The Rock Rolls Again

The myth of Sisyphus tells the story of the gods punishing Sisyphus by charging him to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, at which point the rock would fall back of its own weight. In “The Myth of Sisyphus” Albert Camus writes: “A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

I’ve always been intrigued by this myth and wish to apply it and all its noble despair to the problematics of performance, and in particular my performance with voice recognition technology. American theorist Jon McKenzie’s ideas of “organizational performance” and “technological performance” (which I’ve mentioned here before) directly correspond to our expectations for computerized processing of human speech with voice recognition software. “Organizational performance” refers to the expectations that we place on ourselves to function in society – our performance at our jobs and lives. “Technological performance” refers to the ways we model our technologies to “perform” more efficiently than we do, and the unreasonable faith we place in them as a result. We trust that software and hardware consistently understand our input, whether it is speech or text. The anticipated technological performance of voice recognition software in turn allows for a higher expected level of organizational performance – we can generally speak faster than we can type, raising the level of efficiency at our jobs, and allowing those who are unable to type to input text with their voices.

McKenzie’s idea of “organizational performance” also applies to the expectations that lie in wait for performance artists. Audiences expect them to perform perfectly, executing their actions, often many times, in exactly the same way each time.

In a way, achieving a perfect performance, and striving for it through endless repetition is the same as Sisyphus’ task. McKenzie’s theories of organizational performance require Sisyphus to dedicate himself wholly to his task; his theories of technological performance require the rock to perform as exactly as expected each time.

And so this failure of technological performance in the case of errors resulting when using voice recognition software might mean that actually, the rock rolls when you don’t expect it to, and that it might roll very suddenly far away from the base of the mountain.