The Operating System and Liminal Lab


Richard Brautigan 1084
All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
– Richard Brautigan
The one hundredth element in the Periodic Table is Fermium. Like other transuranic elements that have been created in a lab, but not found in nature, Fermium has a half-life of between about a day and about a century. The same is true for another of humanity’s high-minded test tube babies: utopia—which does not occur in nature and tends to decay rapidly even in the laboratory of human imagination (even more rapidly, studies show, in the laboratory of human conversation).
Ideals are as unstable as the unknown. For every blithe utopian vision of the future there is an equally abysmal endgame scenario. All, so far, are equally fictional—that is, speculative, quarantined to the mind. Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” explores both. In the poem utopia is imagined as humanity returning to nature in concord with “machines of loving grace,” hereafter referred to as MLGs, in the wake of what is popularly called a Singularity.
For some, the Singularity dangles forebodingly—mythologically—on the horizon like Rapture, a last notch in the Mayan Calendar of human achievement free of technology’s sudden and newfound will. This is simply another superstitious fear on the order of all others. Three years before Brautigan published his poem, Stanislaw Lem argued in Summa Technologiae that
[articlequote]Cybernetics today is haunted by the medieval myth of the homunculus, an artificially created intelligent being. The dispute about the possibility of creating an artificial brain that would show characteristics of a human mind has frequently engaged philosophers and cyberticists. Yet it is a pointless dispute.[/articlequote]
What about an artificial brain that wouldn’t? Lem thus allays fifty years ago the misgivings that persist today. The dispute is pointless because fear that the future will somehow become unpredictable as a result of technological Singularity is, as they say, super funny. Lem’s cybernetic brain is Brautigan’s MLG, a homeostat that, capable of loving grace, is necessarily an AI, or something akin, advanced enough to exempt humanity of its labors while mediating the relationship between itself and the global ecosystem of which the people of Earth are a part. It’s a Singularity born out of the 1960’s; pacifist, dome-dwelling, starry-eyed, an utterly preposterous and charming jingle to twenty-first century ears.
The poem consists of one carefully structured stanza followed by two variations. They each begin with the phrase “I like to think,” which in the sense of the poem is understood as the colloquial, but can also be understood, in the context of AI, as a simple, if vaguely inauspicious, declaration. What follows in each stanza is a parenthetical; from “(and / the sooner the better!)” in the first, to “right now, please)” in the second, to the final insistence of “it has to be!)” in the third. This parenthetical intensification, replete with exclamation points, precedes a third set of variations: the speaker’s thought-of “cybernetic meadow” becomes a “cybernetic forest,” which then expands to the all-inclusive “cybernetic ecology.” Humanity and MLGs, in “mutually / programming harmony,” coexist “like pure water / touching clear sky.” One imagines the Self of something like HAL-9000 emerging gradually, one memory module, or blade of grass, at a time.
If, for Brautigan, the tradeoff for the occurrence of Singularity (which, curiously, could occur in nature) is the utopia described in this poem, well, that tradeoff sounds pretty equitable. But can the relationship between humanity and its MLGs be balanced if, “all watched over,” humanity looks to them as its providence? What kind of “mutually programming harmony” is that? It’s a plot hole or, put another way, utopia’s inevitable atomic diminution into reality—for now. In the mean time, it’s never too early for poets to think about the fate of our civilization, nor, luckily, is it ridiculous to expect that a vision like Brautigan’s is too naïve or treacly to come true. If anything at all is working in our favor, it is uncertainty; the future’s unpredictability that, true to form, we recoil from and manufacture with such loving grace.
[textwrap_image align=”right”][/textwrap_image]PETER MILNE GREINER is the author of Executive Producer Chris Carter, a collection of poems and science fiction. His work has appeared in OMNI Reboot, Fence, Diner Journal, and is forthcoming in H_NGM_N. He lives in Brooklyn, and blogs at
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