Actually, what’s most interesting to me about habituated phenomena are people who don’t trust them. This is why some Cautious temperaments are such awful drivers, because they can’t stop the fearful micromanagement that makes what I call the empathy for the machine impossible. If you can tell someone how you surf – you can’t surf.
I live this all the time on the guitar. I don’t play well, I am the first to declare, but to the extent I can play at all, I do it by means I could never micromanage directly. I just play, often with my eyes closed, and the sounds I make are a conspiracy between my over-arching intentions and the ‘memory’ in my hands of how to get the job done.
I wrote about this phenomenon, a species of what I call the empathy for the machine in Nine empathies.
There’s more in the book, including a notion called the empathy for the orgasm, the management of your not-quite-manageable sexual hardware.
I like to say that every work of the mind is poetry first, and I’ve always lived that way. I’ve never swept a floor without dancing and I’ve never done any sort of drudge work for long without breaking into song. Code can be poetry, but poetry is code – me leading you by words and emphatic gestures to my preferred future. Accordingly, if I can’t say something memorably, mellifluously, I will juggle words in my mind until I can. My wife is enthralled by the middle-brow art of musical comedy, so to tease her with the trickster’s deployment of the empathy for the person, I will converse with her in song-spoken verse, rhyming by crowbar and deliberately brutalizing the scansion in just the way Broadway lyricists always have.
But it was the two ideas together, the poetry and the code, that first led me to the idea of an empathy for the machine. What is it? It’s the deep understanding of a complex logical system that comes from living that logic – completely or in a convincing-enough emulation – such that you feel as if you are that system, you are the machine.
This is an empathy for the imaginable because it is solely an imaginable phenomenon. It is an empathy for the more-impossible, if you like, an invocation of an impossible world made even more impossible by the thought of a machine with which you can empathize. And yet it’s easy to understand once you have a name for the phenomenon. I had been doing exactly that – feeling a deep and rewarding empathy for machines and software and abstract logical systems – for my whole life.
You, too, no doubt, and everyone. We are so afraid of being called out for the de facto egoism that is the default and sine qua non analogue to moral philosophy for all living organisms that we don’t like to admit how much we empathize with the non-living things we love. Yet so much of what makes life beautiful – think of that music I love to sing and dance to – emerges from some one individual person’s deep and enduring empathy for the tools of his trade.
You should play your guitar like your life depends on it, but your life really does depend on the empathy you feel for your car – or for your self and your body when they are enshrined within your car. That assemblage is a different thing – an extension of you, but also simply more you. If you learn to drive a car – or a guitar or a keyboard or a scalpel – as if it were you – as if the communion between you and that machine creates an orb of empathy that is as enthralling, as complete, as connected as the enloving you feel with your spouse, your children and your pets – then you become the soul of this new machine, this magnificent more-you.
Did you catch a hint of weirdness there? A machine is a real thing, not simply an idea, but I was just talking, sort of, about having empathy for your own body. The purpose of empathy is to know what to do next. When you feel pitch and yaw in your flesh, and you then counter it by throwing your body the opposite way, that’s an awful lot like an empathetic response – an observation of fact and a corresponding, proportionate, apposite reaction. I do not think you are a ghost in a machine, but to the extent that the actions and attributes of your body are discernible from the more abstract motivations of your mind, your mind interacts with your body by an empathy for the machine.
The idea that empathy is a self-sacrificial phenomenon is absurd, hence its appeal to academics. Nine empathies illuminates empathy as it really exists – in human beings, in other mammals and in the reptile ancestors we have in common. A big piece of it is muscle memory – seen aborning in other organisms as combat play.
Empathy and combat? That’s what it’s for, aboriginally. When you surf, you want to know where the board’s going to be. When you drive, you want to know how the car is going to respond to the road. And when you engage with another person, animal or machine, you want to know what it’s going to do, so you will know what to do next. That is what empathy is for, and that alone is why you should be reading me on the subject.