How many people in our country go about their lives burdened with the well-founded suspicion that their human-looking fellow citizens are not true humans at all, but partisan automata? We are a nation of human beings who constantly, conspicuously fail the Turing Test. The possibility conceived in that test — of a world in which human and machine behaviors are effectively indistinguishable — was inherent in the project of creating lifelike machines from the outset. But it goes back further. Thomas Hobbes, who proposed that mechanical automata “have an artificial life,” also treated them as the paradigm for human life. And we’re familiar with the descendants of this anxiety in the work of Philip K. Dick. For the most part, we have imagined that it would be machines whose behavior would become indistinguishable from humans, not the other way around.
Perhaps the first work of art to take the latter tack — unsurprisingly, a product of the MySpace era — was Basshunter’s 2006 Eurodance hit “Boten Anna,” which tells the story of a young woman mistaken for a chatroom bot. Something similar is at work in the popular “pitchbot” Twitter accounts — New York Times Pitchbot, Federalist PitchBot, and so on — which mock those publications for their rote predictability. These are instances of art-imitating-life-imitating-art: people pretending to be bots imitating human writers who write like bots.
More seriously, Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, the finest work of art to come out of 2019, offers an explicitly demonological presentation of media-saturation. Each of the play’s young conservatives is possessed: veteran and Catholic convert Justin is possessed by his complicity in violence, Simone Weil–like Emily by the world-embracing sympathy engendered by her own chronic illness, developmentally-arrested Kevin by something like sexual pathology, and far-right media influencer Teresa by her inner pitchbot. While the other forms of possession on display are more spectacular, finding at times somewhat Exorcist-like modes of expression, Teresa’s is perhaps the most profound. Her friends all have inner lives, albeit vexed and fraught. Teresa, by all appearances, has none. She’s been hollowed out. This is horror as harrowing as anything supernatural, courtesy of our decade’s own peculiar demons.
From the new issue:
What happens to public discourse when everyone fails the Turing Test?https://t.co/6ONNQAZ7AZ
— The New Atlantis (@tnajournal) June 9, 2021