Tell the Machine Goodnight

In his 1954 story “Sales Pitch,” Philip K. Dick imagined a housekeeping robot called a fasrad, whose relentless helpfulness quickly curdles into a form of terror. “The fasrad is a necessity in all modern homes,” it genially introduces itself to the poor couple at the center of the story. Later: “I’ll continue to remain with you. Eventually you’ll buy me.” Later still: “Apparently you don’t understand. My instructions are to demonstrate myself until you’re satisfied.” A conclusive blowup delivers the parable’s lesson: Technology can assist with anything except our urge to escape it.

In speculative fiction, technology forever fails to fulfill its outsize promises. But the nature of that failure has changed from generation to generation, depending on what oppressive forces at culturally top-of-mind at the time. In Dick’s era, and for much of the Cold War, technology was a symbol of tyranny, in which clocks strike thirteen and HAL refuses to open the pod bay doors. Our peace dividend in the 90s delivered a world of technology that proved less murderous but still soul-crushingly capitalistic, with Douglas Coupland and David Foster Wallace using McJobs and television to satirize the alleged convenience our technological bounty provided.

In the third wave—of which Katie Williams’ debut novel, Tell the Machine Goodnight, is an especially well-turned representative—the danger is more subtle, because the tools now insinuate itself into our lives without our thinking about it much. Technology openly menaces our consciousness, and the menace is all the worse because it arrives benignly, via app. In fiction, that predicament has been played for dark comedy (think of Max Barry’s novels, or George Saunders’ “I Can Speak!”) and op-ed lecturing (Dave Eggers’ The Circle), but the message is the same: We no longer fight against technology so much as we struggle to figure out how much we can submit to it.

In Williams’ case, the problematic tech is a machine called “Apricity,” a near-future device that uses a saliva swab to algorithmically dispense customized advice about ways we can be happier. Attainably: Eat tangerines, say, or learn a foreign language. Pearl, the novel’s central figure, is a “contentment technician” who carries the device—“the size of a deck of cards,” as Steve Jobs famously pitched the first iPod—to offices around the San Francisco area for companies that have signed up for the service.

That’s the first tell that not all is right with Apricity: The idea of happiness it promotes has to do with the human resources department, not real human relations.

A second tell: Nobody is particularly happy. Pearl is a divorcee whose teenage son, Rhett, has been struggling with self-starvation. Her efforts to use the Apricity to heal him backfire: The machine only offers asterisks, the device’s placeholder for dangerous or inadvisable recommendations. Assuming that the machine recommends he “do harm,” Pearl tries to find the gentlest solution possible—a lizard, and live mice to feed it with. But that asterisk is a keyhole to a Pandora’s box of ethical challenges the machine raises. “If my son were a vampire, I would find blood for him to drink,” Pearl thinks. It’s compassionate parenting, of a kind.

Tell the Machine Goodnight is structured more like a set of linked stories than a novel, the better to explore the varieties of (anxious, none-too-happy) responses that Apricity provokes. One Apricity staffer tweaks the machine to make it more domineering. (“What’s more important than happiness? Power.”) Pearl’s artist ex-husband turns a recommendation to eat more honey into a piece of performance art, gorging himself on the stuff until he vomits, “to make myself sick on happiness.” Pearl is asked to be a personal technician for a superstar horror-movie actress, less to help her sustain her happiness but to be a canary in the coal mine, for when the cruelties delivered on the actress become damaging. The Apricity is an enormously successful device, of course—we would flock to a machine promising us happiness, even if all it’s doing is suggesting we . But Williams is also keenly aware of how we’d also flinch at the idea, abuse it and monkey-wrench it, warp it to our own purposes.

So in the closing pages of the novel, when Pearl begins talking to the Apricity and imagines it talking back, the effect is unsettling, but not surprising. It’s personal technology’s endgame: We’ve lived through a decade of social media prompting us to apply human emotions to memes and cat videos. We like, we love, we share, and it’s not a big leap to suggest that we’ll treat our devices like companions, even our consciences, by 2035. Our challenge, Williams suggests, is to control how much humanity we cede to our devices, and even to recognize that control. Pearl “did not go so far as to tell the machine goodnight,” Williams writes.

There’s a word for a device that promises pleasure and personal improvement by taking our experiences and feelings and projecting them back upon us: a novel. In that regard, the jagged and fragmentary structure of Tell the Machine Goodnight is appropriate—it reminds us that books, like all our other devices, are things to be wrestled and argued with, things to shake us out of complacency, things that we can press against and resist. It’s a skill worth cultivating, as the devices around us get more sophisticated at insisting that they know us better than we do ourselves.

 

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