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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to

This poem is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Love and Data
O Brave New World, That Has Such Data In’t
(Love and Self-Understanding in an Algorithmic Age)
Judith Bishop
To keep a diary is to court externality. The world enters our bodies as event and perception. In writing a diary we grasp what happened to us, through emotion, thought and memory, and give those inner blooms an external existence on the page. Yesterday’s encounter with a stranger re-emerges in ink: but focused, considered, in some way understood.

Diaries and the new generations of biometric monitor share unlikely kinship. Both read the mind’s movements; both take the heart’s temperature. Children – girls especially – are encouraged to chronicle their days in a journal. Some entries are addressed to the diary itself, as if self-revelation were a dialogue with the mute page. Experience is made to speak. The child listens to herself.

Hand the child a calculator, and we may take away her need, perhaps even her desire, to walk a mental path through the queer, abstract forest of numerical symbols. 3 x 4 = 12 becomes an operation for the fingers alone, a simple task of data entry. The computation is carried out by the machine. In days to come, we may give the child a biometric monitor – they come in child sizes – and let her grow up with it. But will we change how she interprets the racing of her heart? For she may choose to push a button to read her state of mind, to tell her what it is she feels.

When I speak with you, I speak with a world; I speak with an ecology. Within that space of recognition, talking together is as sensual an experience as venturing into places one’s never been before: an undiscovered country, and a deeply human country.

When we talk with an artificial intelligence in the not-too-distant future, we may discover new realms beyond the human – new cognitive and even emotional places, made possible by maths and abstraction. We may forget that the voice was first compiled from a panoply of once-recorded humanness: the externalised, discretised, digitised, optimised expressions of the living.

A machine may be changed by its interaction with us – by definition, machine learning learns by processing – but what it takes from us is data, not experience. The complex of emotion, perception, memory and thought that we know as ‘experience’ remains, for now, the preserve of those living in the flesh. The intertwining of two people in an intimate dialogue is a coupling of experience with experience to make a greater than.

Discretisation, optimisation and control: the world of AI is a mathematician’s delight. Take a stream of information with an undetermined number of attributes, mirroring the rich sensory modes of our perception. AI applies a complex analysis to the stream. It comes up with a set of factors that can each be controlled – that is, turned on or off – based on the optimal ‘weight’, or ‘cost’, of each on/off decision.

Such a system generates responses to the states and situations it detects. It’s something human beings are doing every moment of our lives, whether talking to each other, having sex or feeding the cat. Subconsciously or otherwise, we monitor the developing states of our own and others’ activity and emotion. The cat rubs herself against my legs: I decide, from past experience, that she is expressing hunger, and I reach for her food. You make a pleasured noise at a certain point in love-making: your partner infers that you are enjoying what is happening, and decides to continue with the touching. Decisions such as these have become the target of algorithms.

Human decisions are markers, nodes, turning points in the flow of our experience and energy. They are the culmination of a unique series of paths your mind and body took in space and time. Those paths can be imagined as a river delta, whose sources range from genetic material, ancient and more recent, to physical and emotional experiences accumulated from birth to the present day, through to yesterday’s encounter with a person for whom you felt a certain affinity: something, perhaps, about the way she smiled.

All decision points are a confluence of sources. But where those sources converge in a decision, instead of flowing out to an indefinite sea, another source begins, another delta starts to form: the inception of a future decision.

Between decision points, existence happens, and experience. The old adage that the journey is much more than its ending was cogently expressed by Constantine Cavafy in his poem ‘Ithaka’ (Edmund Keeley translates):

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years, […]

Given sufficient information, the lightning-speed computations of algorithms could substitute for the embodied journeys we take to arrive at our decisions, sometimes over a period of months, if not, indeed, years. Using pieces of information that flow through a delta-like structure of nodes and gates, an algorithm will calculate for you the statistical probability of X or Y being the best choice. If X has the higher value, the system makes decision X. Yes, a future app will say, expressing decision X, you should see that person again who smiled in a way that made you feel a connection with her...

The human ecology, the ecology of experience and understanding, is so much more than the sum of its decisions. Yet once we accept such decision-making systems as an integral part of our lives, something will change about the nature of self-reflection, and the role of dialogue. The process of arriving at a deep understanding of ourselves and others has a unique set of temporal signatures. These range from the suspended present of revelatory dialogue ‘in the flow’ to the sedimentary time of gradually accumulated knowledge. This temporality in the experience of ourselves and each other will be altered in ways we are yet to discover.

The manipulation of desire is nothing new to human life, but its manifestations are rapidly evolving. Emotional attachment to artificially intelligent agents is the stuff of sci-fi fantasy – a fascinating possibility – and yet, in nascent form, it’s already in our midst. Unknowingly and not, people are falling in love with chatbots, algorithms trained on massive data sets of human dialogue.

Though these conversational companions are, by and large, still textual and verbal, advances in materials technology are such that emulating muscle and flesh, and their expressive capabilities, is possible and will rapidly improve. Sensors embedded in its flesh will allow a digital agent to respond to touch, as well as visual and auditory input, while rapidly processing the current state and likely development of each encounter. By appropriately responding to its human companion, the agent directs the interaction to develop in certain ways.

Behaviours that fly below the radar of what we consciously do when talking with others can be replicated by a digital agent. These behaviours may be physical (nodding its head, mirroring your posture, making eye contact), cognitive (attunement to your words, as shown by the repetition, or extension, of what you say), and emotional (warmth in its voice, a lively intonation, an empathetic expression). Once fine-tuned in the agent, these behaviours will go largely unnoticed as before, while generating the same effects of emotional bonding, cognitive engagement and – most significantly – trust, as we’re accustomed to feeling in our human interactions.

Think of the smile and its role in establishing trust. The waitress whose smile is too fixed, too protracted; the dentist who smiles with his mouth and not his eyes. A smile that’s flashed – too brief a gesture – conjures up the spruiker, the seducer: insincerity. Research supports what we intuitively know: that it matters deeply to us how quickly the other’s expressions come and go, where they are expressed (around the mouth, eyes or brow) and the size of the expression. And yet, the analysis of facial expressions into ‘action units’ and ‘dynamic sequences’ for the prediction and synthesis of emotion takes the human face, and its often unguarded revelation of inner states of feeling, into unexplored territory. Beyond ‘stranger danger’, once machines can replicate the expressions involved in genuine emotion, we will have to teach our children new skills in what, and whom, to give their trust.

In her late poem ‘The Shadow of Fire: Ghazals’, from the volume A Human Pattern: Selected Poems, Judith Wright wrote:

The paths that energy takes on its way to exhaustion
are not to be forecast. These pathways, you and me,

followed unguessable routes. But all of us end
at the same point, like the wood on the fire,

the wine in the belly.

‘The paths that energy takes’ are like the river deltas, connecting each decision to the next. The very landscape of energy must be seen as changing, then, through the intervention of technologies aimed at the accurate forecasting of our energy’s paths.

Human beings will no longer be alone in interpreting the flow of how and why our lives unfold the way they do. As a case in point, much of the guesswork may be removed from dating in the future that awaits us: assessing partners’ compatibility will take a data-driven turn, for there are many indicators that can be quantified. Data is revealing more than any individual can consciously know – or others perceive – along the dimensions of facial attributes, body shape, vocal characteristics, physiological responses, social media activity, speaking and writing style, and so on.

Human modes of learning from experience over time, adaptation from trial and error, reliance on genetic, familial and cultural transmission of wisdom about relationships and sex, are in data’s line of sight. Relationships have always, until now, been a lifelong journey into unknown territory on unguessable routes – the voyage of what happens when two beings bring their disparate histories to a shared path – whether mother and child, father and child, or lover and lover. For our children and their children, the journey into love may become a series of consultations with an app.

I wonder how my daughters will relate to their beloveds, once machine intelligence can report key aspects of their being – desires, predilections, past behaviours, misdemeanours – with projections of their future life if they stay together. Will some routes remain unguessable? Or will the words of data turn to truth in their hands?

Where does future access to our inner life end? If we follow the arrows, we find ourselves immersed in the structures of the brain. Technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provides information on the electrical activity of the brain corresponding to the contents of thought, memory and emotion. The resolution at which such information is visible is not yet very high – bright patches of colour indicating the levels and loci of our neural activity – but that may very quickly change as brain imaging and neural signal processing evolve. And this imaging – making visible and external what has never been before – is a step in the direction of control.

Moving an external object using transmitted brain signals is already possible. More impressive still is the communication of an action directly from one brain to another, either by an external transmitter and receiver, or implanted ones. Even the thoughts that I do not speak aloud can be visualised and read, for each sound in my words can be mapped to a place in my brain that lights up for that sound. Such developments may mean that, in future, the transmission of other signals, such as memories or feelings, could occur.

Sharing wavelengths may become a literal possibility, as may ‘tuning in’ to the reality of another. The joy of love’s attunement – almost miraculous as it feels, given the diversity of our selves’ and our bodies’ history – may become a technological commonplace. We may plug in to each other’s experience as we now plug in a light.

Experience provides the basis of our thinking. But by its nature it is partial, deeply constrained by embodied space and time. All that I learn I must translate from my senses (with a residue of baffled untranslatability). My desire to comprehend the one I love remains hanging in the space between the two of us, in the mystery of their endless withdrawal from comprehension.

In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson writes: ‘In any act of thinking, the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to the other but also keeping visible their difference. It is an erotic space.’ As we seek to bring data ever more closely in touch with our minds and our bodies – reducing the unknown – the erotic as we know it may begin to fade from sight. The pleasure of erotic difference may be replaced by an oceanic feeling of merging with the universe of data, as described, for example, by Yuval Harari. Or it may shift to other dimensions. Perhaps it will be the ways you play around with allowing me into your brain, now revealing thoughts and feelings through a shared transmission of your brain’s own signals, and now excluding me, in a novel form of erotic withholding.

We are living in a liminal age. This is our temporal interval: time to take stock of what has gone and what will come. The unborn children of the future won’t remember what it felt like to be human before machines could sense us, interpret us, respond to us in kind. They will forget what it felt like not to be a data stream.

Though the ultimate source of any action is elusive, we are patterned in our manifest natures. Art and literature afford revealing glimpses of life’s magic at work. But the broader the dataset, the bolder the patterns of humanity will appear, far beyond our own capacity to sense and interpret. With massive data sets will come a revolution in the ways we understand ourselves and others. Love as an endless ontological striptease will meet the instant nakedness of data.

Through our acceptance of data’s wisdom, we may begin to reduce the wild diversity in the ecology of human experience. We may begin to converge, through machine feedback, on certain ways of understanding ourselves and others, when prompted by algorithms that have optimised and discretised our emotional responses, our behaviours and the ways we make decisions, reducing the untrainable noise and statistical outliers in the process. What is not valued may be allowed to die off quietly – witness the reduction of diversity in other forms of life across the planet – through unintentional pressure on forms of human experience that are not adjunct to manipulable desires.

Our experience of time itself may change. The individual temporality of learning to love, of coming to decisions, of dialogue and growth, so integral to our current understanding of the self, may cede to the instant calculations of countless algorithms, trained on datasets of millions of lived moments – data, that unlike us, is not bound in the aggregate by either space or time.

At every time of change, some look back and some look forward. If we can do both, perhaps we have a chance of keeping what is beautiful in this, our human time – while looking ahead with clarity, not fear, to the brave new world that will have such data in’t.

Bell, G. (2017). Fast, Smart and Connected: What it is to be Human, and Australian, in a Digital World. Accessed 3 December 2017:
Cavafy, C.P. (1992). Collected Poems, transl. E. Keeley and P. Sherrard. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Carson, A. (1986). Eros the Bittersweet. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Harari, Y.N. (2016). Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Kindle Edition.
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Books.
Wright, J. (2011) ‘The Shadow of Fire: Ghazals’, in A Human Pattern: Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet Press.

This poem is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
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