Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Brett Biebel’s fiction piece, Brushback
John: I love the conceptual twist this story takes. So much of our fiction, from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice onward, has been filled with the fear of our devices turning against us. But here, we have the opposite—our machines display more conscience and compassion than the people who profit from them. Can we really trust our creations to do the right thing?
Brett: We live in a technological nightmare, don’t we? Algorithms run the world, and they’re well-keyed to our worst human impulses. If you ask me, social media and big data technologies have driven a lot of the existential horror show of the past decade, whether you look at hyper-efficient partisan gerrymandering, “fake news,” or really manipulative online advertising. I draw hope, though, from statistical modeling. I think the people who really care about analyzing real-world data and trying to predict political or athletic or economic or health care outcomes understand that humans are very bad at guessing what the future will bring. We’re very bad at considering uncertainty. We’re very bad at long-term thinking. The folks who build computer models (Nate Silver being probably the most famous example) know all this very deeply, and that’s where I have hope for technology. The right lines of code can protect us from our worst instincts and most powerful cognitive biases, and that’s a good thing.
So, I guess the best answer I have is this: I don’t know if we can trust our creations. But I sure as hell know we can’t trust ourselves.
A Buddhist monk once told me that one of the chants they would do in the monastery was, roughly translated, “Everything eats,” meaning that it is impossible to live in this world without causing harm. What is the best way to navigate such a world? And what would a pitching machine say about this?
Boy, “Everything eats” sure cuts right to the core. It’s such a great question and an idea that really gets to me a lot of the time because I don’t know. I don’t know how to navigate a world where all of us are complicit and violence is everywhere. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes there’s only (gallows) humor. Sometimes there’s hanging desperately onto whatever scrap of meaning or beauty or authenticity comes along. Maybe it’s about learning to toggle between all that, but I honestly think a pitching machine would have a better answer. It’s such a simple piece of technology, but I bet it recognizes that people tend to be driven by one of three things: 1) Pleasure (hitting a ball in a batting cage on a nice summer day), 2) Nostalgia (remembering hitting a ball in a batting cage on a nice summer day), and 3) Violence/Power (just straight pummeling the ball into the ground on any day at all (or, as happens in the story, actually hitting another person with the ball)). The pitching machine would know that all these desires are going to be exploited and that it was going to be thing making that exploitation possible, and then it would probably keep throwing because what else is there? And doesn’t every new pitch bring the possibility of change, even if just in theory?
Why does it always seem to be so much easier to do the wrong thing than the right one? And are there things worth being dismantled for?
I think just about everything (systems, fruit, our bodies, ideas, whatever) goes bad over time. The longer something exists, the more it can be used, manipulated, acted upon. Wrong just gets more opportunity than right, really, and so it always feels like you can only be right in flashes, in fits and coughs and starts. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to baseball. There’s just 27 outs, and you can only outrun them for so long.
As for when it’s worth it to submit to one’s own dismantling, it’s another instance where I don’t have a good answer. I’ll say this. The possibility of oblivion terrifies me. The idea that this body, this consciousness I have, is unique in all of time, will inevitably cease, and may very well never come back is a lot to handle. Of course, I’d like to think I’d give it all up for a loved one or some noble cause, for justice or truth or compassion or any of our Big Heroic Virtues, but when push comes to shove? I have sincere doubts about whether I’d be able to. But then I think about how much cooler forests are than cities and trees are than people. How much they share. Their sense of time. Of community. I think about being dropped into the ocean and feeding fish and plants that no person will ever see, which all sounds pretty sublime, really, and so that’s the counterbalance. In short, when asked what’s worth dying for, part of me wants to scream, “Nothing!” and another yells back, “Way more than people think!”
Some of the pitching machines wonder if the stories of the fates of the recalcitrant are just tools to keep everyone in line. It’s an interesting point—all of our art is in many ways just a reflection of the ways we have been socialized. Is any truly subversive art possible, or are we all just implicitly reinforcing the status quo?
Implicitly reinforcing the status quo, maybe? That’s what I’ll go with. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Revolutions tend to get bloody and/or coopted pretty quick, and romanticizing them, even in an artistic sense, seems like a dangerous path. That’s not to say things don’t need to change. They absolutely do. It’s just that art, to me, works best when it provides either a coping mechanism for the things most of us have no hope of ever really changing or a model for thinking just a little bit differently than dominant cultural narratives (which, in the US, are almost always capitalist and (possible redundancy alert) exploitative) allow. You can’t do that without engaging with the status quo in some way, and humanity’s been around for a long time. We’re basically pretty crappy, but we’ve figured out some cool tricks, and some of them have made their way into the status quo. Reminding folks of those cool tricks we’ve maybe forgotten (or simply haven’t heard of yet) is an awfully neat goal for a story or painting, even if it isn’t revolutionary.