Perspective is a good thing. We are often told to step back and see the bigger picture, and it isn’t always easy. Author of the acclaimed novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical, coming of age story that became a BAFTA-winning screen adaptation and made it into the A Level national curriculum, Jeanette Winterson now brings us this: a book of essays about our collective past and future, a work of non-fiction unlike any other that delivers a quantity of perspective strong enough to restore sight to the visually impaired.
Having read a large amount of non-fiction over the past few years, written from various social, political, spiritual and philosophical angles, I feel that this book merits an award, if not half a dozen. The style of writing is powerfully persuasive and the arguments are incisive. Set to be a new classic, 12 Bytes explores the route that humanity has taken to get where we are now, and then takes a radical look at what seems to be inevitable, with topics ranging from sex dolls to cryonics, artificial intelligence and what is likely to happen when we finally smudge homo sapiens out of the picture on the cave walls of Big Tech.
For women, warns Winterson, it isn’t looking good. A new kind of sexual revolution is being made. The tech industry, which is leading this revolution into the twenty-second century and beyond, is dominated by men. The social changes that feminists have pressed for in the past, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, are threatened by sex bots, robots that carry forward the same profiling that women have struggled so hard to deal with over the centuries: the female as submissive sex object. As a society we having been trying to get the message across to young women using advertising campaigns, Samaritans and help lines that it’s ok to say no, but guess what, the Tech Men have invented a doll that doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
You may say that there will also be male sex bots, programmed to satisfy their female owners, but there is a fundamental difference between the genders that cuts across this tech revolution in a new, subversive way: the sex bots plough directly into the dangerous terrain of male domination and abuse, churning up ground that we’ve been trying to re-seed for generations. Frighteningly, “AI-enhanced love dolls are being branded as alternatives”. Are we looking at the future of male/female companionship, the robot as relationship replacement? As Winterson succinctly puts it, “As soon as this doll can make her man a sandwich, she’ll be bigger than Bitcoin.”
In these essays Winterson does not trash the future, she merely takes a long hard look at the risks that we face as we wade ever deeper into the mire of transhumanism. Our search for immortality is older than Ancient Greece; now we finally have a chance at achieving it by merging with AI. Already, it seems likely that we will one day be able to upload our brains onto some sort of ‘cloud’, and download them into the perfect working body of our choice. It could be that the heavenly afterlife of religious imagination will finally find a foothold in reality. We could turn into hybrids, in the same way that Dracula and Frankenstein were hybrids. In her essay titled ‘Coal-Fired Vampire’ Winterson takes a fascinating look at the beginnings of these myths, and how our past has turned into our future.
“In the 19th century the old stories of life and death are subjected to an unexpected transformation – and this is wholly to do with the coming of the Machine Age. For the first time in history, humans were inventing things that seemed to have both a life of their own – and the capacity to run forever.”
The trouble with the vampire trope is that it’s really quite nasty. The vampire feeds off others. He is greedy and voracious in his appetites, willing to kill in order to keep going. Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is not particularly endearing, and the wig is rather foul. As for Doctor Frankenstein’s creation, don’t even get me started. It doesn’t bode that well.
Any Cop?: Will all this staggering technology actually make the world a better place? Maybe, if we use it very carefully. Because “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?” Now that is what I call perspective.