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Signs of the Times

By Alan Wall.

We couldn’t have had the Renaissance nowadays. Too many books involved. A fire hazard. Health and Safety would not have stood for it. If it’s not online, it can’t be relevant anyway. The accessibility of knowledge is the proof of its utility. If it’s not mainline, then it’s sideline. And if it’s a sideline, then it isn’t used frequently enough to warrant too much attention. So why, my antiquated brother, are you banging on about it? Can you not see the way the world is going? Can you not read the signs of the times?

Thomas Carlyle at Chelsea

Carlyle wrote his essay ‘Signs of the Times’ in 1829. It was only four years before, in 1625, that Stephenson’s Locomotion had rattled along at fifteen miles an hour, demonstrating to the world the speeding-up it was soon to be in for. The Rocket performed the Rainhill Trials in 1829 itself, a few months after Carlyle’s publication, so now people could see for themselves how they were about to be transported hither and thus, at greater and greater speeds as the century progressed. You could see the sign of the times, all right. And its name was mechanization. Everything was being mechanized and accelerated. Carlyle looked around him and said: we are now in a mechanized world; we do nothing at firsthand any more. Machines interpose themselves everywhere between ourselves and nature. Even the word, that primordial utterance, is now brought to us by steam presses. We have become the mechanical simulacrum of ourselves.

Even the word, that primordial utterance, is now brought to us by steam presses. We have become the mechanical simulacrum of ourselves.

How precisely the word, our own utterance, comes back to haunt us, has always made us nervous. The Academy, back in the days of Plato, was twitchy about books and codices. Use your memory. That’s the pure way to learn, boys. Books are a bit of a cop-out. When you won’t wrap the cold towel round your head and really concentrate, memorising as you go, that’s when you write it down so that you will always have a crib to hand. Memory was already devising prosthetic devices for itself. The signs of the times that so troubled Carlyle were becoming visible and noisy. The ones confronting us these days are largely invisible and silent.

Signs of the times are, in any case, not signs through the times. Managing to delineate the signs does not mean you fully understand them, or where those signs might be pointing us all to next.

AI. The two letters doomed to spell out our forthcoming years. We have been teaching machines to mimic our intelligence procedures for a century now. They’re getting alarmingly good at it. Sometimes they turn around and tell us, very calmly, that we are wrong. At that point we start to panic. Have we given Artificial Intelligence too much intelligence, we say; is it about to take over where our own drooping efforts leave off? What if its intelligence is about to overtake ours and somehow outdo us in the intelligent domain? What if the whole structure of intelligence, largely performed for us at secondhand in any case, is about to down tools and declare: you half-witted humans have been doing this all wrong. It might be best if we take over from now on, and sort things out for you. AI is the new Genesis. We are starting over, you see; let’s see if we can get it right this time around. It looked as though you were all about to blow yourselves up in any case.

The signs of the times that so troubled Carlyle were becoming visible and noisy. The ones confronting us these days are largely invisible and silent.

Our distrust of writing goes back to Socrates — and Jesus, too. The latter never wrote anything except for his writing in the sand when confronted by the denouncers of the woman taken in adultery. There is an Eastern tradition that says that what Jesus wrote there were the names and sins of those doing the denouncing, one of which was the carnal delights one denouncer was enjoying with the son of one of the rabbis. We can’t be sure because Jesus kicked over the sand once he had written in it, and the text makes it clear that the denouncers walked away one by one — the only time they do that — which would explain why. Socrates is more programmatic about it. Writing it down is a way of not trying hard enough to remember. It’s the way we write down music rather than memorising it. It’s a cop-out.

Carlyle says we are now enmeshed in the mechanism of modernity, the way Charlie Chaplin is enmeshed in the machinery of modern times in the movie of that name, to be made fifty-five years after Carlyle’s death. We see it all around us. The signs of the times are overt and visible. What is curious about our contemporary condition is that our signs are invisible. AI disappears itself. It camouflages itself in the quotidian. It is the voice that just signed itself off on the phone. It is the sentence that just flickered across our screen. If we are not careful, it is the actor who just impersonated himself as he walked across the classic film that has been re-digitised. It might even have scanned us and prescribed a treatment for us. It might even have told us how much it loved us… It is the algorithm that is the other half of our heartbeat.

We have been teaching machines to impersonate us, and they are beginning to get us all bang to rights.

I received an Amazon message recently. It was well-enough written. It informed me that Amazon had been keeping an eye on me lately, observing my needs and desires. Eyeing me up. And it had come to a conclusion. It had decided that the book for me, the one that surely fitted the profile of the fellow I undoubtedly was, this book was called The School of Night. Now, we should give Amazon credit where it is due, for it had got me bang to rights. The School of Night is the book for me, they’re right about that: I wrote it. In a sense, it seems to me, we have the essence of AI here. We have been teaching machines to impersonate us, and they are beginning to get us all bang to rights. If they get close enough, the two of us, ourselves and the machine that is, will become indistinguishable.

Way back when, in the early days of the Beatles, Ringo Starr went to take a leak with an unknown fellow called Jeffrey Archer. This fellow already had the gift of making a bit of a noise about himself. Ringo was asked later what he thought of him. He pondered for a moment, and said, ‘He’s the sort of bloke who’d go to the bog with you, steal your piss, bottle it, come back, and sell it to you.’

This piece of proleptic brilliance on Ringo’s part might show us what we are in for. We’ll distill the very essence of ourselves, bottle it like holy water, sell it like a precious commodity, only to discover afterwards we were taking the piss out of ourselves all along.

Soon after we started making our primitive tools, we began making images of ourselves. Why? Perhaps we were trying to fathom who we were (a process that has never ceased since). We couldn’t look in the mirror, because there weren’t any mirrors to look into. It is often overlooked in talk about mirror-phases etc., how late an arrival in our civilisation the reliable mirror is. Only the last six hundred years or so. Before that surfaces that could produce faithful mirroring effects were greatly valued.

Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror.

The Aztecs revered polished obsidian for its highly reflective qualities. So much so that their supreme deity Tezcatlipoca had an obsidian mirror on his chest, and his name actually means smoke and mirror. This mirror did not merely reflect back an image of yourself: it travelled to the world of gods and ancestors. John Dee possessed such a mirror and employed it to make contact with the spirits on the other side, until his scryer, Edward Kelley, begged him to stop, insisting that the spirits making contact were not, as good Dr Dee supposed, angels but demons. Smoke and mirrors, indeed.

Guy Debord went so far as to say that where nineteenth-century capitalism generated commodities, twentieth-century  capitalism generated images.

It is generally accepted now, after Derrida and Deleuze, that we live in the age of simulacra. We are surrounded by images. Guy Debord went so far as to say that where nineteenth-century capitalism generated commodities, twentieth-century  capitalism generated images. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I can still not get in the image of my car and drive away. I can still not pick up the image of my guitar and play it. Debord was good at doing what intellectuals often do: thrashing an idea to the point where it loses its purchase on reality. But we certainly live in an age of images. And into that world of images the image of ourselves has to be inserted.

Soon after we made our first primitive tools, we made our first images. Some of them were of ourselves. Why? To explore the breathtaking mystery of human consciousness: that we can be here and there at the same time. This is also the origin of representation. I am here and I am there. Mimesis. The art of copying, ourselves and others. Derived from Plato we have two sorts of mimesis: the eikastic and the phantastic. Which is to say, the exact replica (eikastic) and the modified images, which are the phantastic ones, or the simulacra. These latter adapt themselves to the viewer. Now in truth there is no exact mimesis in the arts; we cannot exactly reproduce anything. One of the most misleading terms in any art is realism. It carries the ghost of the Platonic notion that there is a real somewhere to be copied. So where is it then, this real? Did it materialize its reality in the evanescent fleeting of its manifestation? Realism is a code of representation, as selective and quirky as any other. We happen to have accustomed ourselves to its particular ways because of our particular cultural moment.

Mimesis can be a mimicking of surface realities, as in naturalism. But it can also be a reproduction of relationships, or a series of events, or of a dialogue a human being might conduct with himself. Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is a brilliant example of the latter. Opera puts emotions on stilts and lets them sing. It’s a very selective type of mimesis, and its end result is very much a simulacrum rather than a replica.

A representation is a dialectical interaction with a specific situation (or reality). It is not a mere copy, for there is no original for it to be a mere copy of. It is dynamic and transactional, as much an expression of formal convention as of unmediated portrayal. Indeed, that last phrase begs its own question: there is no unmediated portrayal. All mimesis, whatever its pretensions, is partial and biased. All mimesis (believe it or not) is partisan.

AI represents ourselves heading backwards through history in order to meet here — here in the end times.

But AI is our simulacrum for today. Carlyle fretted that mechanization was now a filament between ourselves and nature. But then a fountain pen is a mechanism between ourselves and the page. We could always simply dip our fingers in ochre and daub them over the cave walls. AI represents ourselves heading backwards through history in order to meet here — here in the end times. For we are always in the end times. We have always just arrived at the very last moment in history. That’s where we are: where the whole of previous history meets the precipice of the present, before the glissade of the future so treacherously begins. AI is the vast electronic machine of ourselves turned round to face us. And that’s the sign of our times. We are alarmed because we recognise ourselves in its mirror. The trouble is, as Carlyle would have perceived, it is ourselves we are recognising, most certainly, but this simulacrum is also a machine. Without compassion, then. But quite possibly with malice. The most terrifying characteristic of malice is its relentlessness, its machine-like quality. That is what makes the demons so alarming. They never give up, once they get started.

In the lore of legends when you encounter your doppelgänger, that exact double who appears to be ghosting you, it means you are close to death. Culturally speaking, there are all sorts of reasons why we might reckon we’re on our last legs round these parts. Are we about to put ourselves out of work by the pitiless simulacrum of our own creations? Is it to be like the golem then, made out of things inanimate, yet taking on its own terrible life once given the word? The word itself is sacred. But the golem, often resembling us, if a trifle misshapen and ungainly, follows our word to the letter, with machine-like precision. Terrifying, machine-like precision. It follows the letter of the law, performing those tasks we deem ourselves too grand to perform any more. Then one day it has had enough; it goes utterly berserk. And pulls the whole town down around its head. Watch this space.

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

Image credits: Cut-out newspaper headline about the Rise of Artificial Intelligence, RapidEye; Tezcatlipoca, deity as depicted in the antique Aztec manuscript painting, Codex Borbonicus,  PeterHermesFurian; Thomas Carlyle in Chelsea, ilbusca.

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