12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next by Jeanette Winterson
In 12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next (2021), Jeanette Winterson offers up a dozen essays on Artificial Intelligence divided into four sections: “How we got here” (a dip into the history of computing), “What’s Your Superpower” (a philosophical/religious change in vision of matter), “Sex and Other Stories” (AI’s potential impact on love and sex), and “The Future” (what will change and what might not with the advent of AI). The essays are generally interesting and well written; there’s really not a “bad” one in the bunch. They do, however, still range somewhat in impact; in her introduction Winterson notes her “aim is modest,” and some of the essays, admittedly, don’t exceed that relatively humble goal.
“Love (lace) Actually” traces Ada Lovelace’s story: her connection to Lord Byron, her early education, how she met and began working with Charles Babbage on his Difference Engine and his more theoretical (never-built) Analytical Engine and then connects Ada’s story to the (uncredited) women who worked on ENIAC, Alan Turing, gender barriers in mathematics and computing, AI and creativity. A solid essay if much of it is pretty familiar — the stories of Lovelace, Babbage, and Turing are pretty well known, as are the problems of women’s numbers in computing, and the musing on the growing Internet of Things isn’t particularly groundbreaking. The following essay, “Loom with a View,” is one of the weaker ones, skimming through large ideas too quickly, and while its aim appears to be a concise history (it begins with one of the earliest large-scale automations — the punchcard looms of England) so one expects skimming, it remains pretty superficial with what felt like a number of missed opportunities for more thoughtful delving.
“From Sci-Fi to Wi-Fi to Mi-Fi” has a similar issue, but ends more strongly and thus is more successful. “Gnostic Know-How” opens with an exploration of Turing and Lovelace again (as Winterson herself notes in the intro, there is some inevitable overlap in these essays), but then shifts to a look at Gnosticism, which may seem off-topic, but then Winterson brings us back around by telling us that AI is a “new kind of quasi-religious discourse with its own followers, its creed, its orthodoxy, its heretics … what all religions have.” Then, becoming more personal, she notes that, “Those of us brought up in religious homes are fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the similarities between AI enthusiasts and ole-time religion.” While the point is valid, as are her musings on the impact of our shifting world view toward the spirit world, matter, and light, this essay felt more than a little disjointed.
The next essay, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Buddha,” felt it was going down that same path, felt a bit “listy” as we take an early tour of Greek philosophy, Newton, and Einstein (again, all pretty familiar by now), but it felt like Winterson and 12 Bytes began to hit their stride about midway through as she discusses the differences between the mechanical viewpoint of the universe and Descartes’s conceptual framework and quantum/Buddhist viewpoints. It felt like Winterson finally began to not skim through large ideas but really wrestle with them in thoughtful, insightful fashion. That continued with “Coal-Fired Vampire”, a look at the search for immortality that seamlessly and skillfully weaves together subjects such as Dracula, cryogenic preservation, Gilgamesh, transhumanism, Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” The Picture of Dorian Gray, and uploaded consciousness. In the end, Winterson worries that all those means of extending our lifespan will mean naught if “we are still violent, greedy, intolerant, racist … and generally vile … That’s the vampire warning — maybe you do live forever, but your mindset is stuck in a medieval castle in Transylvania.” This was a fantastic essay and, as I wrote in my notes, “the best of the bunch so far.”
From this point on the book mostly stayed at this high level. The essay on automatons and sex dolls was familiar in subject matter but Winterson’s exploration was both compelling and witty (sometimes bitingly so), and I found myself highlighting a number of passages despite my familiarity with the topic. The essay on AI/robots as companions and caretakers was a bit more vanilla, both in topic and tone and also was familiar just from basic news stories, but still read more smoothly and more thoughtfully than the early essays in the collection. It was a welcome return to Winterson’s more personal and more biting tone in her essays on gender, that tone evident in the title of one — “Fuck the Binary.” Another essay does a nice job of exploring the reasons for gender inequality in computing and, even better, offering up both solutions (based on changes that have actually achieved results) as well as bringing into the light the names of women whose impact in the field has been erased/ignored.
The last few look at fears of Terminator-like dystopias and potential misuse of AI, issues rooted in what Winterson sees as our number one problem: love, which “for all of history, has been seen as a weakness, as a diversion, as a spanner in the works in the fight between rationality and emotion … relegated as women’s work … disembodied.” But if it is our problem, she notes it is also our solution. If this sounds schmaltzy or sentimental or glib, it is not. Or maybe it is, but it isn’t only that. It isn’t simply a Hallmark card. In Winterson’s capable hands and mind it’s also insightful and thoughtful and centered in historical, social, and cultural contexts.
I confess I was a bit concerned after reading the first two essays, thinking there was little of value in 12 Bytes either in subject matter, style, or depth. But things shifted into higher gear soon enough and even if a lot of this has already been written about, Winterson still brings enough to the table to warrant reading her take on the subjects as well. Recommended.
Sounds like a good holiday gift for someone on my gift-list. Thanks, Bill!