by Jeanette Winterson
Published July 2021
Many years after I first read one of her novels, I am still unsure of what to make of Jeanette Winterson. This is partly about me and my dogged ways: I believe, emphatically, that equivocation is a legitimate and underrated critical response to art. Partly, though, my response is specific to Winterson. Her books defy categorisation; there should be a separate ‘Winterson’ section in every bookshop. Her storytelling defies gravity, time, space, logic, conventions and common sense.
Occasionally, my response to Winterson is straightforward. For example, I consider Lighthousekeeping (2004) to be a fine if strange novel about love, loss, desire, time, and honourable and dishonourable conduct. I ache when I think of Silver, the narrator, leaving her lighthouse. In contrast, I do not understand large chunks of Gut Symmetries (1997), Winterson’s novel about love triangles and hyperspace (and whatever else). I strain to grasp its deeper meanings; at times, I struggle to follow what happens from one page to the next. And yet I find Gut Symmetries intoxicating for the way it confronts ‘the provisional nature of what is called the world’. Winterson’s fiction is otherworldly: the words, though visible, float in space and time. If I try to judge Gut Symmetries – should I give it two stars because it confuses me, or three and a half stars because it wakes me up? – I risk unpicking what are, for me, the book’s qualities.
I’m not suggesting that Winterson’s fiction should be beyond criticism. Indeed, there is no shortage of Winterson criticism. Some critics and scholars have accused her of over-thinking – I’m paraphrasing crudely. And self-absorption. And allowing, by design or fault, the scaffolding of her thinking to protrude. In the view of Allan Massie, it is ‘sad that she should bury her talent beneath a froth of pretentious verbiage’. In the main, though, such analyses – especially the last one – do not help me think about the relationship between ‘what is called the world’ and Winterson’s inventions.
I bring this context, or baggage, to my reading of 12 Bytes, Winterson’s collection of essays about artificial intelligence. The book has four sections (awkwardly called ‘zones’): ‘The Past’, ‘What’s Your Superpower’, ‘Sex and Other Stories’, and ‘The Future’. The essays within each section stand independent, but each of them circles, connects and bounces off the others.
Winterson’s tone is conversational. She aims for accessibility, recognising the complex nature of her topic: ‘What’s for sure is that fewer and fewer people will know how the systems that control us actually work’ – although perhaps she is hopeful that we collectively have ever really known how those systems work. Sometimes she is a well-ordered educator: to tell you B, I must first tell you A. Sometimes she is like a friend telling tall tales at the pub, three pints in. Sometimes she is a preacher. Sometimes she is a contextualist, filling in history’s gaps. Throughout, Winterson the essayist is more direct and functional than her fictional narrators, who often encapsulate – in their language, in their storytelling choices, in their very being – the wild complexity of Winterson’s speculations.
Winterson looks ahead, with enthusiasm, to a time when artificial intelligence will be connected and seamless: ‘intelligence without a specific or permanent form’. She looks ahead to a time when machines will routinely smash the Turing Test and can truly think independently. She looks ahead to transhumanism, to posthumanism, to a changed understanding of death. Her optimistic futurism includes a plea that we – human beings – rethink everything: ‘We shall have to reimagine those terms: Humans. Creativity. Meaning.’ She quotes Arthur C. Clarke: ‘The future will not be merely an extension of the present.’
To give context to her imagined future and its peculiarities, Winterson takes a wide-ranging if highly personal trip into the past. She demands – quite right too – recognition for Ada Lovelace, nineteenth-century computer pioneer. She lauds – quite right too – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She weighs artificial intelligence by drawing on Gnosticism, Buddhism, Plato, Le Guin, Newton, Descartes, Wollstonecraft, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Dracula, Wilde, Goethe, Pliny the Younger, Julian Huxley, behaviourist B.F. Skinner, eugenicist Francis Galton, and so on. And she re-animates themes from her fiction, including love, desire, feminism, religion, the nature of change, the costs and inequality of progress, the nature of creativity, the creation of life, and, perhaps most especially, the mysteries of a human’s inner world.
‘I would like to start in 2 places simultaneously,’ Winterson writes at one point. Throughout 12 Bytes, she takes the narrative in multiple directions: the ideas, the snippets of information, the beliefs and the stories pile up, within and between essays. At no point does the prose become forbidding, even when she is explaining Boolean algebra or qubits. Winterson covers a great deal of technical, scientific, historical, metaphysical and literary territory, pointing out the interconnections. She achieves a panoramic view – a difficult feat. But a side-effect is a sense that there is much more to know about the things she tells us, that there are complicating layers that she has, consciously and necessarily, set aside or glossed over.
A few months before I started reading 12 Bytes, I read Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. It is an atlas, of sorts, because it attempts a global view of power. Crawford writes, ‘Maps, at their best, offer us a compendium of open pathways – shared ways of knowing – that can be mixed and combined to make new interconnections, But there are also maps of domination, those national maps where territory is carved along the fault lines of power’. Among much else, she shows how many strands of private and public power connect and cavort: ‘AI systems are built to see and intervene in the world in ways that primarily benefit the states, institutions, and corporations that they serve.’
Crawford paints a disturbing picture of past wars and future wars, conflict minerals, the colossal amount of energy needed to harness data, the limitations and dodginess of algorithms, the dangers of the classification of humans, and more. She describes a lake in Inner Mongolia, an artificial but all-too-real body of ‘toxic black mud’, runoff from a mine that contains ‘almost 70 per cent of the world’s reserves of rare earth minerals’. She shows how labour conditions in some parts of the world serve unimaginable wealth in others. And she argues that the supply chains of artificial intelligence can be near-impossible to unravel, assuming there is sufficient will to even try.
12 Bytes and Atlas of AI both offer a panoramic view, although hardly the same view. Crawford takes a deeper theoretical approach and engages rigorously with her sources. She is present in the book, as a person with her own working history and research priorities. But by contrast, Winterson bares her imagination and gives herself license to speculate. These differences are complementary: I can imagine the two books spliced together and bound within a single set of covers; 12 Bytes is more collage than atlas.
As in Atlas of AI, the panoramic view in 12 Bytes helps the reader see beyond standard questions like ‘will a robot take my job?’ Although Winterson is guardedly optimistic about the digital future, she is not a cheerleader for Big Tech. She connects the current moment to the inequalities of the Industrial Revolution. On the methods of Amazon, Google and Facebook, she says: ‘This isn’t wealth creation; it is wealth extraction.’ She recognises that ‘the social, psychological, and environmental costs of progress have been and are immense.’ She sees inbuilt prejudice. And – this from the author whose debut novel is about a lesbian girl groomed to be a Pentecostal missionary – she says: ‘Those of us brought up in religious homes are fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the similarities between AI enthusiasts and ole-time religion.’ She describes a tired dichotomy of damnation and rapture. On the one hand, artificial intelligence represents end times. On the other hand, artificial intelligence will save us from our sins and release us from ‘labour / misery / death / monogamy (see Matthew 22:30) / childbearing / doubt / ADD YOUR OWN WISHLIST HERE’ .
Winterson and Crawford draw upon many other experts and thinkers, from inside and outside the world of tech, who are asking necessary questions, exposing wrongful practices, challenging elitist philosophies. At one point, Winterson mentions the Ada Lovelace Institute, founded in 2018 with a mission ‘to ensure that data use and AI technology work for the benefit of society as a whole’. It is easy to find many calls for artificial intelligence to be ethical by design – that is, ethical from the point of conception, rather than having ethical considerations subsequently tacked on or ticked off. As a tool that will soon be so much more than a tool, artificial intelligence should not only be ethical by design; it should also embody human rights by design. It should be safe by design, fair by design, accountable by design, compassionate by design, and so on. Winterson and Crawford show that many individuals and groups are striving for artificial intelligence that benefits the many, not the few. I find this revelation frightening, not comforting. In the meantime, Big Tech carries on doing its thing. The very air we breathe seems infused with the essence of Musk.
Winterson’s optimism is emphatic but partial. For example, she looks forward to helper bots, chatbots, pet bots being in our lives and saving our lives: ‘When real-world lines are shifted to blend reality, or virtual worlds, a close relationship with an AI doll is not odd.’ But she is scathing about AI-enhanced sex dolls: ‘comic-book femalettes with no counterpart in the real world that isn’t either abusive or theatrical’.
In this example, and many others, Winterson’s optimism emerges not so much from the evidence, notwithstanding her deep reading and deep thinking, but as a matter of choice. She takes a stance of positivity, in part, because she sees no other way forward – artificial intelligence is not going away.
A.N. Devers, among others, has noted Winterson’s ‘playfulness’ as a novelist. 12 Bytes does not attempt the dramatic experiments with style and narratorial voice that are often part of Winterson’s fiction, but the playfulness is present in other ways. The book is not frivolous or light – it’s serious stuff, delivered with irreverence, colour, action, sparks of joy and shards of dissidence. Winterson’s humour is present throughout 12 Bytes. There is no shortage of one-liners: ‘Atoms were the core of everything, but they were inert – though they did move around a lot. (We all know people like that.)’ But the humour seems to emerge from Winterson’s apparent amusement on a deeper, global level at conventional beliefs and assumptions.
Playfulness helps Winterson reckon with the inner world she cares so deeply about. She gives readers a glimpse of her own inner world – a generous act – and she invites the reader to mobilise their inner world in response. In doing so, she conveys a sense of personal wonder that the future will be incredible, in both senses of the word, even as she asks readers to embrace fundamental shifts of thought: ‘Humans are strange. We focus so much on the body and yet much of our relevant and vital life isn’t embodied at all.’ If the transformed world she imagines seems inconceivable, she reminds us of the wonders of past achievements now taken for granted, such as the medical profession’s ability to place one person’s heart inside another person’s chest cavity. 12 Bytes is built on the foundation of Winterson’s fiction – not merely its themes but on Winterson’s intense commitment to free-wheeling speculation. The essays push past the constraints of conventional knowledge, past the limits of the known world, past obvious or likely hypotheses. Each essay comes to a crescendo that is a summation or exclamation mark – but Winterson reaches that point by deploying doses of unrestraint.
The reader need not believe everything Winterson believes to appreciate 12 Bytes. For example, she equates artificial intelligence with Buddhism: ‘The material and the embodied are illusions – at best they are temporary.’ I am impressed by the threads of the argument and open to thinking it through. But I am unconvinced that Buddhist enlightenment, its challenge that we reconsider what is really real, will align with an artificial intelligence that thinks and makes decisions for itself. Winterson understands that she often asks readers to play along. At one point, she feels it necessary to say ‘I mean this seriously’ while making a case for the separation of mind and body.
In the end, Winterson’s optimism requires a leap of faith. She knows the problem well enough:
If we are still violent, greedy, intolerant, racist, sexist, patriarchal, and generally vile, really, what is the point of being able to open your garage with your finger and run faster than a cheetah?
The solution? We need, she says, to replace competition with cooperation.
But how do we achieve this grand aim, beyond programming AI to be compassionate and fair and hoping that it complies? How do we cooperate? How do we create a future that really does serve the needs of the many, not the wants of the wannabe Kings of Mars? Crawford, having painted a bleak picture of AI, cautions against dystopianism because such thinking itself works against positive change. Winterson’s optimism is at another level. It is a stance. It is both a call to action and a form of defense. And it shows the extent to which 12 Bytes is a work of speculation and imagination that considers, as the subtitle states, ‘where we might go next’.
At one point, Winterson says: ‘All over the world women are working to change reality. Reality is what we make it. The stories we tell each other about each other – as individuals, as groups, as nations, as human beings – shape reality.’ At another point, she quotes the narrator of her novel The PowerBook (2000): ‘I can change the story. I am the story.’ Winterson’s stories are indeed powerful. But so are Mark Zuckerberg’s. I agree that storytelling, whether delivered as a book or by other means, can be an agent for change. I agree that a story that chronicles real change can help lead to further change. But storytelling is sometimes destructive and pernicious, and it sometimes promotes avoidance or equivocation or desensitisation. I want to adopt Winterson’s optimism about humanity’s grand future. I want to believe. But it is a very big ask.
Storytellers have an important part to play in the future, but they can only do so much. As Winterson says:
Dystopia or Utopia?
Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be harder.
I’m reminded of James Bradley, who at Adelaide Writers’ Week 2021 responded to a question about writing about climate change by saying ‘I can be a really crap activist or I can be a reasonably good writer.’ 12 Bytes is a book – and a book is an extraordinary and transcendent piece of technology. But it is not magic.
Kate Crawford, Atlas of AI (Yale University Press, 2021).
A.N. Devers, ‘Weird science: Jeanette Winterson talks writing, teaching and queer visions of the future,’ Prospect (9 May 2019).
Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping (Fourth Estate, 2004).
— The PowerBook (Jonathan Cape, 2000).
— Gut Symmetries (Granta, 1997).