First published:Summer 2007
As the twenty-first century settles in around us, the influencing machine is quietly making itself at home in the mainstream of our techno-hungry culture. Only a decade ago, the idea of a covert device that uses futuristic technology to send messages and controls minds was confined to a handful of cults and subcultures: aficionados of the paranoid sci-fi of Philip K. Dick, or of a samizdat conspiracy literature where mind control was occasionally proposed as the hidden hand that unifies the disparate narratives of alien abductions and controlling elites. Now, for every twelve-year-old who has seen The X-Files, The Matrix or any of a thousand film, TV and comic spin-offs, the influencing machine needs no explanation, and the internet hums with stories of subliminal messaging, mysterious implants and military mind-control programmes. The influencing machine is even moving beyond familiarity into parody: the character who wears a tinfoil hat to deflect its malign controlling rays has become a comedy cliché, a crude shorthand for paranoia and by extension for madness in general.
This is a stereotype that recalls that the influencing machine, for all its recent excursions into popular culture, has its roots in clinical psychiatry and psychoanalysis, where the term was originally coined nearly a century ago to describe a delusion observed in those suffering from the bizarre mental condition that was shortly to be christened 'schizophrenia'. But the first representation of an influencing machine can be traced back a century further still, to the prototype for all these spectral-cum-mechanical devices: the 'Air Loom', which was detailed in eerily precise technical drawings between 1800 and 1810 by a Welsh tea-broker named James Tilly Matthews.