An example of how certain historically contingent ways of doing things get mistaken for how things have always been, and then made so they are that way.

In this 2009 video I found on YouTube, the engineers at Boston Dynamics show off PETMAN, a bipedal walking machine.

The thing that struck me about this clip is that, 40 seconds in, the video slows down and we get a very clear picture of what the gait of PETMAN looks like. Then, a caption appears that reads “Heel-toe walking like human.” We also see that PETMAN appears to be wearing sneakers.

Now, this is strange in two ways. First, the producers of the Boston Dynamics video felt the need to point out the fact that PETMAN walks “like human.” It shouldn’t matter whether the machine walks around like a human does or not, so long as it can get where it’s going successfully, but there is intense interest in making the machines that can carry out human-like tasks do so in human-like ways.

The second piece of strangeness is that heel-toe walking is by no means a universally human way of putting one foor in front of another. In fact, it is a historically specific style of walking. People who grow up not wearing shoes often walk and run with a “forefoot strike” gait, like the Tarahamara ultrarunners in Christopher McDougal’s 2011 book “Born to Run.”

Noticing this odd sequence, where a machine gets specific cultural practices built into it in order to make it seem more successfully human, is one of my favorite things about science studies. So often, social relationships and cultural assumptions that get mis-recognized as universally human then become part of the built and technological world that we all have to live in. And this finally has the effect of making a truth out of the lie: heel-toe walking becomes objectified as the universal style of human locomotion by virtue of its being built into an advanced prototype for an autonomous walking machine.

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