Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2nd, 2018

The Machine of Lagado

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Yesterday, my wife wrote to me in a text message: “Psychohistory could not predict that Elon [Musk] would gin up a fraudulent stock buyback price based on a pot joke and then get punished by the SEC.” This might lead you to wonder about our texting habits, but more to the point, she was right. Psychohistory—the fictional science of forecasting the future developed by Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell in the Foundation series—is based on the assumption that the world will change in the future more or less as it has in the past. Like all systems of prediction, it’s unable to foresee black swans, like the Mule or Donald Trump, that make nonsense of our previous assumptions, and it’s useless for predicting events on a small scale. Asimov liked to compare it to the kinetic theory of gases, “where the individual molecules in the gas remain as unpredictable as ever, but the average person is completely predictable.” This means that you need a sufficiently large number of people, such as the population of the galaxy, for it to work, and it also means that it grows correspondingly less useful as it becomes more specific. On the individual level, human behavior is as unforeseeable as the motion of particular molecules, and the shape of any particular life is impossible to predict, even if we like to believe otherwise. The same is true of events. Just as a monkey or a dartboard might do an equally good job of picking stocks as a qualified investment advisor, the news these days often seems to have been generated by a bot, like the Subreddit Simulator, that automatically cranks out random combinations of keywords and trending terms. (My favorite recent example is an actual headline from the Washington Post: “Border Patrol agent admits to starting wildfire during gender-reveal party.”)

And the satirical notion that combining ideas at random might lead to useful insights or predictions is a very old one. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift describes an encounter with a fictional machine—located in the academy of Lagado, the capital city of the island of Balnibarbi—by which “the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” The narrator continues:

[The professor] then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order…The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed.  He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes.

And Gulliver concludes: “Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences.”

Two and a half centuries later, an updated version of this machine figured in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is where I first encountered it. The book’s three protagonists, who work as editors for a publishing company in Milan, are playing in the early eighties with their new desktop computer, which they’ve nicknamed Abulafia, after the medieval cabalist. One speaks proudly of Abulafia’s usefulness in generating random combinations: “All that’s needed is the data and the desire. Take, for example, poetry. The program asks you how many lines you want in the poem, and you decide: ten, twenty, a hundred. Then the program randomizes the line numbers. In other words, a new arrangement each time. With ten lines you can make thousands and thousands of random poems.” This gives the narrator an idea:

What if, instead, you fed it a few dozen notions taken from the works of [occult writers]—for example, the Templars fled to Scotland, or the Corpus Hermeticum arrived in Florence in 1460—and threw in a few connective phrases like “It’s obvious that” and “This proves that?” We might end up with something revelatory. Then we fill in the gaps, call the repetitions prophecies, and—voila—a hitherto unpublished chapter of the history of magic, at the very least!

Taking random sentences from unpublished manuscripts, they enter such lines as “Who was married at the feast of Cana?” and “Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancee.” When strung together, the result, in one of Eco’s sly jokes, is a conspiracy theory that exactly duplicates the thesis of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which later provided much of the inspiration for The Da Vinci Code. “Nobody would take that seriously,” one of the editors says. The narrator replies: “On the contrary, it would sell a few hundred thousand copies.”

When I first read this as a teenager, I thought it was one of the great things in the world, and part of me still does. I immediately began to look for similar connections between random ideas, which led me to some of my best story ideas, and I still incorporate aspects of randomness into just about everything that I do. Yet there’s also a pathological element to this form of play that I haven’t always acknowledged. What makes it dangerous, as Eco understood, is the inclusion of such seemingly innocent expressions as “it’s obvious that” and “this proves that,” which instantly transforms a scenario into an argument. (On the back cover of the paperback edition of Foucault’s Pendulum, the promotional copy describes Abulafia as “an incredible computer capable of inventing connections between all their entires,” which is both a great example of hyping a difficult book and a reflection of how credulous we can be when it comes to such practices in real life.) We may not be able to rule out any particular combination of events, but not every explanatory system is equally valid, even if all it takes is a modicum of ingenuity to turn it into something convincing. I used to see the creation of conspiracy theories as a diverting game, or as a commentary on how we interpret the world around us, and I devoted an entire novel to exorcising my fascination with this idea. More recently, I’ve realized that this attitude was founded on the assumption that it was still possible to come to some kind of cultural consensus about the truth. In the era of InfoWars, Pizzagate, and QAnon, it no longer seems harmless. Not all patterns are real, and many of the horrors of the last century were perpetuated by conspiracy theorists who arbitrarily seized on one arrangement of the facts—and then acted on it accordingly. Reality itself can seem randomly generated, but our thoughts and actions don’t need to be.

Written by nevalalee

October 2, 2018 at 9:36 am

Quote of the Day

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Our handwriting, distinctively altered by our mood, conveys that mood to the reader independently of the words. We must therefore consider the question of written signs—visible, or simply palpable, that a blind man could touch. It’s clearly not necessary that the author himself should be the one who writes a handwritten book; indeed, it would probably be better for him to entrust the task to an artist…When a piece is copied over, by someone else or even by the author himself, that person must re-experience himself during the act of recopying, otherwise the piece loses all the rightful magic that was conferred upon it by handwriting at the moment of its creation, in the “wild storm of inspiration.”

Viktor Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh, “The Letter as Such”

Written by nevalalee

October 2, 2018 at 7:30 am

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