Notes Reading Notes

Speak

By Louisa Hall, 2015

An epistolary novel that flirts with themes relating to AI, bots and the Turing test. Compelling prose and a beautifully constructed interleaved narrative made this a pleasurable reading experience.

But several glaring problems here…

The Great Man Myth

Like The Circle, Speak reproduces the ‘founders as inventors’ myth about the tech industry where power and marketing reach is entirely absent. Apparently not everyone has come to the realisation that tech success is more about sales and VC bull than it is about lone geniuses producing magical products that synthesise logos and techne. Often the most successful technology (in software at least) is banal and based on decades old ideas. Scaling it as consumer products for a mass audience is the hard part.

The closest real situation I can think of to the story told here is Minecraft. But even that incredible story of individual creativity and success was open and socially driven, involving community feedback right from the earliest prototypes and hacks. The Minecraft reputation grew slowly over time. It wasn’t really until the 2010s—with a huge ecosystem of videos, tutorials and mods—that younger children all over the world became addicted. There was never a single great unveiling by the solitary artist stepping out of his cave with a finished product.

It’s fairly obvious that this myth of how the tech industry works is more or less to do with lone writers projecting their own creative process onto others. Not that I am looking for writers to stick to a blunt political realism in depictions of the tech industry. It’s just that continuing to reproduce these myths about software being magical is problematic. It avoids acknowledging the gendered and socially stratified power relationships that are the basis of the impact of tech on society—a particularly significant elision in a book which is largely about the impact of tech on society.

This lack of critical perspective towards technology, marketing and startup mythmaking doesn’t seem like a good foundation for a lasting and philosophically satisfying story about the emotional impacts of technology. Here it clashes awkwardly with the more timeless ethical questions relating to language, freedom, autonomy and consciousness that are explored more coherently through the historical strands of the narrative.

Bots Talking to Bots

The emerging idea of bots as narrators is fascinating, but this part of the story builds up to something which it doesn’t quite deliver on. The potentially spectacular scene with thousands of bots dumped in a warehouse, all powering down at different times, ends up being a fizzer. ‘Speak’ sets it up, then misses the opportunity to immerse readers in the emergent linguistic and literary consequences of bots recursively talking to bots. But still, a great scene and great images to think about.