that's another story). My central point is that mechanical analogies provide a diverse set of cultural referents. Machines comes in a range of sizes, shapes and styles, and people use and think about them in a range of ways. Further, both machines and the way cultures have understood them has changed over time.

Perhaps a mechanical analogy allows some form of abstraction, providing some distance from specifics when handling issues like reproduction, infection and digestion. For example, the section outlining what happens when a blue robot loves an orange robot very much. 

how (robot) babies are made

Such abstraction may also provide an expository role. Yes, the human body is a lot more than, for example, a set of bellows (below), but the image filtered down the multitude of things going on inside a person's chest so we can learn about one thing at a time. Reduction for explanatory purposes isn't (necessarily) to say the world really is that simple.


Mechanical analogies for specific systems (e.g. lungs as bellows) is one thing, but when it becomes a matter of depicting the whole body, we start moving towards associations with robots. The metallic skeleton on the cover of the Usborne book isn't necessarily a robot, but there is something robot-like about him.

There are a wide range of cultural associations that might come with such allusions. Think of Dr Who, and robots are nearly always symbols of what is inhuman or a lost humanity (e.g. their nod-to-Metropolis Cybermen, or hide-behind-the-sofa Daleks). But think of Wall-E, or these smiling robot tshirts I spotted recently, or these robot cookies. Robots can be your friends. At the Science museum this week you can "meet Kaspar the friendly humanoid robot".

There's a nice study of robots in children's literature by Margaret Esmonde in this 1982 collection of essays on machines in science fiction. According to this study, the robot or cyborg is generally a benevolent character in children’s stories, often acting in loco parentis or as a reasonably sympathetic step-brother. Even where there are "bad" robots, they tend to be destroyed with the aid of "good" ones. Her only example otherwise being Dr Who. Interestingly,  such child characters tend to be boys - a robo-brother, not sister - though she does mention one, it is very much an exception to the rule. I also wonder if there is something to be said about the childlike representation of robots in not only fiction, but news stories (even research projects) too; that we take the sometimes limited abilities of robots as a reason to pat them on the head and go "aww".

The gender and generational points are just as an aside though, my main reason for mentioning Esmonde's study is that the robot of children's popular culture may well be a very sympathetic, even empathetic, character. Just because it is not human, doesn't mean it is inhuman. Esmonde describes a few fascinating case studies. For example, a picture book produced to illustrate the UN declaration on rights of the child: a little boy lives a secure and caring life under the love and protection provided by his robot guardian. ‘Nosey’ people intervene and separate them, so the robot returns, disguised as a human and takes the boy back and they live happily ever after.

Esmonde traces mechanical characters in children’s fiction back to  L. Frank Baum's Oz series. There is Tik-Tok, pictured, who you might know from the 1985 movie (see also this io9 piece on Pre-Golden Age SF Robots), and possibly the most straightforwardly mechanical man, the Tin Woodman, who everyone knows from the musical ("if I only had a heart"). Esmonde also discusses the lesser-known Chopfyt, a fascinating character made from cast-off "meat" parts of the two other men. She stresses these characters were all relatively ambiguous in their humanity, there isn't the humans vs robots distinction which is so often played out in Dr Who. She also argues that Baum is content to leave these questions unanswered. 

In my introduction I stressed that technologies and our cultural ideas about them have changed over time.  With this in mind, it's interesting to see a very Tik-Tok style robot re-used in Phillip Reeve's steampunk-ish Larklight books which self consciously re-uses old futuristic tropes of the robot to play with hopes, fears and other aesthetics surrounding them. Reeve is an extremely complex writer when it comes to images of technology, I haven't space to discuss it here, but there are some brief notes on him buried in this paper. Or just read his books (the Mortal Engines series too, and do it before they are all movies).

Getting back to non-fiction, let me introduce you to The Body Owner’s Handbook (Nick Arnold & Tony De Saulles, 2002). This is part of Scholastic’s Horrible Science series, and structured out under the narrative conceit an instruction manual for the human body. In some respects, this is quite straightforward body as machine stuff. As are later points in the text which refer to the digestive system as a ‘fuel storage tank and conveyor belt’ and a ‘body repair shop’ is used to discuss cell replacement (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 22, 28). It is quite self-aware about this, and seem to expect the audience to be as well. As mentioned in my post about poo books, in some respects make fun of the distance provided by the mechanistic imagery (whilst also applying the convenience of it).

However, I think The Body Owner’s Handbook is slightly different from How Your Body Works in the way it conceives of its technological metaphor. For a start, it combines it with a loose narrative of a childlike Frankenstein monster. I'm drawing a line under the Shelly comparisons now. It is fascinating and arguably key to understanding the book, but a whole other blogpost. Suffice to say this is a slightly more "meaty" approach to (bio)technology and a (post)modern critique.

Monsters aside, The Body Owner’s Handbook seems to be applying a machine metaphor rooted in consumer technology. As with a lot of the books in Horrible Science, the language and imagery is heavily influenced by advertising styles (though, it should be noted with their tongue firmly in cheek):
Looking for a new body? Why not choose the real McCoy – the one and only Human Body. It’s Planet Earth’s most advanced living machine! It’s built of the finest material to a tried and tested design that’s over two hundred thousand years old! (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 8)
This is a technology you would buy. It is not one that powers the "dark satanic mills". Neither is it one you'd build yourself. It is ready made, just for you. This is not a Fordist form of mass production where the mechanical body is available in any colour as long as it's black. This body is available in a variety of colours; "light brown, dark brown, pink, beige and yellow" (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 9).

In some respects such a contemporary consumer-tech model of the body allows for a connection with a sense of individualism: note the location of the apostrophe in the book’s title, it is body-owner singular. Yet, this note on race is emphasised by arguing that bodies are all the same underneath; the sense that everybody’s body is the same is very important to the scientific stories of the book. Perhaps this is the curtailed (and occasionally illusionary) individualism of interaction with branded technology. To some extent such identities come, to some degree, pre-packaged. Pink microscope anyone

Moreover, such pre-packaged advanced tech comes with a greater degree of ineviable black-boxing. There are right and wrong ways of interacting with its surface, but its internal workings are a relative mystery to users. As many writers on technology have argued - indeed many writers on post/ late modernity have argued - the quantity of specialisation that goes into producing much contemporary means they come with greater mystery. Personal computers make one of the nicest examples of this. In the early 1980s, many personal computer users not only programmed but actually made their own kit. By the early 1990s, even the professionals could only produce one small aspects. Perhaps then, mechanical metaphors no longer provide simplicity? (if they ever really did)

Significantly, The Body Owner’s Handbook warns: "The body isn’t designed to be opened by non-experts and this can result in serious body breakdowns" (p12). In some respects this is in some contrast to a line in one of the first Horrible Science books, also about the body:
[science] belongs to everybody, because everybody’s got a body – and you’ve got every right to know what’s going on in yours (Blood, Bones & Body Bits, 1996: 5).
That said, perhaps back in those golden years of hobbyist tech and meccano collections, when kids built their own crystal radios (grew their own computers, spewed out their own difference engine, etc etc), no one told them to "tinker" with their physiology. Or maybe they did (um, maybe let's not go too far with this tinkering analogy...). As The Body Owner's Handbook's use of Frankenstein reflects, biotech has always been a slightly different matter.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that they are only interesting as examples of what adults choose to produce for children. Personally, I think this is fascinating in itself, but it isn't necessarily a sign of what children themselves think. In the light of a spate of "wrong superheroes" stories last week, this is something to keep in mind. If you want to know what children think, ask them. Musing about the media presented to young people is interesting and worthwhile when understood on it's on terms, but it doesn't tell us what is going on in the heads of actual children.

My main point, however is that if we do want to think through some of the symbols involved in technologically informed explanations of bodies, is pays not be reductive/ simplistic about machines.


  1. We had the Usborne How Your Body Works. Looking at the cover now, it's easy to imagine a child asking all of those questions except one. I'd put money on it that no child in the history of children has ever asked: "How do fingers work?"

    Dave Wrote This

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  3. Check out Fritz Kahn and Man as Industrial Palace to learn how your body works. (

  4. Great stuff Alice. I have a hunch they've eased up on the mechanisation in the latest edition. It's downstairs. I'll check.

    This made me think of a nice Endeavour article I ran a few years back on cells as factories.

  5. I think that this book is amazing because it can be so important to the improve of the children, they can learn about their bodies and more similar things !

  6. Hi Alice Bell,

    Great post!
    Thilo already mentioned Fritz Kahn, so I thought it would be nice as well to mention my animation of his most famous poster "Man as Industrial Palace":
    The German Museum of Man in Dresden is exhibiting this work, sadly London's Science Museum didn''t show any interest.

    Anyway, all the best from Germany:

    PS: What is the B.F.'s hand doing in the depiction of digestion?

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