The End of the Imagination 

by Radindranath Maharaj

The beginnings of my recent novel, Adjacentland, sprung from visits to Trinidad to see my father who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As his forgetfulness lengthened, replaced sometimes with slices of non-sequential events, I pretended he was trying to reimagine himself. That was not the case, I knew, but I began to consider how much we are defined by what we choose - or are led - to recall and I reflected on how the imagination might operate when our memories are flattened. What happens, I wondered, when this impairment is not due to a neurodegenerative condition but when its onset is gradual and invisible?

I took a step further and considered what may be in store for us when it is some external agency rather than a medical condition sorting our options and making our choices. Will our notions of who we are be surrendered during these transactions? Will the imagination be subverted or crippled?

It sounds far-fetched but already some of this is taking place. Everything is now presented in such a predigested, personalized manner there are rarely these moments of reflection and of thoughts forming gradually. It’s possible that many of us, herded into like-minded constellations, are led to see and believe the same things; and if that’s the case then what we take for our will, our locus of control, is really an inventory of disparate suggestions, a string of ciphers that possesses so many imprints it cannot truly belong to us. In this scenario, the randomness and vitality of our imaginations would have been coerced into narrowing cul-de-sacs.

Artificial Intelligence is not a new concept but decades ago when I immersed myself in science fiction stories and movies, AI had a distinct robotic form with powerful mechanical limbs and senses that were superhuman. Malevolent robots and androids and cyborgs; but the most palpable horror in those stories was of the machines communicating with each other. In my mind, it was as much fantasy as the toys of Inspector Gadget. Now the machines do communicate and they pretend to read our minds as they present us with more individualized choices. And Inspector Gadget? Well, we are living in a portable age with our ubiquitous devices regulating our lives.

Nowadays, the common concerns around AI are not with robots or evil machines but its more common applications, like those involved in news aggregation and data manipulation, the algorithmic tools employed by the social media giants. We got a whiff of this in the last presidential election in America. More recently, I noticed how the various news apps were prioritizing events, nudging me towards articles about which I had no interest. Soon, outliers like many writers and artists, and people who for some reason have opted out, will have to scrounge around to locate articles of interest. It may be argued that this personalization is a good thing because it separates the wheat from the chaff and saves us hours of poking around here and there. This is true. But there is another side to the story.

If our imagination is fuelled by the reality presented to us then we may well be stuffed into like-minded clusters where each hive conjures a different world. One in which an individual can be either a resolute and forward-thinking patriot or a racist xenophobe. So morality becomes a reflection of the gazer’s fabrications and conscience an accessory to the fable. In this world, there is no operational yardstick for measuring virtue. Instead, there is a sort of collaborative conscience.

This is not a screed about social media, which has enabled traditionally marginalized voices to become part of public discourses. However, it can be argued that, in a broader context, shutting out competing voices and opinions creates a sort of parallel universe with the world outside seeming distant and fake and possibly oppositional. And because our mobile units are always in harness we remain cocooned in our derived world where the feedback loop immunizes us from introspection. In the aftermaths of public tragedies, we sometimes hear from incredulous friends that the perpetrators had betrayed no susceptibility to violence or allegiances to particular causes and so on. They were ghosts and loners, shuffling about, bothering no one. Then their online activities are exposed and we get a sense of their real lives.  It is tempting to conclude that their imaginations had been coerced to envision only a single outcome.

In my novel, the main character, his autobiographical memory expunged, believes he is trapped in a series of recurring experiments designed to rekindle what has been lost. There is this passage that refers to the fusion of man and machine into a unified consciousness, a singularity, that gradually eroded the ability to speculate. “Patterns and coincidences had been decoded, mysteries solved, enigmas demystified, puzzles resolved. There was no need to dream or reflect because everything could be predicted through algorithmic interpolations. And because there were no mysteries, the imagination was seen as a vestigial reflex. In time, it was viewed as worse.”

When I was writing the book I was thinking neither of the more immediate dangers of AI like automated terrorism, hacking and algorithmic biases nor of the more apocalyptic predictions like Elon Musk’s rampaging robots. I was thinking of something that, in my mind, will be more gradual and less noticeable. If the evolutionary function of the imagination has been to grant us the ability to make choices, what happens to the imagination when we no longer have to make these choices? Furthermore, will our behaviour become more automatic and our rehearsals for possible action increasingly circumscribed as we turn over more tasks to external administrators? Will modes of reflection and patterns of speech also be circumscribed? What happens to our empathetic responses when our only conversations are with machines?

As my father’s condition worsened I got the sense that he was struggling to understand who he was; reshuffling shards of his memory to restore some sense of self, some acknowledgement of a consciousness. But it was already too late. Too much had slipped away. He had already lost the personal narratives that once allowed him to construct behaviour, to respond empathically, to regulate choices. I felt with horror that he was trapped in a loop filled only with echoes.

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Rabindranath Maharaj is the award-winning author of three short story collections and five novels, including The Amazing Absorbing Boy, which won the 2010 Trillium Book Award and the 2011 Toronto Book Award, and was voted a CBC Canada Reads Top 10 for Ontario. His most recent novel is Adjacentland.

 In 2012, Maharaj received a Lifetime Literary Award, administered by the National Library and Information System Authority as part of the commemoration of Trinidad's fiftieth independence anniversary. In 2013, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, which honours significant contributions and achievements by Canadians.