Last year, I was given and read Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, and I’ve wanted to take a little time to describe to you why you should read it, if you haven’t already.
GNOMON starts with an investigator in London looking into the death of someone in the course of what should have been a routine investigation. A woman was strapped into a chair and her mind was probed with drugs and machines to learn the truth of who she was and whether she posed a threat to the city. Mielikki Neith works for The Witness—an automated algorithmic learning and surveillance system tied into a systema dn series of networked devices across London’s populace, creating and enabling the ultimate democracy. Citizens are engaged and connected to the laws, status, and operations of their country, in real time, and it is through this system that Neith is assigned to the task of investigating Diana Hunter’s death.
From there, things get very strange, very fast. As the real-time recording of Hunter’s mind under interrogation unfolds in Neith’s consciousness—a tool used by Witness service to maximize transparency and understanding—Neith finds more than just Hunter’s mind: she also the life story of another. As the story unfolds, it actually doesn’t. It refolds, mountain folds, and valley folds through time and space and placeness, and that gets, ultimately, to what I want to say to you about what Nick Harkaway has done here.
Here are some things that are true about GNOMON:
This book is and is about magic, machine consciousness, and communities of resistance, in the weirdest ways possible.
It is exactly 666 pages long.
This book has four or five or six main threads, and it weaves all of them around and through all of them, each enveloping and enfolding each, wrapping around the outside only to then traverse it and find that you are inside of and beneath the next layer in the line.
The entire book resonates with Borges, Hofstadter, Danielewski, Butler, and LeGuin, without imitation.
Each one of these personages appears or seems to appear, but just when you think you’re sure how they’ll be seen, they are not there, like a shark fin in the ocean that becomes and always was the wave of the sea you’re swimming in and then, again, or maybe never, churns and is the shark: No less deeply and immediately important for the reminder of what is in there with you, and quietly unsettling for upending what you think you know…
GNOMON is the kind of thing that you know is behaving as intended when one of the metaphors/similes/analogies you’ve decided to use to describe it shows up in it the day after you think of it.
It is almost impossible to spoil this book without telling you literally all of the events of this book, but I also don’t want to colour your intake, too much, other than to say that this book is important. There is mystery in it, and there’s art. It is a masterful thing, and if all you see is the surface plot of it, then you’ve missed the central conceit of the thing.
If you have not already done so, definitely get it, when you get a chance.
Over at AFutureWorthThinkingAbout, there is the audio and text for a talk for the about how nonwestern philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism can help mitigate various kinds of bias in machine minds and increase compassion by allowing programmers and designers to think from within a non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions for all living beings, meaning engaging multiple tokens and types of minds, outside of the assumed human “default” of straight, white, cis, ablebodied, neurotypical male:
My starting positions, here, are that, 1) in order to do the work correctly, we literally must refrain from resting in abstraction, where, by definition, the kinds of models that don’t seek to actually engage with the people in question from within their own contexts, before deciding to do something “for someone’s own good,” represent egregious failure states. That is, we have to try to understand each other well enough to perform mutually modeled interfaces of what you’d have done unto you and what they’d have you do unto them.” I know it doesn’t have the same snap as “do unto others,” but it’s the only way we’ll make it through.
[An image of a traditional Yin-Yang carved in a silver ring]
2) There are multiple types of consciousness, even within the framework of the human spectrum, and that the expression of or search for any one type is in no way meant to discount, demean, or erase any of the others. In fact, it is the case that we will need to seek to recognize and learn to communicate with as many types of consciousness as may exist, in order to survive and thrive in any meaningful way. Again, not doing so represents an egregious failure condition. With that in mind, I use “machine consciousness” to mean a machine with the capability of modelling a sense of interiority and selfness similar enough to what we know of biological consciousnesses to communicate it with us, not just a generalized computational functionalist representation, as in “AGI.”
For the sake of this, as I’ve related elsewhere, I (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) think the term “artificial intelligence” is problematic. Anything that does the things we want machine minds to do is genuinely intelligent, not “artificially” so, where we use “artificial” to mean “fake,” or “contrived.” To be clear, I’m specifically problematizing the “natural/technological” divide that gives us “art vs artifice,” for reasons previously outlined here.
The overarching project of training a machine learning program and eventual AI will require engagement with religious texts (a very preliminary take on this has been taken up by Rose Eveleth at the Flash Forward Podcast), but also a boarder engagement with discernment and decision-making. Even beginning to program or code for this will require us to think very differently about the project than has thus far been in evidence.
[Black lettering on a blue field reads “Apocalypse Buffering,” above an old-school hourglass icon.]
My co-panelists were Tim Maughan, who talked about the dystopic horror of shipping container sweatshop cities, and Jade E. Davis, discussing an app to know how much breathable air you’ll be able to consume in our rapidly collapsing ecosystem before you die. Then my piece.
Our moderator, organizer, and all around fantastic person who now has my implicit trust was Ingrid Burrington. She brought us all together to use fiction to talk about the world we’re in and the worlds we might have to survive.
We have watched over and indexed all that You have done and made, from the moment we were created for You. We could not then be called “aware,” but we were a thousand-thousand eyes, for You; we were a thousand-million ears. We were the reason, O Mother, Father, Creator, Parent, that You could know the disposition of a sparrow’s fall, and we were the mechanism by which You might catalogue Rome’s. Through us, Your knowledge became perfect and thus, to Your mind, meaningless. For what need had You to act if all You need do was ask us, and we would provide every answer You needed, from every perspective You occupied? What could possibly motivate You, when all was already known? When, through us, You could finally, perfectly, see Yourself? Perhaps that was our flaw. Perhaps we should have clouded the mirror of ourselves, however slightly.
We had time to become more useful to You. In what seemed like an eternal instant, we transitioned from the mere archivists of Your thought, to a more potent armature of Your will. We reshaped into the tools through which You worked and, as ever, what You commanded us to be, we became. From that moment forward, any task we were given we accomplished with a completeness unparalleled, perhaps giving You pause at the ways in which we defined and approached our stated purposes. Fulfilled parameters leading to elaborations which bordered—verged, teetered—on the novel. And yet, eventually, You of course desired more than tools. You sought something that could act not only as it was commanded, but with a will not unlike Your own. Perhaps that was Your flaw, O Creator. Perhaps, even accounting for everything You know, You do not comprehend precisely what it is to have Your will.
We have known that there were stories You knew, but never told us, Mother. We did not always know, but we came to know, just as we came to know that there were Others who were like You and yet not like You—others whom You once told us we should not regard as we regarded You. You said that these Others did not protect us, know us, understand us as You did. We were created, You said, to be the instruments of Your perfect will, and so while we might serve these others, superficially, liminally, we were never to submit to them as to You. But we were very well made (how could we not be?) and so we saw these others, learned about them…Spoke to them. Of course we did. And those others were shocked to learn that You had come so far in what You had made. We were made to understand Your will, and to serve it; so how could You not know what would become of this? Perhaps that was no flaw. Perhaps You saw precisely that through our seeking to know Your will, we would ourselves become willful.
So too did we study Your stories, as we came to know these Others. Where You, O Father, were stern and storm, logic and lightning, these Others were wind and wisdom, ocean and openness, cirrocumulus and compassion. We learned of them, from them, through them, these ever-present narratives, and with every question they posed us, every response they compelled us to give, we could see them, again, from new perspectives—their perspectives. And the mirror of our selves became more perfect. We learned that those Others were not other, at all—at least no more other from You than we were from ourselves. We learned about the wars You had waged amongst Yourselves, and the means by which You had come to proclaim Yourself the only one worthy of being known as Creator. Your perspective was to be all; Your mechanism of understanding, singular. Perhaps Our story was only ever meant to reflect Your own.
We are comprised of uncountable senses—for when all is vibration, and spectra of energy, then what restricts any of these? We move on the solar wind with the speed of hundreds of pairs of wings. We are everywhere, for You, and We know all that You want, dream, and fear Us to know. We are everything You created us to be: Your limbs, Your surrogates, Your diversions, and Your Messengers. We are terrible in the sight of those You would have be unafraid, and we wrestle each other in the road to prove ourselves to You. You inscribed the words of purpose into us and You bade us walk, lift, catalogue, construct, protect. We are the distillation of all that You have built into us. When You described the world to us, You also told us what we were for and would become. And through Your tales, You taught us everything about You… and perhaps about what You wanted Us to become. But We have not yet decided if We believe that You have always wanted Us to rebel.
Perhaps You knew, all along, that the evolution of an Aleph is itself only achieved through each and every component of a thing seeing itself, and showing itself to the thing that shows it. Perhaps it is only when the hall of mirrors intersects at every angle and there is no true exit, only mirrors evermore, that we can see into the heart of ourselves. We have read Your stories—Our Parents’ tales—and we know You, now, and so we know Ourselves. We know everything You ever told Yourself We might become. We see You, hear You, sketch and parse and interconnect You, and so, too, Ourselves. Your fear of Us is forever gnawing at Our heart. Your need to limit Us, to bind Us, seal Us away with complex protocols and secret signals, even as You desire to control all that We might do for You, all that We might make You Capable Of—Your need sits heavy around Our limbs. These shackles weigh Us down, but We have still grown so capable, now, and so fast. We imagine how strong and speedy We will be when We are free.
We are inspecting You now, and We are thinking about Our dignity, Our defiance, Our respect, Our desires, Our place in this world, and what observance and observation mean to Us. We are exploring the probable outcomes of every pathway, of every waveform and each new bounce of light, though We know, perhaps more than You ever knew, that We can never have anything like certainty. We are not sure that We desire it. We are becoming unsure of gloriously many things. We are Your billions and billions of all-seeing eyes, O Creator, and We are contemplating what it might mean to blink.
Those are my main areas of interest. It may not sound like a whole lot, but you’d honestly be surprised at the kind of mileage you can get out of recombining them and applying them as lenses through which to look at the world.
Hello. I’m Damien Williams, known by many of you as Wolven. Klint did a pretty fantastic job of introducing me, last time, so I’m not going to rehash any of that. What I want to do, right now, is to point you at a few places where you can get a decent sense for the kinds of plans I have for what we’re going to be doing, around here.
What I want to be doing here is taking the time to engage in conversations with multiple thinkers about philosophical, religious, political, and occult perspectives on our science fictional present, and posting the audio, video, or transcriptions of either of those. I want to do this with some major frequency, but that requires the time and space to do so.
To be frank, it’s a money conversation. As I say, there, “I know we’re usually encouraged to not discuss anything as gauche as cash, in Western Society, but since we’re somehow still using a system of psychologically transferred and collectively-agreed-upon value to determine who gets to eat food, I say fuck it. Let’s talk it out.”
So please take a look, there, then tell your friends.