The Maze of Transparencies
Karen An–hwei Lee
Ellipsis Press: New York, 2019
Speculative fiction, in addition to panicking us with dystopian societies, can often work as a kind of anthropology or social study, representing through different cultural devices how technological advances and ideological struggles change the world. From this perspective, Karen An–Hwei Lee’s The Maze of Transparencies perfectly frames how digital technologies influence not just our daily living, but also the entire political system we inhabit, projecting it into the future and perhaps generating its fall.
The story of The Maze of Transparencies follows Yang, one of the survivors of a digital apocalypse, who starts on a journey looking for the Seven Harbingers of Happiness. The Harbingers were people in charge of different jobs given by the Nine Muses, the digital junta that previously ruled the territory of Uberasia. But now all of this has disappeared, digital technology has collapsed in all its forms, and the harbingers and Yang live in a kind of pre–industrial existence. The reader thus finds himself before the story of a failed utopia, and at the same time, at the beginning of a new way of living. Paradoxically, in this world emptied of any digital help, the story is told in the voice of Penny, a database cloud created by Yang and the sole survivor of its class, who gives a lyrical twist to the algorithm, constantly questioning herself while continuing to monitor its creator.
The Maze of Transparencies stages a change of paradigm based on and built around the big data era, but it’s also deep-rooted in structures of power that have been present in Western societies for a long time, some of them derived from religious mythologies. The digital junta, for instance, is led by the Nine Muses, a reference taken from the Greek pantheon. Yang is looking for the Harbingers of Happiness, some of them named “angels” in a reference to the emissaries of God; the technological collapse is called the “technological apocalypse”, and Yang asks in one of his poems:
Can we save a soul in a jar?
And if not, what anchors it to this life?
Can we do surgery on a soul?
If so, then what is excised, and how?
As for things we cannot see,
what does a soul hold?
With this poem, Yang installs the division between body and soul, a discussion present in philosophical debate since Plato, passing through the Christian thinkers and still alive until our days in the idea of a mind and body separation, the idea of what is means to be conscious. I am not really interested in these divisions per se, since they are not divisions I believe in, but I would like to focus on the way that the concept of the “soul” has been used for the purposes of domination, and how this is staged in The Maze of Transparencies.
Later in the book, Penny presents this same question of Yang’s from her own perspective: “As a microcloud, I have no flaming appetites, either—no hormonal drives, no false wishes. (I am, dear reader, neither a subject of agony nor an object of desire, but a receptacle of data scripted with a tale).” So Yang and Penny have similar questions, but in Penny’s case, because she is a digital device, the limit between consciousness and being a corporeal entity blurs. “Maybe stories are just data with soul,” Karen An–Hwei Lee begins the book with a Brené Brown’s quote, perhaps a hint to help readers discover Penny’s essence. When we talk about her, should we talk about a digital device or a conscious being, even when she doesn’t have an actual body? So far, not having a physical body hasn’t been an obstacle either to being an individual or to telling a story. On the contrary, having a soul and being a conscious individual has made one subject to certain rights and characteristics. This has been the case in other episodes of history, even between humans and other humans.
In The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other a book in which Tzvetan Todorov explores the conception of “otherness” by narrating the conquering of American native population by European powers of the time, he recounts an episode when a related question was asked: Do the indigenous people, these “others” the Europeans have met, have a soul? Can we consider them humans? This question was raised to morally justify either an invasion through a war, or a process of conquering, which includes the conversion of the indigenous people into Christians. To illustrate these inquiries, Todorov describes a 1550s incident called the Controversy of Valladolid, in which two of these groups in dispute, the first represented by Juan Gines de Sepúlveda and the second represented by Bartolomé de las Casas, entered into a rhetorical and ideological discussion to define the fate of the American native population.
On one side was Gines de Sepúlveda, a Catholic priest, philosopher, and translator into Latin of Aristotle’s Politic, a book in which the Greek thinker champions the difference between body and soul and also slavery, claiming the original right of some people to be considered masters while others are slaves. Following this idea, and others excerpted from scholastic scholars like Thomas Aquinas, Sepúlveda gave his position in which, just as a body should be submitted to a soul, indigenous people should do the same to the Spanish, children to adults, women (wives) to men (husbands), animals to humans, slaves to masters, and evil to good.
On the other side of this controversy was Bartolomé de las Casas, who praised the idea that the indigenous people were equals to the Spanish, that they had a soul, and that therefore they should be converted into Christians, as they had not yet known the true religion. Consequently, this was the opportunity to transform them into subjects of God. This was a position that followed the thinking of Pope Paul III, who in 1537 had declared the indigenous people to be “true men”, and thus “able to receive the faith”, although at the time it was a political decision; if the people of the different Americas’ nations had a soul and were human, then they were also part of God’s people and should be ruled as a workforce by the King of Spain.
Similar questions, but regarding digital devices, have already been made. Ray Kurzweil, inventor, pioneer of transhumanism and an optimist about the melting of humans with technology, discusses in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines the capability of these gadgets to have brain functions as humans. Using the thought of Descartes, who in his Discourse on Method made a parallel between mind and soul and even placed it near the pineal gland, Kurzweil transfers these reflections to machines and technological devices:
Descartes’ famous dictum ‘I think, therefore I am’ has often been cited as emblematic of Western rationalism. This view interprets Descartes to mean ‘I think, that is, I can manipulate logic and symbols, therefore I am worthwhile.’ But in my view, Descartes was not intending to extol the virtues of rational thought. He was troubled by what has become known as the mind–body problem, the paradox of how mind can arise from non-mind, how thoughts and feelings can arise from ordinary matter to the brain […] Before 2030, we will have machines proclaiming Descartes’ dictum. And it won’t seem like a programmed response. The machines will be earnest and convincing. Should we believe them when they claim to be conscious entities with their own volition? (Kurzweil, 60)
This is the interpretation of a man who, in the early ’90s, prophesied a lot of the changes related to new technologies that we can see now, such as the development of cellphones, nanotechnology, and bio-cybernetics.
This is not just something hypothetical; we have comparable experiences happening right now. In Other Paradises: Poetics Approaches to Thinking in the Technological Age, Jessica Sequeira explores different ideas and responses to technology around the globe in places such as La Paz, Istanbul or the Bay Area. Afterlife, ghosts, spirituality, soul and technology mix in Sequeira’s work. In her essay about Tokyo, called “Ghost in the Fax”, she illustrates how, while most part of the world tries to avoid the presence of old technologies, residents of this city have shown a kind of worship toward obsolete technology like fax machines. Sequeira, with a unique kind of anthropological and epistemological method, discovers a basis for this behavior in Shintoism, the religion of a large part of the Japanese population. As an animist religion, Shintoism is based on the cult toward ancestors and different spirits as wood spirits, animal spirits and even domestic spirits, which means veneration to the home as a being too. Thus the author asks: “If Japanese tales allow inanimate elements to have ghosts, isn’t it possible that obsolete machines have them, too?” (Sequeira, 6).
As in the Controversy of Valladolid and Tokyo, it seems that the presence of a soul begins when someone defines that the other has one. Apparently, this is a consensus achieved by whoever has the power to do it. If that’s the case, how did digital apparatuses became leaders in The Maze of Transparencies? To answer this question, I will go back to Kurzweil. In The Age of Spiritual Machines, he quotes an interesting—but not dated—piece of neuroscience research of the University of California San Diego (Kurzweil, 152). According to this study, there is a specific spot in the brain that activates during spiritual episodes. This was discovered when examining epileptic patients who had had mystical experiences. When the researchers replicated the experiment in non-epileptic religious people, the results were the same. As some evolutionary biologists claimed, this spot seems to have developed due to the social utility of religion. Therefore, our brain may have a bias to believe in something in order to maintain our social behavior and keep us able to function as a system of integrated members: everybody working for the same purpose.
It’s no secret that any ideology needs a leitmotiv to stay in power, an offering to its members to prevent collapse. Christianity offers heaven, capitalism offers freedom, and socialism offers the liberation of the working class. In The Maze of Transparencies, the technocracy in power, embodied in the digital junta of Uberasia, promises happiness and the mean to pursue it based on data. Yang, still wondering what went wrong, reflects on the nature of happiness after the technological apocalypse:
In Yang’s seaside shanty adorned with faiences arranged in the golden ratio, or apart from the whims and vagaries of our souls, does a cloudfree formula for happiness exist? If algorithms quantify compatibility, what about maximizing happiness? Yang shuttles rows of jade beads on his abacus. Is happiness a state of mind that can be possessed like a lepidopterist’s collection of pinned butterflies and moths? Or is it subject to a host of variables, a myriad of conditions in flux? How about the quality of drinking water as a happiness indicator under six hundred parts–per–million? (Lee, 13)
Trying to reconstruct the basic idea of data’s compilation, Yang makes calculations on an abacus, mirroring on a tiny scale the processes of the junta’s analytical apparatus. Yang uses it to find the location of the Seven Harbingers of Happiness, but at the same time, that action represents how he is still attached to the view of the world in which algorithms are in charge of defining what to do in order to improve people’s existence. Data analysis is present in practically every aspect of our lives under the motto of being a better choice-maker, as it is based on hard information. Therefore, data is the cure for uncertainty. As Jackie Wang puts it in her book Carceral Capitalism, in the context of decision-making, data analysis claims to be faster and better than any human mind:
In the age of ‘big data’, uncertainty is presented as an information problem that can be overcome with comprehensive data collection, statistical analysis that can identify patterns and relationships, and algorithms that can determine future outcomes by analyzing past outcomes […] Data installs itself as a solution to the problem of uncertainty by claiming to achieve total awareness and overcome human analytical limitations. (Wang, 238)
Who is better at defining happiness than automatized machines? In the case of The Maze of Transparencies, the digital junta is in power under the premise of fighting for happiness, a concept menaced by dysthymia and ciberfatigue, illnesses related to depression, the overwhelming quantity of information and the excess of work.
Byung–Chul Han has dedicated some of his works to studying the effects of digital instruments and the change of paradigm from biopower to a psychopower, the later reigning during the digital era. In his book In the Swarm, he makes reference to IFS (Information Fatigue Syndrome), a psychological illness related to the excess of information. IFS’s patients see their analytical abilities obstructed, cannot focus and are unable to assume any responsibility. With these symptoms, they are the perfect soil in which to plant an ideology and make it grow. At the same time, the cure for this problem seems to be further information, or devices that can filter, analyze and process all of this information in advance. More technology.
The Maze of Transparencies’ digital junta isn’t a figure of biopower. It doesn’t have a concrete way to physically use its authority, but they practice it in an efficient way, psychologically speaking. When power is implemented inside the human’s mind, it doesn’t seem like power. According to Han, humans are now “achievement–subjects” thanks to “neuronal violence”. This is an effective form of control, because it makes us act in certain ways without our questioning the system. If I am not happy, then it is not because the system is not providing me with enough resources to reach this goal, but because I am not doing enough. This leads to IFS, or in the case of The Maze of Transparencies, dysthymia and cyberfatigue.
This opposition between the promise of happiness made by the junta and the actual mental condition of the Ubersian’s denizens is the core of the conflict between the technocracy and the resistance. If the system we used to live in promised us happiness, but this promise is not being delivered, this is resistance an option? Resistance, in the case of The Maze of Transparencies, makes the digital junta collapse in an information war. After the collapse, Yang is still shocked by this fact. It is the whole reason for his travels: to understand if the junta was just a dictatorial organization, or was a real attempt to reach happiness. As Lee writes:
Were the Nine Muses idealists who imagined a utopia of minimally invasive analytics in one hand, or were they depraved despots of disinformation on the other? Did their clouded militia of happiness planners spin candy floss, or did they radicalize wellness in the fiefdoms? Neither a confectioner, didactic pedagogue, decolonial cartographer, dashboard superstar, pharmacologist or a biopolitician, Yang suspects it is none of above.
In his travels, Yang meets one of the resistance leaders, the Water Doctor, and talking with him, he expresses his doubts in a single question: “Did the junta enhance common good?” Yang’s question is relevant because it expresses the suspicion by a worker of the junta for whom the idea of happiness is now only an excuse for domination. Yang’s state of incomprehension about what has occurred expresses itself as a realization that the system’s beliefs and rules had only this object. The Water Doctor, later in the same conversation, also questions the hidden methods of the junta:
Are my thoughts original thinking, or are they preordained by the noospheric designs of the alpha and omega? In their turrets of thought–trafficking and catacombs of critical data, within mausoleums of decision–making misery, did the junta conduct any risk assessments or analyze direct evidence to inform their methods?
Preordained thoughts sound very similar to psychopower, the kind of control carried out by beliefs, not by physical force. The Water Doctor describes one of the main problems of the system in charge of the digital junta: the manipulation of data in order to achieve a preordained outcome. By making this system fall, The Maze of Transparencies shows us the reaction of its characters faced with uncertainty. In this postdigital apocalyptic world, where we read a change of paradigm from a hyperconnected world to a neo-rustic way of living, I read also a kind hope against the use of this power against people, a hope in which humans may discover a better form of living, or perhaps another form of domination.
Fe Orellana (Santiago de Chile, 1991) has received the Roberto Bolaño Novel Prize and the Gabriela Mistral Story Prize. Since 2012 he has been the coordinator of LEA (Laboratory of Writing from the Americas), an international literary project that occurs simultaneously in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and different cities in Chile. In 2017 he published his first novel Mujer colgando de una cuerda [Woman Hanging From a Rope] (Pornos Ediciones).