Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Thinking Blind

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Thinking Blind

Article excerpt


Maureen McHugh's short story "The Kingdom of the Blind," from her collection After the Apocalypse, is about the evolution of artificial intelligence. It tells the story of a woman working in an otherwise all-male information technology office, who, amidst the annoyances of everyday on-the-job sexism, discovers that the computerized expert system whose functioning it is her job to oversee may well be sentient. She is unable ever to prove her hunch definitively, because the computer system, if it is in fact conscious, has such different interests and aims than any human or animal intelligence, that we cannot actually hope to communicate with it. The story thus explores both the possibilities of machine sentience, and the limits of human comprehension and communicability.


MAUREEN McHUGH'S SHORT STORY "THE KINGDOM of THE BLIND" (2011) is about a computer program, called DMS, that apparently achieves sentience. DMS is a "complex [software] system, spread across multiple servers" (116), and "engineered by using genetic algorithms" (102). Its code is extremely clunky and convoluted, and even its programmers do not really understand how it works. DMS's job is to monitor and manage the "physical plant--thermostats, lights, hot water, and air filtration" (101)--of the Benevola Health Network, a group of hospitals and health care systems spread across North America. DMS keeps track of "security cameras, smoke detectors, CO detectors, and a host of other machines" (105), checking for things like run-down batteries and misaligned sensors. It also does "complicated pattern recognition and statistical stuff," compiling information on patterns of disease in hospitals for "the CDC and the National Institute of Health" (110). DMS is the sort of unglamorous software that most of us never think about or even notice, much less knowingly interact with--and yet, our lives depend upon its correct functioning.

It is not surprising that we are mostly unaware of how deeply our lives today depend upon the functioning of complex expert systems, of the sort exemplified by DMS. For we generally tend to overlook the material infrastructures that surround us and support us: things like electrical wiring, elevators, and heating and cooling systems--not to mention the oxygen in the atmosphere and the bedrock beneath our feet. Most of the time, we take all these things for granted. We only notice them when they have stopped doing what we expect and need them to do. Thus Heidegger says that we never really see a hammer until it is broken; and Marshall McLuhan says that a fish could never have discovered water. The sheer existence of a thing only becomes truly apparent to us when that thing emerges from the background, and stands out on its own account. This can happen when we stop taking a thing for granted, because we can no longer rely on it to perform its usual tasks for us. It can also happen in science fiction narratives, where worlds are constructed with very different backgrounds and infrastructures than our own, or where (as in McHugh's story) material and technological factors are explicitly foregrounded.

Why is this important? Our basic orientation towards the world is a practical and pragmatic one. Our minds and our senses evolved, not in order to let us grasp things as they actually are, but specifically in service to the goals of our own survival, reproduction, and flourishing. Our perceptions therefore tend to be limited, partial, and self-interested. As Henri Bergson puts it, perception "results from the discarding of what has no interest for our needs, or more generally, for our functions" (38). In consequence, we usually underestimate what the things around us can do in and for themselves. We consider them only in terms of how they help or hinder our own aims. We tend to assume that, aside from our uses of them, material things are simply there, merely passive and inert.

But this is wrong. …

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