Syme is my favorite character in Orwell’s novel. Remember him? No? He’s the nerdy linguist who is overly enthusiastic about his work reducing the English language to Newspeak. Syme is not a hero. He is one the villains in 1984. But he is a fascinating character in the way he has bought into the lies and helps bring about his own end.
Orwell understood that a natural language is an instrument of thought. If your instrument has plenty of flexibility, ambiguity, and redundancy it can be used creatively. Technologists hate that about language; they try to deny that language is wild and alive and cannot be tamed or reproduced mechanistically.
In this chapter, after bringing Julia and Winston a little closer together, I introduce my version of Syme, who, of course, works in AI translation, today’s equivalent of the Newspeak project.
Need to catch up? Go to Chapter One
Covid-1984, The Musical
You probably noticed that I interrupted my New York narrative just as my romance with Julia began. I hate writing about love. I can’t translate into conventional symbols the chemically-induced single-minded obsessiveness with Julia’s physical details (that subtle waist! those slender hands!) that suddenly incapacitated me (cut my logic head off) the moment I read her note. It literally flicked a switch—not like an ordinary household lightswitch, but one of those industrial two-handed switches that, when you throw them, there is a burst of bright sodium light and the roar of powerful machinery springing into action. And, just like that, my libido was behind the wheel, shifting into high gear, throwing its right arm over the back of the seat, racing down a crowded highway with music blaring.
Music does a much better job at conveying one’s carnal feelings than writing does. Even the tritest sentiments, if set against a minor key, can better evoke the thrill of new love than even Marvell’s verse. But anyway, here goes.
I should remark, first, about my general condition, to provide context. I’m a thirty-year-old good-looking healthy male in all the respects that such a description euphemistically implies, and I have never had a long-term relationship. Let the implications of that go forward. While in Russia, as an American, I was something of a novelty for local women, and I had no trouble finding company, even with the language barrier, which suited me perfectly.
Having grown up in a small town—where every other boy had a prison buzz-cut, thirty extra pounds, and fewer teeth—I’ve always been confident about my appearance. My hair is short over the collar, but with a substantial wing of hair that falls over my right eye a moment after I push it back. That crow’s wing of mine is so black it’s almost blue, and my skin is pale, but my cheeks are rosy like my lips. My ice blue eyes further the Snow White theme. I’m striking, even in Russia, so close to Denmark, where my type is more common.
It’s not for want of willing women that I’ve never had a long-term relationship. We can blame my first love, Ophelia, who did what Ophelias do soon after our one and only time together. My first time, incidentally, but not hers. Oh, it’s so difficult to record even these impoverished facts. Do you see how I avoid the details? Obviously that kind of trauma would stunt anyone’s ability to form relationships, right?
My love life in college was drunken and sporadic. Nothing but hangovers to remember from that period. Out of college, as I traveled the world visiting small town archives with English manuscripts, I began to be with women completely sober, which helped me immensely, giving me lots of other memories to crowd out the one with Ophelia. It was just the mental hygiene I needed. Does that sound crass? So be it. All those lovely deep voices (Slavic women don’t pitch their voices up the way Westerners do) were my balm and comfort.
Once the lockdown began for me in March, the possibilities for casual sex expanded even further, if you can believe that. In my building there were fifteen apartments and, in the grand staircase with its deep window alcoves on each floor, the residents and their friends smoked and got drunk. The climb between top floor and exit was like walking through a night club: I was challenged to fights and/or propositioned pretty regularly. But by then the recovery from my original trauma was well underway, and I found myself longing for a woman who spoke my language and wasn’t drunk.
By late June I’d been back in New York and celibate for about a month, and also I was lonely for the first time in my life, grieving alone, and I had constantly elevated cortisol levels because the night-time riots outside my door made me fret about the possibility of civil war (the visuals sure were suggestive). The dehumanizing effect of the month-long mask theater was no help either, not to mention the tragedies that loomed with talked of a rushed vaccine. I was in a very vulnerable state when I unfolded Julia’s note:
“I love you.”
Somewhat old-fashioned school-teacher cursive, Midwest style, every letter slanted right at almost precisely the same angle. The capital “I” leaned like an explorer into strong winds. The lowercase letters were relatively quite small compared to the “I,” but the tail of the “y” looped large and playfully. The unusual “e,” with a perfectly horizontal crossbar, confirmed to me, without any doubt, that it was Julia’s hand. I made all these assessments instantly and intuitively. I was also confident that I was the intended recipient, although I had not the evidence to back that up, just a sudden hunch—which was strange because prior to that moment I was sure that Julia did not like me.
The room was quiet except for my own and Julia’s breathing. Her typing had stopped. That tickle in the back of my throat was coming on again. I wanted to look up at her to see if she had seen that I had found her note. If not, I might hide it and pretend I hadn’t, to give me time to think. I braced myself. I felt a stage-fright surge of adrenaline redden my face, and I looked up, pink slip still in hand, and met her eyes.
“Where’s shall we meet?” she whispered. “My place won’t work.”
I’d thought she was beautiful before, in a completely objective way, but now her beauty—the walnut brown hair curtaining her sculpted face—glowed or radiated or went blurry in my heighten state of awareness. I felt, this is corny to say, that I was in the presence of womanhood itself. I had never been so moved by a woman’s gaze before. I almost blurted out, I love you, too. Instead, I offered, “I live alone.”
“What’s your address?”
“The Victory Mansions building in SoHo,” I said, looking away from her gaze and back at the pink slip, thinking I might turn to stone otherwise.
“I know it. The new building. Which apartment?”
“Penthouse. Tonight?” I asked, still staring at the paper slip.
“Can’t tonight. Tomorrow at noon.”
“Okay,” I replied, regretting my word choice. I should have said, Fantastic! or at least, Can’t wait! Finally, I dared to look at her again. She had already gone back to reading something on her computer screen. Just then the door opened, and Julia pulled up her mask as Leo came in.
“Hey you two,” he teased, “working on Romantics together. How sweet.”
“What the fuck, Leo?” I said.
“Leo says that to everyone who comes to work on the collection,” said Julia.
“So I shouldn’t feel special?”
“Not at all,” said Leo. “Winston, I know you’re only here to work on the Casaubon archive, but I have a request for a document that hasn’t been digitized yet and the scholar doesn’t want to come in in person—”
“Because of Covid?”
“Naturally because of Covid.”
“I predict decades from now ‘because of Covid’ will be the new term for ‘non sequitur’,” I said.
“Deny science much?” asked Leo.
“He was making a joke,” Julia interceded.
“But it’s not a joking matter.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “Just one doc?”
“It’s fragile, so, if you don’t mind, could you bring your scanner into the genealogy archive?”
“It will be recorded as part of this archive. Octopus automatically saves anything I scan.”
“I’ll say it was misfiled,” said Julia.
“All right. Could you unplug me, Julia?” I gathered up my scanner and followed Leo to the genealogy collection. There I waited for forty-five minutes while Leo tried to locate the document he’d mislaid.
When I got back to the Casaubon, I found that Julia had left early. Her bag was gone, her computer had been shut off, and her desk had been tidied up, as if her day’s work was done. I was trying to process my disappointment and/or relief when I heard the squeak of running shoes on the marble behind me.
“Winston,” said a voice in the open door.
I turned to see Syme from Octopus headquarters. “Hey, Syme. This is a surprise.”
I shouldn’t have been able to recognize him, as he wore an unusually large blue medical mask, and because he had a thick beard, the mask could’t be fitted around his chin, and it had crept up to cover his nose completely. His eyes just barely peaked over top of the mask. Together with the baseball cap he wore, the flat broad mask had the effect of canceling out his face entirely. It was only Syme’s unique sad-sack posture that gave him away.
“You should have gotten a memo,” he said.
I couldn’t say he was a friend, exactly, just an amiable co-worker, whom I had known for three years, seeing him sporadically. Syme even showed up in Russia. I had met him in Estonia as well. Syme did AI-assisted OCR transcriptions of handwriting. It was interesting to hear him talk of the successes of AI, if only because he was so obviously wrong about all of it. What I was able to read perfectly well with my eyes AI could often make into a complete jumble.
Syme had been sent by Corporate to report on his assessment my work. He sat down at my table in the center of the little library and unfolded his purple laptop. He wore a lemon yellow collared T with the company’s multicolored logo embroidered over his heart. On his wrist he wore some kind of orange fit bit. He also had bright green pods in his ears, which he had begun to screw out and place into a little blue case. He had a pre-school teacher’s love of colorful new gadgets and managed to get into pre-marketing trials, and he was always showing off his latest tech. I knew better than to ask about any of it lest he launch into a twenty-minute product review.
“Enjoying your work then, Winston? You are going at top speed. At first, we were worried you weren’t being thorough, but we’ve checked.” His mask was being sucked in and out as he spoke.
“I appreciate that.”
“The image of the original is often very imperfect, especially since we’re dealing with very old handwriting.” Syme’s mask was starting to creep up passed his eyes, so he tugged it down a bit. “You have been training our software to recognize eighteen-century script every time you enter a correction.”
“Then I should probably ask for a raise.”
Syme laughed. His bottom lip escaped his mask, which shot up and covered his eyes completely for a second before Syme corrected the free-floating cover once again.
“I am serious. That would be pretty valuable. Ten dollars more per hour.”
Syme realized he’d shown his hand. “I’ll recommend it.”
“Right. If this program is successful then no scholar will have to explore dusty drawers or even read the images,” I said.
“The AI transcripts will be more convenient, you agree?” There was a plainness to Syme’s tone that went well with his character.
“I’ve seen what the AI does to some words that it can’t match. It translates them into something that it does have a pattern for. It even backtranslates other text in the paragraph to comport with the error, turning the whole statement into something more statistically probable but incorrect.”
“More readable,” said Syme. “I would go even further…”
I have no doubt about that, I thought to myself. With every scan, the flash of light is like a match set to the new Library of Alexandria called Octopus Books.
“AI will get to the point of creating precise summaries of the texts,” continued Syme, “so that you won’t even need to read the literal translation.”
Although doing so might lessen my chances of getting that raise, I was triggered to quote Percy: “Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet.”
Syme wasn’t phased. “You wouldn’t need to summarize that. That’s just a wrong idea. We could omit all the mistakes. We have the genetic sequence for the violet.”
That might have been his attempt at humor, but he meant it, nonetheless. He had no taste for ambiguity or tone. Everything had a literal meaning to him and only one meaning. He was perfect for his mindless job. Because he lacked that poetic quality in his own thinking, talking with him was like having a conservation with a very advanced form of AI, and I could imagine where all of this was going.
“We will be successful when an Octopus search returns only one answer, the correct one,” he said, repeating what one of our CEOs had so infamously said once. “Every day we narrow in on it the target. I tell you, Winston, it’s happening fast.”
“Any minute now,” I said, “we won’t need brains any more, just a good Internet connection.”
“You joke, Winston, but that’s not far from the truth.”
With the first stirring of every totalitarian regime, the seeds of its demise have already sprouted. Syme illustrated quite plainly the flaw, the weakness in their plan. The fact was that some aspects of human thought are stubbornly unpredictable, would not be controlled, no matter how much data was gathered. Syme’s faith in technocracy was built upon faulty premises about biological beings. The mind was not like a computer at all. Not at all.
“You technologists keep saying that,” I replied. “Space age materials are going into production that will allow us to levitate and read minds. That was what was said when I was a kid.”
Syme sighed and shook his head. He wasn’t good at the game at all. He inadvertently revealed the stupidity of the Octopus dream to the casual observer. Like a computer, he didn’t know how to dissemble. He would never get out of OCR. He imagined himself climbing the corporate ladder to the top, but up there, they were all good liars. Syme would never make it.
“By 2030—earlier probably—all real knowledge of old poets will have disappeared,” he argued. He loved to argue. “The whole literature of the past will have been translated and summarized. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist, if they exist, only in summary versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory to what they used to be.” He paused to let me take that in. “They are multi-vocal now,” he explained. “They will have one meaning when they are summarized by AI. Meaning will be stabilized, finalized. In the distant future, the whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, not as we understand it now. We will use precise algorithms, and this means not needing to think. We will just enjoy life.”
I mused for a moment about what enjoying life would look like for Syme in the matrix. It would involve some sort of escape from his biological body, through gadgets and software, into the memory banks of an Octopus server.
Then Syme produced some device from a bag he carried, got up and proceeded, apparently, to scan the room with it. He held it out at arm’s length and slowly circled again and again at different altitudes.
“What’s that about?” I asked.
“To build the VRU,” he answered unhelpfully. Then annoyed by my visible ignorance, “Virtual Reality Universe.”
At six, Syme and I left together. At the corner we parted: I was heading downtown and he was walking north. One of these days, I thought, Syme will be canceled. He is too literal, sees too clearly, and speaks too plainly. There was something subtly wrong with Syme. He lacked discretion. Most of the corporate stooges had a sort of saving stupidity that prevented them from realizing the implications of their work. Not Syme. He saw it and believed in the principles of AI, he venerated Octopus, he rejoiced over technocracy. He hated “misinformation” and “hate speech,” not with sincerity but with zeal, which he expressed in the most up-to-date corporate-speak. Yet a faint air of disreputability always clung to him. He said things that would have been better left unsaid. One day he will be disappeared from the corporate payroll. It is written in his mask-blanked face. I thought this with a kind of sadness.
He was, I decided, an unintentional parody of an Octopus executive. And it was for this I actually liked him. He would play a role in the downfall of the technocrats. And I would somehow have a hand in it.
As I turned my steps toward home, with the Dog-Star probably invisible in the bright sky somewhere behind me, I was again inflamed with thoughts of Julia.
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Go to Chapter Seven.