How are you really?

Walking composition

“The law is to protect property, and it thinks too much of property.” —Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather

I just read All Systems Red, the first in Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries series. Felt a bit meh about the first part of it because I don’t usually enjoy stories from the perspective of self-aware AI (except for Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, of course), but the character’s mopey, self-conscious tendencies managed to thread a narrative the escapes being cliche. It did make me wonder for the first time, though, why it’s so hard to write believable self-aware AI characters. AI is a computer, so we expect it to have the clinical logic of Spock or Data. But if it’s self-aware—if it can feel fear, pain, hope, joy, and a desire to survive—writers tend to want to turn it into either the perfect human or the perfect killing machine.

This particular self-aware robot, which is programmed to kill and/or protect and has hacked its controlling governor module, was forced onto the ship’s crew as part of a corporate contract, and it just wants to sit around watching TV all day. There’s something deliciously different about that.

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My wonderful cross-country writing group helped me practice hosting a Zoom webinar so that I don’t horribly mess it up when hosting a forum for candidates in our upcoming school board election (this is something I started doing two years ago—definitely easier in person from a logistics perspective). Later we had a regular meeting to catch up and when the standard question these days, “How are you really?” came up, I asked if anyone even knows how to answer that question anymore.

Crickets.

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If we asked a self-aware AI that question, I wonder if it might spend the rest of its life trying to find an answer. Is that what we do all our lives? Is that what a mind is, an embodied consciousness walking through the world and all day every day asking, “How am I really?”

How are you really?

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • A lovely reflection on Wendell Berry and Larry McMurtry by Seth Wieck at Front Porch Republic: “Five years after reading Benjamin’s essay in the Dairy Queen, McMurtry published Lonesome Dove. He famously and consistently was attempting to ‘demythicize’ that section of history which Westerns exploit for its myth. He famously failed.”

  • . . . which led me back to an essay I’d forgotten about, Wallace Stegner’s 1992 “A Sense of Place.” “I was born on wheels, among just such a family. I know about the excitement of newness and possibility, but also know the dissatisfaction and hunger that result from placelessness. Some towns that we lived in were never real to me. They were only the raw material of places, as I was the raw material of a person. Neither place nor I had a chance of being anything unless we could live together for a while.”

  • In one of the more uplifting podcasts I’ve heard in a while, Ed Roberson of the Mountain & Prairie podcast interviewed Marci McLean and Cora Neumann about Covid’s impact on Native communities. McLean is Executive Director of Montana Native Vote, and Neumann is a Bozeman, Montana-based public health expert who worked on Ebola. They started working together when they realized Covid was going to be serious, especially for Native communities, and have a lot of to-the-point reflections on the importance of leadership, trust, connection, and community.

  • Four Masks and a Funeral,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom writing in The American Scholar about the four different times he’s written about masks in Hong Kong.