Computing Cyberjazz with Bleeding Fingers

W5 Reading

What makes a thoughtful metaphor? What makes a story, as we say, high concept?

Last month I read True Names by Vernor Vinge, a lesser-known but important novella in the formation of cyberpunk. This one predates Neuromancer by a few years. I prefer the Vinge story myself: less dystopic Hong Kong, more epic fantasy flavor. Apparently he designed the first full-fledged virtual reality concept in fiction.

So the premise. Learning a user’s True Name (i.e., their name IRL) gives you great power over them. Cyberspace is known as the Other Plane, haunted by sprites and spells (bots, firewalls, automation and other programs). Skilled users are known as warlocks. All the fantasy terms map onto some part of the digital experience. Are they just set dressing? Is magic a good metaphor for the digital experience? Not just as a way of speaking, but in all levels of design and theory.

Plenty of historical magic relies on algorithms: specific instructions for a certain outcome. It was never easy, usually a domain for specialists with esoteric knowledge. In precolonial Hawaii, invocations of gods and ancestors could be hours long. The recitation had to be perfect, or the words would lose their power. Programming languages can also be inflexible, tripped into failure by a mistyped bracket or letter.

Lector priests of ancient Egypt followed incantations written in manuals, like the famous Book of the Dead. Some spells would even bind gods by their secret names to access their power. So these gods were jealous guardians of their “true names.” Consider how big software corporations lock away their proprietary source code in their own self-interest.

I could call up more examples. Many other cultures have linked speech, and ritual formulas, with special power.

Despite sometimes meticulous rules, magic remains wild and fickle. Even dangerous. A wish to a djinn might turn against the wisher if not worded with legalistic care. So too, programmers often write code with unexpected and sometimes harmful side effects, whether a bug that exposes passwords to strangers or social media that fosters depression and loneliness. Or consider deep learning, a process which generates its own logic—inspired but not controlled by humans.

Computers work this way at a basic level. Input, output. Layer complexity. Intention gets warped by implementation, and vice versa. Ever more these days, we can do wonders without much technical expertise. So I think—although there’s so much more to discuss and debate in this vein—magic does indeed offer good metaphors for computing, and for cyberspace.

W6 Image

Golden halls, round. Circles within circles, and circles tracing the arcs of skew circles everywhere you look. Highly reflective. Symbols flicker here and there without an obvious referent. The folks passing through en route to lunch and other appointments are scattered images, twelve each. If not for the distortions, you’d hardly know which version was the body, and which the reflection.

Sound, like image, follows a cryptic trajectory through the paths. A whispered conversation at one junction may be transmitted for miles with near-perfect clarity. Approaching footsteps are ghosts. Airflow creates ethereal music from the breath and movement of people. Sometimes the reverberations stir your soul to emotions you never knew. Other times, distant snuffling haunts your sleep.

Junctions with other tubes multiply, always at right angles. People go knock-kneed, soles tipped away from each other, over the slick surface. This habitat was not designed for your kind. In the most-traveled corridors, folks have laid down cement, wood planks, piled rugs, any sort of compensation to flatten the floor. Streams of unseen lights parade through certain corridors of the complex. These corridors are therefore known as the daypaths. Those branching off from the daypaths are known as twipaths, where most people live. Those stretches of shadow cut off from the daypaths are known as deeppaths.

The scent was neutral when you arrived. It becomes more sewerlike every day. People brought their smells with them, and moisture leaked in from the forced entry. It begins to leave stains on the once-pristine walls. Must and sweat and molds. Fogs form. The minute textures grow oiled and blurred from the passage of so many hands.

The curved walls are aged. Textures vary. Some exhibit the fine, straight, parallel strokes of a machine brush, while others are pitted with smooth bubbles that create the impression of a hundred-thousand beads of rain sprayed over a pane of glass. Scratches, long and short, often break the patterns of chrome. Everywhere you feel as if you’ve fallen into a painting; sometimes impressionist, others post-impressionist, cubist, or surrealist.

All is unchanging amber. It steals all color from the inhabitants, soaking their faces and clothes in honey. This yellow flattens everything into a sort of grayscale, until you don’t even remember the flavor of “real” gray, and forget the other notes of the spectrum.

[What is this place? Find out and see more from Charles Brooks.]

W7 Essay

Hangnails are the writer’s bane. They encroach on the fingers, necessary instruments for almost every sort of written expression. Hangnails demand labor, without pity, from the sibling fingers—or from the mouth, taking the hand off the keyboard. The eye of the writer roves between screen and fingers, with occasional detours through the environment. The memory of the hanging wound is a magnet, to the touch if not the eye. Fingers are restive, companionable, always stroking each other and chattering together; while gossiping, they rediscover the outlines of the damage and seek to repair it in exactly the ways that must exacerbate the issue. The near world—of desk within room in a building on the street of a neighborhood—crawls with distractions, but hangnails are always the most immediate. No recourse but to chop off the hand.

No champion is greater than the mighty hangnail. It whines for relief, then howls when that’s given. There is no hope of smoothing broken skin by tearing it out, although this is exactly the promise a hangnail whispers in the quiet. No matter how delicate or forceful the help, the hangnail craves ever more flagellation. Is it the spirit of a medieval monk? Is it striving for the tragic status of humanity, with its transcendent capacity for wisdom and astonishing tendency for self-destruction? The hangnail operates on a different plane of reality, fed by entropy: the more you harm a hangnail, the more it grows, the deeper it entrenches, the longer it lives. For the hangnail is a creature of chaos. It was granted the lifespan of a week by the body’s native healing properties, but through its hunger and clever devices, a hangnail may endure for years, even to the grave of its host, at which time the hangnail rests without fear of healing and merges once more with its mother decay.

W8 Fiction

Our brave heroes ride off into the sunset. The End.

The image is a grim one, really. A sinking orb fills the screen and swallows the figures departing their story.

Night embraces the travelers. The journey is not finished yet. They overcame the villain; now will they survive the crossing, or slake the sands with their blood? Wilderness gives no quarter to the weary, nor respite for the unwary.

They ride because Death chases. Not seeking glory, these—they follow cowardice through harsh lands, unwilling to keep human ties.

Earth rotates eastward. As they ride west, they prolong the day. With godlike horses, they could live in endless sunset. Or blaze through dusty towns meeting every high-noon challenger and outrunning the bullets. But they have no steeds of golden blood. This rosy finish conceals, and reveals, the true end. However far or fast they go, Death has already arrived.

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