Archive for February, 2015

Those poncey writers, eh?

man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885I’ve been reading back over my stuff and noticed I’ve used the word “senescence”. I know why that happened. I was reading a column by the novelist and sometimes TV pundit Will Self, famous for his use of the obscure word, and I think I adopted “senescence” from him. I was half sure I knew what it meant from the context, but looked it up to be sure, found I was right, and that I liked the word, so it finds a home now in my lexicon. I don’t know if it’s familiar to others, but I can’t be afraid of using it in case they’re not, otherwise where do we stop? We would end up self editing and dumbing ourselves down to the level of Janet and John.

He has a lot of critics, Will Self, people who call him unkind names for using those obscure words. And we all remember Orwell (George), don’t we? Orwell said you should never use a long word when a shorter one will do – something that’s often been misinterpreted as meaning: don’t use poncy language. But I don’t think that’s what Orwell meant. I think he meant: don’t use a long word when a shorter one will do.

Senescence doesn’t have a shorter equivalent – a string of words might get at it, but that would use more column inches than using the single definitive word, which , after all is only three syllables long. So, I’m sorry but “senescence” nails it. Senescence is not a poncey word. And I like it. I shall use it again.

Reading Will Self, I realise we have some very beautiful words in the English language, but they are becoming obscure, like rare creatures on the verge of extinction, our language deadened, perhaps by writers who are afraid to use the less trodden path, writers who are influenced by other writers who are afraid to sound poncey.

Personally, I like the word “mellifluous”. It doesn’t come up every day, but I have used it, I think, in my last novel somewhere. Does that make me a poncey writer too? Or worse, does it make me a wannabe intellectual? Dodgy word that: Intellectual. God spare us from those wannabe intellectuals, from a population with any aspiration towards independent thinking. We’d better give him a good drubbing, that poncey git. Who does he think he is? Does he think we should all carry a dictionary around every time we sit down to read a newspaper?

Tocsin! Curious word that. Semantically unintuitive. It means an alarm bell, a warning, or if used metaphorically, then an omen. Is “omen” not the better word then because it’s a few letters shorter? Or is that only because it’s more familiar? Is it then only the words the majority of us have forgotten that acquire the moniker: poncey?

I do enjoy reading Will Self – his columns at least – I’ve yet to brave any of his novels, as they have a fearsomely literary reputation, but I shall give him a go one day. He says a lot of challenging things, things not everyone agrees with, including at times me, but to his considerable credit, he is not afraid to send ripples through the status quo. And art is not about merely prettifying the world, it is about provoking a reaction, whatever that reaction might be.

By contrast, I am the consummate fence-sitter. If you want a good argument, don’t come sparring with me. You’ll find me too slippery and we’ll part company with you thinking I agree with everything you’ve said, when I might not – but then my language skills are such that I can make you believe anything I want. I am deceitful in that sense.

Desideratum! Oh, come on, that’s not so difficult a word. I think most of us can make a guess at that one. Again, you don’t see it very often which is a pity because it’s such a pretty word, five syllables and it makes the tongue stroke the palate in a curiously apposite way. Everyone all right with apposite? Perhaps I should have used “appropriate” there except appropriate scores higher on the syllable count and is by that score at least therefore the more poncey word, but it’s in wider use, and more familiar,… so,…

I know, some big words are ugly – especially the more technical ones: Antidisestablishmentarianism – you don’t see that one very often do you, and thank goodness! But I think what I’m getting at here is we should not be afraid of using the unfamiliar word if it gets at what we mean. I don’t mind looking it up, and if I like it, I’ll use it, recycle it, reintroduce it into the wilds of our colourful and dynamic language.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that by far the majority of writers writing today are writing for free on the internet, which means we have a choice: we can either take our influence from the homogenisation of language into the very lean fayre it appears to be becoming, monochromic and listless, or we can interest ourselves in those rarer words, hiding now in the shadows of a more commonly accepted language. In short then, if a short word won’t do, don’t be afraid of using a longer one.

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booksI’m reading a lot at the moment, enjoying working through a pile of novels I’ve been acquiring, and promising myself I’d get around to one day. Well now I have. I should add I rarely buy novels from the bookstore now, or Amazon. Sorry about that Mr Publisher, but the economy’s still broken. I know, it’s my fault things are refusing to pick up because I’m not spending enough of my relatively piddling salary on consumer goods, but I really don’t feel like it. Since we’re all in it together, as our politicians are fond of reminding us, austerity remains my watchword! Alas, while indeed we are all in it together, to shamefully misquote from a particularly famous novel, some of us are clearly more in it than others. Thus the high streets of our little market towns continue their decline, and the busiest shops of all are the charity shops.

And since austerity, in my book, means doing for a couple of quid what any fool can do for a tenner, I’m a great fan of charity shops now. On Saturdays I’m often to be found in either the British Heart Foundation, or Age Concern mooching about in their entertainment section. My spending on pleasure has plummeted as a result, but paradoxically, the pleasure I’m getting has increased ten-fold. They provide an eclectic and at times a delightfully serendipitous experience. I’m told by the more stuck up of my acquaintances that charity shops smell, and I seem to remember they do – kind of mushroomy – but since I’ve no sense of smell, I really don’t care about that.

A while back, I took a chance on a novel by John Banville – The Untouchable. It’s one of his older works, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It cost me £2.00. That same trip I came away with a DVD copy of V for Vendetta (£2.00) and a Stevie Nicks’ 1981 album, Bella Donna, (£2.00). That’s a lot of bang for my bucks. Of course when you go into a charity shop it’s not a question of expecting them to have what you want – more a question of wanting what they have. And often I find that I do.

By contrast this weekend, I paid full whack for a novel which I won’t name because there’s nothing nice I can say about it. I got it from the supermarket, on impulse, because I liked the cover and it had glowing reviews from big newspapers, and the blurb sold it to me really well. But when I began to read the book, I realised what the blurb hadn’t told me was it was quite an old story, written about the same time as that John Banville novel, actually, except it had been flogged to me in a shiny new cover as brand new and the next big thing.

I didn’t enjoy the story. It was an interesting premise, but the telling of it didn’t sit well with me at all, and I abandoned it half way through. I have read more engaging tales I got for free from Feedbooks, and I am not being cynical when I say I could not imagine presenting such a manuscript to an agent nowadays in the expectation it would ever be published. Yet clearly it was. Twice. At intervals ten years apart.

The John Banville story was returned to the charity shop this weekend with a lot of other books I’ve enjoyed in recent months so others might enjoy them, and so the pounds in their pockets will go to worthy causes, causes other than attempting feeble CPR on a financial system that is in any case irredeemably broken, and would perhaps be better replaced by something else. The other one, the one I felt was a cleverly packaged deceit and which therefore so aptly represents the system that has led to these dire financial straits, went in the bin.

It was a weak and futile gesture I know, but I felt cheated by it, and it was the only way I could give it the Agincourt salute it so sorely deserved, except also to say I am even less likely now to be tempted back to the glossy rows of newly published titles in the bookshops and supermarkets. I would also like to urge you all to visit your charity shop, as they are often the only bookshops still open in our little market towns these days, fortunately also among the more eclectic and interesting, provided you have no idea what you’re looking for in the first place.

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waltham 3Mechanical time-pieces are a passion – wristwatches, pocket watches, clocks. The physics that drives them is as old as Newton, but it still works well enough for everyday purposes. I have a Waltham pocket watch that’s been ticking since 1873, and can still be relied upon. When it began its life, we navigated the world under sail. Now we have people orbiting the earth in the weightless habitats of outer space, and it’s still ticking. Continuity. That’s a key concept in my fascination for time-pieces. It is not the passing of time that interests me, nor less do I fear it in personal terms; it is more the slow circling of time through the seasons of life, and its relationship with seasons passed, and of other lives that seems the more important thing, the thing that enlivens my imagination. Mechanical time-pieces are Romantic.

We must be careful however, as with all Romantic ideals, not to be too simplistic or literal in their interpretation. I have a family piece among my pocket watches, an English Lever, a lumbering great lump of silver Victoriana, of which I’m fond and spent a good deal of money rousing from its senescence. I had in mind the idea of this watch timing the beats of my life, as it had timed the beats of my grandfather’s. But for all of my enthusiasm it resists my wishes. Sometimes it’s passably accurate, but if it should settle awkwardly in the pocket it will stop and leave you floundering, unanchored in time. It is telling me that the past, while often-times alluring, and peppered with the sparkle-dust of pseudo-insight, is not always to be relied upon, that indeed nostalgia, as they say, isn’t what it used to be. Time is not nostalgia; it is a living thing, passed down from one generation to the next, not that we might simply go on measuring it, but that we might continue actively creating it.

Longevity is important, not so much the personal – indeed there is something unhealthy in the quest for personal immortality, something materialistic and a little embarrassing – but in the devices that survive us, or which come to us from our forebears, we see the little wayside stones indicative of progress along the collective path of mankind’s journey. I have a collection of torsion clocks, mechanical devices that will run for a year from a single wind. They are not precise instruments, indeed I note this evening they all tell a different time. Curiously however, if you take the average of them the result always zeros in pretty well to the truth. They make fourteen winds since I was forty, fifty four since before I was born. I think the message here is that we need to think beyond the limit of our own small lives, also to come at things from several angles if we want to be sure of what we’re aiming at.

I remember the advent of the digital Liquid Crystal Display watch in the 80’s: incredible accuracy, and no need to wind the thing. You could fall asleep for a week and it would still be running, still reliably telling the story of your time. But for me, it was not a love affair that lasted very long. Something was lost, I felt, in the literal telling of the numbers, something that was more easily retained in the abstract tilt of fingers against a circular dial. Numbers are more of a mathematical truth, axiomatic in their bluntness, and the mind must decipher them through its fuzzy apperatus first, convert them to a more abstract form before we can properly interpret them. You see few LCD watches now, though they were once thought to be the height of modernity, in the long ago.

DSCF5004So it was the quartz analogue watch, the watch with the electronic heart and the traditional fingers, that seemed, for a time, to contain the promise of all times-future. I bought several in succession, preferring always robustness and utility over the fanciness of multifunction. The durability of time in the harshness of the elements, that was my forte. That they might tell their split-second time reliably amid the rain and rock and running water of my life, seemed the finest thing. But they would stop suddenly, unpredictably when the battery ran down. Yes, it might take a few years, but the thought of being cast out of time at some indeterminately inconvenient point in my life preyed upon me like a neurosis, so when the solar watch was invented, I bought one, feeling for a while the world was once more secure in the turning of those fingers on my wrist. So long as the sun rose each day, the watch would sip of its light and run, navigating me seamlessly and effortlessly through all the temporal twists of my journey, rain and rock and running water included.

And yet,… there was something unnervingly impersonal about this perfection because it seemed also to exclude me. It mattered not if I wore the watch; it would still speak for anyone who picked it up, in perpetuity, maybe long after I was gone. I was no longer a part of the equation of my times. I added nothing. I had lost my personal involvement with it. So I came full circling back to the mechanics of Newton, and the older watches among my collection.

I have always had the Roamer. It was my father’s, but I rarely wear it, so treasured a thing it is for other reasons. I think it’s his prematurely arrested journey I feel enmeshed within it, and I prefer not to taint the purity of that imagining with imagining the times of my own. I’ll leave it to my children to figure that one out. I also have the Rolex, which I bought in a fit of first-salary madness as a singleton, forty years ago, and which I also rarely wear, because I fear to scratch its exquisitely pristine shininess, and because it costs more to service than my car, and is indeed worth more than my car. Neither it seems are good candidates for telling the story of my day to day – only as fingers pointing back to an earlier ideology that still finds resonance.

seiko orient

So we come to the more recent mechanical Seiko 5, a cute little automatic aviator, self winding, and likewise the more dressy Orient Symphony. Both of them of good quality, Japanese manufacture, but not expensively so. This pair of automatics are my day to day, though the story of my time moves on, and I’m sure this will not be the case in another ten years. There will always be another twist, another lesson along the way. But for now, I rest more easily in the fact that the automatic moves so long as I move, that its little variations on the theme of time vary with the temperature on my wrist, and the way I set it down at night to sleep. It is more personal, and there is something Romantic in the notion that a universe spinning that does not contain each and every one of us at its centre, is not a thing worth measuring.

Absolute quartz-served accuracy is unimportant. I have a clock that takes its timings from the atomically adjusted pulses from the transmitter at Anthorn in Cumbria (UK). It’s a useful reference, once in a while, but rather an overkill for the day to dayness of my life. On the hour. Quarter past. Half past. Quarter to. A variation of plus or minus a few minutes on these quadrilateral datums is surely permissible? Indeed I think the universe is seen best through blurred vision. Obsession with accuracy divides us only more into the camps of late and early, when the more insightful approach accepts both labels at once. Ambiguity is the truer reality. Am I late or early? What time is it? Chill out, man, it’s near enough. The time in fact is now, the watch more a gatherer of moments like beads upon a string, sweeping them up the one after the other, than a mere teller of the time.

Look at your watch now, or the clock on the mantel, but look beyond the time, and ask yourself what other tales it tells.

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OWith Fifty Shades the Movie opening at cinemas in time for Valentine’s Day, one might be tempted to think it’s now okay for a man to physically restrain a woman and have his way with her any way he chooses, and that there’s something wrong with the woman if she doesn’t enjoy it. So let me begin on a cautionary note and say to all the men out there who might be thinking along these lines, I suggest you discuss the matter first very carefully with your lady, because she may not share your views. Bondage and sadomasochism are among the darker paths in human relations; the psychology is complex, arguably pathological but, in simpler terms, the emotions it arouses, while reportedly powerful, are not to be confused with love.

Let me pause for breath here and say I have not read Fifty Shades, nor will I be taking the good Lady Graeme to watch the movie. I have, however, read the Story of O, the 1955 novel by Pauline Reage, and from which all semi-pornographic bondage bonk-busters are derived.

It tells the tale of a young woman, known to us simply as “O”, a lovely ingénue who is drawn by her posh boyfriend into a secret circle of wealthy men whose sadomasochistic mores see O reduced to the status of a mere possession. O is at first horrified to find herself abducted, then inducted into all manner of degrading sexual practice, punctuated by frequent whippings, as anything resembling an independence of spirit is beaten out of her. The story persuades us she eventually sees the light, becomes a submissive chattel, and begins to take pleasure, indeed to see the very meaning of her life in sexually compliant slavery and regular whippings. The power of the story, and I did find it a powerfully compelling read, is that Reage achieves all of this without the use of a single naughty word. (would-be erotic authors take note)

sexygirlThe story of O is not pornography, in the same way Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly is not pornography, though both these works were ground-breaking in their time to the extent of finding themselves in the courts on charges of obscenity. Of the two, in my opinion, Lady Chatterly is easily the more literary, though O, winner of the French Prix de Deux Magots, cannot be dismissed as mere smut.

The paradox of O is the depiction of a woman sexually liberated by masculine domination, a liberation that can only come through her willingness to submit to anything her master(s) desire, and to revel in their punishments. The men are depicted as unrelentingly repulsive, and the women, including O, I’m afraid, as impenetrably dim. The men take the women however and whenever they choose, they remodel the shape of them to better suit their idea of a sexually desirable object, then brand their bottoms with a mark of ownership when the women “graduate” as fully fledged chattels.

When O meets an ordinary Joe who falls embarrassingly in love with her, she is incapable of responding in the normal way, and her dismissive treatment of him highlights the dramatic change that has been wrought in this former ingénue by her new lifestyle. The suggestion is that she now operates at a higher level of her being, emotionally and sexually, and that an ordinary man, one who would treat her kindly, is too tame and incapable of handling or even arousing the passions she is now familiar with. All this thanks to the wealthy male predators who own her.

But all of this is fantasy, and Reage doesn’t shy away from hitting you over the head with the darker implications of the endgame of any relationship built on such murky foundations. In short, the story of O does not end well. It’s a tale that can be read in many ways, but if you’re only in it for the titillation you’re seriously missing out. I found it rather a cautionary tale, for when the men tire of O, as all possessions are eventually tired of, she is unable to contemplate a return to the banality of her former life as a free woman and a human being, and the suggestion is that in one version of the ending, her then master, in a last act of gross masochism, grants her the wish that she be relieved of the necessity.

Any sufficiently sensitive man reading the Story of O cannot help but examine his own self for traces of the abominable chauvinism Reage depicts, and question any culture, closed or open, that would reduce its women to the status of objects, sexual or otherwise.

sexygirl2I have at times been in the company of men whose vulgar talk regarding the opposite sex has left me in no doubt as to their primitive attitudes. Whether they also share these views with their wives is anyone’s guess, but – and I speak as a man here – there is definitely a tendency in men that would sooner simplify women to the status of compliant sexual vessels, without the inconvenience of having to treat them as fellow human beings, with thoughts and fears and feelings. But again we must remind ourselves it is a fantasy, one we should take care not to let out of the box for too long, nor take too seriously, because, to paraphrase Alice, Nicole Kidman’s character, at the end of Stanley Kubrics “Eyes wide shut” the best we can hope, where sexual fantasies are concerned, is that we survive them.

Sex of course is one of life’s great pleasures, but by far the more valuable is the companionship of another human being whom you love and respect, and whose mere presence makes you feel bigger than you do when you are alone. I don’t want to pour scorn upon Fifty Shades the movie – there’ll be plenty of people doing that no doubt, as they did with the books – but I cannot help feeling a sneaking admiration for its author, a fellow indie, and a rare example of our breed who made good, made the crossover to the big time. So do read the books and go to the cinema and revel in the fantasy, if you think it might be your bag, but don’t lose sight of what’s real in human relations; remember it’s rather the exception to make love using ropes and whips and sticky tape, than the rule. So guys, don’t make your girl do what she’s not naturally inclined to do. That she wants to be with you at all is a prize in itself, so don’t push your luck.

Fifty Shades does not pretend to be literature, but if  you want to take a more literary view of the erotic you could try the story of O. But be warned, like O, you may get more than you bargained for.

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Levelling up!

because you writeI’m a little disappointed. I was expecting one of those virtual stickers from WordPress this week, telling me my blog has achieved 100,00 clicks. They’ve awarded me stickers in the past – so many followers, so many likes, a spike in your click-rate and so on. Perhaps I was insufficiently excited by them at the time, and I’m now worried the teacher has turned scowly on me. But I never did see the point of those stickers, either now or in the old days when I was at primary school, so I don’t know why I’m piqued at this lack of recognition by the meister of all blog-meisters. After all, anyone can rack up a hundred thousand clicks – it’s just a question of sticking around for long enough.

Of course, persistence is not a thing to be frowned upon, unless within it one also detects the strains of a pathological compulsion. But since I still gain a self sustaining pleasure from the blogging, without lapsing into fits of Clareian despair, or old-boy cynicism, I think I’m on the sunny side of safe, at least on that score.

It’s when the stats become the bee all, and we are for ever anticipating our inevitable celebrity we should consider more carefully our situation, and remember the lone blog is a platform from which fame and fortune shall be for ever elusive, no matter how many times we level up. So this cannot be the primary reason for blogging, or for writing in general. The writer must find the fuel within himself for the onward journey, not from the plaudits showered upon us, because more often than not we shall be labouring under a drought. The clouds rise, says the I Ching, they grow heavy, but still no rain falls, and for the want of this small thing our way is delayed. It’s true the journey may not appear to be leading anywhere, but if a writer is sufficiently self concious they will realise that progress is indeed being made – only more deeply within, than out.

That said, the stats page can provide the occasional twinkling nugget of intrigue, like how a few days ago I gained double the number of hits in one day, and all of them from Germany, but with no indication if the interest was general or specific, nor if I had pleased or offended my reader(s) there. And I am not often read in Germany. The stats also suggest my unexpected exposure in Uganda throughout last year, on account of a single piece of doggerel, is now on the wane. Hits are, however, on up in other areas, due to my blog being listed as an “external source” on Feedbooks’ Wikipedia page.

It’s these little things that intrigue and tease, but for the vast majority of writers writing today, the writing has never and will never pay the bills. It can therefore only ever be a voice in the crowd. And if we work online, our carefully crafted paragraphs will be occasionally festooned, leech like, by random adverts, and carelessly farmed by clankingly obtuse robots to appear elsewhere, torn brutally out of their natural context. So it is all the comments and the likes that remain the true yield-crop worth this hundred thousand click harvest – indications I am occasionally read by my fellow human beings. Long may I value all such contact over those artificial milestones, be they recognised by WordPress or not. But speaking personally, if the next hundred thousand clicks are as enjoyable as the last, it’ll be worth sticking around and levelling up some more.

Goodnight all.

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mariaMy father taught me how to play chess. It was one of those rites of passage things – the master teaches the pupil, and then the pupil tries to beat the master. I think I managed it once or twice by fluke, but my father was always a better player than me in the long run. Likewise, I taught my own boys to play, but chess has a lot of competition these days, all of it computer based; games of great complexity, games that require quick thinking, fast reflexes, and which are often, sadly, very violent simulations of the game-master’s vision of the “real world”.

Occasionally, my boys will try to beat me at chess, but it’s no longer a burning priority, not as much as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and of course the ever pressing demands of social media. And does it really matter anyway, that we develop our game as human players, when computers are obviously so much better at games than us?

The code used in computer chess programs is actually quite simple, rule-based, and often vanishingly small, at least by the standards of other computer games. The strength of the computer lies in its speed and its ability to evaluate combinations of moves far in advance of the human player. If we followed the same rules as the machine, the moves we’d make would be equally good ones – it’s just that it would take us years to work them out. It took a while for computers to routinely beat the best human players, but that they do so now throws up some interesting questions, not only about chess, but games in general and, on a deeper level, the existential meaning of machines themselves, and our relationships with them.

A game between human beings is a meeting of minds. You get to know a person better and more quickly if you play with them. Since computers do not “think”, or “play”, or take pleasure in anything, there is something ultimately sterile in a person playing against a computer. As for two computers playing one another that’s only of interest to a human being comparing the effectiveness of their respective artificial intelligence programs.

Artificial intelligence is the thing, and of course much in the news these days, with both Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates cautioning us against the rise of “super intelligent machines”. This is not about whether machines will ever be capable of achieving consciousness and becoming rogue monsters, like in those scary sci-fi movies, but more the extent to which the world we are building is starting to resemble a huge interconnected machine, one that does not really serve us any more, and to which the vast majority of us risk becoming subservient to a monolithic and amoral rule-based system, a computer system that controls everything, one that no one person can ever fully understand and therefore challenge.

An illustration of how close we are to sleepwalking into this dystopian vision comes from news of a company now injecting computer-chips into the hands of its employees. Known as RFID tags, about the size of a grain of rice, these things are already used to ID our pets. Chipping humans was an inevitable next step, and only a matter of time. Chipped humans can gain access through computer controlled doors, they can use secure photocopiers and log onto their PC’s, all by merely offering up their hand. It’s a voluntary system at the moment, and one I would personally decline, robustly and with expletives, but in the near future, as machines dictate ever more efficient systems, it may become a condition of employment that we subject ourselves to it, that indeed anyone aspiring to a proper living wage in a hi-tech, super-efficient, super-intelligent economy, will need to forsake first their name in exchange for a subcutaneous number known only to the machine itself. And who can argue with the convenience of such a scheme being extended to the public transport, the banking and the retail systems? No more coppering up to pay the parking meter; you simply wave your hand over it.

So why resist? Well, the objection is of course a philosophical one, that when we begin embedding bits of the machine into our bodies, it is the first step in the invasion of human physiology by the mechanisms we have invented – invented with the purpose of serving us, and on the pretext of enabling them to serve us better. But the stage after that is to implant processors and sensors, first to monitor the body’s functions, and later, to modify them. Human beings will not dictate this step; the machines will merely point out the logical necessity, and we will offer ourselves willingly. At this stage we will have become more properly biological proxies of the machines themselves; robots with an ever more alienated psyche dragged along for the ride.

Machines, not being capable of sentience, will always operate from a rule based, mechanistic set of algorithms – complex yes, but literally inhuman. To a machine there will only ever be a two way gate: yes or no. There is never, as so often in human affairs, a “definite maybe”. To the scientistic, the materialistic, and the terminally simplistic, there is nothing more annoying than a system that cannot be modelled through the logic gates of a computer program yet much of the real world defies algorithmic analysis, and computer models of it are by necessity always simplifications. While our most powerful computers do nowadays deliver more accurate forecasts of the weather, they cannot tell us how even an ant is created from nothing. We are not therefore achieving a greater understanding of life by our mimicking of it, rather we are creating autonomous entities of great power, but which serve no existential purpose, and by plugging ourselves into them, we risk negating the existential purpose of our selves.

To a machine there is no point to anything, no point to an ant or a human being, for the point of a thing is a very human thing; it is ambiguous, and highly subjective – terms which do not compute. So you turn up for work one day and you can’t even get into the building, because the machine has calculated there is no further benefit to having you on the payrole. Thus you are deleted with an amoral efficiency, and without redress, and all you have to show for twenty five years of service is that defunct chip under your skin, and which you can still feel lurking there every time you clench your fist.

I do not play chess very well, but I do enjoy playing it. I play against machines too but only for the practice, being careful not to lose sight of the fact that victory over a machine, while an indication of my own skill and mental focus is, in other terms, meaningless. People used to play chess long distance, by letter. We might nowadays do the same by email, but the temptation to cheat by responding with a computer generated move erases trust and has eliminated the pleasure of it, so we don’t do it. Do the machines then bring us closer together, or alienate us from one another? Do they enhance our abilities, or do they merely highlight our shortcomings?

What are all our great machines for? Do they serve us, or are they already well along the road to becoming a separate, entirely self-serving and eternally unconscious species, one in which the simulation has become the reality, and in which the creators find themselves trapped, unable to escape back into the real world? Think of that next time you feed your card into an ATM, and ask the question: who is serving whom?

Can computers really play chess? No; we just allow ourselves to think they do.

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