After reading Lyotard’s essay, I reexamined certain aspects of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court that I previously had not considered. Much of the very complicated essay questions what will be left in a world where human thought is gone and whether or not we can recreate a form of technology that can live on, in a sense, in a world without humans. A good deal of focus is on the difficulties of translating true human qualities to a computer that operates on a simpler level.
“Human thought doesn’t think in a binary mode. It doesn’t work with units of information (bits), but with intuitive, hypothetical configurations. It accepts imprecise, ambiguous data that doesn’t seem to be selected according to preestablished codes or readability. It doesn’t neglect side effects or marginal aspects of a situation. It isn’t just focused, but lateral too.” (15, Lyotard).
So in a sense, it is difficult to program something that holds much less capabilities than the human mind to recreate what is thought of as the human mind. Another important quote from Lyotard truly had me rethink the role of Hank in a much simpler society. Lyotard writes:
“You know – technology wasn’t invented by us humans. Rather the other way around. As anthropologists and biologists admit, even the simplest life forms…are already technical devices.” (12, Lyotard)
Both of the quotes I provided can be applied to Hank Morgan’s interaction with the old Englishmen. Hank represents the complex human while those he encounters can be viewed as the computers. They are simpler, less understanding pieces of technology (the Lyotard definition) that Hank, the true human, attempts to program to his standards. He faces difficulties in doing so, similar to the problem that humans have with technology. One of the best examples of this occurs when Hank attempts to explain that higher wages aren’t necessarily better if everything costs more than twice as much.
“’Confound it, I’ve never denied it I tell you! What I say is this. With us half a dollar buys more than a dollar buys with you – and therefore it stands to reason and the commonest kind of common sense, that our wages are higher than yours.’
He looked dazed and said, despairingly: ‘Verily, I cannot make it out. Ye’ve just said ours are the higher, and with the same breath ye take it back.’
‘Oh, great Scott, isn’t it possible to get such a simple thing through your head?’” (301, Twain)
After more of this back and forth, Hank resigns: “Well, I was smarting under a sense of defeat. Undeserved defeat, but what of that? That didn’t soften the smart any.” (303, Twain) Since much of Hank’s work in England has been trying to update it to an “advanced” society, the difficulties in doing so can compared to humans’ efforts described by Lyotard. Morgan wants a society that is in his vision for when he is eventually gone, just as humans want to have human traits continue after life ceases. The people in the time period he is trying to change have such a disparity in thought that they are almost like computers when compared to humans. Continuing on this line of thought, one could read Twain as showing the blur between humans and technology and showing the importance of both. After reading what Lyotard wrote while also knowing Twain’s immense fascination with technology, this is most likely a valid way of reading what Twain wrote both in the passage provided as well as the rest of the text.
Lyotard. "Can Thought Go on Without a Body?"
Twain. “A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court”.