Deus Ex: Prototypes of larger systems

Grammar has a limitation, and that is that it can only ever do one thing at a time. That is to say, a sentence has to be constructed in a particular way, and any one choice excludes other choices. Which might seem like a trivial observation, and it is, but placing it at the beginning of a text serves a purpose: to remind that this limitation is inherent to writing, and that reading ought to follow suit.

Fortunately, there is always an option to add another sentence, and another, until all things are said. Unfortunately, this engenders logistical problems, as sentences not only have to be internally coherent, but relate in understandable ways to those sentences pre- & proceeding them. Moving from statement to statement without proper transitioning makes for an incoherent text, and prompts the pun that all text is also always-already context. Writing is the subtle art of balancing text and context in such a way that the reader can follow along and get from beginning to end without too much effort – lest they cease reading.

With these two limiting factors in mind, the task of writing can be understood as framing sentences in such a way that they convey what is to be conveyed with the least amount of necessary fuss. Poets take this task to ever new heights by abolishing ever larger chunks of fussiness from their writs, remaining only the essential bits. Less radical writers struggle between writing too much context or too little. Too much, and the read is a slow going slog; too little, and comprehension is lost.

This leads to the eternal condition that there will always be more left to be said after anything is said. The possibilities are never exhausted, and any given read will result in a “but they could have said more about”. It takes a disciplined writer indeed to limit themselves to an idea and stick to it until it said well enough to be understood. The temptation is always there to add just that one more thing, one more thread, one more line of thought. It is the eternal temptation.

The conversation between Morpheus and Denton is perhaps the most well known exchange from Deus Ex. Not because it is essential – it is possible to miss it entirely – but because it breaks with the notion of providing context for its statements. Which isn’t the same as them having no context, but this context is not present in the exchange. Things are stated, left unexplained, and promptly forgotten as new things are stated.

Morpheus has this to say about itself: “I must greet each visitor with a complete summary of his file. I am a prototype for a much larger system.” Two things stand out in this utterance. The first is the “must”, not uttered with any particular emotion or sentiment, but as a straightforward statement of fact. The second is the “prototype”, which relates to the nature of the aforementioned must: it is a prototype for a system with a specific function, and must fulfill this function. That this function is constant realtime surveillance of electronic communication (as in, all of it) does not change what it is: a prototype artificial intelligence acting within specified parameters.

As you can imagine, there are multiple threads to purse at this point. The temptation is real: what does it mean that an AI can monitor electronic communication in realtime? What does it mean in terms of machine intentionality? What can it do with these capabilities? What can we take away from Morpheus being hidden away in a small room as a curiosity for the amusement of guests? What bigger system is it a prototype of?

Speaking of bigger systems, Morpheus says thus: “The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality with data-mining algorithms.” Again, the potential lines of flight: can god be quantifiable as functions? Can these functions be replaced by other instances? Does it matter to the individual if the god in the machine is digital or divine? Would such a transubstantiation be desirable to perform if we could? Would the machine want it?

These are both big and many questions. Seeing how they arise from just two lines of dialogue, this puts the art of writing in perspective. Adding or subtracting anything is a delicate matter, as it adds or subtracts that many lines of ponderance. There are no idle words – everything is significant. Everything can give rise to any number of questions, and must be written as such. Yet grammar states that something must be written, in particular. A choice has to be made.

The reason this particular exchange is so well known is the subtle ways it affords multiple lines flight without bothering too much with the necessities of character development. Morpheus only ever shows up once, and the authors are thus free to state things without having to address them later. The ratio between text and context is thus reduced significantly, and the statements can follow one upon another. Which they do.

As a closing statement, Morpheus speaks thus: “The human being created civilization not because of a willingness but because of a need to be assimilated into higher orders of structure and meaning. God was a dream of good government. You will soon have your God, and you will make it with your own hands.”

As readers and potential prototypes for much larger systems, we have our work cut out for us.

Deus Ex: Prototypes of larger systems

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