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Happiness Is What We Make It

juni 12, 2010

First, I should mention that I will be at Condense (Swecon) in Göteborg next weekend, and hope to see a lot of you there.

Second, I have promised myself to make this brief, as I have a course paper on Renaissance drama to sort out and a RPG group waiting for me in two hours. However …

However, on listening through the past few weeks’ Escape Pod stories, I came across what seemed like a reasonable harmless piece called ”The Love Quest of Smidgen the Snack Cake” by Robert T. Jeschonek. The first-person-narrator is a snack cake (for those of you who, like me, have never encountered a snack cake, here’s a link to the Wikipedia article) with a limited AI encoded in digestible protein-crystal circuitry. Its ”love quest” is, of course, a quest to be eaten — and the quest is more one of lust than love.

At first, I was enchanted by the idea (and the seductive reading of Smidgen’s voice); then I was horrified at the darkness of this future vision of consumerism; and finally realised that it reminded me of two other Escape Pod stories which I had really enjoyed. One is among my absolute EP favourites: Derek Zumsteg’s ”Conversations With and About My Electric Toothbrush”. This charming (and well-read) story features an electric toothbrush whose desire in life is to be rebuilt into a milk frother – but it still retains a sense of responsibility for its owner’s dental health and promises to train its own replacement. The other is ”How Lonesome a Life Without Nerve Gas” by James Trimarco. This story features the court interrogation of a futuristic battle armour with strong nationalist tendencies.

Each story offers its own focus of the future, in varying shades of darkness, but they have one thing in common: they give not only a voice, but also intelligence and an emotional life, to inanimate objects. I must admit that I sometimes enjoy sf and fantasy stories that give a voice to animals (dogs tend to be a favourite, but cats, dolphins and apes feature as well); and robot and computer AI stories are thirteen to the dozen and often put me in mind of how Asimov did this better. But with inanimate objects – even household objects &ndahs; there is a difference. When these are given cognitive abilities, given thoughts and feelings, there is always a consideration of how they can be made more useful to humans. They are meant to do one thing and be good at it. They do not need an AI that simulates our own intelligence. Yet, in these three examples, the objects are given not just thought but emotions. They are portrayed as emotional objects as much as, or even more than, intelligent ones.

That’s what fascinates me about these stories: how the artificial emotions relates to usefulness. In each story, in fact, the object’s emotional fulfilment actually comes in conflict with their purpose. The emotions are simply too strong to be controlled by any implanted objectives.

That is the moral of these stories, beyond any utopian or dystopian future they offer their readers: emotions are uncontrollable. They take our artefacts beyond the purpose for which we made them, and brings them in directions we did not intend. With a mind of their own, they cease to be our servants and can in fact turn against us, like Windows. And of course, in the end, these stories are not about objects, they are about us. Once we are in the grip of passion – to froth milk, have sex, or kill enemeies – we may not be able to resist.

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