We, Robots: An Excerpt

Curtis White


An excerpt from Curtis White’s We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House)



My own preferred point of philosophical reference for resolving the supposed incompatibility of reality and artifice is French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s magnificent Time and Narrative, Volume I. It is an imposing work, but its ideas are both lucid and compelling. For Ricoeur, the problem of realism has little to do with either the real or the artificial. The problem has to do with what is familiar and what is unfamiliar; acceptable and unacceptable; consonant and dissonant.

The logic of his position goes like this:

He writes, “Time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative.” An obvious example: we impose the idea that things happen with a beginning, middle, and end on events that would otherwise be formless. Or we read about the deeds of heroes (protagonists), and that teaches us to look for heroes and villains in real events. American foreign policy is, unfortunately, all about labeling people as “friends” or “evildoers,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadie of ISIS being the most recent example.

But these narratives are not static; in fact, they are inherently unstable, naturally, since they are only stories. Most important, they oscillate between what Ricoeur terms concordance and discordance. In concordance, communities repeat their central myths, the stories that make them a “cult” and give them an identity, in order to provide a sense of social continuity. And so Americans tell themselves their “founding” stories over and over again, even though some of them are quite deranged and self-destructive: how the Founding Fathers were the homogenous embodiment of wisdom (when in fact they hated one another, mostly along Federalist and Republican lines); how these wise fathers created a Christian nation “under God” (when in fact many of them—Jefferson, Paine, Franklin—were Deist skeptics); how the Second Amendment means that we all have the right to carry assault rifles; and how everyone should strive for the American Dream understood as “success,” that “American bitch goddess” (William James), and so on. Deranged though they may be, these stories are comforting for many Americans, and to challenge them is to invite vigorous debate if not a fistfight.

At a more sophisticated level, readers take a similar comfort from the conventions of realism. Realist fiction provides a way of feeling that we know who we are, we know this world, we know this particular way of constructing time, etc. It is reassuring. The consonance of the realist world with what we take to be the world we actually live in provides a way of refiguring, generation after generation, what is known and therefore virtuous. As Ian Watt long ago discovered in his book The Rise of the Novel, the realist novel’s uncomplicated appropriation of both empiricism and middle-class verities has made it the dominant storytelling mode for bourgeois culture.

For American culture, the conventions of the realist novel are an enormous feedback loop. It is as if the reader were saying, “You have taught me to expect these conventions, and I do. In fact, I demand them. If you don’t give them to me, I will complain loudly.” This is, perhaps, a little noticed form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. We expect the world to be in the way we have been told that it is, but we are anxious that it might not be in that way, and so we seek reassurance through repetition. “Weird” novels (as my students always insisted on calling innovative writing) threaten our sense of who we are. Realism is thus no longer merely a literary technique, one among many; it is a way to make everything okay for those of us afflicted with Reality Anxiety Disorder (RAD).


Now, you might think that in our technologically advanced, hipper-than-thou age of guru blogsters and Wired orthodoxy, we would be accustomed to having our reality shaken and we’d be in RAD remission. This is the era, after all, of crowdsourcing and Kickstarting and not of the Writers Guild. Oddly, while the technology may be disruptive, the psychological reality behind the technology appears to be all too familiar. (I noted something similar to this earlier when I observed that the cyber economy seems to have derived its work ethic from the usual Protestant sources.)

For example, at the website “Authonomy” administered by HarperCollins, readers can rate manuscripts that are submitted to the site (at present, there are 100,000 users and 15,000 submissions). Awesome, right? But the kicker is that authors are using this input in order to fine-tune their work to their readers’ expectations. For example, Sandy Hall, a young adult writer, published her first novel, A Little Something Different, only after revising it based upon suggestions submitted by online readers. Hall commented: “Having had it tested online, you can really tailor it to what people want to read.” Just ask fan-fiction author Anna Todd, author of the 2,500-page novel After, who said of her composition habits, “The only way I know how to write is socially and getting immediate feedback on my phone.”[1] As of October 2014, After had been viewed more than a billion times on the free fiction site Wattpad, and Todd had a six-figure multibook deal with literary gatekeeper Simon & Schuster, as well as a film option with Paramount.[2]

It goes without saying that what the readers of this fiction want to read is something like what they’ve already read—i.e., realism and genre fiction. Using these protocols, A Little Something Different is by definition not different at all. Or it had better not be if she wants to publish another book!


Or consider the work of Chicago-based “Collabowriters” who are (which is?) writing the first Internet novel by painstakingly crowdsourcing the work one anguished sentence at a time. Here is the first product of their collective genius:

The barbed sweet stenches of sewage wafting up between the ice cracks on the canal were arrogantly broadcasting an early spring. From somewhere across the canal, a soft sound was barely audible over the moan of shifting ice and garbage: “Help.” Zachary stopped, at first unsure of what he had heard.

For all its hypertextual bravado, this is familiar stuff, as familiar as teenaged boys hunched around computers eating Volcano Nachos at Taco Bell.

Of course, to say that what motivates this new breed of cloud-based writer is a commitment to a realist epistemology gives them far too much credit. What they are responding to is a market. And in the end the market drives their creations in much the same way that Stalin drove socialist realism. Again, Dubravka Ugrešić:

[Under Stalin] writers who were unable to adapt to the demands of the ideological market ended tragically: in camps. Nowadays, writers who cannot adapt to commercial demands end up in their own personal ghetto of anonymity and poverty.

Here, writers may say anything they want as long as it doesn’t matter. A book burning holds no terror for this country. There’s not much left to burn.


Unfortunately, being reassured and comforted by the repetition of what is familiar also has the effect, as Nietzsche put it, of “gradually increasing inherited stupidity.” Stupidity haunts consonance and creates, in Nietzsche’s words, “fettered souls.” The measure of a community’s truths is their utility; any unfettered souls who say deviant things and threaten the stability of these useful truths are wrong not because they can be shown to be wrong but because they are thought to be harmful to the community. They are thought to be lacking in virtue at best and evildoers at the margin. Sunni extremists are not the only people worried about infidels, about those who are unfaithful to a culture’s assumptions/virtues. The postmodern fiction writer that Tom Wolfe loves to hate is an infidel.


In a healthy culture, which ours obviously is not, our social narratives will change, sometimes dramatically. The problem is to explain how repetition and change can be part of the same process. How does concord relate to discord, consonance to dissonance? Is it simply that they are antagonists? Or are they dependent on one another in some way?

If you think about it, discord is fundamental even to the most concordant/acceptable realist drama. It is the moment in which the familiar is suddenly challenged by a threat or a reversal of what is familiar. In conventional plotting, this is the idea that a “normal day” is interrupted by “complication” (a threat to normalcy, a threat to homeostasis), followed by “rising action” (which gradually builds tension), and “crisis.” Sherlock Holmes is in his study, he’s playing the violin, Watson is smoking and reading the paper in an armchair—then, shockingly, there is a knock at the door. A man with a knife in his back stumbles in carrying a package. A seductive woman enters, her face veiled, smoking a cigarette. Or here comes an odd foreign fella of uncertain sexual disposition with a little gun. (Oh, sorry, that’s The Maltese Falcon. But you get the idea.) Our sense of the normal is threatened. The “pleasure of the text” is in “suspending” this unease for as long as possible before returning us, reassured, to the same study where Holmes can take up his partita just where he’d left off, or Sam Spade can put his feet up and roll a cigarette, Effie Perine perched on the desk to light it. This conventional narrative begins with discord, but in the end it is only another realist reassurance machine, antidote to Reality Anxiety Disorder, never mind that nothing could be more artificial and unreal than this supposed gritty realism.


It’s like the story that Freud tells of a little boy, his grandson, who becomes anxious when his mother leaves the house. So he invents a game called fort/da (gone and there) to reassure himself of his mother’s eventual return and thereby to master his anxiety. He throws a stringed toy away from him (fort) and then reels it back (da). Literary realism plays this game by unsettling the reader’s sense of normalcy and then returning it to cultural homeostasis.

More disruptive than this game are those narratives that threaten the realist reassurance machine through the violence of the new: experimental novels, nonrepresentational art, and music without a clear key signature. They go fort, but they don’t necessarily come da. And yet the anarchic and defamiliarizing work of art has been the norm in art movements since the Romantics. Is the sonata form a prison? Write Beethoven’s Fifth, and when the Fifth becomes a prison, write Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Is courtly portraiture an art for slaves? Paint Goya’s “Black Paintings,” and when even that starts to feel tame, paint Egon Schiele’s splay-legged whores. Feel repressed by the sonnet? Write Wordsworth’s Prelude, a veritable declaration of war on the world of the familiar, and when the Prelude no longer suffices, write Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Has psychedelia been domesticated? Blow it up with the Ramones, Swans, and punk. Art movements tend not to want to have anything to do with bourgeois reassurance. Reality Disorder (with or without the anxiety) is their mother’s milk.

But this still doesn’t show how the two kinds of narrative ought ideally to work together. Ricoeur proposes that we add a third term and create a dynamic (or dialectical) relationship among the three. He calls this arrangement threefold mimesis (M1, M2, and M3). That sounds thornier than it is. M1 is the moment of the prefigured; the world we happened to be born into that provides individuals with a culture—whether American or Talibani—or a “pre-understanding” of what will count as real/normal. (This is Nietzsche’s “inheritance.”) M2 is the moment of configuration, the writer’s moment. Here, the writer can choose to confirm M1 or challenge it to some degree, whether modest or revolutionary. This provides narrative with dynamism, and thus the possibility for change. Finally, M3 is the reader’s moment, the moment of refiguration. The reader/listener/viewer can find solace in the conventional configuration of the text, or react in outrage if the text refuses to confirm (creating the scandal of Ubu Roi, The Rites of Spring, or the lewd expressionist paintings of der Blaue Reiter), or she can embrace the scandal of the new as so many thousands embraced the self-destructive scandal of French Symbolism in the 1880s or punk in the 1980s. Speaking for such scandals, George W. S. Trow wrote:

As the boy slices his skin to watch a scar form, he thinks how loathsome and intolerable life was before he thought to do it, and how comforting it is to belong to the new aristocracy of people who have had the imagination to have an intention to wound themselves.

Usually, the embrace of deviance comes not because of some innate perversity but because of a preexisting dissatisfaction with the world as it stands acquired through alienating experiences of one sort or another [3]. Dissident artists offer consolation to the already alienated through the experience of the work of art understood as utopian longing for a future (and better) world. They offer the possibility of freedom and happiness in a reconfigured world. But first the world as it stands must be blown up (metaphorically). For example, the radical otherness of psychedelia or the art rock of Sonic Youth can lead us to reject the world of parents and authority, and it can lead us to embrace an urban “scene” (the East Village), an “underground,” or a subculture (the Grateful Dead’s Dead Nation, morphing into Burning Man, is probably the most famous example), all instances of the politics of non-participation—not just off-the-energy grid or the media grid or the money grid, but off-the-grid grid. More often than not, this embrace of deviant art (as Hitler accurately called it) is a minority affair, but it can also grow to be a serious challenge, especially if it coincides with a political crisis (World War I, Vietnam) or if it finds a way to ally itself with a student or labor movement (like the Autonomia movement in Italy in the 1970s). Remember, when imagination “took power” in France in May ’68 in alliance with artists, intellectuals, students, and workers, Charles DeGaulle felt so threatened that he fled—he fled the country (for Germany, of all places) as if the students were the second coming of the Nazi wehrmacht.

Ricoeur concluded that the best way to understand the social function of narrative was as “rule-governed deformation.” Narrative doesn’t only repeat what is acceptable; it is also “productive.” Narrative is the dynamic relationship between “sedimentation” and innovation. Narrative is neither realism nor experimentation: it is both.

It is for this reason that we live not only in loyalty to an inherited sense of order; we also live in fascination with the unformed and emergent. We want stability, but we also want what John Barth called the “best next thing.” Order is our home, but it is a dead home, a prison, without the violence of innovation.

The big philosophical question for Ricoeur is where this dynamic is going. Is it a meaningless circling? Or is it going somewhere? Does it have a direction, a destination, a utopian Absolute? Ricoeur suggests that narrative is not a circle but a spring-shaped vortex that leads somewhere better and freer, but he offers no way to know that that is true. Wherever it might be heading, what Ricoeur describes is the way in which cultures evolve.

1) It may help to recall the lyrics to the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer”: I can make it longer if you like the style/ I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer.

2) Much the same thing is, apparently, made possible by the algorithms on the music streaming service Spotify. According to a 2015 Wired article, one Matt Farley, a counselor to troubled teens by day, writes 200 songs per month and makes them available through Spotify. He has written more than 16,000 songs in the last seven years. (He has a 92-song album about staplers.) Last year, he made $27,000 while real musicians (not named Kanye or Beyoncé) struggled to make more than they could get by selling a T-shirt at a concert.

3) As Stephen Daedalus commented in Joyce’sUlysses: “I’d rather have my country die for me.” A very punk sentiment.


Curtis White is the author of the novels of Memories of My Father Watching TV and Requiem. A widely acclaimed essayist, he has had work appear in Harper’s Magazine,Lapham’s QuarterlyOrion, and Playboy. His book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves was an international bestseller in 2003

Excerpted from We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data by Curtis White with permission from Melville House. Copyright © Curtis White. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.