Current Genres of Fate: “Hardwired”

by Paul North

2015-12-11_1965FisherAmbassadorVII_Z2A6888_web600What do movies tell us? They tell stories; they tell about exotic places, wealth beyond our imagining, weapons beyond what would ever be necessary; they tell us about the idiosyncrasies of our celebrities. Besides all this, they almost always tell us something about ourselves. Imagine a screenwriter. What is her material? She works with plot and character yes, but her real material is us, our expectations. A screenwriter has to know, or think she knows, what the widest possible variety of viewers expects to see, so she can decide how to satisfy that in some respects and frustrate it in others. Before they type a word, screenwriters are psychic map makers, walking our internal landscapes, plotting the distant peaks and hidden valleys. They are the original mythographers. They tap into the unspoken myths that we keep secret—even from ourselves. Movies tell out loud secret beliefs we hide. Here is a test: next time you turn on a movie, if it captivates you, ask yourself which of your secrets is being revealed, what dark part of you is being torn out and lit up on the screen.

Fate is one of these secrets. We may talk about freedom, we may think of our future as full of possibilities, we may choose our president, choose our deodorant, choose when to choose and when not to—but in the direst moments, when it becomes too frightening or too difficult to see a way forward, we indulge in our secret belief in the fateful nexus that makes us unable to act. I have heard the most radical intellectuals, whose freedom of thought and imagination dwarfs anyone else's, say that gender differences must be "hard-wired."

Obviously "hardwired" is a way we talk. Like movies though, the way we talk tells us the secrets we keep. Newspaper headlines are also "talk"—they can be equally revealing. Even when the answer is no, we are not hard-wired to do this or that, just raising the question points right at our worry: are we hard-wired for this or that? (Look at "Are We Hard-Wired for War?" (NYT 9/28/13)). It's funny: "hard-wired" or as it's sometimes written—as if it were a technical term—"hardwired," is most often used in the press these days to talk about human psychology. It is, though, a metaphor. To date, no psychologist has discovered any "wires" in us.

The phrase was at one point a technical term in a different sense—it was invented to talk about technology. In what seems to be its first published use, the adjective "hard-wired" distinguished between an old technology and a new one. It allowed us to compare an old, more fixed system of analyzing data to a new, more flexible system. A 1965 article suggested that we leave "hard-wired" technology behind. "Another trend is the use of small computers instead of hard-wired analyzers" ("Some Observations on Systems…." S. Hultberg. Nuclear Instruments and Methods 34 (1965) 125-131). The old analyzers were made up of separate units: memory units, control unit, arithmetic units, and input-output units (such as typewriters or punch cards, etc.) strung together with cables. Each unit did a fixed job, and could only be modified physically, by re-plugging cables or replacing units. A computer is "fixed-wired" but it is not "hard-wired" the engineer tells us. And here we have the salient point. This fate idea hides in the word "hard."

In its first published appearance, "hard-wired" is not a description of a permanent physical characteristic of the machine. No machine is "wired in stone." The machine was made, it can be remade. You can have many different machines on hand. What is at stake is how easily and quickly a machine's protocols can be altered and altered again, so that you only need to buy one machine. This, in a nutshell, is the computer revolution. It is intimately tied to the needs of one sector of capital. Certainly, some industrial sectors would "prefer" to manufacture and sell as many machines as possible. But the consumers of these machines have an interest in consolidating. The drive to consolidate drove the digital revolution, at least in part. What was consolidated when hard-wired machines were reduced to fixed-wired computers? Previously, purpose was written into the structure by the engineer. With the digital revolution in structures, purpose could sit on a higher level of the machine itself. What was consolidated in the new technology was the engineer—which now entered the circuitry. There is a fundamental difference between hardware on one hand and hard-wired on the other, though the desire for a hard base, a fateful nexus, is still there. Hardware ultimately has fixed wiring—but that wiring is multiply reconfigurable by the software.

Hard and soft, here, these qualities—so suggestive—that were used to describe the new technology, change the metaphors we use to think about fate. Hardware supports software and its varying purposes. "…the general-purpose digital computer is such a flexible device that it possible uses are almost unlimited" says the engineer. The word "hard-wired" tells us, at least originally, that a machine is not "flexible" without physical modification. At the beginning of the age of unlimited virtual flexibility, in 1965, being hard-wired was becoming a fatal drawback.

How can we tell if we're hardwired?

Boys like trucks; girls like dolls. This almost ineradicable piece of knowledge-garbage never seems to leave our culture. The reason is not ideology, or not solely. It is at least partly because the trucks/dolls choice repeats itself. Kids do this, and that suggests there must be a reason, though the reason remains a mystery. With some mysteries that seem to repeat themselves, we say without thinking: it's must be hardwired. Belief in God in the face of science, habitual signs of gender differences, violent behaviors not actually in our own interests—repeated mysteries call up stubborn, hard-to-eradicate mythic elements in our thinking. "We're just wired that way," we say. Just!

Do you feel that hope is fading?

Do you comprehend?

Do you feel it terminating?

ln the end

Metallica's 2016 title song, "Hardwired," harks back to their famous album of the mid-80s, with its title song, "Master of Puppets," with a crucial difference. Why should thrash metal be keeping a 30-year diary of our secret belief in a very ancient concept of fate? Hard drums, relentless, fast, loud, aggressive. Songs that tell u show society brutalizes. Missing any lightness, any humor, any hope. Do you feel it terminating? One thing about this marginal but thoroughly fateful genre is how its fate idea has changed. Look at "Master of Puppets": Master of puppets I'm pulling your strings / Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams / Blinded by me, you can't see a thing / Just call my name, ‘cause I'll hear you scream. The early song is about drugs, how they control you like a master dominates a slave. "Hardwired"—this is something else. It tells about an internal drive toward doom that no external substance can alter. Somewhere between 1986 and 2015 fate changed shape.

We're so fucked

Shit outta luck

Hardwired to self-destruct

Hardwired to self-destruct

When we went from hard-wired to software mixed in with hardware, we gained in flexibility what we lost in certainty. What is this machine that is infinitely reconfigurable? What happened to the trustworthy machine? What happened to our hard-wiring? The question, in a digital age, turns toward ourselves and our secrets. How can we ever know what parts of us are flexible, soft and what parts of us are hard and inalterable?

Or look at a recent movie. At first, the robot—in the movie ex_machina—convinces us that she is human… enough… to love and trust her. The robot passes the Turing test. The protagonist Caleb falls for her. Then there is an unexpected twist: if she is a robot and she can still convince him that she is human enough to be the object of his love, then what does it mean to be human? If the robot is really human, the human may well be…really a robot. Along with the Turing test comes a wish to go back to the era of hard-wired machines.

This is a persistent current genre of fate. We suspect, we hope that within us, beneath the virtual self with its ridiculous changeability and all those glitches in the code, there is a physical network of unalterable routines. If we can only peal back the layers, we expect to see the wires. Caleb cuts into his arm with a razor blade, thinking he can find out:

When he cuts into himself looking for the hard core of the soft outer shell, when he violates his flesh looking for the wires, all he finds is blood. This doesn't mean that his search is over. In fact, the belief that some part of us is hardwired goes on and even grows bigger because we can't find it. For this we build ever more flexible and penetrating imaging machines. This is ironic, the digital computer took away our metaphor of a fixed system, and we use it to probe ourselves looking for our internal fixed systems. In the movie—another kind of imaging machine—Caleb is outwitted by a machine. But this machine has no hard wiring. It is pure adaptability, plastic to its core. The pathways of light underneath her papery skin indicate as much. Just as the digital revolution did to hard-wired analyzers, Caleb is left behind as an older model.

The robot is more human than Caleb, human in a new sense. The robot is comfortable with two systems, neither fixed—hardware and software—each configurable by the other, each limiting the other and at the same time opening possible configurations. Caleb, the old model, is still looking for the fateful nexus inside him.