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12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next

Review

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next

Usually when I read a collection of essays, I take them one by one. I pick up the book, read one, put it down, read something else and come back to it later. However, that was not the case with 12 BYTES, which is too captivating to set aside. Jeanette Winterson’s new essay collection is about technology and artificial intelligence, and the many questions she has about the future: Will human bodies be improved by AI or be taken over by it? Will social interaction still look the same between humans and AI as it does human to human in this day and age?

In honor of 12 BYTES, I took a longer look at Tesla’s Optimus Prime, a faceless AI who stands over six feet tall and performs “everyday boring functions” for humans. He looks like Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina and C-3PO put together without the pretty facial features or golden limbs. After reading Winterson’s book, I have to say that I have been haunted by Optimus. I keep seeing and imagining all these scenarios about how he and other AI will come to take a place in the world as we know it.

"Winterson writes in a straightforward PHYSICS FOR POETS-type of conversational tone that kept me so engaged that I read the book straight through and then read it again."

Of course, it is changes that Winterson ruminates over in 12 BYTES. She questions how the world will look through a humanist vein. Not preoccupied with just the wonders of technology, she ponders how we humans will change the way we live when AI inevitably discover their own ways of communicating and acting in society.

Winterson talks about uploading our brains --- our individual memories, knowledge and personality --- to clouds and living forever without a body. She travels the historical path to what we now know as Wi-Fi and what is to come next. The good feminist that she is, she makes many mentions of the fact that women and people of color are rarely given a seat at the tech table, even when they are the creators of these innovations. Our dependence on corporations is on her mind, and she reflects on how old texts give clues as to how our society will change as technology gets bolder and more intrusive.

Winterson is a wonderful writer, and these essays are so thought-provoking, inquisitive and well-researched that one wonders if it is too academic a tome to enjoy as a regular reader. I am NOT a tech reader, I don’t like Kindles and I do enjoy my dystopia. But when it comes to the science behind the tech, I tend to put up my hands and wave a white flag. Still, I found 12 BYTES to be a fun and informative read. Winterson writes in a straightforward PHYSICS FOR POETS-type of conversational tone that kept me so engaged that I read the book straight through and then read it again. That’s not something I’m used to doing, but dear reader, I dare you not to do the same.

There is hope in Winterson’s book, a humanity as I mentioned that cuts a clear path through all the William Gibson-esque possibilities she discusses. I, for one, am hoping that she has the 411 on the future, and it is one that will command cooperation between humans and AI. We’re happy to have them as long as we can figure out that there is room for all of us on this planet --- and that tech can help us save this place and undo some of man’s weightiest crimes without adding more to the mix.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on October 29, 2021

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next
by Jeanette Winterson

  • Publication Date: October 12, 2021
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802159257
  • ISBN-13: 9780802159250