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Date: 28/09/22


There are a number of Twitter accounts I follow, some of which are listed on my Links page.

Just to explain: I'm not actually on Twitter. I have given thought to the possibility a few times but, paying due regard to much of what goes on there, have considered discretion the better part. So I don't 'follow' those accounts in the usually-accepted sense of the term.

One of the accounts I follow/don't 'follow' is that of Jamie Bowden-Smith. Now Jamie is an historian and is curator of the very splendid and worthwhile Transdiffusion broadcasting history site, which has been kind enough to publish some of my pieces down the years, so it might be thought that I have a sort of vested interest in seeing what he's up to (although Transdiffusion has its own official Twitter feed here).

Anyway, Jamie and his husband Chris (one of the founders of Transdiffusion) were having some rewiring done on their three-storey residence yesterday, and he was tweeting the quotidian details of what he was having to do in preparation for the event. So far, so domestic. But then he tweeted this:

Tweet: 'The rush to do all the important things before the switched was pulled [...] answer Alexa's heartfelt question as to whether she'll dream...'

Instantly, my blood temperature dropped to the point where you could keep a side of bacon in me for a month.

I have mentioned before how I have a psychological quirk which means I anthropomorphise inanimate objects, especially those which are so programmed as to appear to be communicating person-to-person (and sometimes even if they aren't). This was suddenly and all-encompassingly invoked by my esteemed editor's casual remark, and I sat there frozen for some moments before I emerged somewhat shaken by such an unanticipated experience, at the idea of a mere device having what I will call (for want of a better word) a 'soul', and who was troubled about what she (sorry, 'it') would experience when the power was shut off.

I have had similar frissons of near-terror in the context of artistic works. That scene in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey where astronaut David Bowman is removing HAL 9000's memory modules and the computer reverts to its initial programming and starts singing Daisy, Daisy in that same creepy and menacing voice...

...A little bit of light relief here, chums; I need it as much as you do at this point. When I was about five years old (if that) a clandestine version of that old song circulated in the infants' school I attended. It went as follows (bear in mind that this was about 1967; some of the terminology is now - as the OED would put it - arch.):

"Daisy, Daisy, the scuffers are after you.
When they catch you, they'll give you a month or two.
They'll tie you up with wire
Behind a Black Maria.
So ring your bell, and pedal like hell
On a bicycle made for two."

(Mrs. Crane was somewhat taken aback when we sang it for her. Serves the cranky old bat right)

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. It isn't just the behaviour of machines which invokes this sense of terror in me either. I can cite at least two instances from literature where I have had similar - and in one case violent - reactions when human characters were involved.

One was in Alex Comfort's (yes, that Alex Comfort) 1980 novel Tetrarch. To avoid having to explain both the plot of the book and the psychological ideas underpinning it, I'll merely say that one of the weapons developed in the world in which the tale is set is the Aegis. This is a shield with a covering masking a type of mandala which, when pointed at the enemy, induces a variety of changed mental states in them up to and including Oblivion. There is a description of the Aegis being used in anger, and of some of its effects on its targets. One sentence will show you why I was, as they unfortunately say nowadays, 'triggered'. It reads:

"I saw two men sitting on the ground, happily counting one another's fingers."

It's an image I find disturbing and utterly impossible to shift. The idea of grown adult humans acting like children - and not as a deliberate act, but as something imposed upon them; a display of enforced regression - is absolutely horrifying to me.

The second example comes from Edmund Cooper's 1974 novel Prisoner Of Fire. To précis the plot: the Government has assembled a group of teenagers with telepathic powers at a special 'school', with the intent of developing them as weapons in psychological (and psychic) warfare against The Enemy. One of them, Vanessa, escapes and is hunted down by the State. The whole thing culminates in a climactic telepathic battle, from which Vanessa (who is, physically, about seventeen) emerges and asks the scientist who has been her mentor and guardian if he is her daddy, and would he please take her home. In other words, Vanessa has regressed, retreated, 'withdrawn' (the word used in the text), from which fate there can be no return, not ever.

Even as a connoisseur of Cooper's frequently dystopian (and usually dyspeptic) fiction, that scene just hit me both between my eyes and between my kidneys. I was reading it for the first time in bed at the age of thirty-something, but I actually cried out for the world to hear, "No! No! You can't do that to her!", and very nearly shied the book across the room in fright. It's the only one of the dozen or more of Edmund Cooper's books on my shelves which I have persistently avoided re-reading ever since. That, my dears, I do not need.

I wonder if all of this was the reason why I had terrible trouble getting to sleep last night...