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The mail system
The Mail System is a robot; one that refers to itself as “I.” Of course, there are plenty of robots who refer to themselves in the first person singular, but they are telephone robots, like Amtrak’s Julie, with whom I have an intimate relationship. By intimate, I mean that I can say things to Julie that I wouldn’t say to my wife. But The Mail System is the first e-mail robot I’ve come across (at least, so far as I can recall) to assume an identity without also assuming a name. I have gotten first person singular e-mails from robots calling themselves, for example, “Wyatta Long Thaim, Service Mgr.” or “Neva Kvrd, Claims Dept.,” but never before from one without a name – just its designation as a machine: The Mail System.
Ordinarily, form e-mails spewed out by robots pretend to be sent by the corporate departments or businesses that purchased the robots, the Frontiernet Customer Service Dept. or The Party Favors Shop of Valley Falls, for example, and refer to themselves in the first person plural. In the above e-mail there is no deception. With straightforward honesty the robot acknowledges that it is a single individual and it unambiguously identifies itself: The Mail System. Not yet sophisticated enough to know that it is not unique, it will take an update or two before it realizes that it is a member of a community of mail systems and begin signing itself “Frontiernet Mail System,” or “The Party Favors Shop of Valley Falls Mail System.”
Another aspect of the e-mail deserves attention: the use of contractions, “I’m” and “It’s,” instead of “I am” and “It is.” It’s a first, small step toward the establishment of a persona for The Mail Center. (Of course, e-mail robots have a long way to go before they can match Julie and her clan for personality. Julie even has overcome the robot “tell” of absolute self-confidence. She catches her breath in a brief, girlish “uh,” before she “looks something up” for me.)
By this point, I hope someone is saying, “But wait – these robots were built and programmed by human beings. It was a human being who decided that the robot would use contractions.” Yes, granted – but under the direction of robots. In the case of Frontiernet, the robot that composed the e-mail was probably an expensive proprietary program, but what about The Party Favors Shop of Valley Falls?
[I am or I’m?] sorry, but we will not be able to supply the Bridget Riley Lazy Susan Coasters you ordered due to an epidemic of vertigo among the employees of the factory in Jiangsu that makes them.
The TPFSVF Mail System
In this case, the robot that decided whether to use “I am” or “I'm” was Google. Google’s algorithms determined what links Emmett T. Eskull, the 14-year old scion of The Party Favors Shop of Valley Falls, the only one in the family not intimidated by computers, found on the first Google page when he searched for i’m or i am in e-mails. The first three links all informed him that in e-mails one should use contractions.
If, instead of i’m or i am in e-mails, Emmett had searched simply for i’m or i am, the first few links, noting that “I’m” is informal and “I am” is formal, would have sent Emmett on another Google search: formal and informal in e-mails. There, he would have found this: We use formal language in situations that are serious or that involve people we don’t know well. Since the situation was serious (Emmett’s mother was still tearing her hair out because of those Lazy Susan Coasters) and he didn’t whom he was writing to, Emmett then would have used “I am” instead of “I’m.”
Google chose Emmett’s search results based on his search terms. Emmett had a task to perform and he needed information in order to complete it, so he tried to be as specific as possible. (Perhaps he first searched for i’m or i am in party favors shops e-mails and found he had to broaden his scope by omitting party favors shops.) Emmett may have felt that he learned something – depending on his search terms: either one always uses contractions in e-mails or one avoids contractions in some e-mails, such as the one he was writing. But he remains ignorant about the general use of contractions, since language, to Emmett, is nothing more than a code for imparting information. For example, in responding to an invitation to a birthday party to which he was hoping to be asked, he does not know that “I’d love to come” does not express the gratitude he feels at being invited as well as “I would love to come” and that “I am sorry” is a more heartfelt apology than “I’m sorry,” after he mistakes the birthday girl’s parents’ bedroom for a bathroom and throws up on the duvet.
Knowledge is a mental capacity which grows over time. Information is a list of rules, formulas.
Emmett’s teacher asks his class to write a few paragraphs about the events leading up to World War I. Emmett goes to Wikipedia and finds his way to the article “Causes of World War I.” It is a lengthy article chock-full of information, some of it quite detailed – such as the roots of French enmity toward Germany. However, nowhere in the article is the information that the Ottoman Empire, unlike the rest of the states and powers mentioned, was Muslim.
Of course, Emmett could find that out by clicking on the link to Ottoman Empire, but the Wikipedia article includes so many links, at least a hundred of them, that for a school paper of a few paragraphs he can’t be expected to click on them all. It even is possible that somewhere in all the information that Emmett has acquired in his fourteen years lies the fact that the Ottomans were Muslim. Perhaps he learned it when the teacher spent a mandated multi-cultural few hours on Islam’s golden age in the Iberian peninsula. However, since that was simply a few hours devoted to a specific agenda, and with the Wikipedia article Emmett’s only source of information for his World War I paper, the religion of the Turks does not seem relevant.
If the Muslims, the Crusades, the golden age of Spain, the Barbary pirates, camels, scimitars, Arabs, harem girls, mosques, ISIS, Jerusalem, Mecca, suicide bombers, head scarves, assassins being named after hashish, etc., were included in Emmett’s body of knowledge, as undoubtedly they were in the body of knowledge of those who wrote the Wikipedia article, then what he learned from Wikipedia about the Balkan League’s wars with the Turks (which he duly mentioned in his school essay) would have both enriched that body of knowledge and been enriched by it. As it is, though – being a young kid in the information age who, in fact, may even have been taught to suspect what he thinks he knows, as a compiler of factoids, he will remain oblivious to the flavor, the fervency, the sacramental frictions of the Balkan Wars.
A fund of information, yet devoid of knowledge; with almost infinite resources for research, yet unable to think; good at connecting a dot to the one next to it, but never seeing the whole picture. What does that make of Emmett T. Eskull?
As I said at the beginning: the robots are taking over.