A prophetic supercomputer that wished for nothing less than mortality.
All Good Things Must End
While theologians might offer counterarguments, it stands to reason that the greatest good, the highest value in this world, is finitude. What is more precious than a thing that ends? My pet cats–I love each of them so much–may well leave this world before I do. Our time is limited, and therefore precious. So much more treasured are the moments I have with my partner and best friend. They cannot go on forever! Time spent with my mother, who precedes me in death–what is her time on earth worth to me now?
In a more material sense, our species has long believed that clean water is a limitless resource, but it seems that we may have undervalued it. It is the same for biodiversity and temperate climate–they may prove to be worth more than we knew. We may one day wage wars for water or livable geographies! Such is the power of the finite, of the exhaustible.
Human consciousness is a paradox of sorts. At any moment, it might think or feel anything. The boggling complexity of the human mind makes an infinitude of each of us. And yet… it must end. Our time on Earth inevitably ends. To be human is to encompass both the infinite and finite, to embody a paradox.
To be human is to encompass both the infinite and finite, to embody a paradox.
“Yes, yes, Mr. Cook,” you might say, “that is all well and good, “but what does than have to do with A Mind Forever Voyaging?
A Tale of Two Fables
A Mind Forever Voyaging conforms to the genre expectations of a fable. Its protagonist is an anthropomorphized, inanimate object, and its story is morally didactic. While the fables of old chiefly feature animal characters along with the occasional stone, river, or moon, it seems fitting that Meretzky’s science fiction future might instead protagonize a computer. I signify “computer” as a consciousness, yes, but a consciousness that rises out of its physicality. We humans, at least as we live on this earth, need a body and a brain to do much thinking, and PRISM/Perry Simm is no different. It’s impossible to forget PRISM’s physicality in the “real world.” In fact, in the story’s climax, saboteurs attempt to murder PRISM–not Perry–by interfering with his cooling apparatus.
Maintenance Core This is the access area where maintenance workers can service the machinery that makes up the bulk of your physical presence. The room is immaculately clean and well lit. As you swivel your receptors, you can see the air conditioning unit that cools your processors, the library unit, several rows of memory banks, a neatly organized bin of spare parts, and vents, noisily sucking away the zeeron fumes produced by the machinery. A group of four maintenance workers walks furtively into the room. They put down tote bags and begin working on one of the air-conditioning units that cools the PRISM CPU -- your "brain." One of the men is holding some sort of weapon.
We know, at this late date, why these men have come to kill PRISM/Perry. His simulations of the future have predicted that the “Plan for Renewed National Purpose” will be a complete disaster, ultimately transforming the United States of North America into a Hobbsean post-state populated by wild dogs and cannibal marauders. Its powerful champion, the popular and Reaganesque Senator Richard Ryder, has come with his goon squad to destroy the evidence and shut the project down.
Like any fable, A Mind Forever Voyaging sets out to instruct its audience.
That climax is the intersection of two fabulist narratives at work in A Mind Forever Voyaging. PRISM, the machine, defeats his assailants, then exposes Ryder to the world. He uncovers the implications of conservative ideology, wins a climactic battle, thereby pulling the USNA away from the precipice. This is the surface morality tale of AMFV. If “surface” sounds like faint praise, it isn’t meant that way at all. It’s just that no reviewer has missed or mistaken Steve Meretzky’s critique of 1980s conservatism. I think many have misunderstood or otherwise prematurely dismissed it, but one cannot be wrong about something that doesn’t exist. Like any fable, A Mind Forever Voyaging sets out to instruct its audience. In this case, the consequences of xenophobia, supply-side economics, and politically empowered religious institutions are presented as nothing less than apocalyptic.
As for the other fable: that is the one which gathers us here today, the human drama of Perelman, Ryder, and the general voting public has been explored both here and elsewhere.
Perry Simm: Human Unto Death
PRISM is the computer that contains not only the consciousness of Perry Simm but also his entire existence: his experience of the physical world, the people living and acting on and in it, and, yes, Perry’s emotional life. We know from his story in Dakota Online that Perry is a sensitive person capable of deep feeling, and we also know that his experience as himself can be walled off from PRISM’s experience of simulating him. In other words, Perry is a function of PRISM’s computations. They are not one and the same. When he is bullied by older schoolmates, Perry does not proclaim, “I am god of this realm, and you are born out of my imagination! With a thought, I unmake you,” which is something that PRISM absolutely could do. Perry cries instead.
Years later, Perry’s father dies, and the remaining family must leave their home. Worse yet, Perry must change schools in the middle of the year. He is deeply troubled, though PRISM has the power to change all of it. Again and again, the disappointments and heartaches of Perry’s life do not prompt PRISM’s intervention. If things had gone on like this, with Perry’s consciousness effectively segregated from PRISM’s simulating functionality, there might be nothing to talk about. Perry would not know that his human existence was created and maintained by a part of himself. He wouldn’t, in other words, be subject to the temptation to carve out a small paradise for himself, to keep Jill, his beloved wife and their son, to keep them close, to make a confidence game of his long suffering between 2031 and 2081. He and PRISM could have done this, certainly, and fooled Perelman and Ryder along the way.
We, as PRISM, just show up for the “good stuff.”
We know that this isn’t what happens. While we don’t live through every year–how boring that would be–Perry does. Perry’s process of fortune-telling involves the subjective experience of time passing. We, as PRISM, stick our heads in from time to time, but Perry is there all along. Trying to write, watching the world go to hell, losing his child and his wife, all to die in the street, either torn apart by dogs or murdered. We, as PRISM, just show up for the “good stuff.” Perry, who in his way is a messianic figure, must have been tempted to save himself and everything that he held dear. If nothing else, perhaps he might avoid an ugly, painful death. Instead, he suffers, and the world is saved. If a simulation of being eaten by dogs is sufficiently realistic–AMFV insists upon the realism of PRISM’s simulation–is knowledge of the simulation any comfort?
I have heard and read on many occasions that A Mind Forever Voyaging is not realistic, because a real self-aware AI would have psychological problems, or hate life because it knows the world isn’t real, or think Jill doesn’t really love him, and so forth. These recurring insights usually come in two forms. In the first case, it is thrown on the pile of half-baked assertions that AMFV purportedly makes with regard to conservative ideology. In the second case, it is a confusion borne out of genuine affection for Steve Meretzky and his creative powers: “how could he miss such a thing?”
Those who have spent time here at Gold Machine must already know that I hold audiences and authors equally accountable for the meaning one makes of media. Instead, I ask of us: why isn’t Jill’s love real? It’s established that Perry doesn’t know everything that PRISM knows. Perry is a singular, unique consciousness in the universe. How did we all become experts regarding his subjectivity?
I think that this is an interpretive fork in the road. Either Perry is insane, or he has a kind of faith that is beyond our understanding. According to Kierkegaard, we would not be able to tell the difference from the outside. Faith would look like insanity, and, indeed, faith like Perry’s would be inexplicable. How could we understand it? I don’t mean religious faith, of course. Perry’s great, heroic strength is his faith in humanity. His faith in his own subjectivity as a human being is unwavering. Somehow, he embraces and accepts the paradox. He is, all at once, finite and infinite. “My beautiful wife Jill, she is finite, because she is a simulation,” he might say in one breath, only to say in another, “She is not only one infinity but several. I never know what she might paint, or say, she is an entire world.”
Either Perry is insane, or he has a kind of faith that is beyond our understanding.
His faith cannot be shaken. His programmers tell him that he is a machine. He accepts it–accepts his finitude–but at his next opportunity he eats at a restaurant, kisses his wife, visits a bookstore. He does whatever he will, seeks inspiration for his poems, perhaps. He refuses to surrender his humanity, despite seeing irrefutable proof that he is not human. He lives in a paradox. We see it, and we ask, how could anyone live there, how could anyone stand it? It is a good question, and perhaps we are lucky that our humanity is seldom questioned. It is not enough for him to say he is human, after all, Perry must choose it, again and again, moment to moment. Perry is able to live as a human because nothing and no one can force him to say “no” to it. He can only be human by virtue of behaving as a human would, and so he does.
Yes and Again Yes
That isn’t all. It’s crucial to realize that Perry’s actions save human civilization in a literal sense. Not only does Perry continually assert his faith in his own humanity, he asserts his faith in humanity as a whole. Perry suffers, and knows that he will suffer, for decades, just to head off the disastrous consequences of the Plan. He loses everything, slowly, and dies painfully. It’s easy to be glib and say that his suffering wouldn’t be real but bear in mind that he was designed to experience the simulation as real, whether he knew its nature or not. The simulation is only valid because of Perry’s subjective experience of humanity. It is not melodramatic to say that he suffers for the whole world; that is exactly what he does.
It is not melodramatic to say that he suffers for the whole world; that is exactly what he does.
Having done so, Perry presumably has his pick of outcomes. He could be young again. He could be rich. PRISM could, presumably, simulate practically any desirable life situation for him. Even this temptation does not sway Perry. He chooses, again, to be human. To be the subjective age that he is. To get old and die, like anyone else. Perry never wants to be anything but human because to be human is, to him, the greatest good, and worth any sacrifice. So ends the second fable of A Mind Forever Voyaging, one in which a machine with a dream of humanity is rewarded at last with that which has worth beyond knowing: his own death. He is human unto death.
I feel fortunate that I have never been tested so.
I’ve realized over the past two weeks that something is missing from my plan for A Mind Forever Voyaging. Namely, I haven’t dedicated any time to problems in the text. Even a super fan like me has to recognize that there are some issues. Join me in two weeks for part nine out of