Soul Machine - Umberto Tosi


Me with Toto in Boston, c. 1941  
The PC system crash that I had been pretending not to expect happened in stages and became undeniable by my 87th birthday in mid-May. Somehow it felt catastrophic. I'm a creature of habit. I rely on routines to balance me over the voids of writer's block and dark neuroses. Expected or not, the crash disrupted various works in progress, including my Authors Electric post for June, which I missed. That's my excuse, anyway.

Suddenly I needed to replace the familiar, multipurpose, desktop box with which I had been pounding out books, stories, secrets, images, videos, notes, missives, social media screeds and things personal for a dozen years. I knew its open-source Linux Ubuntu OS interface like the back of my hand - its folders and sub-folders, much like my cluttered desk and maybe my life - a friendly mess  whose pathways and objects I could navigate while sleepwalking.

Tablets, laptops and smartphones just won't do for this clunky-fingered writer, either physically or in scope. Writing with them feels like squeezing War and Peace through a toothpaste tube to me.  

I never thought I'd go anthropomorphically gooey over a computer, but I definitely grieved the passing of this machine, albeit way past its use-by date as a PC. It had sentimental value. My youngest daughter, Zoe, now in California, had custom-built it for me while at Indiana University where she earned her cognitive science doctorate. 

Fortunately, I had backed up lots of data here there,  on the cloud, on an external hard drive and my with Google drive account. Inevitably, however, backing up data like they tell us to, is a far-from perfect process for wide-screen rover like myself. My resolutions prove porous. I lost some stuff. I paid a shop to extract and fragmented copy files from my PC's failing memory - memoirs of a dying machine. Their software extracts and copies files by date and type rather than by subject, less than convenient for my uses, but rescued in any case.

It took me a few weeks to find and install a replacement - one that proved more compact, faster and more capacious than my old desktop.

It took me weeks to select an affordable, adequate replacement PC. I had to return one box that arrived with wrong-sized ports. My new system is a retrofitted box more powerful yet a tenth its size. It runs like a cheetah with sound system and video camera. 

Still, I miss my old machine the way I miss my childhood teddy bear, my long-gone dogs and a Ford Taurus I drove from showroom to shambles as my youngest grew up in the 1990s. 

My new-car awkwardness will pass. But for now I still have trouble finding functions and files on my spiffy plus-sized monitor.

I take some comfort in learning that my anthropomorphic projections are part of our human condition. They go beyond sentimentality. They exemplify neurological processes that evolved over eons and are the stuff of relationships and societies. Brain scientists label them social projections. It seems that each of us are Matrix machines operating 24/7. 

Princeton professor Michael S.A. Graziano explains these phenomena succinctly in God, Soul, Mind and Brain, a Neuroscientist's Reflections on the Spirit World. I had picked up Graziano's book while browsing down the rabbit hole of research on my forever scifi oeuvre, The God Machine. 

One of its protagonists is a robot infused with the electronic contents of a human's brain, in this case, that of a lead researcher's son. The circumstances are not unlike that of Dr. Frankenstein's monster. The two minds diverge by function. The conscious robot experiences existence differently than the human donor and is capable of different things.

According to Dr. Graziano and his ilk, human beings project consciousness into every person and practically everything we encounter. In fact, we really only know our mental simulations of people's identity, never a true rendition of actual people or things themselves. Our brains are designed to highlight what is useful for survival, not necessarily to reproduce things faithfully. We have to extrapolate such details. 

 Sometimes it's a parallel perception of mind in a creature that has one of its own - a cat for example. Other times, well. It could well be our very selves we simulate and project onto the screen of consciousness.

Graziano examines the phenomenon from a scientific point of view in his book. Our brains are adept at creating virtual models not only of other people's mental state, but their inner feelings and personalities - of their "souls" he goes so far to say. 

Ultimately, I could be my fictional mind-donor or the bot or both, as perhaps could any of us. The question is which is "real." What is "real" anyway. What is the soul, Graziano asks. 

My novel won't answer that, but asking can be enough.


Umberto Tosi's recently published books include the highly praised, Frank Ritz, Hollywood noir detective mystery The Phantom Eye, plus his story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous, plus Ophelia RisingHigh Treason, Sports Psyching and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction essays and articles have been published widely in print and online. He began his career at the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West. He went on to become  editor of San Francisco Magazine. and managing editor of Francis Coppola's City of San Francisco. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult daughters. He resides in Chicago.


Enjoy my Hollywood noir detective thriller: The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery)  - soon to be followed by Oddly Dead and Death and the Droid.
 "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen.


Peter Leyland said…
I know exactly what you mean Umberto and will shortly I expect find myself in the same position as you were at the start of your piece, as my Apple PC chugs towards its final resting place.

It is all the more amazing that you have managed to master a new machine. Would that I had the confidence!!

I really liked your bringing in Michael S. A. Graziano and his book The God Machine: 'Our brains are designed to highlight what is useful for survival...' Great point there.

Writing, I think can create virtual models of other people's mental state, 'their inner feelings and personalities', maybe their souls too. I guess that's what fictional creation is all about.

Thanks for the post. I read a lot of novels.

Aliciasammons said…
Fascinating read, inviting us to exam how our everyday life, and our memories of that life, are entangled with the objects that support our daily living.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks to Peter, Alicia, "Car Repair" et al for your kind words and food for thought.
I always panic about changing over computers and I still have at least 2 laptops that barely function which I keep in case I ever have to switch them on and retrieve some forgotten photo or documen. Some time last year I sensed that my previous one was about to give up, and copued my documents and pictures folders to Dropbox but I still wonder if I caught them all! It's great that you've been able to get going with the new one so quickly, especially as it seems to be so much newer.
Umberto Tosi said…
@Cecilla Peartree: Thanks for you comment. Your PC concerns are all too familiar! :D

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Navigating by the Stars

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

No, The Times Journalists at the Hay Literary Festival, Burglarising is Not What It's All About, says Griselda Heppel

Little Detective on the Prairie