Elove: What Does Fiction Know?


From the very beginnings, it seems that some kind of “mystery” has been an intrinsic part of computing, that there has to be something hidden for the system to work. It is not surprising, in this context, that computing has been associated with road shows and show business. Maelzel’s Chess-Player, the “Turk” as it has come to be known, was a theatrical attraction. Just like in a magician’s trick, the elaborate contraption as well as the few movements it was capable of performing, were to attract attention on the appearance of the turbaned machine in order to dissimulate what enables it to play and win at chess. Part of the performance was to convince the audience that there was no trick involved: as Maelzel arrived on the stage, he would go around to “reveal” the insides of the machine to show that it contained nothing but mechanical parts, while a human player was astutely hiding within it and moving from compartment to compartment as Maelzel paraded his machine. Let’s also remember that in Turing’s “Imitation Game,” the machine and the human being are both hidden backstage behind a curtain. This mysteriousness has not escaped the inventors of our Internet who, not without some humor, baptized it at first as the ethernet. Of late, the consumer success of computing is due in great part to the dissimulation of the digital code with layer upon layer of user-friendly presentations, first a program language, soon covered by line commands, which were in turn hidden by our operating systems and their ubiquitous icons, which are starting to be also hidden as the actual computing is done in the “cloud," dispersed in small fragments on servers all over the world.
What blinds Nathanael in Hoffmann’s “The Sand-Man” and allows him to fall in love with Olimpia, the automaton, is a childhood trauma, long absent and hidden from his interaction with the automaton. It was the result of an unfortunate coincidence, the arrival of the Sand-Man who supposedly will put sand in his eyes if he doesn’t go to bed on time and the arrival of Coppelius, his father’s partner in his experiments in alchemy. Confusion is created between the two, not unlike the elder’s experiments in the fusion of metals. The trauma, hidden in the background, predisposes Nathanael to take Olimpia for a human. Without it, there is simply no love between the machine and Nathanael. Villiers’ novel, Tomorrow’s Eve, has a very thin plot line and consists mostly in revealing, perhaps in the same spirit as Maelzel showing the inside of his machine, the engineering of his android. In some kind of a voyeuristic inverse autopsy, the reader witnesses, chapter after chapter, the steps Edison takes in its conception, with technical or, more precisely, pseudo-technical descriptions of the parts that comprise the machine (its organs, so to speak), their placement, their function and functioning, in a language often as mystifying as the invocations of magicians. All this, of course, is to reassure Ewald and the reader that Hadaly is no hoax, as the Chess-Player was. In the far background is Sowana, a spirit that goes into the making of the machine. In Do Androids Dream, the “authorities” are backstage and dictate Deckard’s behavior. In The Invention of Morel, at least in the first half of the book when the narrator had not yet figured things out, it is the undiscovered recording machine that creates Faustine. In “Le Jeu,” the machine that produces Albertine and her surroundings has been replaced by the cloud, totally absent from view. Just as with Nathanael and his childhood trauma, in the movie Her, divorce and depression predispose Theodore to fall in love with Samantha, the operating system. Jonze goes further: he makes Samantha’s body totally disappear. She doesn’t have one. That frustrates the loving couple and they arrange for a substitute to make love—unsuccessfully.
To recapitulate, we have a series of concepts that go into the making of the loving machine, which depend on one another, or, more precisely, which are components of one another. At the most englobing level, reciprocity is required to ensure “true reality." To ensure that reciprocity is the Hoffmann effect, of which empathy is an essential component. For that empathy to function, you need the help of simulation, which in turn will feed the concept of a made-to-measure, which assures that the love between the machine and the human being is idiosyncratic. And finally in order to ensure that this made-to-measure quality exists, you need a kind of engineering (or “a philosophy of composition,” to borrow Poe’s words) that permits the mysterious rise, bottom up, of qualities that derive from the interaction of elements at the local level.

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