Why should we care what Jeanette Winterson has to say about artificial intelligence? The answer is that Winterson is never boring. She can be brash, didactic and hectoring, but she is always passionate and provocative. On subjects ranging from late capitalism to Greek mythology, she comes across a little like an over-caffeinated teacher determined to drum some sense into Year 10 on a wet Friday afternoon.
Winterson’s manic energy can have mixed results. It can produce work that is porous and mutable in its structure, forward-looking and ambitious in its themes, such as Sexing the Cherry (1989) and Written on the Body (1992). But it can also produce wacky high-wire performances full of stylistic gimmickry, as in Art & Lies (1994), Gut Symmetries (1997) and The Stone Gods (2007). These are books that seem to attack their subjects rather than explore them. And there’s no getting away from Winterson’s aphoristic mode of writing, which seems imbued with a Cassandra-like certainty that she has seen the light and will lead others towards it. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me,” she wrote in The Passion (1987).
Winterson appears to believe that her books will save the world – which may make a reader apprehensive about a collection of her essays on the “once-in-a-species opportunity” for artificial intelligence to make our planet a better place. AI attracts megalomaniacs. It inspires both overblown promises and existential angst. Whether utopian or apocalyptic, these claims usually go unfulfilled. Where does Winterson sit on the spectrum? There is a clue on the book’s jacket, where her author photo has been given a cyborg’s eye.
Subtitled “How We Got Here; Where We Might Go Next” (at least there’s a “might” in there), 12 Bytes is Winterson’s first essay collection since Art Objects (1996). Its mission, she claims, is “modest”. She wants readers who think they are not interested in AI or biotech to feel connected to the idea of “a transhuman – even a post-human future”.
This may sound fanciful, but Winterson has a long-standing fascination with machine intelligence and the protean possibilities of the internet, dating back to The Powerbook (2000). Her last novel, Frankissstein (2019), a darkly entertaining reboot of Mary Shelley’s work, featured amoral sexbot salesmen and a charismatic scientist pioneering ways to upload the human brain to the cloud. It was a lot of fun but…
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