in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Grace Jones (versus the Automatic Telling Machine)

A friend of mine has this fantasy about his perfect night out. Well, don’t we all? But I’m going to tell you about his, because I prefer it to mine. Justifying his expensive and wasteful pursuit of folly to a quizzical homebody friend, he explained his jackpot thus:

‘I just have this idea that, somehow, I might end up at the end of the night in a hot-tub with Grace Jones’.

Gamblers (the literal, money-spunking kind) dream of their own ‘jackpot-to-come’: the one big enough so they can shout their whole family dinner at Crown. Probably a weird dinner when the day comes (if it ever does) with the family’s own dinner-set at the hock shop and everything, even the children’s toys, down at the repo depot. But go on, press the button, pump the one-armed-bandit one more time – c’mon, your luck’s bound to change. It has to, sooner or later. Right? Well? Of course not. ‘Everybody knows’ that this is impossible. Electronic pokies are programmed so that, if you play them regularly, you will lose. I know this is hardly news, but it bears repeating. Winning is statistically impossible. The ‘jackpot-to-come’… well, it can’t. Just like my friend won’t end up in a hot-tub with Grace Jones.

But I wonder though, if there was such a thing as an ‘Automatic Telling Machine’, what difference would it make? I mean, instead of just the normal ‘Automatic Teller Machine’. Picture yourself prior to the moment of folly… but instead of inserting your card, you somehow swipe yourself… like those magic 8 balls, the Telling Machine could tell you your real chances of hitting that jackpot, winding up in that hot-tub, landing that sexy dancer (with a click of the fingers, without the clap).

It would be disastrous. The only thing you need more than the cash advance from the teller machine is another blanketing layer of drunkenness to cushion and comfort your cherished illusion. In this way, a pokie machine is the opposite of a Telling Machine – the one thing it refuses to do is actually give you the whole truth straight away. And that’s just the way gamblers like it. It keeps on repeating part of the truth, over and over. And your job is just to ignore it, every time it appears. This is actually the key reason why people spend time playing the pokies, but not ATMs.

But the gambler’s mistake is not that they fool themselves, it’s that the machine doesn’t. You’re playing, but the machine isn’t. You don’t play the pokies, they play you. But they’re not playing - they’re just doing exactly what they’re programmed to do. Which is to rob you. But people are something else entirely. You can be sure that the pokie machine will screw you… but the person you’re plying with drink and chatting up – how can you tell? Fact is, there is no telling with people:

‘You never told me you were married!’

‘You never told me all there is to know about the Crying Game!’

‘I never told you about my years in the foreign legion…’

‘Ah yes, about those lesions…’

‘Did I mention I also share a bed with my axolotl?’

And you’ll never even know about the Rohypnol… But as little as we can tell (or do tell) about each other, and as dodgy as we’re capable of being, we’re still able to do something no machine can… and this is the magical, wonderful thing about people: we can bullshit ourselves. Okay, sure, so there’s no way of telling what the other person’s thinking. But then again, who knows what you’re capable of? You do? Hah! What you did the other week, that’s only an inkling. Who can tell really? Human beings are more like machines for misrecognition than anything else. But it all blends perfectly, because (while a pokie machine is a pokie machine is a pokie machine), a human being with a wad full of machine-warm cash and a belly full of liquor can convince themselves of anything, and maybe ‘him’ or ‘her’ too. Given enough to drink, you could even convince yourself that (s)he (five foot nothing, blotchy and white, with an underbite) was Grace Jones and that ‘that’ (a child’s wading pool in a cold suburban garage filled with dubiously murky liquid) was, in actual fact, the hot-tub of your fantasies. Well, you can tell yourself that’s what it was. That’s what makes you different from a machine.

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.