aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 4: Tools Were Made And Born Were Hands

And ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into effective devices for computing in any direction.
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May 10, 2017
San Jose

Even before Erica finished formally adjourning the meeting, I wove my way through the crowd of garrulous people and up the stairs into my bedroom. I grabbed my laptop from the desk, then knocked on Ana’s door. She was there waiting for me.

She sat down on the bed. I sat down on the floor. She stretched, cracked her back, cracked her neck, took a deep breath.

“Now, what is all this about the world?” she asked me.

“Today at work, I accidentally discovered a Name that gives souls to non-living objects. Like, not just turns them into golems. But actual souls. Nobody knows. Wasn’t a work Name.”

“Euphemism,” said Ana. She got the implications immediately. “Wait, a month? You should be world emperor within a week!”

The basis of the Information Age was brute-force generation of kabbalistic Names. That meant me and thousands like me on factory floors, reading potential Names and seeing if they worked any miracles. Given the billions of potential combinations, you needed a whole lot of employees working a whole lot of hours for a whole lot of time in order to get anywhere at all.

Every other field had been revolutionized by automation. Tailors had their sewing machines, builders had their bulldozers, manufacturers had their industrial robots. And so about thirty years ago, someone had the bright idea: why not automate the generation of Divine Names?

A factory with a hundred workers, each testing one Name every twenty seconds, all working eight hour days – discovers a new Name of ten letters or more about once a month. If a computer could test a thousand names a second, twenty-four hours a day, it could discover a new Name almost every hour.

A Name must be spoken. It can’t merely be subvocalized, or sounded out completely in the imagination. So fine. Connect the computer up to a speaker. Have it speak a thousand times faster than any human, until the stream of Names just sounds like a uniform high-pitched hum. Then write a program that calculates potential Names off some open-source namespace software, plays them from the speaker, and records the ones that work.

That program was Llull. A terrible and wonderful thing. Capable in theory of putting the entire kabbalah industry out of business, of advancing the magical capability of humankind a thousandfold in a few days.

And in the end, useless. Computers cannot speak the hidden transcendent names of God.

Or, well, they can. But nothing happens. No wave of light crashes through their silicon brains. No revelation fries their integrated circuits. They just keep on beeping and clicking, oblivious. And theoretical kabbalah has only one good explanation: computers must lack the divine spark.

Llull was programmed by hobbyists and academics and had no practical utility. It was used in a few research applications, then abandoned to any amateur who might want to play around with it.

But if someone were to come up with a way to give a computer the divine spark, to ensoul it…

Well, that person would have something producing Names thousand times as fast as the average sweatshop. Since there are about a thousand sweatshops seeking Divine Names all over the world, that one person with his single computer would have a magical discovery rate equal to the rest of the world combined. The very least he could expect would be to become stupendously rich.

And what if, with all that money, he were to buy a second computer? What about a third computer? What about a giant Cray supercomputer that thought so quickly that it needed liquid nitrogen pumped through it every second of every day to prevent its manic cognition from frying its own brains? Hooked up to hundreds of speakers in parallel, testing millions of Names per second? In an hour, you could gain more sorcerous power than the entire human race had discovered since the sky cracked. Hire a clever mathematician to narrow the search space, and you’d be within reach of the Shem haMephorash itself, with the power to remake worlds.

I hadn’t just discovered an especially long Name. I had discovered the key to the royal road. No, don’t mock me. This is worth mixing metaphors for.

“Are you going to tell Erica?”

“If I tell Erica, half the Unitarians in California will know within an hour. Erica’s great, but she’s not exactly the best person at keeping her mouth shut. I trust nobody with this. Nobody.

“You trusted me.”

“I didn’t have a choice!”

“Oh. Right.” Ana plucked the Vital Name out of my head. “Gotcha,” she said. “So, you want to give our laptops souls?”

“I want to give my laptop a soul,” I said. “Llull only works on Macs, remember?”

I had an old NE-1 series Macbook. I’d named it Sarah after my desktop wallpaper of Sarah Michelle-Gellar striking a sexy pose. Ana had an even older PC. She’d named it Captain Smith after the officer who’d slammed the Titanic into an iceberg, because of its tendency to crash and freeze.

“They still haven’t euphemism come out with the Windows version?” Ana asked.

“Of course not,” I said. “It wouldn’t be kabbalistically appropriate.”

Apples and knowledge have always had a special relationship. Adam tasted knowledge and was thrust from Eden. Newton had knowledge strike him suddenly out of the blue. Turing’s knowledge was bitter and led him to an early grave. Knowledge brings discord, knowledge ripens, knowledge is poisoned. Men greedily devour the exterior of knowledge, but the core they do not reach.

Knowledge was first domesticated in southern Turkey or northern Mesopotamia, from which it spread to the rest of the world, although some scholars claim its modern genome owes more to various European ancestors. Most historians believe it was first brought to the New World by colonists, but this ignores the existence of native American varieties which unfortunately have been mostly displaced and are now endangered. The first and second leading producers of knowledge at the current time are America and East Asia. Although knowledge originally reproduced through cross-pollination with other knowledge, modern industrial growers have taken to a grafting process similar to cloning. As a result, the sorts of knowledge everywhere are pretty much the same. This makes producing knowledge for commercial sale much easier, but has led some to opine that a once vast diversity in varieties of knowledge has been irrecoverably lost.

The apple symbol on Sarah’s lid glowed balefully.

Ana couldn’t quite follow my thoughts, but she got the gist of them, put her hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“Big step we’re about to take,” she said.

“The biggest,” I agreed.

“You want to do the honors?”

I double-clicked on the little icon for Llull, loaded it up, set it on autopilot. The computer made strange noises at the limit of human hearing. Names, spoken faster than the ear could follow. Lifelessly now, running through by rote. That would change.

I stood up, towering above the white frame of the computer. I placed my hand above it in a posture of benediction, like the Pope blessing a small child. Features in a beatific smile. I cleared my mind. In the background, I could feel Ana’s presence, telepathically bound to me, happy, radiant.

I started: “ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…”

Erica’s voice from the hallway: “Are you doing dark rituals in the bedroom again?! If you burn that carpet, I swear, you can summon Thamiel himself and all of his terrors will be as nothing compared to what I will put you through if…”

And I ended: “MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH!”

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