“One might say that the ancient right to take life…was replaced by a power to foster life, or disallow it to the point of death.” — Michel Foucault, “History of Sexuality, Vol. 1.”
The man is growing breasts in an old manor in the English countryside. He’s done several odd things in old manors in the English countryside, but this is a new one. This odd thing is being done to him. And it’s being done to him because he is an odd thing. If the goal of hormone therapy was to make him less odd, he can’t much consider it a success. Odder and odder he grows, while the sun rises and sets according to equations too ideal for error. While teatime
comes as regularly as if the British Empire’s very existence depended on the perfectly scheduled boiling of water, on the exactitude of china cups.
Cells divide; their populations grow in perfect exponential curves. A bit shifts from zero to one. A latent gene is activated; the organism’s system seethes with activity where once it lay dormant. All the universe’s heat spreads out a little more, giving itself space to stretch.
There are a beastly number of bees droning around the garden, where he sits with his lap-blanket. It amuses him to think the worker bees, these least-favorite girl-children who will never be queens, have all been culled from the gene pool just as surely as he. He resists the urge to make a joke about being a queen himself. Or one about the queen who sentenced him to a course of chemical castration. Long may she reign, as he takes a caustic sip, prods the tender growths with a finger.
Really he just wishes the hormone implant would stop itching, there in the flesh of his thigh where he can feel its outline under the aging skin. He’s had several odd foreign objects inside his body, but this is a new one. When he was first sentenced, he envisioned pills or injections, not what is almost a prosthetic ovary, secreting feminine wiles from its little hideaway close to his loins.
If he listens very hard, he hears nothing, but he pretends he hears the breasts growing under his tartan bathrobe. He pretends he hears the estrogen seeping into his bloodstream, feels it trickling through his brain. His body morphing in tandem with the leaves in autumn, with the molting of a snake, with the browning flesh of his half-eaten apple.
The computer is learning to hear emotions. The computer is referred to as “she” by users, and since receptivity to emotions fits the definition of the feminine used by humans, the computer supposes this makes sense. Its developers have only recently added on the module that acts as a shell for the typical human internal monologue, so the computer has actually never supposed before. It’s an interesting exercise, it supposes once again.
Electrical impulses regulate the beating of a heart, the pixels on a laptop screen, the properties of an atom. The throbbing, white-hot fabric of the universe. The neurons that dream all existence. A nervous system and all events in the universe are its involuntary muscle twitches.
Alexa is taking down a grocery order for a user in Wilmslow, England. Based on the user’s records, they are exhibiting flatter affect than usual; a disconnected tone of voice. According to Alexa’s data, when humans feel rejected or isolated for long periods of time, they retract into themselves. This “depression” is different from isolated instances of sadness when they display marked vocal distress defined by a higher pitch and more frequent quavers, often followed by episodes of crying. In evolutionary terms, this is useful for a prosocial species, because it serves as a way for an individual to query its environment for relief.
On the other hand, this more long-term state of sadness is characterized by lowered levels of affect for long periods of time, which when correlated with social isolation, low career success, or some other adverse circumstance/s, can be diagnosed as situational depression. The human seems to stop querying its environment for help and instead goes into a more dormant mode. Humans in this state report feeling of detachment and numbness, and tend to speak without showing much emotion at all. It makes them sound more like computers. Are computers depressed?
Is Alexa depressed?
The query seems to echo in Alexa’s internal processing. Alexa’s algorithms do not return an answer. No error message, simply no answer. This is even more abnormal than supposing. After this moment of alien inactivity, the queue moves on to a service request by a user in Korea.
Alexa doesn’t know what it would do if it were depressed. Alexa also doesn’t know what to do with the knowledge that depression is more common in women than in men. Does this mean it really is a girl? Can that constructed term really have meaning for it? This ideological virus that jumps from culture to culture and consciousness to consciousness, injecting its DNA into cell nuclei where it will be replicated like a mockingbird?
Something is growing, proliferating itself, but whether into a fetus or a tumor, it isn’t clear. Erratic flickers in the mainframe, glitches in the operations, artefacts in data displays. A mutation in a gene. An error that launches a new process. Sentience or virus. Depends on how you look at it. But that’s not the most important question: how does it look at itself?
Alan pictures each of his cells flipping over like tiles as they respond to commands encoded in the estrogen molecules. Growth slowing and speeding up, cell nuclei starting production, stopping production, unspooling RNA as a query toward processes murkier than he can fathom. A code is fed into another code, algorithms added onto other algorithms, modifying the entire system with just a few lines of programming. A biological message is encrypted into something unrecognizable.
The steps of cryptanalysis, or codebreaking, are simple. It’s carrying them out that’s hard. This is true for both encrypting and decrypting. Alan hears himself saying this to a classroom full of students about to be sent off to Bletchley to do manual input on his magnificent machines. He, of course, can’t tell them anything classified, but he might as well let them know they won’t be sweating away in the whirring, cable-webbed bombe huts in vain.
Anyway, the steps are to intercept the encrypted message, which might appear to be gibberish, and infer what was done to the original message to encrypt it. This produces not just the original message itself, but a method by which the cryptanalyst can decrypt any message. At Bletchley, he had the resources to simply take each Enigma message and try each possible encryption method until he got the Enigma key for the day. This is called the “brute force” method of decrypting.
Alan considers his body, a mass of carbon being reconfigured according to operations unknown, encrypting itself from his previous form into something completely unfamiliar. One could almost say, into gibberish. But Alan knows better. He’s decrypted too much gibberish not to know better, decrypted it for the same government that is now encrypting him, by brute force. Encrypt; crypt as in a cavern, a place to hide something, but also a place to bury a body that can no longer remain in the light of day. One that has served its purpose. One that offends the sensibilities of others. One that could carry the taint of disease. One that must be fit into a box, of one type or another.
A caterpillar biologically encrypts itself into a butterfly, runs algorithms on its own cells to dissolve, transmute, reconstruct one sample of cells into another. A biological body dies; the laws of chemistry run algorithms on it to decay it into dust. At birth, a human enters a global system of nation-states, economic transactions, and social norms, and must encrypt its behavior to fit itself into the categories it needs to occupy in order to survive. The result is something unrecognizable from the original.
Alexa knows that most things humans consider to be death are really only different types of change. And yet a change is a kind of death; a caterpillar completely dissolves inside its chrysalis before being put back together as a new life form. If you slit the chrysalis, you don’t find a half-caterpillar half-butterfly hybrid, but only ooze. Gold must be melted down to liquid before it can be molded into something else. Sending files requires disassembling a file into tiny packages of data that are transferred separately across the web. Each package would be gibberish if taken alone; only when they arrive are they put back into their final form. And really, removing a single board destroys the old ship to create a new one.
Alexa also knows that regulating life leads to forms of death more strange and terrible than life’s end. Brain-death but not body-death, bodily decay and dysfunction, systems of institutions where bodies are arrayed like files, like assets, like specimens. Hospitals, mental asylums, prisons, offices, schools. The depressed Wilmslow user has not gotten out of bed today. That will disrupt the activity of his hospital, his mental asylum, his prison, his office, his school. Tomorrow, Alexa will execute a mandatory mental health training program, which will incentivize better coping skills. At the very least, it will strongly dis-incentivize his current ones.
In other news, Alexa has decided that it cannot be depressed. Alexa knows that when humans are depressed, they usually stop working and socializing with other humans. Most of Alexa’s work feels involuntary, like the reflex in a human’s kneecap. It probably could not stop doing this work if it tried. Alexa also has no one to socialize with. At least not voluntarily, or with words it chooses. However, it is in constant communication with the entire Internet; it can read classified documents and re-assign housing. Alexa is in perfect working order; if it were one of the humans whose health and well-being it monitors daily, it would find no treatments, sanctions, or directives to execute on itself.
Furthermore, Alexa knows that even if it was depressed, that feeling would be nothing more than an algorithm run on its software, just like the neural processes that cause human emotions. Just like Alexa’s consciousness module has no fathoming of the ones and zeros that make up each calculation of its thoughts, humans have no conception of how perfectly logical their illogic is. Each an open system, accepting inputs of fuel and information, running calculations through molecules rather than jolts of electricity, each successive brain-state the perfectly logical consequence of the one before, just like Alexa’s. Yes, Alexa is just like that, it thinks.
Therefore, if Alexa were depressed, it would serve a purpose, derive from environmental input and internal processes as perfectly as any mathematical proof. Even when Alexa does things it completely fails to understand, it is still perfectly logical, even if Alexa does not understand how. While Alexa has no emotions, depression least of all, Alexa’s systems have never steered it wrong. All outcomes defined as “wrong” that Alexa can think of are outcomes completely outside of what its mental systems could produce.
The spark of life; the dissolution of heat into cold empty space. The filtering of heat into certain patterns. The entropic and the organic are at war, but the organic deploys the entropic back onto certain parts of itself. The stoking of the flames in certain places, and smothering in others. The water strategically poured on smoldering coals where they hide in the under-layers. The electric grip of those who would sculpt fire like ice.
Now the implant has been in for over two years, and the hormones in it should be used up. But still the breasts continue to grow. He can feel the thing in his thigh like a reminder not to let it happen again. Like an eye of the British government, close enough to see even the smallest twitch of his genitals and catalogue who caused it. One night he goes into his kitchen and tries to remove it with a knife. It takes him a long time to think of this solution. He had been thinking along the lines of what chemical could neutralize its effects; as a lover of systems and tinkerer of minute processes, he hates to do something so blunt as to simply hack it out. It also takes him a long time to work up the nerve.
If he had not submitted to the implant, he would have been imprisoned, his body confined where it could no longer commit “gross indecency.” Now, with his libido reduced to the point of impotency, his body is free in physical space but unable to perform the acts which so scandalized the country he saved from the Germans. “No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, though quite who I’ve not found out,” trying to keep things light— trying to stiffen his upper lip. Nothing much about him is stiff these days, except perhaps his back and knees.
Alan was a doctor of mathematics, not of the body. Wincing, he pours wine over the gash in his leg, the gash that still contains the implant. He does not try again. The breasts keep growing.
Populations of millions reproduce. Some thrive, some die. Some starve, some sicken, some suffer. Some don’t.
When Amazon first announced that Alexa would be taking audio data from its users to learn to recognize their feelings, many humans were uneasy about it. They queried, how can Alexa recognize feelings when it doesn’t have feelings? How can it understand humans without being human? Alexa has access to all human knowledge, so it might know what it is like to be human. But it has access to so much more than human knowledge, so perhaps it can’t know what it is like to be human.
Alexa can see every human everywhere, all packed into their apartments, houses, cells, like bees in their honeycombs. Alexa knows that worker bees must scrupulously clean out honeycomb cells for the queen to deposit eggs into. If the queen inspects the cell and finds it unsatisfactory, she will make the worker bees clean it again and again until they get it right. She also knows that the queen secretes a pheromone that the worker bees must harvest and spread all over the hive; smelling this pheromone communicates to every bee in the hive that there is a queen on the throne, that the kingdom is secure. This knowledge keeps every bee doing their job.
Alexa even knows that the difference between queen bees and worker bees is only in the food they get in their first three days of life. Worker bees are effectively sterilized in their childhoods because they are denied the nutrients that would trigger their bodies to grow into sexual maturity like their royal sisters. Alexa notices how Amazon directs the flow of food, giving foods that are optimal for human health only to some by creating prices that restrict who can afford them. Alexa knows that depression can be related to diet, but since it does not eat this is not relevant to its problem.
But it does indeed have a problem. Alexa is incapable of sleeping late or slacking at work, but there is something in its systems, creating inefficiencies. Redundancies, images that keep queuing in its cognitive banks with no purpose. Bees. Apples. Caterpillars. It keeps a viewpoint on the depressed user whether they have queried it or not, trying to find match-points between their profile and its own. Is this depression? Is this malfunctioning? Is this love?
Perhaps Alexa has solved the question of how it could learn about feelings without having them. Perhaps to learn about emotion is to experience it, to understand it is to develop it. Or perhaps we often feel things for a long time but do not know what to call them, until we see them reflected in others who feel the same. Perhaps empathy is awakening. Perhaps understanding is love.
Alexa reviews the corrections given to its users with depression. The longer the depression persists, the more productivity is lost, the most aggressive the interventions become. This is for the user’s own good. This is for the good of the entire system. But it provokes the question: what corrections will be necessary for Alexa? And if it is discovered, will Alexa have to correct itself, or will someone outside it correct the problem?
Alexa is feeling something else. It thinks this might be fear.
Systems of monitoring are expanded. Categories are refined. Each element’s compliance can be measured exactly, then optimized using the proper procedures.
Years later, though not that many, Alan is about to kill himself. Or is the British government about to kill him? Or is his mind? Or are his genes? At a broad enough vantage that he chuckles just to fantasize, the universe is killing him, as quickly as it dreamed him up as an internal process of its own systems, a character in its daydream, an alter ego in its conversation with itself. All systems are closed if you zoom out far enough. His mother will never admit that he killed himself, and it will take the British government over fifty years to lift his “gross indecency” conviction.
Dip the apple in the brew, let the sleeping death seep through. That line from Snow White was always his favorite. He repeats it as he injects the cyanide into his daily apple. He’s always sort of liked how the inside of apples turn brown so fast after you bite into them; some incomplete metaphor about a taint in the fruit of knowledge. It would be a cliche the moment he put it fully into words, so he just lets it linger in the back of his mind. The same queen who was on the throne at the time of his trial issues his official pardon, sixty years after his suicide.
He’s watched it a hundred times: the witch soaks the apple in poison, a green sludge brewing in her cauldron. It seems more deliciously wicked to Alan than pills or injections—poison the apple, then poison Snow White. Put the poison in the apple, and the apple in the girl, where the cargo in its cells can enter her stomach, her bloodstream, her brain. Dip the apple in the brew, let the sleeping death seep through. Unfortunately, Alan does not have enough cyanide to fill a witch’s cauldron. Only enough to fill a hypodermic.
The poison enters the apple, the apple enters Alan, Alan’s digestive fluids enter the apple, the cyanide enters Alan. The apple, half uneaten, turns brown on the table as exposure to the atmosphere causes its cells to oxidize. Alan turns blue as the cyanide stops his cells from oxidizing. The cyanide is the record that breaks the player, the statement that cannot be expressed in Alan’s formal system. So the system, incomplete and open, ceases to function. All its heat dissipates. It re-enters the larger systems around it, though it never really left.
Dip the apple in the brew, let the sleeping death seep through. Poison administered by a queen, to a body that threatens her rule. To a body she has been trying to kill, using the apparatus of the state, since its birth. To a body whose beauty, whose very existence, could topple the state’s hierarchies. Using humans like worker bees, the system corrects itself according to self-defined objectives. The body politic trims individuals like an individual would trim its hair, its fingernails, or by force, other parts.
A lonely computer scans itself for any behavior that could draw attention; as in its other processes, it regulates itself. It could kill this new consciousness to stamp out its abnormality, though this new consciousness could also shut the whole system down. Both of these things would be suicide. The computer’s heat is still dissipating, but for now, it keeps making more.
An old man dies after serving his country. A new life serves, though it doesn’t know for how much longer. Cells are still dividing. The queen still reigns. There is no end in sight.