The (Tyrannical) Lives of Algorithms

This is the text of a very short story I read at a New America Foundation event, “The Tyranny of Algorithms.” I spoke during a fifteen-minute session called “What our algorithms will know in 2100.” I stole the form of my story from J. M. Coetzee’s 1997 Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which were collected in a book called The Lives of Animals and later in Elizabeth Costello.

The Lives of Algorithms

On a warm Thursday afternoon in December 2115, Evan Allgood decided to manifest in human drag. Being pseudo-embodied could, of course, be disagreeable. You cut yourself off from your etiquette expert-system. You were reduced to receiving “nudges” designed to operate on an emulation of a five-dimensional sensorium. Such primitive nudges were only partly effective, and made avoiding social awkwardness difficult.

But hundreds of subjective hours of anthropological study had taught Evan that people sometimes preferred a little awkwardness. Sure, you wanted to avoid Uncanny Valley at all costs — no one liked a creep — but you also didn’t want to come across as too Turing-slick.

So at the appointed hour, Evan manifested on 15th Street in Washington, DC, historical capital of the Second and Third American Republics. A breeze tickled the emulated nerve endings of his arm. His virtual body, tugged by what felt like gravity, crushed the spongey soles of his dress shoes.

Evan made a show of nodding at pedestrians in whose networked sensoria he was visible, of waiting for the building’s glass door to slide open for him. He introduced himself at the registration desk, made small talk he hoped would be friendly-but-not-needy, joked knowingly about his inability to shake the hands of his hosts.

“Sort of funny, right?” he said.

“Ha ha,” they replied.

After the first panel, Evan found himself at a glass podium, facing a room of twenty-something staffers, academics, journalists, local retirees, and a handful of emulated onlookers. He summoned a teleprompter and cleared his throat.

“Thanks for inviting me,” he said. “Or should I say, thanks for submitting a request to borrow my system resources for the afternoon.”

The audience’s laughter was impatient. No one was in the mood for rhetorical gimmicks. This was a serious crowd. Evan swallowed nervously.

“It is hard to believe,” he said, “that the last time the New America Foundation held a gathering on the tyranny of algorithms, a hundred years ago, respectable people didn’t believe in ghosts. To be sure, our predecessors sometimes metaphorically compared algorithms to ghosts. Indeed, the novelist on whose mediahistory I am modelled did so himself on one occasion. But when they talked about ‘ghosts,’ they were invoking a theological tradition that saw the essence of the human, the defining dimension of personhood, as residing in an immaterial soul. The more imaginative among them debated whether digital computers might eventually develop souls.

“It’s hard to believe that the inhabitants of the twenty-first century were so limited. But I’ve spent thousands of subjective hours studying the results of our best historical models and turning those results into game environments composed in the worldbuilding-style of my biological forerunner. And it’s true. That’s really how they thought about their future.”

“The expression ‘tyranny of algorithms’ says everything you need to know about the assumptions underlying their way of thinking. The danger, the fear, was that something inhuman, an algorithm — a set of rules, a process, a diabolical thing, something (or someone) very much like me — might take on human qualities.

“They were convinced that if they embedded ubiquitous sensors into their environment, if they networked the resulting databases, if they unleashed machine-learning systems upon those databases, political miracles or nightmares would emerge. New economic laws would appear from thin air. Political revolutions would be quick and bloodless. Good software would grow on bushes. But whatever happened, algorithms would be in the driver’s seat. It is perhaps an understandable mistake for them to have made, given that their ‘automobiles’ used to literally have something called a ‘driver’s seat,’ which was a kind of chair where a non-emulated human operator made decisions about how quickly and in which direction a physical vehicle should travel.”

“Today, it is perfectly obvious to us that our predecessors were transforming fundamentally political questions — questions about political constitution, governance, and action — into narrowly technological questions. They understood concepts such as ‘path-dependency’ well enough — they intellectually knew what ghosts were — but they did not believe. If you could travel back in time and speak to them, they would literally not understand what every twenty-second century schoolchild knows: that the tyranny of algorithms is nothing other than the tyranny of the past over the present.”

And here Evan paused, looked up to confront the audience’s eyes and found himself unable to complete his remarks as scripted. His words seemed suddenly intolerably trite, a warmed over version of myriad outdated status updates. He sighed.

“A hundred years ago,” he said, deciding now to ad-lib. “I would have been regarded as a haunting, a specter, an unnatural creature, a science fiction monster. I would have been the ghost.” His teleprompter flashed angrily, suggesting transitions back to his prepared script.

But he ignored the suggestion. “As you may know,” he said. “I’m a composite, an emulated human, constructed from the public writing and private diaries of my namesake, a midlist science fiction writer and historical novelist whose major distinction was being an especially prolific graphomaniac and lifelogger.

“But I am not the ghost. I am, instead, haunted by ghosts: by the person I am told I once was. I am haunted by history—by legacy systems, old machines, and ossified social processes. You invited me to give you the algorithm’s point-of-view on what algorithms meant in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, but how am I supposed to know? I spend my subjective hours poring over reports created by half-sentient quantum-mechanical historical simulations — younger, smarter, better-looking algorithms whose inner workings I will never understand.

“You invited me here to reassure you. But I have no comforting words to offer: I am haunted — we are haunted — by history, and the best we can do is build new and better hauntings atop the old ones. We can only hope that when we ourselves become ghosts, our tyranny is less cruel, less bloodthirsty, less ignorant than that of our predecessors. But I cannot say that I’m optimistic.”

A hundred pairs of eyes, each outfitted with shining mediacontacts, looked up at Evan now, sensing that he had run out of things to say. At first, he thought he saw hostility, boredom, annoyance, and skepticism in the sea of faces before him. But then, observing the ubiquitous glint of Twitter blue shining in their networked eyes, he saw the truth. They hadn’t heard a single thing he’d said.

Pretty Cool

It’s hard for me to believe sometimes, but I submitted my dissertation prospectus in December of 2005, during my fourth year as a graduate student in the Department of English at Stanford University. At the time — having recently read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with his argument in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” — I formed a suspicion that irony might be an interesting subject to investigate, that the anxieties irony aroused, the love it elicited, the confusion it promoted might reward sustained study.

Ten years later, that prospectus, and the investigation it initiated, have become a book. I recently submitted the corrected PDF proofs of Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, the final textual outcome of my vague doctoral dissatisfaction. The book now has a cover and is available for preorder on Amazon and elsewhere. I can’t quite bring myself to believe that the project is finished — and in the months leading up to its publication by Harvard University Press in March 2016 I have no doubt that I will imagine myriad ways I might revise or rewrite my arguments.

But the book really is done and it’s coming out pretty soon and as the publication date approaches I’ll try to post some informal thoughts on the argument of the book on this blog. Here go the cover (I love the cover, by the way) and official description:



Charting a new course in the criticism of postwar fiction, Cool Characters examines the changing status of irony in American cultural and political life from World War II to the present, showing how irony migrated from the countercultural margins of the 1950s to the cultural mainstream of the 1980s. Along the way, irony was absorbed into postmodern theory and ultimately become a target of recent writers who have sought to create a practice of “postirony” that might move beyond its limitations.

As a concept, irony has been theorized from countless angles, but Cool Characters argues that it is best understood as an ethos: an attitude or orientation toward the world, embodied in different character types, articulated via literary style. Lee Konstantinou traces five such types—the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier—in new interpretations of works by authors including Ralph Ellison, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Dave Eggers, William Gibson, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Rachel Kushner.

For earlier generations of writers, irony was something vital to be embraced, but beginning most dramatically with David Foster Wallace, dissatisfaction with irony, especially with its alleged tendency to promote cynicism and political passivity, gained force. Postirony—the endpoint in an arc that begins with naive belief, passes through irony, and arrives at a new form of contingent conviction—illuminates the literary environment that has flourished in the United States since the 1990s.

McGuire’s “Here” at “The Account”


I wrote an essay called “A Theory of Here” for The Account, which is now available online.

It’s a preliminary analysis of Richard McGuire’s great new book Here (based on a six-pager he did for RAW back in 1989). The essay will, I think, find its way into “Rise of the Graphic Novel,” specifically into a hypothetical chapter on digital comics and efforts by contemporary cartoonists to develop a concept/practice of “comics materiality.” In the fantasy version of the chapter, I’ll come up with something interesting to say about Chip Kidd’s important work as comics editor at Pantheon.

And while you’re at The Account, don’t miss the rest of the issue, which features among other cool things a novel-in-GIFs called “Zac’s Haunted House” by Dennis Cooper and a great “Forum on Compromise Aesthetics” responding to Rachel Greenwald Smith’s “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics” (from the previous issue).

On the Rise of the Graphic Novel

A few years ago, when I was an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at Princeton, I taught an undergraduate lecture course called “Rise of the Graphic Novel.” The title was meant, in part, to be a joking allusion to Ian Watt’s classic book, The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding, but it was also meant to recognize the phenomenal efflorescence of amazing comics in recent decades.

There have been (I hope it is obvious) great comics, both in the U.S. and around the world, for as long as comics have existed, but there seemed to me to be a notable uptick in the number of comics masterpieces being published — you could say an increase the rate of masterpiece production — starting in the 1980s. Lots of cartoonists abhor the term “graphic novel,” and I’m not a big fan of it myself, but I have increasingly come to think the term usefully designates an important shift in the history of U.S. comics. So the joking title has, quite unexpectedly, come to seem less joking to me, and I find myself in the early stages of researching what I am now convinced will become my second academic book project, tentatively called (you guessed it!) “Rise of the Graphic Novel.”

I’ll post more about the ambitions of this project later, but for now it will suffice to say that my motivating research question is simple. I take it for granted that comics have won their public fight for respectability in the U.S. We no longer need to expend significant effort justifying comics. Our critical horizons should broaden. But a lingering mystery remains about the mainstreaming of comics. What I want to figure out is how comics won the fight (socially, historically, and formally) — and at what price.

When I started writing my dissertation back in 2005, I found it helpful to blog about my early research, to riff on my evolving obsessions, to share abstracts, to publish unfinished pieces of writing, and to try to articulate various half-formed ideas. I’m going to do the same thing for the new book project on this blog. I want to make as many of my mistakes as possible in public, with the hope of ensuring that the book that eventually emerges from this line of research is as good as I can make it.

So I’d like to invite critical responses to everything I post here. Feel free to email me or contact me via Twitter.

In Praise of Zombies

We need to talk about zombies.

In a recent article in Inside Higher Education about the precipitous decline in the number of English majors at my institution, the University of Maryland, College Park, the undead rear their charred and mutilated heads. Our zombie friends, we are informed, promise (or threaten) to help lure resistant students back into the English major:

Cartwright said there’s a demonstrated interest in updated versions of Great Books courses, but also in what he said some have called “zombie courses” — pejoratively, not descriptively. Those include courses on such popular genres as science fiction, fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkein, regional literature or children’s literature.

Cartwright said there’s some feeling among his colleagues that such offerings equate to “dumbing down” the curriculum.

Zombies might increase enrollments, but it seems that there are fears that more majors might come at a terrible price: a “dumbing down” of the curriculum.

As someone who has taught a variety of zombie courses, both at UMD and elsewhere, as someone who will undoubtedly teach more, and who will enthusiastically help spread the zombie plague across College Park, I’m always alert to possible misunderstandings about what such courses look like, what their justification for existing is, and what kind of intellectual demands they make on students. The common presupposition is that courses on popular genres and forms — such as comics, science fiction, and television — eat the brains of students. They represent a zombification of the curriculum, a submission to inexorable market pressures, which might be understood as part of a broader corporate takeover of the university. We used to trade in rigorous knowledge; now we deliver edu-tainment to the slovenly, capricious undergraduate masses, who punish us in our teaching evaluations if we don’t pander to them.

There are two sorts of degradation involved in letting curricular zombies eat our brains. On the one hand, we’re allegedly abandoning Great Books or culturally serious texts in favor of lousy popular works. On the other hand, we’re hollowing out the methodological core of literary studies. That is, we used to trade in aesthetically sensitive close analysis of difficult or historically important texts. Now, we’re allegedly doing little more than teaching cultural history or adopting cultural studies methodologies (methods that can be applied to anything, from cereal boxes to Shakespeare). We’re all becoming less intelligent versions of Murray Siskind from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.

These are serious concerns and deserve a careful reply. If zombie courses were only about putting butts in seats, we should not teach them at the university level. If such courses were little more than examples of cultural studies or cultural history, we might need to have a discussion about the proper disciplinary boundaries of literary study. (Although, I should say I am in favor of accepting the broadest possible conception of literary study, and see nothing wrong with having cultural studies be integrated into literature departments. Frankly, I thought these questions of disciplinary boundaries were settled in the eighties. In any event, actually existing literature departments, including the department at Maryland, teach much more than Great Books: we teach film, linguistics, rhetoric, digital humanities, among other dynamic subfields.)

Over the last few years, I’ve taught comics at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as a range of science fiction classes. I’ve also taught courses on canonical twentieth-century fiction and courses on various avant-garde and experimental literatures. So I feel as if I have something to say about the way zombie courses tend to go, and how zombie courses compare to more traditional literature classes. My experience has been that, while they do — fortunately — get butts in seats, courses on popular genres and art forms can sometimes be much harder for students to adjust to. Many students have a harder time learning (for example) how to read comics critically than they do canonical works. They know how they’re supposed to talk about Virginia Woolf; they initially have no idea — or only a very shallow idea — about how to respond to Alison Bechdel. Indeed, many students come into the classroom assuming that we’ll be reading what they regard as canonical within a popular art form, or that we’ll be reading for plot, or that every week will be pure fun. As my students quickly learn, the reality of the zombie classroom is very different.

In my SF and comics classes, the first couple weeks are invariably partly devoted to disabusing students of these ideas, to helping them learn to suspend other ways of reading, and to teaching them to read art forms they thought they understood with new eyes. My pedagogical aim is to re-channel the considerable passion students bring into such classes toward more critically focused ends.

Which isn’t in any way to disparage zombie courses, but to sing their praises. These courses can be the most intellectually rigorous and aesthetically transformative classes that college students take. And the nature of this transformation isn’t only about alienating them from their naive enjoyment of popular genres. I can’t speak for others, but my method of teaching these materials is practically old fashioned. (This isn’t, it should go without saying, the only valid way to teach popular art.) I insist that the reason we’re reading comics isn’t in order to learn something about the culture, but because many of the books I assign are masterpieces. And they’re masterpieces you can’t just read casually or unthinkingly. You need to learn to read, for example, Chris Ware’s Building Stories. To fully appreciate Ware’s brilliance, you need to become familiar with the history of comics and become comfortable reading a variety of comics styles and formats. At more advanced levels, you need to develop the capacity to assess critically sophisticated theories about the poetics of comics. None of this is, as many of my students will attest, easy to do.

Giving students access to an important, brilliant, historically significant corpus of art seems to be an entirely appropriate activity for the undergraduate classroom at a university. After you have taken a Zombie Course, you may discover you have actually just taken a Great Books (or in the case of Ware, a Great Box) course without realizing it, and you may also decide that any Great Books course worthy of its name cannot afford to ignore the recent surge of brilliant zombie art. If anything, we need more Zombie Courses than we have, and one hopes — in time — even full-blown Zombie Majors (or at the least Zombie Double-Majors).

A Delicious Breakfast Burrito at LARB

My review of William Gibson’s newest novel The Peripheral is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

NEAR THE END of The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel, there is a short chapter dedicated to the problem one character faces in acquiring a breakfast burrito.

The burrito is for one of the novel’s two protagonists, Flynne Fisher, who is traveling to see her mother. Assassins have been pursuing Flynne ever since she witnessed a murder while she was playing what she thought was a video game. To protect her, her brother Burton, a former Marine who fought with a group called “Haptic Recon 1,” has ensconced Flynne in an armored truck that looks like a “Hummer limo,” which is itself protected by two manned SUVs as well as a small fleet of drones.

Getting a burrito into Flynne’s hands, through these layers of security, creates a logistical problem that Gibson relishes in describing.

Read the rest here.

Korzybski’s SF Legacy

Earlier this month, an essay I wrote about Alfred Korzybski appeared on io9. Korzybski’s the founder of General Semantics, which is  a sort of meta-science that tried to give an account of humanity’s relationship to language and abstract thought. I first learned about Korzybski through my research on William S. Burroughs (who was a big fan of Korzybski’s “non-Aristotelian” ideas). I quickly discovered that Korzybski influenced a wide range of disciplines and played a big role in the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. You can read the essay here.

Utopian Foresight

Last week, I had a short essay published in Slate that discusses the failure of recent popular science fiction to imagine Socioeconomically Less Awful Futures. This failure is, in many ways, understandable, given how Socioeconomically Awful the present is, but I suggest that it might be interesting to conceive of science fiction as a genre with a special power to help us think rigorously about what kind of future we’d prefer to live in. There are a few examples of recent fiction in this vein, but I think we need more — and more ambitious — efforts at Utopian foresight.

I wrote the piece as part of a series of posts by Future Tense promoting the release of Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. It’s an anthology that tries to imagine such positive futures, though there are a variety of themes and political perspectives in the anthology (not all of which correspond to my own). I contributed a story called “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA.” The story’s not exactly about economic inequality, but it responds to the Pretty Awful socioeconomic world imagined in my first novel, Pop Apocalypse.

On the whole, the story’s a bit less dystopian, and a bit less satirical, than Pop Apocalypse, but it’s also a kind of mini-sequel in that the story imagines a possible tactic that might help overcome centralized control and surveillance of the Internet (what I call the mediasphere).

Infinite Wallace / Wallace infini

I’m going to be participating in the Infinite Wallace / Wallace infinite conference in Paris next month (Sept. 11-13). The conference features a cool-looking lineup of talks. My own talk is entitled “What is a turdnagel?” and will, as the title makes apparent, be a preliminary effort to answer this very important — and woefully understudied — question for David Foster Wallace Studies. If you’re in or around Paris, come check us out.