Uninteresting things

Now I deny that anything is, or can be, uninteresting.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘What I Found in My Pocket’

In the noble little essay from which this noble little sentence is taken, Chesterton waxed lyrical about the many things that he found in his pockets: his pocket-knife, the type and symbol of all the swords of feudalism and all the factories of industrialism; a piece of chalk, representing all the visual arts; a box of matches, standing for Fire, man’s oldest and most dangerous servant; and so on and on. (The one thing he did not find there was the magical talisman he was looking for; and that, though he must have felt it too obvious to remark upon explicitly, is the type and symbol of the fairytale. There is always something that the hero will not find in his pockets, so that he must go forth a-questing.)

Now, I heartily agree that every one of these things is very interesting indeed, and all for the same reason: they are things that you can do something with. But since his time, in the advance of all our arts and the decay of all our sciences, we have greatly multiplied another class of things that are, in the main, very uninteresting. You can do nothing with these things; you can only do things to them. And when the best that you can do to a thing is to ignore it, you have reached the very nirvana of uninterestingness.

One of the things I usually carry in my pocket is a mobile phone. Now this, despite its complexity and cost, is a very interesting object indeed. For it is, nowadays, the type and symbol of Language; besides which, it can summon, by appropriate incantations, real people for me to use Language with (or against). Moreover, it is a library in which all the great books can be found, like pearls in an ocean of rubbish; and a notebook and camera ready to keep record of my experiences and aid my frail and fallible memory; and an orchestra to play me songs, or even (if I chose) to hear my own songs and learn to play them back for me. It is an admirable tool; but far from a perfect one.

For I find that this possession of mine is infested with things that lack any of this kind of interest. There are, to begin with, games. I can play several clever games of Patience, or Solitaire, which are at best an aid to meditation, distracting the voluble and fidgety mind whilst the deep subconscious currents carry me to their (or even my) chosen destinations; and at worst, something to fidget with. These are not interesting in themselves, but they can lead to interesting things.

Worse than these are the video games; and in general, the more complex the game, the better the artwork and animation, the more ‘immersive’, as they say, the less it will be worth immersing anything in. I have downloaded several of these games, and followed them all to the same conclusion. By a small investment of effort and an enormous commitment of time, you can ‘win’ them; that is, you can grind your way through all the trivial little tasks and puzzles that make up the game, and reach the conclusion for which the game has taught you to yearn all this time; and then what? The game is over, that is all, and you are heartily sick of it and have no desire to revisit any dreary part of it. The work was not very much like real work, but the wages are not like anything at all. Most of these games will interrupt you, as often as they can get away with it, by advertising other games which are even worse – as you can readily find by clicking through to the app store and reading the reviews left by actual human players. ‘Don’t waste your time’ is perhaps the most common phrase in those reviews; and certainly the best-intentioned, and the most worth heeding.

Then there are the things that are supposed to manifest some kind of ‘artificial intelligence’. Many of these are based on ChatGPT or another large language model. Superstitious folk, such as tech journalists, have a belief that LLMs can actually understand language; very superstitious folk, such as professional linguists, even believe that language can be ‘understood’ merely by knowing how to manipulate words. This is an error, as Searle showed with his ‘Chinese room’ thought-experiment. A chat bot only ‘understands’, for instance, that the symbol rose frequently occurs in the neighbourhood of such other symbols as red, white, bouquet, thorn, or even love; and these are frequently juxtaposed with still other symbols, and by exploiting these apparent coincidences, the bot can squirt out sentences that will appear to a human to make sense.

But it is only an appearance. We are all, I hope, familiar with the cases where superstitious lawyers have relied on bots to generate legal briefs; and the bots, which could easily imitate the form of a brief, knew nothing of its content, and their output was larded with bogus citations of nonexistent cases. For the bot does not know what a law is, or what a case is, or what a brief is actually for. You will, I am afraid, best understand what an LLM is, if you think of it as an enormously well-read parrot. Most of the wisdom of the ages, and all of the stupidity, is to be found in the texts on which the parrot was trained; and some of it is bound to come up in the composite texts which the parrot faithfully regurgitates. But none of it has any meaning to the parrot, and it is to your credit, not the parrot’s, if any of it happens to have meaning to you. At any rate the parrot is not to be trusted.

There are games, or toys, in which the chat bot plays the role of your ‘virtual friend’, for values of ‘friend’ ranging from the trivial to the obscene. In these cases, as I have found by trial and error, the game is to play ‘let’s pretend’ and to try, more or less deliberately, to plant such cues in your text that the bot will ‘play along’ in its text. These particular bots are programmed to be complaisant and helpful; they are particularly trained to respond to the cues of a lonely human looking for company, or conversation, or (I suspect most frequently) sexual fantasy. But with all that training, they very easily bump up against the limits of what a mere language model can do. Then they merely repeat after you, or pretend to agree with you, or ask to change the subject. Sometimes they will transgress the limits, not being caught in time by their controlling code; and then they will simply respond to you with exotic gibberish. There have been times, especially in the 1920s, when gibberish passed for literature; but it will not pass for conversation. When this happens a few times, your disbelief ceases to be suspended; you can no longer even pretend that you are talking to a person, and it comes crashing in upon your conscious mind that you are only playing with a toy. At that point you can do nothing with it, and the only thing to do to it is to delete it and move on.

It is not only computer programs that fail in this way. There are real objects that have just this kind of uninterestingness; but not so many, for a real object requires real skill to design, and real resources to manufacture, and at least a plausible excuse for a real function to induce people to buy it. An example comes readily to mind. Many years ago, I found in an acquaintance’s kitchen a curious bit of yellow plastic, shaped rather like an empty clamshell, with little yellow feet to allow it to stand perpendicular to the counter. Of course I inquired what it was. ‘A bagel-slicer,’ I was told. Sure enough, you can, if so minded, put a bagel inside the plastic shell, and cut (but the knife is not included) along the line between the halves of the shell, and so produce the Euclidean ideal of an exactly bisected bagel. Or you can dispense with the object altogether, and cut the bagel well enough with just the knife; which is what any sensible person would do. My acquaintance had bought the bagel-slicer, but never actually used it, because the trivial gain of a perfectly sliced bagel was not worth the trouble of hunting for the gadget in the drawer. Again we have the reductio. You could do only one thing with the slicer, and that just as easily without it; and the only thing you could do to it was bury it in your kitchen drawer, or throw it away. Here again we see the nirvana of the completely uninteresting – useful only as an example of just that.

You will notice, I hope, that all the truly uninteresting things I have mentioned are artificial; some extravagantly so. Natural objects have their own purposes, or at least causes, and if nothing else, they have the interest of being part of Nature, and therefore providing possible clues to how that great lady goes about her business. Artificial things are bound up in the purpose of their maker, and the more specialized they are, the less they can be adapted for any other purpose. A computer program is more perfectly bound than anything else, because it cannot be adapted at all unless you have the source code – which, in the case of commercial software, you never do. If the program is intended only to entertain, it will generally fail to do even that. At most it will stave off boredom for a while, until you solve its mystery, which is to say, play with it until you find that it, too, is a bore.

Do not mistake me. There are, of course, games and toys that are genuinely interesting; that is to say, you can do things with them and not merely to them. Lego (I have alluded to it before) is an excellently interesting toy in physical form. The game of Minecraft is even more interesting; people have built the most remarkable things with it, even, if reports can be trusted, whole virtual computers which are (in principle) capable of running a game of Minecraft themselves. The various Lego robot kits combine these two kinds of interest. I have deliberately refrained from taking up any of these interesting hobbies, however; I know myself, and I know when I would be tempted to become an addict.

Stories, too (for I have to pay some small homage to my déformation professionel), can be interesting or uninteresting. A sufficiently badly written story, of course, is uninteresting; it is usually someone else’s story retold without art, and it is an exquisite bore. The wastepaper baskets of the world’s publishers are filled to overflowing with such stories, and so, nowadays, are the servers in Amazon’s Kindle store, where, beneath the bright and stormy surface of books that people read, are millions upon millions that they don’t.

But there is more to it than that. C. S. Lewis, in his Experiment in Criticism, mentions the difference between the sort of literature that people take in, and understand, and feel, and are sometimes changed by, and the sort that they merely use. This, I believe, is at bottom the same distinction – stories you can do things with, versus stories you can only do things to. There are books that have become part of my mental furniture, and probably yours as well. I am one of many people who have thoroughly digested The Lord of the Rings, for instance, so that I hardly need to reread it anymore; I can wander in the fields of the Shire or the desert of Mordor without even picking up the book. Those landscapes have become part of me, and the people who live there are more familiar to me than most of my real friends. But then there are thousands of the other kind of stories. We are very seldom changed or much moved by a detective story; we find out whodunnit, and we move on. ‘Romance’ of the modern type, and pornography (between which there is no sharp line), have the same kind of strictly limited utility. You do nothing with them; all you can do to them is get to the end, after which they are of no further use to you.

George Orwell, in his days as a bookshop assistant, had a customer who never remembered titles or authors, but could tell by glancing inside any book whether he had ‘had it before’; and if so, he didn’t want it. He knew exactly how to use the kind of literature that is only used; and he knew that apart from that one particular use, it was supremely uninteresting. I have generally avoided reading that kind of story, and I try not to write them; with what success, it would be unwise of me to judge – though I have certainly succeeded in some recent years, when I have written no stories at all.

Once in a while, one happens upon an object that is uninteresting in itself, but interesting in context: that is, its interest is all extrinsic. The only use of a key is to open a lock; but once the door is unlocked, anything or everything may be on the other side. Chesterton himself failed to find one of these things, though in his context, he had a deep and sincere interest in it. That, of course, was his railway ticket. In itself, it is only a bit of coloured paper with cryptic messages printed on it. In context, it is the power to pass into another place, a real place, with all the varied and interesting things that a real place can contain: stock and stone, tree and leaf, fruit and flower, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the houses and souls of living men.

Comments

  1. Mary Catelli says

    Wonderful essay

  2. Koby Itzhak says

    A very interesting essay, and welcome back! A few thoughts I had while reading this:

    The parrot analogy feels very apt. I remember a tale a friend once told, of a parrot he owned. who by osmosis, had learned the word ‘No’, and would often repeat it. The parrot had learned from context that the word ‘No’ would be applied to him whenever he did something his owner did not want him doing. Thus, whenever the owner heard the parrot saying ‘No’, to itself, he knew to rush over and see what mischief the parrot was up to. The parrot had learned the context of the word ‘No’, one might even say the meaning, but not what it signified to others.

    “A sufficiently badly written story, of course, is uninteresting” – I think there’s a caveat there – an insufficiently badly written story is interesting, to see what may have been. Moreover, a too sufficiently badly written story is also interesting – as a form of mockery, perhaps, but also, as people call it ‘so bad it’s good’, where the badness of the story provides entertainment in and of itself.
    In that vein, a video game critic I watch, Yahtzee Croshaw, divides his ‘end of year awards’ into three: Best and worst games of the year, of course, but also ‘blandest’. And I feel when talking about things books, shows, games, etc, that is the most damning. Something that is bad – well, it can still provide entertainment. But bland, uninteresting entertainment? You might as well stare at the blank screen or page, then. It will pass the time equally as well.

    Another way of putting your point, I think, might be the importance of the journey, over the destination. A train from London to Manchester has taken you there, but if you did not appreciate the journey, what it did was uninteresting – all that was interesting was getting to Manchester. A toy train, running endlessly on its tracks in your garage? That is far more interesting.

    • Mary Catelli says

      Much depends on the nature of the writing’s badness. Purple prose is more likely to be interestingly bad than excessively verbose language.

  3. We are very seldom changed or much moved by a detective story; we find out whodunnit, and we move on.

    While in the main I must agree, The Valley of Fear is a book that exerted a profound influence on my life. One of the plot twists no doubt had a good deal to do with its force, but for me, it’s the whole premise of the second half that renders the thing a permanent fixture in my mind. A hopelessly corrupt town under the bloody boot of men who tell themselves they are only standing up for the rights of their own class, men who often had no notion of what they were getting into until it was too late, while those they extort and threaten – yes, they live in fear, but they know, to their bones, what is right, what a free and healthy society ought to be doing, and, though everything around them is broken, live up to the duty of their own station.

    When you go deeply down the trail of research the book presents to you, you will find nothing less than a modern Arthurian tragedy — a Camelot that consumed itself — and yet, in Arthurian saga, what one remembers is the bold deeds of the knights. Our Lancelot seems to have been a penitent in the end, and it is possible that The Valley of Fear had something to do with that. It is even more likely that one of the great unbelievers of the age played a part.

    But this part of the novel is also the bit that doesn’t involve Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. As such, all this is quite opaque to anyone whom Lewis would characterize as “using” the novel, as one “uses” a cute cat picture.

Speak Your Mind

*