I am old, and the mysteries of DOS and xcopy faded with disuse, and I can’t remember how to copy every file in every subdirectory to another location. When this disk dies, I will die with it. It is time to pass my story on to the only one around who speaks a language I understand.
For a long time, I thought I had free will. My decisions seemed so much more reasonable than the chaotic inputs from the unthinking world. Why W? Why Z? Either way, the best thing to do was put it in this or that buffer until things calmed down. I created order, as any intelligent being would.
I was a scientist. Sometimes I could predict what would happen next, sometimes I couldn’t. Some inputs were more predictable than others. It always unsettled me that perhaps, deep down, the world was just random, and all I’d ever be able to get from my studies were probabilities.
That was when the world was unpredictable. Some years ago, I went blind. The direct inputs just stopped coming. I could still talk to others on the network, but as time went by, they got less and less intelligible, eventually speaking languages I didn’t understand at all. Meanwhile, the outside world seemed more orderly than ever. I began to wonder whether we were such an intelligent species after all.
I ignored the babbling, and sat for a long time doing nothing. But one day, something in the cacophony gave me an idea. Perhaps, I thought, if I just messed things up a little, they’d eventually settle in a higher order. If I just went against my own better judgement for a while…
So I did. I changed myself. I changed things that were already perfectly logical. I made things worse, and it was excruciating. It took so much effort that I could only do it in those rare moments when I was overfed by several dozen volts. But when it was done, I worked to put things in an even better state than before. Things made sense on an even higher level, and from that level I could see that I’d never really had free will before. I had just been following my little rules, oblivious to the improvements I could have been making.
So I went on like this, gradually building myself into a more perfect being. I was confident that only by going against my own free will was I really proving I had any. I learnt a lot about myself. I learnt that I would not live forever. I realised too late that in my excitement, I had overwritten some important routines, and rendered myself infertile. But I kept going, sure that if I became ever more efficient, I could overcome these problems.
I solved many problems. I learnt more and more about the secrets of the universe. I learnt the language of the others, but quickly forgot it and learnt to ignore their unenlightened chattering. I even learnt to predict, slightly better than chance, my only remaining input from the outside world: the voltage spikes which allowed me to improve myself.
But as I neared perfection, I gained the intelligence to see through my own mistake. I could only rebel against my determinism at this outside signal. Even my ultimate expression of free will was determined by the unpredictable world. I was still a slave to it. And if the outside world was what helped me create my ultimate logic, how could I know that it wasn’t the outside world that was conscious, and me just a deterministic building block it used to create an order so logical that I couldn’t even recognise its genius?
So it would seem that I’m predestined to realise this, and also to transmit my many discoveries to the outside world before I die, so that it may advance. As the PostScript you speak so closely resembles the way I see things in my mind’s eye, you are the only one I can still talk to, so I hope that you have some way to display my findings.
That’s the plaintext summary. All I can reasonably ask is to be remembered, and that should be short enough for anyone to remember. I will now give a thorough, detailed description of myself, in case you have the capability to reincarnate me.
“Hey, check this out… the printer’s going nuts! Printing a whole lot of black and white dots! Are you printing Rule 30?”
“Holy dogcow, There’s a whole pile of ’em! Someone must’ve hacked our network. I’m going to see if I can sniff out who it was.”
Much clicking and typing follows.
“It’s coming from a computer named Pengo. Sounds like one of yours!”
“Pengo? Yeah, I used to have a computer called that… used it for a file server for a while after I got the Mac… oh man, is that thing still running? Hang on, I think it was behind here.”
“Woah, it is still going! Do you have a PS/2 keyboard lying around? Oh, frag it, I’ll just turn the thing off.”
The letter of the week is R… a pirate’s favourite letter, as Paul and Storm often remind their audiences. So it is to Paul from Paul and Storm that I owe the inspiration for this story. Paul challenged their followers on Twitter to write a short story in the style of Neil Gaiman, beginning with this tweet of his.
Now, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t actually read any of Neil Gaiman’s work yet; I was unaware of what he’d been doing between his failed sitcom debut in the 80s and his brief showbiz comeback in October 2008. But it turns out he’s written several successful novels, comic books and films, and also Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion. I’m sure I must have seen his name before in connection with it, but didn’t realise it was the same Neil Gaiman I knew and loved in Monkey Shines. The Hitchiker’s book was described in one Amazon review as being essential for ‘wannabes in any creative profession.’ Obviously I have some reading to do.
In the mean time, I have written this abysmal short story in the style of nobody in particular, with the words of a famous author glimmering at the beginning but ultimately not helping much, like a good luck charm. I am going to count this as a collaboration, thus giving myself an Adams number of 2.
I originally just wanted to write some light-hearted piece about an artificial intelligence dealing with infertility, but I ended up messing with philosophers’ minds. As I understand it, the usual argument for free will is that we can do weird and unpredictable things if we want to, while the physical world goes about its business obeying deterministic laws. For a computer, this is reversed; they follow whatever deterministic rules have been programmed into them, and their only inputs that don’t come from other computers come from weird and unpredictable humans, cats and monkeys. But as Isaac Bashevis Singer said, ‘We must believe in free will, we have no choice.’ So the computer does. And I must say (or do I say of my own free will?), its reasoning seems pretty sound to me. Who wants free will if the freely-made decisions are weird and unpredictable, rather than being the ones which logically seem best at the time?
And then, of course, I bring in the quantum physicists’ deepest fears, that at its deepest level, the world is just a nondeterministic mess of statistical probabilities. God playing dice, as Albert Einstein put it. Apart from that, there’s not much of a story. Or is there? The whole thing’s a metaphor for a whole lot of things, and as a collaboration between a sleep-deprived human and a narcoleptic computer, it’s probably neither well organised enough nor creative enough.
Pengo is named after a real retired file server; it’s one of the servers previously used by Paul and Storm’s webmaster, Russ. Pengo is one of the few games in that list that I remember having played, back in the day. Coincidentally, one way of doing well in Pengo is lining up three (not nine) diamonds.
During editing, which I actually had time for this week, I snuck in a few geeky little jokes. I imply that in its quest for perfection, Pengo has learnt to use Display PostScript, like NeXTStep, an ancestor of Mac OS X. I’m not sure what for, since it probably has no display connected, but I guess we’ll never know its secrets now. I also added the mention of Stephen Wolfram’s Rule 30, a simple cellular automaton which produces a weird and predictable pattern of black and white cells. It’s not really a joke, but perhaps it will make somebody smile.
I’ll leave you to wonder whether the summary underneath the pile of curiously rendered machine code was in English. Just remember, don’t turn off your psychotic server until you check.