All I wanted to do was talk with someone. Some one. A person. Specifically the manager at our nearby M & S food shop. The historic heat had blown out their refrigerator units so nothing I went for yesterday was there. All I wanted to know was whether the refrigerated food was back. Yes or no.
I looked up and then dialled the number of that particular shop. An algorithm answered and told me to say in one or two words the purpose of my call. How could I summarise in two words for a non-thinking non-human a question that takes at least ten words for a reasonably fine-thinking human to construct? I tried three versions. The voice did not get any of them. I shouted, but algorithmic brainlessness is not the same as human deafness.
So I hung up and dialled again. Same algorithm. ‘Can you say in one or two words...?’ This time I randomly pressed numbers. No deal. If I didn’t sate the purpose of my call, the gates were locked and the sentries were armed.
So I hung up and dialled again. ‘Can you say in one or two words..?’ This time I did not speak. I did not stir. Finally, the voice said, I’ll put you through to an agent.
A human answered. I nearly fainted. But.
She was in France.
She was not in the specifically physical store at the specifically physical location whose specifically local phone number I had dialled to talk with the specifically physical manager. She was in a call centre she said. But she could pass on a message. A message. And then how would I know what the manager’s answer was? Were their refrigerator-unit fresh products available today or not?
I fumed. She won the nice person contest. (Such is the predictable decorum in an imbalance of power.)
I asked her if she could at least (I think I said please) put me through to the manager. All went dead. I waited. To musak. I grimaced for three minutes. Then hung up.
I resisted another call to the algorithm and cleared my mind, my robocidal fantasies notwithstanding.
What I now want to know is this: how has it transpired that the most intelligent creatures ever to inhabit earth (and maybe the universe) managed to create with our astonishing brains a brainless computation to replace the brainy human, and then subjected all humans to the nonhuman’s brainlessness, call by call everyday and night of our foreseeable lives?
Couldn’t we have waited until nonhumans were nearly indistinguishable from humans so that humans would not have to do without humans?
Why are we using our humanness to make humans extinct?
Please forward your answer to me immediately. I have AOS.
Algorithmic Outrage Syndrome.
I am thinking about these five simple, but apparently elusive, realities about abortion.
One – what is in a woman’s body is a woman’s body.
Two – human rights include a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body.
Three – a fertilised egg is information. It is a set of instructions for how to make a being.
Four – fact, not belief, is the only viable basis for law.
Five – souls are a belief, not a fact. But even inside that belief, souls cannot be killed.
I think that those five realities produce a clear perspective on abortion:
Law, a product of fact not belief, must protect the reality that only a woman herself has the right to determine whether and when to remove a collection of cells that are her body.
Yes, we can believe whatever we want. And we can support the right to believe whatever we want. We should, in fact. But our beliefs, as opposed to our knowledge, cannot morally or responsibly determine our laws. The minute they do, we become a theocracy. And it will be only a matter of time before we burn the ‘heretics’.
So let us march for the right to personal belief while we march for the right to factual law.
Let us in that way revere life, not kill it.
Like you most likely I grew up with this warning, ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.’ Almost all the grownups around me said that and then promptly believed everything they read in the papers. As far as I can tell, 70 years later, they still do.
Of course now ‘the papers’ are the flailing, ever-regenerating Hydra heads astride the Hades of online fed ‘news’. And there is no Hercules among us to hack off and cauterise them.
This monster is bad enough. But there lurks among us an even deadlier Hydra. We can see it in this warning:
‘Don’t read everything you believe in the papers.’
It is one thing to believe everything you read. It is another to read everything you believe.
This is how it works: I wake up. I feel for my phone, turn it over, open my news feeds. I read. I relax. My feeds comfort me. They confirm what I believe. Everything I believe. I chose them for that purpose. I read them again. It’s all there.
I get up, get dressed to their audios, return to their videos. They repeat, replenish themselves, remind me of who I am. I don’t look further. I don’t find feeds that ignore my beliefs or question them. I enter only the houses of my own gods, take a seat, turn to my favourite hymn, sing, kneel, and shake hands with the feeder on the way out.
But – I fear. All around me, hovering, misting, swarming are spectres of difference. I bat them away, blow them away, shoo them; but they regroup. And my hydra grows three heads for every one. I believe harder, I feed harder, I return harder to re-read my beliefs in the ‘papers’ because the ‘papers’ are bigger than me, more credible than me, louder than me. And as long as they say everything I believe, everything I believe is safe.
Reading everything we believe –
that is the entrance to the Hades of our age.
A Pedant’s (Warranted) Rant
Only one thing in human life matches the contagion and lethality of a virus: language.
And ‘like’ and ‘so’ are now killers. As with viruses, they are fine in one context and deadly in another. (I mentioned this anathema in ‘Pledge’ (2021), but in case you missed it, here it is in all its madness.)
‘Like’ and ‘so’ are great when they mean what they mean, such as ‘therefore’ and ‘similar to’ (or any of their multiple other true meanings). But somehow, with a particular stealth with which only words can move, these two words have become pariahs for anyone who cares about eloquence, or even competence, in forming a sentence.
I’ve been wincing in the presence of these hitchhikers for years. But I began to rail when recently I noticed their viral creep cropping up on NPR and PBS. I thought those beloved networks were fortresses of erudition, training, practice and editing that could ensure some public respite from this habit of ‘like’ and ‘so’ that is dazedly acquired and soporifically spread. But no. There they are. ‘Like’ and ‘so’. I can hardly listen.
What, for example, do people mean when they are asked a question and they begin the answer with ‘So’?
‘Can you tell us, please, John, how you managed to make this discovery?’
‘So, what happened was…’
And what do people mean when they are describing something and they just throw in ‘like’?
‘I was just sitting there, and this like startling thing happened.’
‘I was just sitting there, and this startling thing like happened.’
What is that word doing there? I’ll tell you what it’s doing there. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It is padding. It is the fallback of an indolent speaker. Or an unconscious captive of crass convention.
Now I know, and I honour the fact, that language morphs. That’s its job. And we wouldn’t have Shakespeare without it, as you know. But language is only a product of humans. And so we have masses of power over it. In fact it is the captive. We are the captains. We behave, however, as if we were cheap-language-change prey. We’re not. And I think it is time we stood tall and said no. No more ‘so’ and ‘like’ inflicted randomly on an innocent and and potentially fine sentence.
Yes, you can argue that the use of ‘so’ in this meaningless context actually replaces ‘well’ in our parlance, and that people like me were not having a fit about ‘well’ for all those years. Well (actually), we were. We just didn’t say so. And now we are. ‘Well’ is just as bad as ‘So’. It is filler.
So (therefore) what I want to know is, why can’t we just start a sentence where it starts? And what would be so (to such a great extent) difficult about saying only what we mean?
‘Can you tell us please, John, how you managed to make this discovery?’
‘I was in the forrest and suddenly…’
‘I was just sitting there, and this startling thing happened.’
Those have power and punch, and pulchritude of a sort.
I guess, if I absolutely have to, I can live with ‘So’. Just. Maybe. No, probably not.
But I cannot bear any longer ‘like’ dumped into sentences randomly and vapidly. At least ‘So’ to begin a sentence could be said to mean: ‘Get ready; I am about to take off with my reply.’ (As if we didn’t know that already.) Completely superfluous and weakening, but not 100 % meaningless.
‘Like’, on the other hand, is 100% meaningless.
So (therefore), I have a proposition: Could you humour me and go cold turkey, just for a month, never using ‘So’ to mean ‘Well’, and never using ‘like’ to mean, well (as I just said), nothing at all?
I just wonder whether we could finally throw off these two viral trespassers, and return our sentences to confident, seamless streams of meaning?
Let me know how it goes. I will be like waiting.
I really must write to NPR and PBS.