The Brain is Wider than the Sky

Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

We must, it seems, be mere supplicants before the alien machine being that emerges at the moment of the Singularity, begging it to be nice to us and praying that it will allow something of the human to survive. But, until that day, we must endure the shortcomings of the lesser machines with which we already live. These machines – starting with the telephone and ending with the various net- worked devices that have insinuated their ways into our daily lives – exert a twofold pressure. On the one hand, they seduce us, we want them to contain, include and involve us; on the other hand, they demand that we become more ‘machine readable’. We pay for inclusion and involvement by becoming more like machines. This has, so far, proved to be an awkward, fractious deal.

Almost daily, we encounter call trees. When you call an organisation, a voice answers and offers you a series of options, you choose one and then it offers you further options. Operationally banal yet technologically sophisticated, call trees say a great deal about human–machine interactions. They are, in their very ordin- ary way, a vision of the machine future. This is a future that both humans and machines are building and the process demonstrates the difficulties involved in constructing that future without recon- structing humans.

Call trees are a way of simplifying human callers so that they can be understood by the machine. The options queues do not offer routes to all the answers you might want, but only to those the machine can provide. Nor do they, except in some recent, highly advanced systems, take into account your tone of voice, mood or personality. As a result, they are disliked. One poll suggested Americans thought call trees were the second most irritating thing in their lives after hidden charges.

There is a website called Gethuman is a movement that ‘has been created from the voices of millions of con- sumers who want to be treated with dignity when they contact a company for customer support’. It began as a single page called ‘The IVR cheatsheet’. IVR stands for interactive voice response, otherwise known as automated attendant, automatic call dis- tributor or, more colloquially, call tree.

Gethuman was set up to defeat call trees. It provides tricks to make the computer connect you to a human. So, for example, at the time of writing the site advises calling the Apple number 800– 275–2273 and ignoring all the messages. Instead, the caller should just keep hitting zero and he will get through to a human being. Repeatedly hitting zero works in the majority of cases. FedEx, however, requires a little more determination – dial 800–463– 3339, say ‘agent’ immediately and then say ‘no’.

Call trees are often very badly designed. Most machines put the caller in a position of deep uncertainty. The options offered may not seem quite right and the caller fears finding himself stuck at the end of an options queue with no way of getting back without starting the whole process again. Uncertainty also springs from the lack of information about how long the process is going to take. You cannot expect to engage with a tree just before an urgent appointment. Trees thus create little wells of dead time.

Then there are the attempts by the software designers to soothe your nerves about the whole process with assurances that this is all being done ‘so that we may better direct your call’. Or, most commonly, there is the empty flattery of ‘Your call is important to us’.

In contact with a call tree, people sense a kind of twofold manipulation. The most obvious manipulation is the way the options menus try to identify you in a way that is readable to a machine. The second manipulation lies in the transfer of inefficiency. Call trees are machines for transferring working time to the customer. You do all the business of ‘directing’ your call, not the machine, and you do all the waiting. This, in the worst cases, also means that if you press the wrong option button and do, finally, get through to a human but the wrong one, then it is your fault not theirs. This is one of the more troubling aspects of computerisation in general. Systems become autonomous beings in the corporate imagination and relieve employees of responsibility when things go wrong.

Call trees, banal and routine though they have become, are a defining technology of our time. They are conceptually linked to the creation of modern computing in the mind of Alan Turing. After all, a call tree is a clumsy attempt to get a machine to pass the Turing Test by convincing the caller it is more than just a machine. They are also early expressions of the two-way pull – the humans that want machines and the machines that want humans to be more like them – that, in more sophisticated devices, is becoming the primary drama of our civilisation.


Henry Molaison lived in a gap, the illuminated moment of an inexplicable present in the midst of past and future darkness. His mind constantly met the world anew. Perhaps his predicament was not so far from that of the poet.

Wallace Stevens spent his entire imaginative life on the strange borderland between the mind and the world. In his finest poems he seems to merge the two into some perfect unity. In ‘Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself’, a very late work, he uses the experience called either hypnogogic or hypnopompic – the interval midway between waking and sleeping in which we can become confused about whether something really happened or was imagined. In the poem a bird’s cry ‘seemed like a sound in the mind’ of the hearer. But was it a real cry? In the end it does not matter: ‘It was like / A new knowledge of reality’. The world need not be – cannot be – a stable entity outside the mind but in the borderland between the mind and the world lies a way of knowing.

Born in the late nineteenth century, Stevens spent most of his life in Hartford, Connecticut, where he worked for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, eventually rising to the rank of vice-president. Harmonium, his first book of poetry, was pub- lished in 1923, when he was in his fifties.

He was admired in Hartford but, among his colleagues and neighbours, he was known as somewhat anti-social and prone to abruptness. People were seldom let into his house; visiting poets were shocked to find themselves booked into local hotels. This may have been because of the signs of mental illness in his wife, Elsie, but it was also because of Stevens’ commitment to the cultivation of his own thought processes. ‘You have to think two or three hours every day,’ he wrote to the Cuban poet Jose Rodrıguez Feo.‘You have to think [not only] about what you read, but you have to think about your life and the things around you.’

His sequestration in Hartford and his respectable life echo the quietness of Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts. Two of the greatest American poets led, to all outward appearances, ordinary public lives as if to protect the limitless complexity of their imaginations. But their lives were boring in very different ways. Stevens had no shameful disease, he had a stable marriage and he did travel, notably to Key West, Florida. It was in Key West that he displayed his most exotic characteristics, drunkenly rowing with the poet Robert Frost and breaking his hand pun- ching Ernest Hemingway on the jaw, though Hemingway seems to have won the fight.

There was, however, a much more profound connection between Stevens and Dickinson than mere quietness and respectability. They both understood what neuroscience is only just beginning to grasp and what physicists have understood since the publication of Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in 1927 – that the place where the mind ends and where the world begins is unknowable.

This makes them both poets of the second machine age. The physical transformation of the natural world in the first machine age, the time of the Industrial Revolution, inspired dismay in poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth and outright disgust in the great Victorian art critic and philosopher John Ruskin. They saw the destruction of the organic basis of society, the death of the gods and the alienation of the craftsman from his craft. Dickinson and Stevens saw something quite different.

In the second machine age, the challenge to the human world is mental rather than physical. As the gadgets become more intimate and the scanners more powerful, it is our inner worlds that are being transformed. Perhaps they are even being destroyed. The perpetual connection and distraction of our lives now are the opposite of Stevens’ solitary thinking time or Dickinson’s isolation in her room. Connectivity is replacing creativity on Facebook and Twitter.

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