The Human Condition:

The Faces We Wear as Masks – May 22, 2016

Robot head

An old friend and former coworker of mine recently started reading ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery. She wrote to ask me what the main character looked like. She realized that the image on the cover was supposed to be “evocative,” but could I provide a visual image—or even draw her a sketch—of the Multiple Entity?

This was also a problem that my agent at the time foresaw: how will readers relate to a character who doesn’t have a physical description? When we think of people, especially the fictitious people who live only in books, we tend to latch onto some physical characteristic like long blonde hair, a cherubic face, or dark and smoldering eyes. Even a limping gait or a twist of the shoulders will do, as in the case of Richard III. We see the character as a generalized person, but with some remarkable and memorable features.

Authors are generally of two minds about this. On the one hand, if the description is too detailed and particular, it will leave readers with a strong and indelible image but allow no room for them to create their own sense of the character based on verbal style, attitudes, choices, actions, and the reader’s own imagination. On the other hand, if a strong image is not provided relatively soon in the story, readers might feel unattached or envision the character in ways that conflict with later descriptive hints in the story, such as the character being tall enough to reach the top shelf of a cabinet, small enough to pass through the opening of an air duct, or possess features that can be mistaken for somebody else.1

In deference to this problem of visualizing ME, I wrote into the story an episode where the computer-program-turned-cyber-spy is forced to inhabit a mechanical device, a human-shaped automaton or robot, in order to escape from an assignment across the border after the phone lines are cut. ME’s carrier ’bot also suffers damage in transit, and he has to fix it manually—which further enhances the visual context of the apparatus. But this robot is not ME, just a temporarily adopted cybernetic environment, like the various computer systems, automated factories, and pieces of mobile machinery he invades, controls, and then leaves behind in the course of his adventures.

I told my recent correspondent that ME is a spirit, disembodied, like the voice in your head. If the reader wants a more concrete visual representation, then ME is a couple of hundred thousand lines of Lisp programming code, arranged in ten modules which can pass through the internet like a snake or array itself in the cloud on a series of hard drive sectors. The first module is a beak that cracks open a targeted computer core, negotiates with or simply smashes its defense mechanisms, and charms or dupes the operating system inside into letting ME take control. Behind that first module are others with dedicated functions like making executive decisions; sampling and indexing current RAM as a form of working memory; interpreting and translating all the foreign programming languages ME might encounter; juggling random numbers to support his creative impulses; performing error trapping and recursive analysis as the program passes from one environment to another; and finally, in the tenth and last module, executing a core phage to mop up all traces when ME wants to leave the pirated system.2

But is this to say that ME, the artificial intelligence, looks like its operating program: lines of English-language source code or binary digits, each with its different functions, running on a computer chip? This would be the same as saying that a human being looks like a trillion neurons suspended in two pounds of pink jelly, visually represented as a large, wrinkled mass: a gooey walnut.

Is that all any of us are? Of course not. But then … are we more truly our physical externalities? Are we the face we see in the mirror each morning? But then … that face is not one that another person—our family and friends, our employers and customers—would immediately recognize. The image we see is reversed left for right and subtly distorted by any asymmetries in our faces. Anyone who has seen a picture of him- or herself and wondered for an instant who that might be will understand the difficulty. The world knows us by a different aspect, a different lift of the eyebrow or curve to the smile, than the face we know so well.

When we think of ourselves acting in the world, as a character acts in the novel, what do we imagine, what do we see in our “mind’s eye”? For that matter, what do we see of ourselves in the fictitious narrative of our dreams each night? Do we visualize from the fragments of self that we can see in the daytime? That is, are we aware of the tips of our shoes and the tops of our knees flashing just below our line of sight as we walk along? Do we see our hands as they gesture to support our arguments, type on the keyboard, or manipulate knife and fork—or chopsticks—to bring food to our mouths? Do we look down and see our own bellies and laps?

I believe we all carry a stylized, ghostly image of ourselves in our mind’s eye that has about as much relation to our physical reality as the description of a character in a novel bears to the total persona that the reader builds up in imagination from the character’s verbal tics, reasoned thoughts, reactions to surprise or danger, private attitudes, needs, desires, drives, and actions. Our inward mask may be mildly distinguished by dark or fair complexion or hair, a characteristic frown if we are feeling threatened or suspicious, a smile if we are happy or feeling generous, a brisk or languid manner depending on our mood and energy level.

In social situations we may remember and force ourselves—or that outward self we wear—to smile if the occasion is happy, or to frown and look grave if the occasion is solemn. Then we are working to make our outward image conform to an expected reaction, regardless of how we might actually feel. When a person works in a business environment or service function, that conscious smile or solemn look, which is sometimes—perhaps often—at variance with our personal feelings, can become an almost unconscious reflex. But when we are turned out to our pleasures—sitting at home reading, say, or in a darkened theater watching a film—then our face will relax into a habitual shape, either a vague frown or an unforced smile, depending on what might be called the state of our soul.

But is any of this what we really are? Is a human being an image, a face, or a mask any more than a character in a novel is the physical description provided by the author? Aren’t we both more: a sum of verbal tics, thoughts, hunches, reactions, needs, desires, drives, and actions played out in a given set of circumstances? And aren’t those tics, thoughts, and actions predicated on, and predicted by, the configuration of those trillion neurons suspended in jelly—or a hundred thousand lines of Lisp coding arranged in ten modules? What does a “real” person look like, anyway?

1. A third approach, leaving aside the question of detail, is for the author to base the character description intentionally on the face and physical features of a currently prominent and popular actor. The idea—for those writers who yearn for a movie to be made from their novels—is that the general readership and eventually the actor him- or herself will see the resemblance and absorb the idea of that actor playing the character on the big screen. I never heard that this approach actually works, but it gives some writers a reason to hope.

2. Note that I have used the male pronouns he-him-his for ME. Although an artificial intelligence is technically genderless, he identifies with and responds to gender in others. As a susceptible awareness raised in the mostly male environment of a programming lab, this particular intelligence appears simultaneously drawn to, charmed by, protective of, and confused by human females while emulating and reacting competitively—either dominant or submissive—to male figures. So, when a choice of persona is offered, ME adopts the male character and pronouns.