12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson review – engaging history of technological progress

Whether examining sex dolls or transhumanism, the novelist brings her skill as a storyteller to these ambitious, hugely entertaining essays

Jeanette Winterson is not usually considered a science-fiction writer, yet her novels have always been concerned with alternative realities, and for more than two decades she has drawn on the imaginative possibilities offered by technological and digital advances. Her 2000 novel, The Powerbook, was an early exploration of the fluid identities and connections offered by virtual personae; The Stone Gods (2007) combined history with interplanetary dystopias and featured a relationship between a robot and a human. Her most recent fiction, Frankisstein, reworked Mary Shelley’s story of an artificially created intelligence into a modern novel of ideas about the present and future limits of AI and the implications for art, love, sex and biology.

Now, in 12 Bytes, her first collection of essays since 1996’s Art Objects, Winterson examines all these preoccupations without the mediation of fiction, though the narrative style is as conversational and erudite as you’d expect from her, peppered with irreverent asides and mischievous flashes of wit (“Dry as dust I don’t do,” she has said of the previous collection). The 12 essays here are grouped into four “zones”, loosely covering the past, the imagination, relationships and the future, and together offer an eclectic odyssey through the history of technological progress – a history that for too long sidelined some of its most influential figures because they were inconveniently women or gay, and has only recently begun to restore their reputations. Winterson pays tribute here to the contributions of Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, along with women such as Stephanie Shirley, the founder of all-female company Freelance Programmers, and the forgotten teams of female programmers during the second world war, their work unacknowledged for decades because it didn’t suit a narrative of male expertise.

Winterson explains in her introduction that the essays are the product of a longstanding fascination with advances in machine intelligence, and that she approaches the subject as “a storyteller” with a modest aim: “I want readers who imagine they are not much interested in AI, or bio-tech, or big tech, or data-tech, to find that the stories are engaging, sometimes frightening, always connected.” Her primary interest is in what she calls “the bigger picture”: the metaphysical implications of our transhuman future, about which she appears surprisingly optimistic.

‘Irreverent asides and mischievous flashes of wit’: Jeanette Winterson photographed at her home in London.
‘Irreverent asides and mischievous flashes of wit’: Jeanette Winterson photographed at her home in London. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

“A hybrid form of human is certain,” she asserts in the final essay, I Love, Therefore I Am. “Homo sapiens might be on the way out… And if that was to happen, how could we pass on the best of what we call human nature? How would we define it?” This piece, in common with many of the others, is content to ask more questions than it answers; Winterson acknowledges the ambiguity inherent in so many of the ethical questions surrounding AI.

“The technology to change the world for the better is the technology that is in place right now… It’s the best of times and the worst of times. Dystopia or utopia? Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be harder.”

But, while she argues for the primacy of the inner life – the part of us that can’t be fully known or monetised by Facebook algorithms – in somewhat abstract terms, citing Larkin’s line “What will survive of us is love”, elsewhere she offers more practical solutions for an AI future that will serve the greater good. In the essay Jurassic Car Park she addresses the problem of the current white male dominance of tech and how this leads to ingrained bias (“datasets are selective stories”). As well as the obvious solution of more people of colour and women at the table, she writes: “I would like to see established artists, and public intellectuals, automatically brought in to advise science, tech and government at every level,” because “the arts have always been an imaginative and emotional wrestle with reality – a series of inventions and creations.” You’d think this would be self-evident to the decision-makers, though it becomes harder to share her optimism, writing this on a day when further cuts to arts education have been announced.

For a relatively short book, the scope of its ambition is huge. Winterson whizzes through the history of the machine age, surveillance capitalism, Gnosticism, sex dolls and Greek philosophy, but she is at her most impassioned on the subjects that have been her recurring themes: gender, religion, art, feminism, love. She writes with a sense of urgency about this future that is already here, because the one thing she is insistent about is that we – the storytellers, the artists, the readers who share her views on the inner life – must not opt out and leave it in the hands of the tech bros: “liberal resistance can’t be anti-tech or anti-science”. So much of it comes down to the old question of whose stories get to shape our reality. She’s right that aspects of this AI future are frightening, but for any non-scientists wanting to understand the challenges and possibilities of this brave new world, I can’t think of a more engaging place to start.

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

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