Which is why algorithms, exactly like fascism, work perfectly, with a sense of seemingly unstoppable inevitability, right up until the point they don’t. During the Flash Crash of May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones lost nine percent of its value in five minutes. More recently, Knight Capital lost 440 million dollars at a rate of about 10 million dollars a minute due to what it called “a rogue algorithm.” Algorithms cannot, of course, be rogue. But rogue is the term we have invented for algorithms that don’t do what they’re supposed to, which is as much as to say that their creators don’t comprehend what they’re doing. Before that 440 million dollar loss, Knight Capital had used science to identify a functional law of the marketplace. They had engineered an end to the fundamental human condition of risk. They had not, 45 minutes later. As Borges also wrote, “There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless.” This same futility, it should be remembered, haunts mathematical modeling as much as literary contextualization.
Meaning is mushy. Meaning falls apart. Meaning is often ugly, stewed out of weakness and failure. It is as human as the body, full of crevices and prey to diseases. It requires courage and a certain comfort with impurity to live with. Retreat from the smoothness of technology is not an available option, even if it were desirable. The disbanding of the papers has already occurred, a splendid fluttering of the world’s texts to the winds. We will have to gather them all together somehow. But the possibility of a complete, instantly accessible, professionally verified and explicated, free global library is more than just a dream. Through the perfection of our smooth machines, we will soon be able to read anything, anywhere, at any time.
Insight remains handmade.
This essay makes an interesting distinction between literary meaning and raw data. But it also reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about as my students and I have debated philosophically this week the question of whether money is real. We defined “real” as that which is directly sensible by some of the five senses, and so money, which is more often than not these days just the numbers indicated on my bank account and credit card statements, is not sensible and therefore not real.
Of course, argument could be made with our class definition of real, which could be redefined in such a way as to include money. Yet, the fact that the definitions of both money and real can be adjusted seems to me to separate them all the more from the necessity of concrete entities. I don’t doubt the existence of my tea cup — as I tell my students, I don’t doubt it because I think it would hurt if I hit my head repeatedly with it. But money, as an abstraction, wouldn’t hurt my skull at all.
And so there’s a question as to whether abstractions exist, and if how, in what form? Where are they? How can your ideas be real to me if I can’t see them? How can ideas be real if we can have ideas about unreal things? Yes, you can communicate your ideas, about things real or unreal, to me, or you can try to: I can interpret your vocalizations or your written symbols as words and then I can interpret those words as meanings, but of course, this process can be problematic. But then, the process often seems to work, too. But these things we communicate — are they real, and if so, in what sense of real?
And now I’m thinking about nonfiction — how in poetry or fiction, I can write anything and throw it out there and it can be merely interesting (or not), but in nonfiction, if I claim a text to be nonfiction, then I’m implying that I’m writing as myself, that the narrator is the author. And in nonfiction, I’m also often writing as if I have an idea to convey — but I may just be speculating. In writing poetry and fiction, I don’t even have to know what the words I’m writing may mean (and in fact, they may not be being used to convey meaning, but to convey sounds or mood).
Right now, this minute, I feel I want to write something, to post something, but I’m also feeling a little confused about these ideas; I feel there’s something to be worked out, something to be expressed. Maybe I don’t go to fiction or poetry when I feel that way. Maybe fiction and poetry are more playful than nonfiction, though I tend to write nonfiction — that is, I narrate whatever’s on my brain — pretty naturally. I often feel like I have observations or ideas or opinions to express, even if these aren’t always interesting to readers. Perhaps this is the heart of the obsessive-compulsive aspect of being a writer.
And perhaps the need to draw a distinction such as the one above between nonfiction and fiction/poetry is an impulse to understand by dividing, by categorizing — the impulse of Aristotle, that master maker of categories. But these categories, too, need not be more than temporary, like scaffolding, say.
And maybe “ideas as scaffolding” is a decent metaphor (as good as any other, no? since all metaphors are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false, (he generalizes)).
Perhaps there’s an impulse to understand, to create an idea, a story, about real things, even though these stories can be flawed, inadequate, etc. And I’m also feeling an impulse to keep going on this post, but also feeling a competing intuition to end here, to let go, to try again another time, perhaps.