I have a secret love of espionage.
But you’ll never hear about it from me.
Written while listening to 2600 AD: And Other Astonishing Tales by Mississippi Bones
“Spying is waiting,” — John le Carré, The Russia House
I’ve never had much luck convincing anyone that the most fascinating thing that anyone ever said was, “They made me do it.”
Which, you know, given the reason that it’s a fascinating statement, it’s fitting that I have never convinced anyone that it’s fascinating. Because the reason it’s fascinating is the idea that anyone can be made to do anything, because the last time I checked, everything I have ever been “made” to do turns out to be something that, at some point in the process, I chose to do.
I’ll never try and deny that many of my actions feel inevitable or like things that I have no viable choice except to do them. I’ll never deny that sometimes I do feel like I must do something or something else will go horribly wrong. I know of a lot of instances in history when people found themselves in situations where the consequences they faced meant that when they faced the moment of doing or not doing then they faced something so awful that they could either do whatever it was or suffer for the rest of their foreseeable future.
In some scenarios, it helps our fragile minds to keep going if we can say, “they made me do it.” If we can look at our own hands and deny our personal agency in whatever we have worked.
That’s a funny word, agency, derived from the word agent. In computer science, an agent, or software agent, is a program that’s been written to do something on behalf of a user. In video games, any “non-player character” that the gamer can give tasks to would be considered an “agent.” I’ve been told before, for instance, that we need more pylons, so we should send some agents to take care of that. The more ubiquitous kind of agent that most of us use these days are the Siri-style voices in our phones that help us to use technology. You know, Amazon Echo. And Cortana, the voice of Microsoft computers. And whoever it is that talks for Google. I haven’t figured out her name yet.
Agents. They’re told by the user — me, you — to accomplish something. And they do.
It is not an accident that in The Matrix movies that Neo and company run away from Agents. From computer programs written to accomplish tasks on behalf of the users. They are written with one purpose — to hunt down and eradicate unstable elements (humans with their imaginations given back to them).
The which idea led to something that I have repeated to myself hundreds of thousands of times over the past years since seeing the second Matrix movie, when the biggest and baddest evil Agent delivers a speech that he comes up with when he accomplishes that most fascinating of ends: self-definition.
What I’ve repeated to myself is this:
It is purpose that defines us.
Which I repeat to myself constantly, not because I have any idea what the purpose of my existence is. I have no idea about that one.
I repeat it to myself because I feel terrified to lose my capacity to have agency in the purpose of my actions. Life is hard enough — my mind is confusing enough — without the thought that I do not know what I mean by what I do.
There’s that word “agency” again.
See, the reason that it even makes sense to call those little robots, like Siri and Cortana, agents is because of the root of the word “agent.”
Agent comes from the Latin word agere. Agere means to act. That is to say, to do. So it makes sense to call a robot with the capacity to do a job an agent.
Which can only be a good thing, right?
I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of other things doing things for me. I am a lazy-ass duff, and I have no interest in doing things for myself.
Everything about the idea of outsourcing my agency to other things sounds attractive to me. I have no interest in spending any more time or energy than I absolutely need in order to accomplish my slightest whims. And damn the consequences. What do I care if I allow myself to become the easily manipulated tool of forces that have a better understanding of what I believe than I have myself? So long as they keep the eclairs coming, what’s the difference, right?
Because that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? I can be made to do things. I can be made to do anything. So long as I’m given the right information in the right way, I’ll make whatever choice for myself, in an application of my own personal free will, that you want me to make.
Let’s have an adventure.
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