I have a confession to make: I hardly ever defragment my laptop hard drive. I know I should, as friends far more conversant in technology than I am repeatedly tell me. But, like that filing system I keep telling myself I’m going to install in my room, it seems like too much hassle, too much time. It’s a fitting metaphor for the endless mental stuff we accumulate, thoughts and facts and ideas all stuffed into dusty corners of our mind and left to languish there, victim to that “maybe tomorrow” attitude that always seems to attach itself to the task of organisation. The thought of sorting everything into neat little packages is appealing, but continually put off.
This is the metaphor that codes its way through DEFRAG_, Tom Lyall’s gently compelling love letter to artificial intelligence and one of a clutch of futuristic visions being presented at the Camden People’s Theatre as part of their Futureshock programme. Half lecture, half something else, Lyall’s solo show is continually surprising in its unapologetically geeky, dryly amusing intelligence. Starting with the appeal of the defrag – the seductive idea that you might be able to realign your thoughts and free up space elsewhere – Lyall’s protagonist is a broken, recovering individual, attempting to reassemble his identity in the same way that a computer retrieves scattered files. Until, that is, he discovers that there might be a computer that could do it all for him.
Both playing on and eschewing the dystopian fear of the computer as ultra-intelligent other, the relationship that DEFRAG_ nurtures with artificial intelligence is an altogether more affectionate one. Lyall speaks to anyone who has ever fallen a little bit in love with a lightning-fast operating system or sexy interface, acknowledging the strange allure of an intelligence governed by reason alone. How appealing to be able to make decisions uninfected by neuroses, to be able to organise thoughts into easily accessible files and folders. There is a sort of fear wrapped up in this too, as acknowledged through the interjecting narrative of a super-computer designed to beat its human competitors in the US gameshow Jeopardy – the fear that the computer might simply be better than we can ever aspire to be. The other can be as seductive as it is threatening.
The structure chosen by Lyall is one that neatly reflects this murky division between human and machine. He delivers the first half standing at a lectern, cultivating a genial mode of delivery that sits somewhere between lecture, confessional and storytelling, as he tells us about the gameshow storming super-computer Watson, his relationship with computers, and his growing mistrust of his own internal hard drive following a brain injury. But just as Lyall has lulled us into the rhythm of his narrative, it slides suddenly into sci-fi territory, a canny move that snags our attention as we find ourselves just as dislocated as Lyall’s imprisoned protagonist, with nothing to rely on but a disembodied electronic voice. The piece can thus seemingly be divided along clean lines into the corporeal and virtual, but it is never quite this simple.
No one trick geek, Lyall is as sensitive to the conventions and contrivances of theatre as he is to the jargon of computing. With the house lights still up, he gently mocks the art of representation by “acting” the drinking of a glass of water and acknowledges his artificial surroundings – “I see you’ve met the set” – while also drawing attention to the relationship between theatre and value. Are we getting what we’ve paid for? This is only loosely knitted to the main weave of what DEFRAG_ is doing, but when interrogated more closely, Lyall’s attention to the blurred line between the fake and the real seems ever more integral in its relationship to the content of the piece. The computer, after all, is just another imitation of human faculties.
While DEFRAG_ might fascinate and tickle the secret sci-fi fan in me, it is ultimately the human story weaved by Lyall that becomes the most engrossing. The fears he delicately touches upon, of losing memories or finding one’s sense of self unravelling, are ones that afflict us all. Storytelling is also cast in a central position within our relationship with artificial intelligence; as Lyall’s unnamed protagonist backs up his life onto a super hard drive, stories are passed from file to file in the same way they once travelled from mouth to mouth, the currency of our humanity deposited into a bank that might well have its own agendas. If our stories and memories can be appropriated, what remains to separate us from our machines?
There are no real answers, but that feels right. Because if there’s one thing that sets humans apart from our machine counterparts, it’s that ambiguous area of grey that renders the defiantly black and white process of the defrag impossible.
Image: Rachel Ferriman