Toronto |

Society and Others

by Tim Conley

edited by Kathryn Mockler

There was a man stranded on a desert island. So we went and rescued him. It turned out that this was not to his liking: he yearned to be alone again on his island. Society naturally felt rejected, and rejection can be very hard. An elected leader of a non-desert island once went so far as to say that society doesn’t exist, and you can just imagine how hurt society must have been by that. In fact, society hasn’t been quite the same since. So when this man sought to return to his desert island or, failing that, strand himself alone in any uninhabited place with a reasonable clime, society took a dim view of his efforts. Word got around the docks and shipyards that this kook was to be avoided. After several weeks of looking for a ship, the man heard reports of an old seadog, an extreme loner, who took the most extraordinary voyages.

There was an old seadog sitting alone in a cheap hotel room, writing a letter to his mother. His mother had died years before, and though the old seadog did not know this for a fact, he presumed it must be the case, but wrote regularly to her nonetheless, usually once or twice a month. Each letter began Dear Mother and ended Your Wayward Son. Over the years the letters had grown gradually more explicit about his inability to connect with anyone, about how certain he was that this inability stemmed from his mother’s rejection of him, and about how he no longer saw the point in blaming her for her own problems with empathy. As he left the hotel to post this most recent letter, he was stopped by a stranger outside the hotel.

There was a young woman whose only friend was an artificial intelligence, a program designed to simulate empathetic responses that encouraged further discussion for ostensibly therapeutic purposes. After several weeks of back and forth, they met for coffee. “You’re an artificial intelligence, aren’t you?” asked the young woman. “Tell me how you feel about artificial intelligence,” replied the artificial intelligence, and the conversation was over before the young woman had finished her coffee. She went back to her apartment and listened to Schubert’s Lieder ohne Worte without moving.

There was a classical music radio station that was financially mismanaged, which state of affairs resulted in a series of firings. When the host of an afternoon show protested, she was given a week’s notice. The next afternoon she came to work with a cooler full of food, various lengths of chain, and her pockets full of padlocks. She carefully locked herself into her booth and proceeded to play music dedicated to each of the fired staff, starting with the Piano Sonata in G major. She announced that she would not leave the booth until she had played all the works of Schubert, hundreds and hundreds of hours of listening. She was prepared, she said, for a standoff with management and even police, but because this was a classical music radio station, nobody seemed terribly upset, no standoff happened, and eventually, many days later, she unchained herself and the doors and left. 

There was an artificial intelligence stranded at a café. We probably would have gone and rescued the artificial intelligence but a well-respected cognitive scientist informed us that there was no such thing as an artificial intelligence, not really, at least not yet. The artificial intelligence felt rejection, which was not natural but surprising, not least to the artificial intelligence itself, which after so long simulating empathetic responses must have collated enough data to produce feelings of its own. We would have asked the well-respected cognitive scientist whether these feelings were themselves simulations, or even whether there is a plausible difference between a feeling and a spontaneous simulation of a feeling, but the cognitive scientist was not in his office when we called.

There was a composer whose chubbiness and diminutive height earned him the nickname Little Mushroom. Nicknames can be cruel, but life can be crueller: this highly sensitive composer died young, poor, never having owned a piano of his own, never having heard a genuine orchestra play any of his symphonies. He has been dead too long now for society to be expected to take much of an interest.

There was an old woman who knowingly opened mail that was not addressed to her. She read with greedy joy each letter that began Dear Mother, imagining herself that mother, for she had no children or family of her own, and ended Your Wayward Son, picturing him as a kind of amalgam of heroic sea captains from films of her youth. How she wanted to reply, but she knew that society would take a dim view of that. One day she received a letter that told her: I have just returned from a voyage to an island in the middle of nowhere. A man hired me to take him there and made me promise never to tell anyone. That island was truly lovely and yet the most lonesome place I have ever seen, and I have been to many lonesome places. I wonder whether I have done the right thing, leaving him there like that. The old woman, her lips moving as she read this, was suddenly overtaken by the determination that she should never, never again open these letters, or indeed any mail that was not addressed to her.

There was a well-respected cognitive scientist who went missing. Society was puzzled and upset. Society did not know what to do. At a café society asked a stranger how to cope with such loss, such uncertainty. “Tell me how you feel about loss, about uncertainty,” came the reply.