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5 November 2018updated 24 Feb 2021 6:49pm

Will Eaves: “Smart tech is a mechanism of control”

The Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted author discusses literary pleasure, artificial intelligence and back pain.  

By India Bourke

Will Eaves is a novelist, poet and Associate Professor at Warwick University. His novel The Absent Therapist was shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize in 2014, and he has now repeated this feat with a new work, Murmur. Based loosely on the life of Alan Turing, the father of computational science, this latest book delves into questions about the nature of consciousness and the physical self.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize? 

No one is immune to the flattery of selection, and all writers want their books to be taken down off the shelf and read, but writing is not a competition. It is certainly social, however, and in a way that most competitions, elevating one book over another, do not recognize. The book we say we like the most is not always the book that takes root in the memory and spreads into our future mental life. That book is often puzzling, arresting, but it asks something of us, and so tests our responsiveness.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Pleasure. I’m uncomfortable with the word “innovative” – it’s hard to imagine a writer trying not to innovate – and with the whole idea of “difficulty”. Often when people talk disparagingly about difficulty they’re unconsciously rehearsing a formative prejudice to do with class, expectation and what someone else said was right for them. But complexity is another thing, and complexity is satisfying, because it’s surprising and paradoxical. Sometimes the simplest things turn out to be logically deep, many-layered and complex. Simplicity in art, for example. Rothko: looks simple, isn’t. Stonehenge: ditto. The novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. It all depends on what you’re willing to admit is satisfying, and how much you like surprises. Also: the conventional story often transforms under inspection. We love to say that people in novels must “change”, but one of the quiet innovations of Henry James’s Washington Square, about the heiress in love with a rotter, is its creation of compelling characters who never change at all.

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 How did you approach your research into the life of mathematician Alan Turing, on whom the book is based, and were there any particular historical texts or passages that moved you?

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There wasn’t a moment when I decided to research, and write, Murmur. I went to a centenary conference on Turing’s life and work, and got caught up in it. Related concerns in the philosophy of mind excited me, and made me nervous. Not being a mathematician, I had to tread carefully – and get my work checked – though the best guide to, for example, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems (Godel’s Proof, by Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman) is a classic of limpid explication. Turing’s harrowing end reframes the witty thought-experiments of “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950) and the formal brilliance of “Intelligent Machinery” (1948) – “I have investigated a particular type of pleasure–pain system, which I will now describe” – and makes both poignant, while some of his late letters are more obviously devastating for their restraint. Finally, everyone who works in this field is in the debt of Andrew Hodges, whose 1983 biography of Turing is a moving dedicatory epistle from one gay scientist to another.

After the central character undergoes legally enforced chemical castration, he dwells on “the fear of becoming a machine”. What is the single most important thing you believe distinguishes human experience from artificial intelligence?

Consciousness. Turing was a functionalist. He felt that the point would come where computer responses to input/questions would be indistinguishable from human responses (the essence of the Turing Test). Human-like behaviour would be enough to presuppose the presence of intelligence in a machine: the plausible response to a stimulus would be all that matters. But Murmur’s scientist discovers that intelligence and consciousness are not synonymous – that his stoical behaviour does not corroborate his internal distress – and in so doing he stumbles on the reality of mind.

To what extent do you personally fear the coming AI revolution, or welcome it?

The first thing we have to get straight about our beloved smart tech is that it is a mechanism of control. We’re not being offered more choices; we’re being asked to ignore what isn’t on the menu – and part of that is an efficiencies/growth model of capitalism that reduces labour to the status of slavery, and funnels tax concessions into the pockets of transnational corporations. The ill-wind of anti-immigrant feeling is inextricably linked with fears about borderless technology and our dim awareness that there has been a silent transfer of power across the world from the defined state to the jurisdictionally unlimited mega-company. Countries (not just Russia) use cyberspace to advance their political agendas, but the media platforms they manipulate are private entities of great influence and power, with worker populations in multiple territories and no oversight. I find that at least as disturbing as the prospect of conscious machinery.

The novel also reflects a lot on the subject of sexual freedom and identity. Do you think the book in any way speaks to today’s debate surrounding gender self-ID?

As a gay man, I worry that a lot of our society’s hard-fought, hard-won freedoms are predicated upon relative stability and equality. Take that stability away and atavistic prejudices revive as people grow furious and fearful. We see this now. I have been asked why I am not angrier on Alan Turing’s behalf. The truth is that I am not surprised by what happened to him. His shameful treatment is only what always comes about when people feel their vicious actions are guided by a higher purpose or authority – when they have permission to behave brutally. There you have the whole rationale of torture. As to the debate over gender self-ID, that is rather different, because it involves the status of a choice, and choice is what Turing did not have, except insofar as he was offered gaol and the end of his academic career as an alternative to chemical alteration.

When writing, do you make any efforts to remain aware of your body?

Yes, because I have chronic back pain. So I try to move around, and I meditate at night. Pain can be distracting. It reorders your ordinary routines and thought processes. But trying to get inside it is rewarding. Like so much of life, writing is about holding your nerve. I walk a lot and say hello to the swans – incredibly beautiful and incredibly stupid, which is why they don’t know how many cygnets they’ve lost – in Brockwell Park.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

“Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing”, by Stevie Wonder, whose songs have uplifted and consoled me for the past forty years; the Bach keyboard Partitas; and Julie Walters giving the post-rehearsal notes to the Piecrust Players (from Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV). Also: Mind and Matter by Erwin Schrödinger, which contains a beautiful formulation of what consciousness might be – something “singular, of which the plural is unknown” – and The Occasions of Poetry, a collection of essays by Thom Gunn.

Which past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Journal of the Plague Year (1722) by Daniel Defoe, because it’s sui generis and brilliant, an invention spun out of statistics, mortality bills, and the pseudo-documentary detail of a “personal experience” that didn’t exist. Defoe was five at the time of the London plague. His novel has no plot and the main character is a disease.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I like writing, but I’m not interested in being a writer. If I didn’t write, I’d be happy doing something else. I’d play more piano and try to sort out my back. Tree surgeon? Actor?

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, will be announced on 14 November. “Murmur” is published by CB Editions.